When I was in college, my hostel opened a compact gym which included one of those machine units on which you can do pulldowns, leg curls, seated shoulder presses, and a cable for rows and biceps. You could also use it to do chest flys. This is a distinct memory because it’s the one exercise machine I always used. I don’t blame my 18-year-old self, because what would be better for the chest muscles, than opening your arms out and pressing them together on a machine that had weights attached to it? Turns out, the answer is almost everything.
Fast forward to 15 years later, and I don’t even look at a chest fly machine, or do them on a flat bench with dumbbells. Call it a mind block, but every time I attempt even one fly, it cramps my delts and leaves me sore on the entire shoulder on one side. So either I was doing it with terrible technique (no one else was complaining about it), or the exercise itself was questionable. The chest fly failure was the first reason for an obsession of form that continues to this day.
So, over to the experts and sweet vindication. Multiple trainers in the last few years have heard of this issue, and were entirely okay with skipping the exercise. The chest fly helps in opening up the chest muscles and pinching the shoulder blades together to help posture, and apply the right kind of stretch and contraction. This might eventually result in the chest looking ripped, with a marked separation between the two pectoral muscles. That is what everyone wants, but flys are not the only way to achieve it. In addition, it is important to remember that aesthetic value is never higher than the health of your body.
So how does one do a chest fly? A shape.com article titled, Why The Chest Fly Is A Must-Do Upper-Body Exercisesuggests these steps if you are using dumbbells: lie on a flat bench, extend arms above the centre of the chest with elbows slightly bent (rather than locked out). Keep the palms facing inwards, lower both dumbbells until shoulder height, and finally squeeze the chest muscles and pull the weights back to the centre. They add a final tip: “keep core engaged and avoid arching the lower back excessively during the lowering movement.” The same principles apply to the machine version of the exercise.
But now to the flipside of the argument. The first one that most trainers agree on is doing the same exercise on the floor because it immediately puts your shoulders in a safe position. The second one is to try the same in a standing position using cables: a version known as cable flys.
A straight-talking bodybuilding.com piece, titled 8 Things You Should Never Do On Chest Day, implores gym-goers to maintain the same bend in the elbow throughout the exercise, sacrificing the amount of weight to achieve this.“Save your heroic weight pushing for the bench, where it can produce the biggest anabolic stimulus. If someone gives you crap about the weight you're using on a cable cross-over, it just shows they don't know what they're talking about. Use a weight you can control, and keep your elbows from extending,” it states.
The science behind this is that athletes tend to forget that the farther the dumbbell is away from the body, the harder it becomes to lift weight. So if you’re lifting 20kg dumbbells on a flat bench during a chest press, there is no shame in halving this during flys.
Criticisms are fairer if there are alternatives provided. For proper chest building, the stretch and contraction of the pectorals are important. Which is why one should try switching to a single arm cable or resistance band fly. I’ve switched to these and the range of motion and safety are clearly better and even more effective because you can contract the pectoral muscle farther than you would be able to when you’re using both arms. This is because when the arms meet in the middle, your range of motion gets restricted. A single arm motion allows you to go past the midline of the chest and the difference is almost immediate.
The chest fly is an attractive exercise, especially on the machine, because you can sit, feel your back touch the seat, and push forward in what seems to be a good movement. In fact, it is restrictive and can apply the wrong force on muscles because of the fixed angle. Cables and resistance bands allow your body to adjust to the right stimulus. Remember, everybody is different and will react differently to a particular exercise. But when there are safer and better alternatives available, it is worth trying them out rather than risk a shoulder injury.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.