How to Master the Dumbbell Chest Fly
Weight room experts and workout warriors have long professed that the best way to build a big, strong chest is to hit the bench. They’re not necessarily wrong–but your chest-focused bench workouts shouldn’t start and end with the barbell bench press, or even with any other pressing variation that you might choose to fancy. To bring more focus to your inner chest and round out your pecs, you should grab some dumbbells to fly.
The dumbbell chest fly is an exercise that gives you an opportunity to really home in on squeezing the pecs, which can help to kickstart muscle growth rather than centering the brute strength that so often becomes the main objective of the bench press. Using an implement like dumbbells allows you to work through a wide range of motion—but you do need to work to control each rep to make sure that you don’t put yourself in danger of injury. Check your ego before you get to the bench and make sure to grab a weight that you can work with safely.
Rather than flopping down on the bench and really taking the name of the exercise to heart and flapping your arms like a bird, take a moment to check out this video and read the below tips to learn the the movement. Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. and fitness editor Brett Williams demonstrate several subtle form tips that can take your dumbbell chest fly from a perfunctory accessory movement to a bonafide muscle builder.
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 fibers 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.
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