Your ultimate training goal might be boosting your bench press PR. And while that’s a worthy goal, especially for powerlifters, your road to a fresh one-rep max might be made a lot easier by one move — the dumbbell flye. You can also add to your repertoire a wide range of dumbbell flye variations.
You need a lot of things to bench heavy — strong triceps, healthy shoulders, and excellent form. But the foundation of a strong bench press (and an impressive physique) is a bigger, stronger chest. The dumbbell flye and its variations can stimulate major chest muscle growth, bring on more symmetrical strength, help you carve an upper body aesthetic to match those higher benching numbers, and make you a really, good hugger.
Dumbbell Flye Variations
- Incline Dumbbell Flye
- Decline Dumbbell Flye
- Banded Dumbbell Flye
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Flye
- Single-Arm Dumbbell Flye with Isometric
- Dumbbell Floor Flye
- Stability Ball Flye
- Cable Flye
- Machine Flye
The incline dumbbell flye is similar to the flat bench version — except you’ll be performing it on an incline bench. Doing this variation on an incline allows you the flexibility to more directly target your upper pecs.
Benefits of the Incline Dumbbell Flye
- This variation targets the upper part of your pecs, which can be helpful if you’re trying to develop a particular aesthetic appearance.
- You’ll recruit your shoulders as stabilizers slightly more than you might in a flat bench version due to the relatively more upright position of the bench.
- Your long range of motion allows you to potentially increase chest hypertrophy.
How to Do the Incline Dumbbell Flye
Set an incline bench to the same angle on which you perform incline bench presses (45 degrees works well for most folks). Lay back on the bench with dumbbells in your hands. Pack your shoulder blades with a slight arch in your upper back. Press the bells up with your palms facing each other. Maintain a slight bend in your elbows.
Pull the dumbbells away from each other so they’re “flying” out away from your midline. Continue distancing the bells until you get a big stretch in your chest. Keep your shoulders packed. Contract your chest to bring the bells back above your head. Use a motion like you were hugging a tree rather than pressing them straight up. Repeat for reps.
The decline dumbbell flye will have you setting up on a decline bench. Like with the incline version, changing the angle of the flye alters the area of emphasis. With this variation, you’ll be targeting your lower pecs. Your triceps and shoulders will still work to stabilize the movement, but less so than with incline variations.
As with decline bench presses, you’re likely to be able to handle slightly more weight with decline flyes than the flat or incline bench varieties. That can be a boon for hypertrophy — but you still don’t have to go very heavy with these.
Benefits of the Decline Dumbbell Flye
- The angle of the lift decreases (but doesn’t eliminate) shoulder involvement, so this might be a good option if your shoulders are sore.
- You can generally move more weight on a decline, so you may be able to go slightly heavier — and stimulate more hypertrophy — with the decline dumbbell flye.
- This variation targets your lower pecs to help you develop a fuller chest aesthetic if that’s one of your goals.
How to Do the Decline Dumbbell Flye
Set up a decline bench at the same angle you use for a decline bench press. Pack your shoulders. Push your low back into the bench. Press the bells up with your palms facing each other. Keep a soft bend in your elbows. Pull the weights away from each other until they’re out by your sides. When you feel a stretch in your chest, contract your pecs to pull them back together on the same path. Repeat for reps.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of working with resistance bands is accommodating resistance. That is, adding bands to the exercise distributes the load more evenly throughout the entire range of motion. You’ll be fighting similar levels of resistance throughout the movement instead of the move getting easier at the top.
Accommodating resistance increases your time under tension, which is great for muscle growth. It also trains you to maintain focus and discipline at every stage of the lift. As long as you can secure a safe, stable set up, you can perform this variation on a flat, incline, or decline bench or standing.
Benefits of the Banded Dumbbell Flye
- The bands add accommodating resistance to the regular flye, which increases time under tension.
- More time under tension and mechanical stress on your muscles can help boost hypertrophy goals.
- You can increase your discipline and attention to form when the resistance is consistent throughout the movement.
How to Do the Banded Dumbbell Flye
Lie on top of the center of a resistance band or secure it underneath the bench. Hold either end with the banded loop secured around your palms. Pick up the dumbbells so they’re resting in your hands on top of the bands. Perform dumbbell flyes as usual.
Dumbbell flyes naturally help develop symmetrical strength. That’s because using dumbbells helps ensure that each arm is doing its own work. But performing this move with one arm at a time provides an extra advantage of avoiding accidental compensation.
Because the move pulls the weights away from your body’s midline, the single-arm variation won’t let you balance the weights against each other from side-to-side. This provides an extra challenge to both your chest and your core — as well as your leg drive and full-body stability.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Dumbbell Flye
- Give your core an added challenge by taking away the side-to-side counterbalancing potential provided by loading both sides.
- Go the extra mile to combat strength and muscle asymmetries by using only one arm at a time.
- Engage your full body in this upper body movement by fighting to keep your entire torso flat on the bench throughout the movement.
How to Do the Single-Arm Dumbbell Flye
Set up as you would for a regular dumbbell flye, but only hold a weight in your right hand. Dig your heels into the ground to increase your balance. Press your left shoulder down toward the bench to ensure that your torso doesn’t rotate during the movement. Perform your flyes with your right arm. Keep your left shoulder packed and firmly on the bench the whole time. Switch sides and repeat.
Here, you’ll only be performing an active flye with one arm — similar to the regular single-arm dumbbell flye. However, your unmoving arm won’t be unweighted and inactive.
Instead, you’ll isometrically hold the weight in your stationary arm near the bottom position of the flye. This will maintain a weighted stretch in your stationary arm and increase the challenge accordingly.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Dumbbell Flye with Isometric
- Incorporating isometric moves into your strength training is a great option for increasing time under tension and hypertrophy.
- To maintain the unilateral isometric hold, you’ll increase core engagement.
- Completing separate strength-building movements with both arms at the same time will improve full-body coordination.
How to Do the Single-Arm Dumbbell Flye with Isometric
Set up to perform dumbbell flyes as normal. At the bottom of your first rep, find a stretched but comfortable position with your left arm. Keep that arm in an isometric hold as you complete reps as normal with your right arm. Rest for 45 seconds to a minute. Switch sides.
This is a great variation if you want the chest isolation benefits of the dumbbell flye without potentially compromising your shoulders. The floor will physically stop you from accidentally sinking too deep into the bottom position.
This way, you can get a good weighted stretch in your chest. But overzealous enthusiasm for the move or an accidental slip of the weights will have a harder time compromising your form or shoulder integrity in this version.
Benefits of the Dumbbell Floor Flye
- The floor naturally decreases the movement’s range of motion, making this variation ideal for people with shoulder pain or soreness.
- Both advanced and beginning lifters can benefit from the ground’s kinesthetic feedback as a way to protect your shoulders and learn the movement.
- Because of the decreased range of motion, you can potentially move more weight, increasing your hypertrophy potential.
How to Do the Dumbbell Floor Flye
Lie on the ground with dumbbells in your hands. Your feet can be planted or your legs can be straight. Either way, plant your heels firmly throughout the move. Go through the same motions you do with regular dumbbell flyes. When you approach the bottom position, let your upper arms graze the ground. Try not to let your elbows rest on the ground. Bring your wrists and forearms as close to the floor as feels accessible without actually touching the ground. Pull the weights back to the top position. Repeat for reps.
As with any exercise performed on a stability ball, you’ll be increasing your core engagement with this variation. You’ll also be recruiting your hips, glutes, hamstrings, and quads to make sure you’re remaining stable while you perform your flyes.
Since the surface you’re working with is soft and has a lot of give, you also may be able to get a deeper stretch if your shoulders allow. This deeper stretch can increase mechanical tension without increasing the load. That can lead to higher volume and more hypertrophy.
Benefits of the Stability Ball Flye
- Performing this move on a stability ball increases core recruitment and muscle activation.
- You’ll have to keep your lower body very active during this variation, so you’ll be engaging your hips, glutes, hamstrings, and quads.
- If your shoulders are stable enough, you can take advantage of the shape of the ball to move into a deeper range of motion.
How to Do the Stability Ball Flye
Sit on the ground in front of a stability ball. With dumbbells in your hands, slide up and back against the stability ball until the tops of your shoulder blades are resting on the ball. Drive through your feet to press your hips up to the ceiling. Once you’ve established a steady position, press the dumbbells up with your palms facing inwards. Perform flyes as usual.
While there are many advantages to using free weights, cable machines can come in handy for many exercises. In the case of cable flyes, cables will establish a slightly more fixed path than what is available with dumbbells.
You can still customize your angles, but the cables will guide you in a way that dumbbells can’t. This can be useful if you’re just learning the movement or if your shoulders need a more stable path to follow.
Benefits of the Cable Flye
- Cable flyes are highly customizable, allowing you to choose whether you’ll perform them on a decline, an incline, a flat bench, or even while standing up.
- With cables, you’ll be working with a more pre-established path than dumbbells, which can be especially helpful for new lifters.
- This variation will provide a type of accommodating resistance that will maintain a more consistent resistance and tension than using dumbbells.
How to Do the Cable Flye
Place a bench just in front of a cable stack. Select a low pulley angle for both D-handles. Adjust the bench as needed so that the angle of resistance is similar to what you’d experience with dumbbell flyes. Perform flyes as normal.
Alternatively, you can perform these flyes standing. Adjust the pulleys to chest height. Use a split stance foot position. Keep your torso upright. Stand slightly in front of the cable stack, enough to feel a stretch in your chest to begin the movement. Perform the flyes by bringing the handles out in front of your chest with each rep.
This flye variation is similar to the cable version in that you will follow a more prescribed path than when you’re using dumbbells. However, the path followed by a machine will be even more of a fixed path than cables. This is because cables have more options for adjustment and are not solid like other types of machines. If you’re very new to learning the movement, this very specific path can be helpful for learning how to position your body during flyes.
Depending on your limb length and specific shoulder needs, however, machines can also be more constraining. If none of the prescribed machine flye paths match what your shoulders or arm lengths require, you might want to choose a less stiff variation. But if it works for you, it can be a great learning tool. It can also help you go extra heavy when you get more experienced.
Benefits of the Machine Flye
- The pre-established movement paths available on a machine can help newer lifters learn how to perform proper flyes.
- By reducing the amount of engagement from your stabilizer muscles, this variation allows you to lift much heavier.
- Because you can move bigger weights with this variation, you may be able to build more muscle.
How to Do the Machine Flye
Select the movement angle you want to use by following the instructions on the machine. Following those directions, set up so that you’re sitting on the bench provided. Grasp the handles. Pack your shoulders. Initiate the movement by pulling the weights around to the front of your chest. Avoid letting the weights clang down at the bottom of the movement. Repeat for reps.
Muscles Worked by Dumbbell Flye Variations
Like the original dumbbell flye, these variations are chest isolation exercises that mainly target your pectoral muscles. But, as with all muscle groups, your pecs don’t exist independently of contributions from other muscles. While flye variations do primarily work your chest, you’ll get stabilization input from other areas, too.
Because dumbbell flyes are a chest-focused exercise, it might come as no surprise that the primary movers are your pecs. Regardless of the angle, you’ll be pretty much targeting your whole chest. This is especially true if you have the shoulder health to move through a full stretch at the bottom of each rep.
Working with a more limited range of motion — as with the floor dumbbell flye — will still work your pecs very effectively. Altering the angle to be at an incline or decline will emphasize your upper and lower pecs respectively. But overall, any variation is going to focus squarely on your pecs.
While the pecs are your prime movers here, your anterior delts pitch in with stabilizing the movement. Your shoulders will help you find and maintain a steady path during the descent. They’ll be less engaged during machine flyes, but most free weight versions will engage your shoulders a bit more.
Lats and Triceps
Your lats and triceps are definitely not the prime movers here. Dumbbell flye variations certainly aren’t going to build you a muscular set of triceps and lats. But, these muscles can kick in to help you stabilize at the bottom of the movement — kind of like your lats helping you put on the brakes at the top of a kettlebell swing. If you feel your lats, triceps, or shoulders working overtime, though, it’s probably time to adjust your form to emphasize your chest.
Benefits of Isolated Chest Training
If you’re interested in developing a full chest, dumbbell flyes — and their variations — are great options for you. They’ll help you develop more muscle mass, fight side-to-side imbalances and asymmetries, and add high-quality volume to your chest training. Put all of that together, and you have an excellent recipe for giving your bench press — or your next bodybuilding show — exactly the boost they need.
More Muscle Mass
Looking to develop a bigger chest? There’s a reason dumbbell flyes and their variations are bodybuilding staples. The range of motion involved in these lifts gives your pecs a big stretch at the bottom of each rep. That translates into more mechanical tension, which is hugely important for building the big chest muscles you might be looking for.
Increased Symmetrical Strength
Working out your chest with compound barbell lifts — bench presses and floor presses — can be amazing for developing max strength. However, bilateral lifts tend to mask movement compensations. For example, if you’re right-side dominant, your right arm may power through a disproportionate amount of weight while lifting a barbell.
By splitting the load with dumbbells, you’ll expose those kinds of imbalances — and then, you can address them. With a muscle-building isolation exercise like the flye and its variations, you can increase symmetrical strength and muscle growth quite a lot.
Relatively Low-Weight, High Quality Volume
Just because you’re holding significantly less weight than you do during compound exercises doesn’t mean you’re not getting in quality volume. Dumbbell flye variations allow you to give your chest a big stretch on each rep that you simply can’t access from heavy benching. That stretch adds depth to your training, giving your muscles a chance to stretch to their full potential. And when that happens, it can have a direct carryover to contribute to a bigger bench press.
Maybe you want to make sure your chest muscles are developing symmetrically. Or, you might be looking for that extra edge of size and strength to help you maximize your benching strength. You may also just enjoy variety in your training program and want to integrate different — and highly effective — exercises into your chest workouts. Whatever your situation, dumbbell flye variations can be a smart addition to so many programs — even if you won’t be physically taking flight.
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