Dumbbell Fly Alternatives: How to Target the Chest Muscles

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
February 10, 2022

An extremely common isolation exercise with a particular focus on the two heads of the pectoralis muscle group, the dumbbell fly alternative is often considered irreplaceable in whatever workout program or physical rehabilitation routine it is added to.

However, this is not entirely true, as quite a few exercises share similar muscular activation patterns, training stimulus, intensity and beneficial effects to the dumbbell fly without actually being a dumbbell fly variation themselves.

A variety of chest focused alternative exercises exist that may replicate or entirely replace the dumbbell fly in one’s fitness routine, with such exercises like the cable fly simply being a minor variation of the dumbbell fly and others like the incline bench press possessing quite a difference in characteristics while still acting as a potential substitute candidate.

Why Should the Dumbbell Fly be Alternated in a Workout Routine?

The dumbbell fly may require substitution in a workout routine for a variety of reasons – the most common of which is simply the fact that the dumbbell fly does not provide as effective a training stimulus as certain other variations of the chest fly exercise.

dumbbell chest flys

This is most notable at the apex of the repetition wherein the exerciser is holding the dumbbells directly over their chest, with the weight primarily supported by their anterior deltoids and simple stabilizing muscles, with barely any activation of the pectoralis muscles taking place during this portion of the exercise.

By extension of this particular issue, the very nature at which the chest muscles contract equates to the dumbbell fly itself not being a completely suitable exercise for full scale pectoral muscle training, with a variety of other exercises being capable of activating the chest in a far more effective manner.

Additionally, the dumbbell fly places significant strain on the elbow and shoulder joints as well as any connective tissues surrounding said areas due to the angle of which it is performed, making individuals with a particular susceptibility to injuries in those particular areas unable to perform the dumbbell fly.

What Muscles are Activated by the Dumbbell Fly and its Alternatives?

Being an isolation exercise of moderate intensity, the dumbbell fly primarily utilizes the pectoralis minor and pectoralis major as the main source of force during a repetition, making them the main and only primary movers used for the exercise.

However, certain muscle groups are activated by the dumbbell fly in an isometric contraction capacity, such as the three deltoid heads and the biceps brachii along the front of the arm and the serratus during the apex of the repetition.

Therefore, any alternatives to the dumbbell fly must activate the pectoralis muscle group at the least if they must be used as a substitute exercise.

However, the specific type of activation must also be called into question when choosing an alternative to the dumbbell fly, with low intensity high volume contraction such as what is found in aerobic exercises being less suitable in terms of substituting the dumbbell fly in comparison to high intensity high resistance type training stimulus.

How is the Dumbbell Fly Substituted in a Fitness Routine?

The dumbbell fly is considered a bilateral isolation exercise and as such is best substituted in a fitness routine with another resistance exercise of similar classification, especially considering the fact that the dumbbell fly is often used as a finisher exercise after the exerciser has already impacted the chest muscles with heavier and more intense compound exercises.

Such exercises like the dumbbell pullover or the cable and resistance band variations of the dumbbell fly can all fulfill this particular role perfectly, being able to impact the pectoralis muscles in a moderate capacity in the form of muscular isolation – all after the performance of more intense exercises.

However, certain other exercises that act as potential alternatives to the dumbbell fly such as the bench press or bodyweight dips can impart a distinctly higher level of intensity and a wider range of muscle group activation than the dumbbell fly.

While these exercises are still considered excellent alternatives to the dumbbell fly, adding them to one’s fitness routine or physical rehabilitation program will often require other concessions and removals be made in the programming of said routine.

Free Weight Dumbbell Fly Alternatives

The most similar to the dumbbell fly in terms of equipment used, training stimuli and reliability, free weight alternative exercises to the dumbbell fly are among the first and most obvious candidates for such a purpose.

This is most notable in the way that free weight alternative exercises also activate the same stabilizer muscles as the dumbbell fly – namely, the deltoids, biceps brachii and triceps brachii, making the following exercises the closest possible replication in terms of muscular activation.

Dumbbell Pullover

A rather unique exercise performed with the exerciser lying on their back and lowering a light to moderate weight dumbbell behind their heads, the dumbbell pullover makes an excellent alternative to the dumbbell fly both in terms of training intensity as well as muscular activation – with such muscle groups like the pectorals and the triceps brachii acting as primary movers during the entirety of the exercise.

dumbbell pullover

This comes with the drawback of the dumbbell pullover also activating other muscles that are not normally involved in the dumbbell fly, however, such as the trapezius muscles and the latissimus dorsi muscle group, both of which are primarily activated during back exercises and as such may require modification in the exerciser’s workout routine.

Incline Dumbbell Bench Press

A modification of the more common dumbbell bench press wherein the exerciser adjusts the bench so as to place themselves on an upward angle while they perform the exercise, the incline dumbbell bench press is yet another excellent substitute to the dumbbell fly with an equal or even more effective training stimulus than the dumbbell fly itself.

dumbbell incline bench press

This is due to the particular form of the incline dumbbell press, which not only allows the exerciser to apply more resistance to the pectoralis muscles but also brings a larger focus to the pectoralis minor head of said muscle group, making the incline dumbbell bench press more of a replacement than a potential alternative due to its higher effectiveness in certain situations.

The incline dumbbell bench press comes with a slightly different type of muscular activation pattern, however, as more stress is placed on the anterior head of the deltoid muscles due to the angle of resistance as well as the fact that the biceps brachii are left practically unused throughout the exercise.

Dumbbell Fly Press

An exercise that combines the form and training benefits of the dumbbell fly with the dumbbell bench press, the aptly named dumbbell fly press can either act as an alternative exercise or as a natural progression to the dumbbell fly for the purposes of muscular hypertrophy and neuromuscular strength conditioning.

The dumbbell fly press, as one can imagine, is simply performed by performing the concentric portion of the dumbbell fly but stopping as the dumbbells are raised over one’s chest and instead thrusting the arms directly forward, thus recreating a dumbbell bench press as well.

This creates a muscular activation pattern that emphasizes both the pectoral muscles as well as the deltoids and the triceps brachii, replicating that of the dumbbell fly while also creating a far more intense training stimulus that may or may not be a caveat, depending on the exerciser’s particular training regimen.

It is important to note that the dumbbell fly press can place significant stress on the elbow and shoulder joints, especially when using rather high levels of resistance, and as such it is best for the exerciser to utilize only a light amount of weight so as to prevent any avoidable injuries.

Machine Based Dumbbell Fly Alternatives

If, instead, the exerciser wishes to use a machine based alternative to the dumbbell fly due to an injury or simple individual preference, a variety of options open up to them that may not only replicate the function of the dumbbell fly in their physical rehabilitation or training routine but even surpass it in certain characteristics.

A primary benefit to utilizing machine based alternatives to the dumbbell fly is the fact that they are capable of truly isolating a muscle group, as the majority of machine exercises remove the need for stabilizer muscles to work in any capacity, ensuring that only the muscles meant to be trained are activated by the exercise.

Cable Machine Fly

Making use of a pulley or cable machine with two handles attached at opposing ends, the cable machine fly is considered one of the best possible pectoral muscle isolation exercises due to the level at which it may contract both heads of the pectoral muscle group.

cable machine fly

This is by way of the fact that the cable machine fly directly follows the natural movement that is part of the pectoral muscle’s contraction

Pec Deck Machine

Essentially a machine based clone of the negative portion of the dumbbell fly, the pec deck machine functions by placing the exerciser in a vertical position as they press together two padded handles with their arms so as to recreate the natural contraction and movement kinetics of the pectoralis muscle group.

pec deck machine movement

This activates said pectoral muscles in a manner quite similar to that of the dumbbell fly - all the more so by the fact that the pec deck machine is primarily an isolation exercise as well, making it a perfect alternative to the dumbbell fly in practically every factor.

Miscellaneous Dumbbell Fly Alternatives

Slider Push-Ups

A rather uncommon exercise that makes use of a type of exercise equipment known as sliders, slider push-ups are a variation on the standard pushup wherein the exerciser lowers themselves to the ground in the standard push-up position while simultaneously raising one hand forward so as to greatly increase the level of muscular contraction per side.

This is made possible by the nature of the slider equipment, wherein a reduced level of friction allows the exerciser to maintain contact with the ground without raising their hands, retaining significant time under tension and inducing far stronger training stimuli.

Dips

A classic calisthenic exercise performed by the exerciser positioning themselves between two parallel bars before suspending themselves with their arms above the ground, the dip activates the pectoral muscles in a similar intensity to that of the dumbbell fly – if performed correctly.

chest dip movement

A drawback to utilizing the dips as a dumbbell fly alternative is in the fact that it is considered a compound exercise and as such cannot act as a replacement for the dumbbell fly in the capacity of muscular isolation.

This is not an issue if the exerciser chooses to instead program their workout in a different manner, such as removing the presence of certain triceps isolation exercises so as to allow the dips to activate said triceps brachii without inducing overtraining due to excessive volume.

References

1. 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.

2. Reiser, Fernando & Lira, Jumes & Bonfim, Beatriz & Filho, Solival & Durante, Bruno & Cardoso, João & Miotto, Hamilton & Soares, Marcos & Bonuzzi, Giordano & Tavares, Lucas. (2017). Electromyography of Dumbbell Fly Exercise Using Different Planes and Labile Surfaces. Journal of Exercise Physiology Online. 20. 31.

3. Bezerra ES, Schoenfeld BJ, Paz G, Farias DA, Sakugawa RL, Vieira I, Rossato M, Miranda H. Effect of exercise order with barbell and machine modalities on upper body volume load and myoelectric activity. Sports Biomech. 2020 Dec;19(6):778-791. doi: 10.1080/14763141.2018.1515980. Epub 2018 Oct 2. PMID: 30274549.

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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