For many fitness professionals, building strong, heavy chest muscles begins and ends with pressing movements: the bench press; push up; Incline bench press.
But if you bench until you’re bored and push-ups until you’re purple, what else can you do to pump up your pectorals?
Outside of this evergreen — and effective — movement, the dumbbell chest fly, long a mainstay for bodybuilders and other physique athletes, is your best bet for a strong, well-developed chest.
“The most direct way to stimulate your chest muscles is with exercises where you pull your arms toward your midline,” says ISSA Master Trainer Angelo Poli, owner of Whole Body Fitness in Chico, CA. “That’s exactly what dumbbell chest flies do.”
Flyes aren’t the best choice for people with dicey shoulders, Polly admits — those people are better off sticking with the push-up variety.
But for everyone else, the dumbbell chest fly makes a great addition to a full chest workout.
Here’s how to pull off this classic muscle-building move.
Dumbbell Chest Fly: Step-by-Step Instructions
- Lie on a flat bench (you can also do this lying on the ground, as shown above), hold a pair of dumbbells at arm’s length across your chest, palms facing each other. (If this is your first time, choose dumbbells that are about half the weight of what you will use for the press).
- Keeping your elbows slightly bent, slowly lower the dumbbells straight down to your sides until you feel a deep stretch in your chest.
- Pause, then slowly move back to the starting position.
Trainer Tip: Tolerances may vary for the fully extended position. If you have shoulder pain while lifting weights, limit the range of motion you can do without pain.
Also, it’s never a good idea to fly with straight arms: the muscles are stretched at both ends, making them especially vulnerable to strain or tearing.
What muscles does the dumbbell chest fly work?
The main muscles recruited in this move overlap with your push-up muscles.
1. Pectoralis major: The twin, fan-shaped muscles at the front of your rib cage are the main movers of this exercise.
They work by drawing your arms toward the midline of your chest from an abducted (wide open) position.
PEC majors have two heads: sternal, Or downward, the head works hardest when you move on a flat or decline bench.
The clavicle, Or upward, the head is most targeted by working from an inclined position.
2. Deltoid: The anterior heads of your shoulder muscles help your pectorals draw your arms across your body, especially at an upward angle, such as in the incline-bench version of the movement.
3. Biceps: Your “build a muscle” muscles contract isometrically during the fly, stabilizing your shoulder joints and arms as you lower the weight.
How good is the dumbbell fly for chest building?
Unlike compound exercises like presses and push-ups—which call on your triceps, shoulders, and back muscles for help—the dumbbell chest fly is a single joint. Movement, the focus of which is almost exclusively pectorals.
For those trying to improve the appearance of their chest – especially those who have trouble feeling their pectorals work in compound movements – this is a huge benefit.
In practice the line of stress closely parallels the path of the muscle fibers. This makes the dumbbell fly one of the most direct book-builders you can do.
It is also extremely versatile.
“At the end of a chest workout, you can use it as a finisher to squeeze every ounce of work out of the muscle before calling it quits for the day,” Polly says.
The ultimate benefit of chest flies? It’s a fun.
Squats, lunges, and pull-ups may have the edge for sweat-drenching intensity, but pumping your pecs with a classic single-joint exercise that helped build some of the most famous chests in history? Who can resist?