Chest training is key for strength athletes (powerlifters, strongman athletes, sports athletes, and even weightlifters) for competitive movements and overall upper body strength potentials. Exercises like the bench press, dumbbell press, dip, and push up find themselves at the top of the chest training hierarchy, and rightfully so.
That said, however, there are times in a training program where single-joint chest exercises like the dumbbell flye can be highly beneficial for maximal pectoral muscle growth, increasing injury resilience of the chest muscles, and more.
In this dumbbell flye exercise guide, we will cover:
- Dumbbell Flye Form and Technique
- Benefits of the Dumbbell Flye
- Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Flye
- Who Should Do the Dumbbell Flye?
- Dumbbell Flye Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Dumbbell Flye Variations and Alternatives
- and more…
How to Do a Dumbbell Flye
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to properly set up and perform the dumbbell flye, more specifically the flat bench dumbbell flye.
Step 1: Start by lying supine on a bench with the dumbbells extended above the chest.
Be sure to pack the shoulder blades aggressively, similar to that of a bench press, with a slight arch in the upper back.
Step 2: Once the shoulder blades are packed, actively pull the dumbbells way from one another, feeling a stretch in the chest and anterior shoulder.
Note, that this movement does not need to be heavy. The key is to keep the elbows slightly bent yet fixed, to isolated the pectoral muscles that are responsible for movement at the shoulder joint.
Step 3: Continue to increase the width at which the hands reach to the sides, increasing the distance between the dumbbells.
Often, lifters will focus on depth first, rather than width of the flye, which can decrease chest involvement and increase shoulder discomfort.
Step 4: Once you have reach a fully stretch position, focus on holding a brief stretch in the pectoral muscles prior to contracting them to initiate the movement upwards.
During this stretch phase, focus on keeping the shoulder blades pinned together and downwards, to minimize anterior shoulder involvement/discomfort.
Step 5: To return to the initial start position (step one), contract the pectoral muscles and perform a “bear hug” to keep the dumbbells apart and returning in a hugging motion, rather than simply pressing up.
Once returned to the initial start position, repeat for repetitions.
3 Benefits of Dumbbell Flye
Below are (3) benefits of the dumbbell flye that coaches and athletes from most strength, power, and fitness sports can expect when implementing dumbbell flyes into a training regimen.
Increase Chest Hypertrophy/Size
Isolation exercises are great ways to further enhance muscle activity and demands on special muscles that may otherwise not get the extra loading demands in a more compound, multi-joint bench press training program. Implementing dumbbell flyes within a program could be a great way to put in a little more work to bring up an undersized chest and/or increase chest size and strength potentials.
Greater Dimension to the Chest
The dumbbell flye can be a valuable exercise for adding another dimension to chest training, often helping to maximize overall pectoral muscle size, detail, and growth. Using the wide varieties of angles of dumbbell flyes can also help to further stimulate new muscle fibers and hypertrophy.
Isolation of the Pectoral Muscles
While we often discuss the importance of multi-joint and compounds exercises for optimal strength and performance in sports, the dumbbell flye can be a valuable exercise if the coach/athlete is attempting to specially target the chest muscles for further development or injury prevention purposes. Using dumbbell flyes (and other flye variations/alternatives) can be helpful for the above two reasons while also minimizing excessive wear and tear on the triceps, elbows, wrists, and shoulders (often seen with some compound pressing exercises).
Muscles Worked – Dumbbell Flye
The dumbbell flye is an isolation movement that can be done to increase pectoral muscle mass. Below is a breakdown of the primary muscle groups involved in this exercise.
Dumbbell flyes target the pectoral muscles. It is because of this single joint exercise that the dumbbell flye can be done to specially isolate the pectoral muscle fibers, with minimal involvement of other supportive muscles such as triceps and shoulders.
While the anterior shoulder muscles are not primary muscle groups used in the dumbbell flye, they are used to support the pectorals in the movement.
The scapular stabilizers are active in the dumbbell flye, as they are needed to stabilize the shoulders to help anchor the shoulder joint during the movements. Without proper shoulder stabilization, the anterior shoulder muscles may overpower the pectoral muscles limiting the effectiveness of the dumbbell flye.
Who Should Do the Dumbbell Flye?
Below are some reasons why strength, power, and fitness athletes can benefit from performing the dumbbell flye.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes can benefit from dumbbell flye training due to increased chest hypertrophy and muscle growth. In addition to training the bench press, the dumbbell flye can be used improve force production and strength of the pectoral muscles at end ranges; which can also help to improve injury resilience.
The dumbbell flye is a powerful single joint chest exercise that can be used to increase pectoral hypertrophy and development. They can be done after main strength work to maximize muscle damage to induce greater muscle hypertrophy. In addition, dumbbell flyes can be done first in a workout session to pre-exhaust muscles to help target the pectoral muscles and stimulate muscle growth.
General Fitness and Movement
The dumbbell flye can be done for most individuals to target the chest muscles and increase hypertrophy. It is important to note that most fitness programs could benefit from including greater amounts of multi-joint, compound exercise to maximize muscle growth and metabolic stress. With that said, dumbbell flyes may or may not be vital to a sound training program.
How to Program the Dumbbell Flye
Below are three primary training goals and programming recommendations when utilizing the dumbbell flye into specific programs. Note, that these are general guidelines, and by no means should be used as the only way to program dumbbell flyes.
General Strength– Reps and Sets
For general strength building sets, athletes can perform lower repetition ranges for more sets. Note, it is very easy to strain the shoulders and pectoral muscles with excessive loading, and therefore you should proceed into heavier flye training with caution if and only if you are experience with the movement and have mastered technique and strength with lighter loads.
- 4-6 sets of 4-6 repetitions, resting 2-3 minutes
Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps and Sets
For increased muscular size and hypertrophy, the below repetitions can be used to increase muscular loading volume.
- 4-6 sets of 6-12 repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between, with heavy to moderate loads
Muscle Endurance – Reps and Sets
Some lifters may want to train greater muscle endurance (for sport), in which higher repetition ranges and/or shorter rest periods are recommended.
- 2-3 sets of 12+ repetitions, resting 60-90 seconds between (this is highly sport specific)
Dumbbell Flye Variations
Below are three (3) dumbbell flye variations that can be used by coaches and athletes to keep training varied and progressive.
Incline Dumbbell Flye
The incline dumbbell flye is a dumbbell flye done lying on an incline bench. Like the incline bench press, this angle targets the upper pectoralis muscles and can be used to stimulate new muscle growth and strength.
Dumbbell Flye with Chains/Bands
The dumbbell flye (any angle) can be done with bands or chains to supplement the movement. By adding chains and bands, you can increase the resistance throughout the entire range of motion, fuhtering muscle damage and stimulating new muscle growth.
Decline Dumbbell Flye
The decline dumbbell flye is a dumbbell flye done lying on an decline bench. Like the decline bench press, this angle targets the lower pectoralis muscles and can be used to stimulate new muscle growth and strength.
Dumbbell Flye Alternatives
Below are three (3) dumbbell flye coaches and athletes can use to increase power, general strength and muscle endurance.
Pec Dec Machine
The pec dec machine, or seated flye machine is a good alternative for individuals who may have issues assuming or maintaining proper positioning in the dumbbell flye. This can also be helpful for lifters who want to limit some range of motion and/or with lifters who may have injury to their wrists or elbows, and they do not need to support load with the hands.
The cable crossover is similar to the flys, and can be done with standing or sitting on a bench (typically done from an incline angle). This exercise is all about muscle contractions, and can be done to help keep the loading in the correct path to minimize shoulder instability, etc. This also can be done at a wide variety of angles to better stimulate muscle growth.
Don’t Do Them
Believe it or not, many great chests were built without the use of flyes. Some lifters find that flye cause shoulder pain and discomfort, regardless of how the scapulas are refracted, elbow positions, loading, etc. If this is the case, focus on using movements like the bench press, dumbbell presses, dips, and push ups to build a stronger and bigger chest; rather than spending time on an exercise that may or may not actually help you in the long run (assuming it is the cause of your shoulder pain).
Featured Image: Mike Dewar