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February 04, 2023
Bench presses and push-ups are staples in every lifter's chest routine. And while there's no arguing that both of those powerhouse moves are excellent for pec development, you may be missing out on another awesome chest-building exercise.
We're talking about the standing cable fly!
The cable fly separates itself from compound chest lifts due to its ability to load and isolate your pec muscles from multiple angles, making it an ultra-effective exercise.
And if you've never done the cable fly or are unfamiliar with cable machines, don't let the piece of gym equipment intimidate you. It's a very user-friendly piece of machinery that's easy to adjust and manipulate.
We'll discuss it all in detail in this article.
Table of Contents:
The cable fly is an isolation exercise targeting the pectoralis major and minor.
Whereas most chest exercises, like the chest press, are categorized as push movements in which the weight is pushed away from the chest, the cable fly exercise provides resistance concentrically and eccentrically, during the push phase and return phase of the movement.
This is one of the best exercises you can do to build your chest muscles as it provides a constant load on the chest throughout the entire range of motion of the fly. In addition, stepping further away from the machine or changing the angles of the pulleys adds an additional stretch to the chest muscles, which can contribute to greater chest development.
Isolating the chest with this exercise is an effective way to increase the muscular strength and growth of the chest muscles.
The muscles of the chest include the two pectoral muscles, pectoralis major and pectoralis minor, which are the main muscles targeted in the cable fly. The pectoralis major sits on top of the pectoralis minor and is visible to the eye. The pec major is in charge of adducting the arms, bringing them to the centerline of the body like hugging or clapping, in addition to flexion, inward rotation, and elevation.
Pec major has two heads and depending on the angle of activation in adduction, each muscle head can be worked differently. The upper head (clavicular head) is activated at an upward angle, and the lower head is activated at a downward angle.
Using low and high angles will target both pec major muscle heads. The pec minor, located deeper and under the pec major, contributes to the stabilization and moving of the shoulder blades in depression, protraction, and internal and downward rotation.
The pec minor works in synchronization with the pec major through cable flies.
These directions are for a standard cable chest fly where each pulley handle is adjusted to elbow height.
How to do Cable Flys:
To get the most out of your cable flys and ensure you're building muscle in the chest, make sure to avoid these common mistakes.
One of the main components of the chest fly is the deep stretch of the chest. In order to achieve this angle, the body’s position has to be at a proper angle.
Keep the shoulders down and back while emphasizing keeping the chest open, which allows the chest to create tension before the fly. Once the movement is in motion, the tension stays consistent.
Another key positional factor is keeping your feet staggered, pelvis slightly tucked under and core engaged throughout the movement. Focus on only driving movement from the upper body while keeping the rest of your body planted and resisting rotation.
Cables provide larger ranges of motion and have a wider degree of error since they are not fixed in one plane of motion (like stationary machines). When starting your sets off with too much weight, it is easy to lose control and fall out of form, causing the weights to pull you off center. If your weights are too heavy, you may start to roll shoulders forward, which places strain on your delts and take the work away from your pecs.
This can lead to potential injuries and unwanted stress within the joints. Lowering the weight allows you to gain control of the pulleys and access the rest of your body to stabilize your form and range of motion throughout the chest fly. If your body is not ready for an increase in weight, focus on factors like rep ranges and tempo.
Remember to prioritize your form and intensity of the exercise. Even with a “lighter” weight and focusing more on muscular endurance, you can still fatigue and challenge the muscles.
When first moving through the cable fly, it can feel more natural to initiate the press by keeping your hands close and driving through the elbows, similar to the chest press. These two movements have a lot in common with their form and function.
But the cable fly is most effective when initiating a slight bend through the elbows and maintaining that bend throughout the entire motion. This directly isolates the chest, leaving the shoulders and triceps as stabilizers instead of primary movers, as seen in the bench press.
This is yet another reason to start with lighter weights and slowly build up to heavier ones. Similar to dumbbell flys, the cables can pull you past a shoulder range of motion that you’re comfortable with. Really, the proper range to ensure proper shoulder blade stability is when your upper arms are 30 degrees away from your torso.
Surpassing this range can put unwanted stress and tension on the joint. To work your way up to this position, slow down as you start to reach your end range. Avoid allowing the weights to pull you into position, keep resisting with tension and control.
Although this is more of a preference, adding a cable crossover at the forward range can increase stimulus in the chest. Extend your range by letting your hands meet together, then crossing one hand over another.
Make sure to alternate sides so that each hand is crossing over the other. Keep control in this range. Even if you do not prefer the crossover technique, make sure your hands come together as close as possible. Stopping too short can limit the full benefits of this exercise.
The main focus of this exercise is to maintain tension through your core, reducing compensation in your posture throughout the exercise. In addition, here are a few other tips to help you perfect your form:
Building your chest muscles is reason enough to start doing this exercise! But, that's not its only benefit. Here are seven more reasons why the cable fly is awesome.
The cable fly is a single-joint exercise that maximizes tension within the pectoralis muscle group. You want to feel an intense stretch at the top movement with contractions at the end of the range. It is also dependent on how much or how little weight you load to feel these activations.
If you’re struggling to complete quality repetitions with both arms in the cable fly, there are several great variations to try. Here are 3 modifications to consider including in your routine.
The easiest way to modify this exercise is by focusing on one arm at a time. This is also great for identifying any muscle imbalances. To set up for this exercise, position your body sideways to the front of the cable machine. The side of your body that's working should be closest to the cable machine.
Keep your non-working hand on the chest muscles that are working.
Use your hand as external feedback to start connecting your chest muscles through the motion. When working with one arm at a time, ensure that the rest of your body stays grounded and resists rotation.
Another chest fly modification is a banded chest fly. You’ll need one looped band or a band with handles. Attach it to an anchor point and face away from the anchor point.
With the resistance of the band, you’ll feel enough tension through the chest while being able to focus on the form and activation of the chest muscles.
If you have a seated chest fly machine available to use, this is a great way to isolate the chest muscles without having to worry too much about the rest of your body’s position.
With stationary machines, your body is in a fixed position, allowing you to focus on your working muscles. Make the mind-muscle connection and slowly work your way up to more resistance.
Looking to spice up the standard cable fly? These four variations might just be the perfect addition to your workout split.
In addition to targeting the medial chest and lower chest, the angle of cable flys high to low activates the front deltoid and triceps.
The form does not change in comparison to your standard chest fly, although it may feel different as you're activating more muscles from this angle.
How to do High To Low Cable Flys:
Low to high cable flys do a great job of targeting the upper chest muscles, an area that is the focal point of growth for those striving to improve the physique of the chest muscles.
With the low cable fly specifically, it is common to want to compensate with a lower back arch. Reset your form and posture if you start to feel this occur.
How to do Cable Flys Low To High:
Dumbbell flys are one of our favorite dumbbell chest exercises. Using dumbbells instead of the cable machine is a great way to change the method of loading.
Gravity will be in play with the dumbbells and you may feel an additional challenge when lowering the dumbbells during the fly.
How to do the Dumbbell Fly:
The incline of the bench changes the angle of the fly and targets more of the upper chest.
Pro Tip: Make sure to incorporate some chest stretches before and after your workouts!
How to the Incline Dumbbell Fly:
Ready to take your chest workout to the next level? Try one of these challenging cable fly progressions!
In addition to these progressions, another way to continue challenging yourself is to focus on time under tension by performing a 1.5 rep cable fly, a method that emphasizes the contraction of the chest and allows you to focus on the end range of the motion.
To do a 1.5 rep, squeeze your chest when your hands come together for the contraction of the fly, and then start to open outward to half of the range. Bring your hands together again and squeeze your chest. Return to start with a full repetition.
No matter where you're at in your fitness journey, there's always a way to make things harder!
Adding a bench to the cable fly isolates the movement, serving as a way to change the position of your body, which makes it more challenging.
Since your body is lying down and stable on the bench, it’ll allow you to target the chest even more. For this progression, adjust a bench in the middle of the cable machine and position the cables at a low setting.
This progression eccentrically loads the chest muscles during the lowering phase of the movement (when the arms open for the fly). The form and overall movement stay the same. The only factor that changes is the tempo at which you’re pressing the weight.
Slow down the eccentric phase of the movement (opening the arms out) and hold the contraction (hands together or crossover position). This increases the time under tension of the muscles, which stimulates muscle activation and growth.
With eccentric loading, you’ll be challenged to control the weight as well as fight the tension through each count. Slowly lower the weights for anywhere from 3-10 counts (3 being standard and 10 being very challenging). Adding counts like this is another great progressive overload technique.
The cable fly is most effective when done after your compound lifts, as an accessory movement. It is a single-joint movement, meaning it recruits a smaller number of muscles in comparison to a multi-joint movement, like the barbell bench press, which uses multiple muscle groups at one time.
Since you are not lifting close to 1-rep max numbers with the cable fly, utilize this accessory exercise to hit moderate weights for 8-15 repetitions, focusing on muscle hypertrophy of the chest muscles. Week to week, try to increase the intensity of your cable fly in some way, whether that’s bumping up the weight, increasing repetitions, or adding time under tension.
Progressive overload is an important factor when it comes to improving your technique, strength, and muscle growth. Choose your program goal and starting point with the cable fly, then begin to load the intensity over time.
Looking for some chest fly workout inspiration? We've got a great routine for you!
Cable flys are a great accessory movement to add to your chest routine. The exercise can optimize muscle growth, while improving your pectoral muscles' strength and helping you create a more defined and chiseled chest.
Regardless of where you are in your fitness journey, there is a modification, variation, or progression of the standing cable fly that is right for you. All that's left to do is put in the work!
Looking for more great cable exercises to build your pecs? Check out our article on the 15 Best Cable Chest Exercises!
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