The dumbbell fly for the pectorals is certainly a well-known exercise. Bodybuilders, professional athletes, weekend warriors and fitness competitors use the
fly on a regular basis as part of their workout regimens. Personal trainers and weight-training coaches recommend it as part of their training programs for
clients. Occasionally it's referred to in a training article by a bodybuilding pro or magazine writer, so I'm not claiming here to be discovering a new
exercise or even one long-hidden, known and remembered by only a few. Rather this article describes more of a rediscovery of an exercise which Arnold
Schwarzenegger stated was the single most effective exercise he ever did for his chest - and we all know how that turned out.
Do Flys First
Arnold was an extremely strong advocate of the flat-bench dumbbell fly - and for good reason. Believe it or not, its value as an exercise is actually
underrated primarily because it's usually been seen as a shaping rather than as a mass-building movement. This view of the flat-bench dumbbell fly remains as
common as the inadequate form weight trainers are often seen using when performing the exercise. As part of a chest specialization program - and indeed, as
an integral part of anyone's chest workout plan - the flat-bench dumbbell fly is the most effective exercise for re-shaping the pectorals as you build them
up with quality muscle mass. The key is to bring the dumbbell fly up from the back end of the chest workout to the front; to treat the exercise as a primary,
basic movement for the chest, equivalent in importance to all the pressing movements for the chest.
Properly performed, the dumbbell fly is an extremely effective, transforming exercise, particularly when done on the flat bench. The fly gives a powerful,
very appealing flared look to the pectorals as it packs on the muscle size, and this is the key: It does pack on the size, impressively so, if used in a
chest workout program as a central movement. My own personal experience with the fly over the years has made me a true believer. In addition, I've had an
exceptionally high level of success with athletes to whom I've recommended it. For weight trainers of all levels, for men as well as women, if you want to
remake your pectorals into the most pleasing, developed set of muscles they can be, put the dumbbell fly front and center in your chest workout plan. For
those athletes whose primary concern is not with greatly increasing pectoral size but with adding some size here and there in key areas of the chest while
shaping it, take a little bit of a radical approach: Drop or greatly reduce any pressing exercises for the chest and use the dumbbell fly as the major
exercise for your pectorals.
Although all of what I'm saying about the dumbbell fly done on a flat bench applies also to its variations on the incline and decline benches, I'm going to
keep my focus on the flat-bench fly as it hits the general muscle bellies of the pectorals and so is the best starting-point chest exercise for any weight
trainer who wants to remake his or her chest so that it will look its most pleasing ever.
Remaking the Chest
Now what does all this mean in terms of formulating a chest workout plan? Personally, I'm a big advocate of bodypart specialization as a tool in a workout
program, for all training levels, so I'm going to approach chest training ("remaking" as I like to call it) from that perspective. Two immediate ways to
approach chest specialization exist. What both have in common is, first, they both bring the dumbbell fly up from the back end of the chest workout plan to
the front, treating it as a basic movement for pectoral development. The second commonality is they both sharply reduce the number of exercises in the chest
workout plan to three at the most; and preferably in the beginning, only two: a pressing movement and the dumbbell fly. Believe it or not, this reduction in
the number of exercises can work wonders for even the most experienced bodybuilder as part of an off-season program.
The first method for utilizing the dumbbell fly as the central movement for the pectorals involves chest training, by incorporating the
pre-exhaust technique. In proceeding this way the dumbbell fly is used as the first exercise in the pectoral training program. This pre-exhaust technique is
very effective for those athletes with disproportionately strong front deltoids and/or triceps. After the set for the dumbbell fly is performed, then the
pressing movement for the chest follows. I would personally recommend when you are choosing a pressing exercise to stick with free weights whenever possible,
using basic movements. Machine movements are not bad or inferior, but it's been my experience that the beautiful solidity achieved by weight training can be
best obtained with the basic movements done with free weights. The basic compound movements certainly served all the old timers from the Golden Age of
bodybuilding very well. The use of basic, free-weight movements is also of great benefit to drug-free athletes. Believe me, if there were no "helping agents"
available for weight trainers, three things would immediately become most important for any body-builder's success: the use of basic, free-weight movements;
an excellent nutritional plan; and the proper mental attitude.
The second method for incorporating the dumbbell fly is the more standard approach: beginning the workout with a basic pressing movement for the chest and
moving on from there to other selected chest exercises. The key difference I'm advocating is a sharp reduction in the number of exercises done for the chest.
As I mentioned above, this reduction works effectively for all training levels even though it may seem counterintuitive or "retro." I have seen pectoral
miracles occur in both male and female athletes when they drop the number of chest exercises down to two: a basic, free-weight pressing movement, preferably
with a barbell; and the flat-bench dumbbell fly. Clearly there are a number of possible combinations of chest exercises. A trainer who wants to increase the
size of his or her upper pectorals could use, for example, a Smith-machine incline press and dumbbell incline flys; for the lower chest, a barbell decline
press and decline dumbbell flys could be performed.
Pleasing Looking Pecs
The greatest single benefit of the dumbbell fly is it eliminates the bunched-up look of the chest muscles so commonly seen in gyms. Nothing looks so unappealing
on a weight-training athlete as chest muscles, however massive, which are bunched up and don't flow from one bodypart to the next - across the shoulders down
to the abdominals. The "tie-ins," as Arnold used to call them, are of crucial importance in developing the body's musculature, especially in the pectoral region
because the chest is front and center on the body; the pectorals link up the shoulders together with the arms and the abdominals. The dumbbell fly is the single
best exercise to help you achieve both pectoral mass and those important chest/shoulder/abdominal tie-ins. You gain pectoral width, depth, and visual appeal.
This flared look of the pectorals is extremely pleasing to the observer. Even the untrained eye is guided from the center of the chest across the muscle to the
shoulders, where the pectorals are tied in with the front deltoids. The eye is then guided downwards along the curve of the outer pectorals, which briefly
settle on the arms before jumping back to the torso and finally resting on the abdominals. The properly designed chest sets off the physique powerfully, and
yet with aesthetic grace, in the same way as similarly designed side deltoids, calves and abs.
Your Chest Programs
So again, what are we doing? First, reduce the number of exercises in your pectoral program to an absolute maximum of three. As part of a chest specialization
program, focus first on the flat-bench dumbbell fly unless you have a serious pectoral imbalance. Stick with the flat-bench dumbbell fly for an eight-week period
but feel free to vary your pressing movements for the chest.
Here's a routine I've used personally and stand behind:
Flat-bench barbell press
- 5 sets (including 1 or 2 warmup sets)
Smith-machine incline press
- 3 sets (11-15 reps)
Flat-bench dumbbell fly
- 4 sets (11-15 reps)
Keep the grip wide on the presses and pull the elbows back. Pay strict attention to lowering the weight slowly on the negative portion of the rep, particularly
on heavy, intense sets, as stimulation of the muscle fibers is greater on the negative. Focusing on the negative will also go a long way towards protecting,
even helping to strengthen, your rotator cuffs. The quickest way to rotator-cuff hell is by quickly lowering the weight when doing the presses.
For weight trainers who want to reduce the number of sets in the above routine, I would recommend dropping one of the pressing exercises and reducing the number
of sets in the remaining two exercises accordingly. A good two-exercise program for a well-trained athlete is the following:
Flat-bench barbell press
- 5 sets (including 1 or 2 warmup sets)
Flat bench dumbbell fly
- 6 sets (11-15 reps)
Keep the volume and the reps high on the flys - never under 8 reps per set. An excellent rep range is 11 to 15. Increase or decrease the number of sets per
exercise accordingly. All right, now we need to discuss proper technique for the flat-bench dumbbell fly: Lie back on the bench. Raise your feet and rest them
on top of the bench by bending the knees - or even better, try and do this exercise with legs bent, but with the feet raised in the air. The dumbbells should be
extended directly over your face, palms facing together, with a slight bend in the elbows. Take a deep breath, expanding the chest, and lower the dumbbells slowly
to the sides and ever so slightly backwards. Again, do the negative portion of the rep slowly, keeping the dumbbells in control. Use moderate weight.
Now bring the dumbbells back up along a wide arc (a movement which Arnold aptly described as "hugging a large tree") but end the movement with the dumbbells about
a foot or so apart in order to keep the tension on the pectorals. Immediately lower the dumbbells for the second rep and continue. Make the last 2 or 3 reps your
contraction reps, squeezing and holding the pectorals, with the weights in the top position, for approximately three seconds.
A Few Pointers
Avoid at all costs what is so commonly seen among weight trainers performing the dumbbell fly: doing that partial pressing movement on the positive phase of the
rep. The point is to use the pectorals only, raising the weights through the wide arc of the movement. Keep a slight arch in your back and get a full stretch at
the bottom of the movement. Do not bounce out of the bottom of the exercise. Doing so will wreck your rotator cuffs in short order. Doing flys properly on a
regular basis will, in contrast, actually strengthen the rotator cuffs. At one point I had a weak right rotator cuff, and it has actually gotten stronger now from
all the flys I've done. I made a point (after learning the hard way) of beginning with very light weight, and even now, I use moderate weight on flys. The key
is to keep the movement controlled.
Put your mind into the muscle. This is crucial. You have to get to the point where you can actually feel each and every fiber stretch and then contract. Regular
use of the dumbbell fly, along with practiced concentration, will help this mental process along -the mind-body link which is essential to maximizing the
development of the body. The more you focus and concentrate in the beginning on using impeccable form on the fly, the quicker the movement will become second
nature. One important note: The fly is not a cheating movement. The benefits of this exercise do not increase with heaving heavy weights through partial movements
- in fact, proceeding along this course negates any value that might have previously been gained from the exercise. In addition, you'll get hurt - which means no
chest workouts, period. The benefits of the dumbbell fly are achieved through precision, consistency and concentration.
Focus on stretching the pectorals before and during the pressing exercises, stretching them briefly between sets. This works wonders. Practice flexing and
contracting the pectorals throughout the whole chest workout to keep the blood flowing and also to keep your mind inside the muscle. The mind-muscle link must be
maintained throughout. Our nervous system is interlinked, with neurons in the brain connected to the neurons in the spinal cord which, in turn, spread out to the
muscles. This mind-muscle connection can be developed and maximized by constant attention to these stretching and flexing details. What results is an easier time
getting into the groove of an exercise as well as great improvement of the pectorals' aesthetic quality.
Putting It All Together
Three things are essential to achieving success with the dumbbell fly:
Putting the mind deep inside the muscles of the pectorals. Demand that they grow. Experience the muscles being stimulated and then growing through properly intense
workouts, plenty of rest and an excellent diet. Visualize the end result desired. For inspiration, look up the writings of Tom Platz or Arnold or the weight-training
athlete of your choice. The mind is the whole deal. Every successful athlete - every successful person in any field - is aware of the mind's importance and acts
accordingly. The key is to put maximal psychic force into the muscle and direct it to grow and shape itself. This attitude of mental direction applies no matter
what your weight-training goals -whether you're looking to increase greatly your muscle mass, or to shape and develop what you've already acquired more aesthetically.
Make sure to use your chest, not your arms or your shoulders, in performing the dumbbell fly. Follow the path of the wide arc, working both the negative and positive
phases of the exercise, working the contraction and keeping the entire movement a pectoral-centered activity.
Finally, learn to really enjoy the process no matter how difficult and no matter how tiring. Enjoying the process is not usually a problem as most serious athletes
love what they do; however, if you find any part of your workouts to be drudgery, change your attitude by treating the mastery of the process as a craft. Respect the
gifts of health and ability you have and so many would love to enjoy.
Having a sense of fun and play about workouts is as important as having intensity and focus. Realize that this enjoyment of the process doesn't occur overnight -
doing so may take six months, a year, two years or even five or more. That's okay. Keep your mind open, ready to accept new approaches. Experiment whenever possible.
Here's to your success!