October 09, 2020 10 min read

Every bodybuilding enthusiast needs to be aware of the dumbbell flye. In this simple exercise, the elbow stays at a fixed angle while the hand and arm move through some part of their range of motion. Made more challenging by adding more weight, dumbbell flyes are one of the best exercises for the chest muscles and the shoulder joint because they’re one of the rare isolation exercises that don’t work the arm muscles incidentally, in which case the bicep would take on most of the weight. 

If they’re done with the correct form, that is. The biggest danger of dumbbell flyes is that people overextend their shoulder joints, fail to keep their elbow at a fixed angle, or add too much weight. All of these mistakes can not only minimize the gains you get but more importantly, they can lead to serious injury. The shoulder joint is one of the most sensitive in the human body and an injury there can take ages to heal. 

Far too often, people who are desperate to build muscle leap at the chance to do dumbbell flyes and jump into the exercise with such gusto that they move too fast, jerk their arms through the motion, and again take too much weight. Due to the unique functions of the shoulder joint and the pectoralis major, and also due to the absence of any power from the rest of the arm, you simply cannot handle as much weight during a dumbbell flye as you can with a bench press or other dumbbell exercises. 

Dumbbell flyes give the shoulders, chest, and triceps a great workout. There are a handful of exercises you can use to target the shoulders and the pectoral muscles, but flyes have the unique advantage of targeting your chest muscles’ ability to move toward the center of the body, a motion called abduction. Similarly, there are several good exercises for targeting the triceps, but dumbbell flyes work each of the three parts of thetriceps brachii throughout the arm’s range of motion. 

It’s not difficult to alter your dumbbell flye so that you can avoid injury and get great gains in your chest muscles and protect your shoulder joint. The number one thing you need to do is come to terms with the fact that your one-rep max is not coming into play during a flye. Be prepared to lift about 60% of that amount of weight or potentially much less depending on the state of your chest muscles when you start. 

“Leave your ego at the door” is common strength training advice that will help improve your dumbbell flyes immensely. If you just want to show off, get a spotter and stick to thebench press. Dumbbell flyes are for improving range of motion and building upper body strength in three critical muscle groups that are too often left to be worked out incidentally to a bicep-targeting exercise. 

Safety is a huge component of any chest workout because they so frequently involve the shoulder joint. Fortunately, the safest way to do dumbbell flyes is to do them with the right form, which will also greatly increase the amount of muscle gains they give. Read on for some tips to get the perfect dumbbell flye form so you can get ripped pectoral muscles and prevent shoulder joint injuries. 

A man and his trainer doing dumbbell flyes.

What Is a Dumbbell Fly?

Dumbbell flyes are an exercise that’s meant to work out the horizontal range of motion of the arms. Your arms have a wider range of motion, of course, but if you want to work the muscles that move your hands to and away from your body’s midline, you can use dumbbell flyes. 

Also referred to as chest flyes or chest flies, dumbbell flyes are a surprisingly divisive topic in the bodybuilding community. To a certain extent, they get a bad rap because people don’t perform them correctly and this leads to injury or poor results. It’s also fair to say that there are variants of the chest fly that are safer and more effective than the traditional dumbbell flye. 

In the starting position for a dumbbell flye, you’re generally lying down on a flat bench with your hands each holding a dumbbell and extended straight up above you. One of the most dangerous parts about the dumbbell flye in this start position is that there is no support whatsoever for your shoulder joint, so don’t try it unless you’re used to chest workouts or you already know you have the proper form. 

The move itself is simple. All you have to do is pull your arms apart toward either side of your body until your elbows are parallel with your back. In no scenario should you ever allow your arms to overextend lower than the level of your back as this is the most surefire way to injure your shoulder joint. Return to the starting position and remember to keep a slight bend in your elbow to make sure it doesn’t strain too much. 

The Dangers of Dumbbell Flyes

From the description laid out so far, you might be thinking there’s nothing to these chest flies. It certainly doesn’t seem like there’s a great risk of injury because you likely won’t even feel a stretch until you’re almost at the lowest point of the exercise. In fact, that’s the most dangerous part: you’re feeling your rib cage stretch and thecoracobrachialis, which is an integral part of the shoulder joint, takes on all of the weight if you hyperextend lower than your back or stretch your arms out further. 

The danger is that this might just feel like the normal stress your muscles go through in a typical chest workout, but it’s a highly vulnerable position for the coracobrachialis and the surrounding muscle groups. Even worse, your pectoral muscle is useless in any abduction past a certain degree, which means you’re putting your shoulder joint at serious risk of injury for no benefit whatsoever. 

Here are a few more ways standard dumbbell flyes on a flat bench can be extremely dangerous and fail to deliver on the bodybuilding goals you’re after:

Dumbbell Flyes Can Cause Long-Lasting Damage

Not to be alarmist, but if you’re trying to pump 90+ pounds in a dumbbell flye and you’re approaching the point of muscle exhaustion, don’t count on your ability to let the weight go. If you don’t manage it in time, that dumbbell isn’t going to go anywhere. Your arm is going to dip under the weight and the hyperextension plus the sudden jerking movement can do all sorts of damage to your scapular muscles. 

Working with the rotator cuff, the scapular muscles allow for three-dimensional movement of the shoulder joint. If you knock your scapular muscles out of whack doing a reckless dumbbell flye, it could cause long-term problems likescapular dyskinesis. Some people find that they can’t even lift their arm or arms up anymore after a comparable injury and it might last for years if it ever totally heals at all. 

In short, doing a dumbbell flye in a situation where you can hyperextend the shoulder joint won’t just mess up your bodybuilding ambitions for now. You could well face years of at best suboptimal and at worse fully inhibited lifting ability. It might be impossible to evenly build muscle on the body if you can only lift overhead with one side, or it could well be impossible to even continue chest workouts or other routines that target the upper body.

Chest Flies Are Limited

Dumbbell flyes are meant to activate the pectoralis major muscles and they do a great job of that, but for all the risk they put on the shoulder joint, they only work the pecs and the anterior deltoids to a certain extent. There’s nothing wrong with an isolation exercise now and then, but only when it can be done without such serious risk.

Other isolation exercises like bicep or wrist curls have the advantage of being so simple that you can throw them into a bodybuilding routine at any stage and even give other parts of your body a break in the meantime. Dumbbell flyes, on the other hand, require much more dedication, especially if you’re doing them on a flat bench. 

That’s not to say you won’t see muscle gains if you add chest flies to your bodybuilding routine, but the tradeoff is not as high with these dumbbell flyes unless you do the correct variation to maximize muscle activation and reduce the risk of injury to your shoulder joint.

Dumbbell Flyes Use Less Weight

Far from being a recommendation, your body physically cannot handle as much weight in the range of motion the dumbbell flye is meant to target. That’s because at the critical beginning point where your hands are straight out in front of you and at the bottom of the exercise where they are out to either side, your pectoralis major cannot engage to hold the weight. Through the rest of the range of motion, it can, but at either end of a standard dumbbell flye on a flat bench, your pecs are going to be completely deactivated. 

Adding more weight doesn’t help. That’s actually the most common reason for injury in any chest fly. Think about it: if your pectoralis major is powerless at the top and bottom of a dumbbell flye, then there’s a much higher chance of muscle failure and resulting overextension. 

Most people who have a bodybuilding routine are used to other exercises like the bench press and rows. In those exercises, more weight tends to be used. Just like a baseball player uses a doughnut to practice their swings, doing dumbbell flyes when you’re used to more weight can cause your body to move too quickly. In a dumbbell flye on a flat bench, there just isn’t enough resistance at two critical points - the top and bottom - to prevent your body from going through its range of motion too quickly, causing overextension and injury. 

How to Avoid Dumbbell Flye Injuries

For all this risk, chest flies are still a great targeting exercise for your pecs, two of the most visible muscles in the upper body. Luckily, there are plenty of dumbbell flye variations and some easy tips that will help you do dumbbell flyes that give great gains without all the danger.

1. Chest Flies Without a Flat Bench

All that risk of hyperextension in a dumbbell fly is because there is nothing to support your arms in case the weight becomes overwhelming or you experience muscle failure. To negate this risk factor, skip the flat bench and do your chest flies on the floor. It’s a guaranteed way to prevent overextension and you won’t have to wait for a flat bench to become available if the gym is crowded. 

If you’re dead set on using some kind of bench, try using an incline bench. An incline dumbbell flye is only different because of the comparatively more elevated position, but that’s enough to give you some room in case you need to drop the dumbbells. It doesn’t offer the guarantee against overextension that floor flies do, but because your arms will fall down rather than back if your muscles fail in the inclined position, incline dumbbells flyes are much safer. 

2. Use A Spotter

It’s the same recommendation we all got our first time at the gym, but so many people continue to ignore it. Get a spotter on chest day. Any chest exercise on a flat bench or an incline bench is much safer with a spotter and if you can find one with some knowledge about the exercise you’re doing it can also help you notice when you stop using the correct form. 

For some reason, bodybuilding has become an isolated endeavor for many people. Most likely this is just an extension of our singular lives, in which the internet has driven a physical wedge between people. Whatever the reason is, it seems to cause most people to give up on finding a spotter and go it alone. Even if you continue doing dumbbell flyes on a flat bench (don’t), having a spotter on hand who can take the weight away or support your arms can save a long-term injury to your rotator cuff.  

3. Pay Attention to Your Shoulders

Whether it’s on an incline bench or the floor, pay attention to your shoulder blades when you get into the starting position for chest flies. They should be activated and aimed slightly inward so that your pecs are raised and your shoulders are set back. You should also squeeze your shoulder blades and make sure not to let off throughout the exercise. 

Continued squeezing with angled shoulder blades will prevent injury to the shoulders. It can also be a good indication of when you should lay off the flyes because you might find yourself unable to keep concentrating on your shoulder blades as your muscles get more exhausted. Don’t keep pushing it, especially if you’re still on a flat bench for some reason. It will lead to muscle failure and if you’ve stopped pushing your shoulder blades back and clenching them, your shoulder joint is at a greater risk of injury. 

4. Listen to Your Body

One way dumbbell flyes done in the incorrect form keep surviving to cause serious and long-lasting injury to people is because there are some people who just have a greater range of motion in their shoulder joints. It could have to do with their body type or with the amount that they work out. In any case, don’t keep doing this exercise if your body is trying to tell you to stop. Feel for straining muscles and make sure stretching is coming from the triceps and pectoralis major and not cartilage in the ribs or the coracobrachialis in the shoulder joint. 

If your shoulder seems to be tighter than most others around you, consider moving to shoulder-opening exercises regularly over a sustained period to improve the range of motion there. It will build your shoulders up and reduce the likelihood of injury later on. 

A man doing cable flyes.

Cable Flyes: The Chest Exercise You Should Be Doing Instead

Long story short, cut out the dumbbell flyes on a flat bench and start doing cable flyes instead. You can do cable flyes standing up without the risk of having the weight fall on your shoulder joint and causing a serious tear in the rotator cuff or worse. Beyond the safety aspect, cable flyes are a better workout for your shoulder, deltoids, triceps, and pecs anyway. 

Think about the dumbbell flye and how it is essentially useless at the top and bottom because it doesn’t engage the pecs then. When you do cable flyes, your pecs aren’t activated at the start position but they are for the rest of the move. That’s great because it means once you get back to the starting position, your shoulder joint is safe from injury. 

There’s also constant resistance on your pecs throughout a cable flye, unlike during dumbbell flyes. The weight allows you to keep a consistent pace without jerking and the cable flye allows you to bring your hands across the body’s centerline, further engaging the pectoralis major. All of this adds up to a chest exercise that will increase the range of motion in your shoulder joint and promote hypertrophy in your pecs. 

Conclusion:

Dumbbell flyes are a great way to target some muscles that are frequently left out of full-body workouts. They can also improve the range of motion of the shoulder joint, which is left out of popular pec exercises like push-ups. 

Safety should be the main concern when you perform any kind of chest fly. For our money, we’d say skip the flat bench altogether and move to the floor or at least an incline bench. Always bring a spotter who can help you in case of muscle failure. If at all possible, do cable flyes for a much better workout and significantly lower risk of muscle groups around the shoulder joint. 


x