7 Chest Flyes Alternatives to Build a Bigger Chest

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 6, 2022

Among the numerous ways of developing the chest muscles, the chest fly is considered to be one of the most effective - providing an isolated training stimulus with relatively low risk of injury and a simplistic kinetic pattern.

However, the chest fly isn’t a fool-proof exercise, as several issues relating to its intensity or risk of injury can cause lifters to seek out a potential alternative.

Fortunately, the chest fly is not unique in its purpose, and quite a number of safer or more effective exercises exist that are capable of acting as a substitute to the former exercise.

Why Should the Chest Fly be Substituted?

The most common reason why the chest fly is substituted by intermediate or advanced weightlifters is simply because of its poor maximal loading capacity. In simpler terms, this means that the position the exercise places the lifter in reduces how heavy the weights can be.

dumbbell chest flys

Several disadvantages are associated with this particular issue, such as less efficient strength developments and a greater risk of elbow or shoulder injuries as these joints are placed in an inefficient and disadvantageous position.

Apart from disadvantageous biomechanics and a poor maximal loading capacity, the chest fly is also not as effective at activating the entirety of the pectoral muscle in comparison to other chest isolation exercises, primarily focusing on the pectoralis major while the pectoralis minor receives only momentary stimulation.

These specific problems, alongside a host of other circumstantial problems such as unavailable equipment, a history of injury or training programming issues can all lead to a lifter being better served by a substitute exercise instead.

Characteristics of a Chest Fly Alternative

Not just every exercise is capable of being used as a potential chest fly alternative, as there some requirements that exclude quite a number of possible candidates.

The most important of these characteristics is clearly that the alternative exercise targets the same muscle group as the chest fly - though it is possible for even more muscles to be recruited by the alternative, so long as the exerciser’s training program allows for it.

Furthermore, the alternative exercise must also share a similar type and intensity of training stimulus alongside whatever other requirements the exerciser or their unique circumstances may call for.

Muscles Worked

The most important aspect of any exercise substitution is the retention of whatever muscle group was recruited by the original exercise.

dumbbell chest fly muscles

In the case of the chest fly, this primarily means the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor muscles, though a bonus would also be the stabilizer muscle activation of the deltoids and biceps brachii.

Fortunately for us, quite a number of possible chest muscle exercises exist that fulfill the right criteria for replacing the chest fly within a training program.

Isolated Muscular Recruitment

More a guideline than a hard requirement, the alternative exercise being of the isolation variety is an ideal situation, thereby requiring little to no alteration of the training program - even if the chest fly is a compound movement. 

Furthermore, an exercise being of the isolation classification and intensity as the chest fly will ensure that a minimal risk of injury occurs from the exerciser being unfamiliar with the substitute.

However, it is still entirely possible to substitute the chest fly with a compound movement, so long as the total volume of the workout session is suitably altered.

Lifter Compatibility

Apart from recruiting the correct muscle groups and achieving the same training stimulus, the alternative exercise should also fit whatever requirements that are unique to the lifter themselves - be it a lack of available equipment, poor shoulder mobility, or any other number of circumstances.

The Ideal Chest Fly Alternative: Incline Dumbbell Chest Press

In the majority of cases, it is the incline dumbbell chest press that is the best possible alternative to the chest fly.

dumbbell incline chest press

This is due to several similarities shared between the two, such as the fact that they train the exact same muscle groups, as well as the fact that each side of the body is trained independent of the other, ensuring that no muscular imbalances are developed.

Furthermore, the incline dumbbell chest press and the chest fly share the exact same sort of equipment required, meaning that no further equipment may need to be purchased by home gym owners.

How to Perform

The incline dumbbell press is performed in much the same manner as the chest fly - except, instead of the arms spreading laterally, the exerciser instead pushes the dumbbells away from their torso at an upwards angle.

This is achieved with the exerciser pinning their shoulder blades beneath them as they would in any chest press variation - prior to pushing both dumbbells over their chest until the elbows are in a state of full extension.

Benefits as an Alternative to the Chest Fly

The incline dumbbell press presents several alternatives when used as a substitute to the chest fly, with the most significant being the far greater maximal load possible as the elbows and shoulders are not placed in a mechanically disadvantageous position.

This, in turn, allows the exerciser to achieve greater and more efficient results via progressive overload.

In addition, the incline dumbbell press does not cause the same issues relating to the stability and integrity of the biceps or elbow joint, resulting in a reduced risk of injury so long as proper form is adhered to.

Finally, the chest fly is significantly more useful for strength athletes and powerlifters due to its superior carry-over to other exercises in comparison to the chest fly, both in terms of pure strength and in exercise mechanics.

Compound Chest Fly Alternatives

Though isolation exercises targeting the pectoral muscle group are the ideal alternative to the chest fly, compounds can also present several advantages that isolation exercises otherwise would not.

Primarily, compound exercises allow for a level of resistance that is significantly harder to achieve with isolation exercises - alongside the fact that they produce better results in terms of strength development.

These benefits, alongside a number of others such as more time saved and greater caloric expenditure make compound exercises a suitable substitute for the chest fly, so long as the exerciser is prepared to alter their training program accordingly as well.

1. Cable Flyes

The most obvious alternative to the free weight chest fly is that of its machine-based variation, or what is otherwise known as the cable fly.

The cable fly presents much of the same benefits as its free weight counterpart, only with a reduced risk of injury and a lengthened time under tension - thereby resulting in greater muscular hypertrophy and less shoulder pain.

As an added bonus, the chest fly and the cable fly are also completely interchangeable, requiring no further alteration of the training program and allowing the exerciser to substitute each set and each repetition in a 1:1 ratio.

2. Pec Deck Machine

A resistance machine that shares the same mechanics and angle of resistance as the chest fly, the pec deck machine is one possible compound alternative most suitable for bodybuilders seeking a lengthy time under tension, or those with poor deltoid stabilizers limiting their maximum resistance.

pec deck

The pec deck machine surpasses most other chest fly alternatives in terms of its specificity, as the machine was specifically made for creating the kinetics and mechanics of the chest fly - thereby also allowing a volume translation in a 1:1 ratio, where every repetition of the chest fly is equal to one repetition of the pec deck.

Unfortunately, due to its machine-based nature and self-stabilizing mechanic, the pec deck machine does not activate the deltoids and biceps to the extent that chest flyers do - presenting one possible disadvantage to this particular substitute.

3. Archer Push-Ups

The archer push up is a compound bodyweight exercise best known for its capacity to focus on one side of the pectoral muscles at a time, replicating the specificity of training stimulus induced by the chest fly exercise.

archer push up

Furthermore, as the archer push up is a bodyweight exercise, it requires no equipment and is arguably the most convenient alternative to the chest fly possible, allowing it to be performed practically anywhere.

One large disadvantage to using the archer push up as a chest fly alternative, however, is that it presents much the same resistance issues as the latter exercise - limiting the maximal load and therefore the muscular hypertrophy that can be attained.

Isolation Chest Fly Alternatives

As the primary purpose of the chest fly is to induce training stimulus of the chest muscles, there is no better method of replicating such effects than through the utilization of an alternative isolation exercise.

Doing so will ensure that the exerciser maximizes compatibility of the alternative exercise with their training program, as well as muscular hypertrophy or strength adaptations that may be developed therein.

1. Cable Crossovers

The cable crossover is functionally similar to the cable fly, only with greater pectoral muscle recruitment as the exerciser continues the motion until their wrists cross over one another, thereby producing an isolated training stimulus instead of a compound one.

cable cross over

This presents a number of possible benefits, such as allowing the exerciser to achieve a level of resistance not otherwise possible with the original exercise, as well as greater mind-muscle connection.

Furthermore, so long as the level of intensity is maintained between the two exercises, the cable crossover is capable of acting as a complete 1:1 substitute to the chest fly in terms of volume of repetitions.

2. Plate Pinches

Primarily an isometric exercise targeting the pectoral muscles with the biceps brachii acting as a secondary mover muscle, plate pinches are the ideal alternative to the chest fly for individuals with a history of rotational shoulder issues.

plate pinches

Furthermore, plate pinches replicate the mechanics of the chest fly despite the obvious difference in actual movement, placing the elbow and shoulders in a state of flexion as the exerciser exerts opposing muscular force on both sides of the weight plate.

Unlike other exercises listed in this article, plate pinches are counted in length of time performed instead of repetitions per set, and as such it is up to the lifter to decide how best to translate the intensity and exertion of the chest fly to the plate pinch.

An Honorable Mention: the Wide Grip Bench Press

One possible alternative to the chest fly is the wide grip bench press - a variation on the standard bench press that reduces recruitment of the triceps brachii in favor of the pectoral muscles instead.

barbell wide grip bench press

This seemingly small alteration in muscular activation pattern results in the bench press presenting several similarities to the chest fly, such as greater elbow flaring and a more significant involvement of the pectoralis minor muscle.

Benefits as an Alternative to the Chest Fly

Though the wide grip bench press trains significantly more muscles than the chest fly and requires large alterations be made to the training program - it is nonetheless an excellent solution to the many issues related to the chest fly itself.

The wide grip bench press allows for far superior maximal loading capacity, a reduced risk of injury on account of several power cage safety mechanisms and even a greater level of sports-specific application - all problems that the chest fly is so often substituted out for.

Final Thoughts

Substituting the chest fly is far more simple than most people realize, with the pectoral muscle being capable of growth regardless of what sort of exercise is used to substitute it. The importance of deciding on the correct substitute lies more in compatibility and safety, rather than the end result.

If you are unsure of how to alter your training program so as to make way for these substitute exercises, or otherwise do not know how to perform them, seeking out the advice of a professional athletic coach is the most advisable choice for you.

References

1. Glass, Stephen C.; Armstrong, Ty. Electromyographical Activity of the Pectoralis Muscle During Incline and Decline Bench Presses. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 1997 - Volume 11 - Issue 3 - p 163-167

2. Schütz, Pascal, Pia Zimmer, Fabian Zeidler, Michael Plüss, Katja Oberhofer, Renate List, and Silvio Rene Lorenzetti. 2022. "Chest Exercises: Movement and Loading of Shoulder, Elbow and Wrist Joints" Sports 10, no. 2: 19. https://doi.org/10.3390/sports10020019

3. Solstad TE, Andersen V, Shaw M, Hoel EM, Vonheim A, Saeterbakken AH. A Comparison of Muscle Activation between Barbell Bench Press and Dumbbell Flyes in Resistance-Trained Males. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Nov 19;19(4):645-651. PMID: 33239937; PMCID: PMC7675616.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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