The chest fly is a core training staple—but are you sure you’re even doing the exercise correctly?
For this basic gym necessity, you shouldn’t settle for anything other than perfect form—especially because it’s such a simple, essential movement that can help you progress to other exercises when done properly. Let Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and associate fitness editor Brett Williams guide you through the move’s subtleties, saving you from the bad habits that are keeping you from unlocking your fitness potential.
Before you grab your dumbbells and hit the bench, take note that it’s extremely important to pay attention to the subtleties of the movement here. You’re not just clanging the weights together over your chest.
Squeeze at the Top
Eb says: The true benefit and magic of the dumbbell fly happens not when your arms are at their widest, but when you bring your arms together. It’s here that you get the chance to squeeze your pectoral fibres and really promote chest growth. Focus on this squeeze, thinking of lingering at the top for a good one second to get the most out of the fly.
Avoid touching the dumbbells at the top, too, because doing so removes that chance to really squeeze your pecs. Just as importantly, if you’re driving the dumbbells up so quickly that they’re clanking together, you’re doing the motion without the precision and control required to really get that chest squeeze. Take your time with each rep.
Never Lower Too Deep
Eb says: Remember: The magic of the fly occurs at the top of the movement, not the bottom. So don’t try too hard to overstretch your pecs by lowering your shoulders extra-deep.
Aim to get your upper arms parallel with the ground, but don’t worry about going too deep on them. This isn’t an exercise for flexibility; you’re using the movement to build size, strength, and definition. And not every person has perfect shoulder range of motion, especially if you work a desk job. So lower the dumbbells only until you feel a slight stretch in your chest; if you feel this in your shoulders or biceps, you’re over-stretching. A good starting point: Think about lowering until your upper arms are parallel with the ground or just a few degrees deeper.
Never Stop Squeezing Your Shoulder Blades
Eb says: Start each set of dumbbell flies by driving your shoulder blades into the bench, and think about squeezing them as you lower the weights. This will help protect your shoulders. As you begin to fly up, though, continue to squeeze your shoulder blades together. This does two things. First off, it will once again help you protect your shoulders. It’s really easy to compromise joint space in the shoulder as you fly up, giving your rotator cuff tendons less space to move. By squeezing your shoulder blades, you help maintain that.
Even better, if you continue to squeeze your shoulder blades together when you finish the dumbbell fly, you’ll challenge your chest to really squeeze at the top of each rep. The difference is subtle: If you release your shoulder blades, you can essentially bring the entire shoulder complex along for the ride at the top of the rep. But if you keep squeezing hard on that rhomboid, it forces your shoulder blades to stay tight and keeps your shoulders down. That means the finishing squeeze on the dumbbell fly winds up coming purely from a pectoral contraction. Even if this feels like it cuts your range of motion, it’s not actually doing so. It’s simply forcing your pecs to fully work through their natural range, instead of pointlessly over-extending the movement.
By Brett Williams and Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S.