Every gym goer knows there are no shortages of ways to work chest. To say it is one of the most popular muscles to train would be an understatement. If you ever needed proof, take a mental note of how often people take up the bench press. Or watch how many people flock to the cable machine to perform the cable fly.
In a way the cable fly’s popularity is evidence of its effectiveness. Most chest exercises can be described as pushing motions focused on driving weight away from the chest. The cable fly on the other hand targets the pecs by pulling the weight together towards the centerline of the chest. What really separates it from the chest fly machine is the potential angles and range of motion the cables provide. Depending on how you angle your arms or adjust the cables, you can hit your chest from every angle. The body’s distance from the machine can also create a tremendous stretch, all of which high contribute to great chest development.
In this article we’ll visit the cable fly, some of its variations, what to avoid, and how to perform it for maximum results.
Essentials Of The Cable Fly
The Angle Of The Cable
The cable machine is well known for its variety and excellent range of motion. This however can leave gym-goers wondering what is the best angle of the cables for targeting the chest. The truth is that it depends on which part of the chest you’re trying to work.
The chest consists of two muscles, the pectoralis major (clavicular) and pectoralis major (sternal). The clavicular is considered the upper chest and the sternal the lower chest. Both heads of the chest work and develop differently depending on the angle of addiction performed on them. Upward facing angles target the clavicular upper chest, and downward facing angles hit the sternal lower chest. No one angle works the chest more effectively, but to build a full, balanced chest it’s important to train with both angles, upper and lower.
Repetitions And Sets
Like many other exercises, there are several different rep ranges (loading zones) from which muscle adaptation can be obtained. This means that you may be missing out on growth if you confine yourself to the standard ‘hypertrophy range’.
What is more important is proper form and high level of intensity during each set of the cable fly. For example, even if you perform a set of 5 repetitions- settling on a weight 70-80% of your one rep max (1RM) with a slow tempo (2 second concentric/ 2 second hold/2 second eccentric), chances are you will eventually see results in muscle growth.
Seated vs Standing
There is very little difference between the seated and standing cable fly, however the slight difference may have a large impact on your training. Seated cable machines (while harder to find) s eve the muscles of the chest just as effectively as it’s standing counterpart.
The main disadvantage is that unlike the standing cable fly, you can’t adjust the position of the seated cable. This means that the incline cable fly and the low cable fly are exclusive to the adjustable cable machine.
How To Perform The Cable Fly
There are several different angles and versions of the cable fly, but they all find commonality in strict technique. The following instructions are for the standard cable fly, however the general technique can be applied to nearly all variations.
- Adjust the height of the cables on either side of the body. The attachment should be set set to the mid-chest region.
- Grip both handles- keeping a slight bend in the arms. Once you have a hold of both handles, adjust your body’s position and stance. First center your body so that you’re in the middle of the machine and both cables are an even distance from your hand and the machine.
- Next step forward in front of the cable machine with a staggered stance. You want just enough space between your legs to provide leverage, with your back leg offering support against the pull of the cables.
- Stand tall with your torso erect, your chest up and your shoulders back. This will help create a deep stretch in the chest prior to lifting.
- Once your body is set, adjust your arms (and handle) into the starting position. Your arms should be raised on either side of the body so that they’re parallel with the floor. Keep them slightly bent and aligned with the chest-don’t stretch them back further than the chest.
- With a sharp exhale, begin adducting your arms together towards the midline of the chest. Feel the squeeze in your chest as the muscles contract. Continue to bring your arms in until your hands are nearly touching. Your arms should still be slightly bent, all the while fighting the pull of the cables.
- Pause at the center chest briefly and slowly open your arms back to the starting position. Control the negative- don’t allow the cable to control your arms. Continue to open your arms until they are aligned with your chest, still keeping them slightly bent.
- Hold here for a moment, feeling the full stretch of the chest. Repeat this process for reps.
Common Mistakes With The Cable Fly
Using Too Much Weight
There are few things uglier to watch than someone doing cable flyes with too much weight. Everything about it is just sloppy, and performing any exercise sloppily is the opposite of progress. Cables provide so much free range of motion that even lifting a pound too much can completely throw of proper movement patterns. When there’s a breakdown in form, it leads to a breakdown in muscle recruitment, all of which can lead to an under-utilized chest or even injury.
If you adjust factors like rep range or tempo, it won’t take much weight to have an intense set of cable flyes. What’s important is choosing just the right amount to execute the fly with good form, but not so light that the muscles aren’t challenged.
Stance And Body Positioning
If your goal is to create a deep stretch in your chest, you have to consider how your body is positioned- not just the exercise itself. The best positioning for your chest is when your shoulders are back and depressed (down). This position stores tension in the chest even before the fly, and never completely relieves the tension when the cables return to the starting position.
Letting Your Arms Go Too Far Behind Or In Front Of The Chest
When you think about the cable fly you have to remember; the target muscle is the chest. Now granted, there will be secondary muscles that activate along with the chest, but the chest is our number one priority.
So with that in mind, why would you let the arms go anywhere outside the chest’s range of motion during the cable fly? When you allow your arms to travel back past the chest, you start recruiting the anterior delt. This is unnecessary for the exercise we’re performing. Not to mention how that extreme angle at the bottom of the movement can add a lot of discomfort to the shoulder joint. If you start crossing your arms over at the top of the movement, you once again start recruiting the shoulders.
What you want aim for is simple and doesn’t need to be over-complicated. At the start of the fly, your arms should be parallel with your chest. This creates more than enough stretch- especially if your shoulders are back. And when you bring the arms to the midline of your chest, they should stop when your hands are nearly touching. You’ll feel more than enough of a contraction in your inner chest to stimulate growth. What’s important is that you don’t overdo/ exaggerate the range of motion at either end of the cable fly. Keep your focus on the chest and simply be mindful of the chest’s range of motion and you’ll get the most out of the exercise.
Additional Cable Fly Exercises
The standard cable fly is important, but hitting the chest at different angles is just as essential for full pec development. Below are some examples of excellent cable exercises for both the upper and lower chest. While the techniques are very similar for both, pay close attention to the details in execution.
Incline Cable Fly
- Adjust the cables to knee height and take hold of both handles. Tighten the muscles of your core to brace your torso and keep your lower back in a neutral position.
- Step forward away from the machine assuming a staggered stance (one foot in front of the other). Make sure your footing is stable and you are positioned evenly between both sides of the machine.
- With your arms on either side of your legs, begin extending them in front of your body until they are at chest height. Your arms should travel with a slight diagonal path; starting a few inches away from your thighs and finishing when both hands are nearly touching. Keep in mind during this whole process you should have a slight bend in your elbows.
- As your hands reach chest height, feel the contraction in the midline of your chest and the lower chest. Hold this position briefly and begin opening your arms back into the starting position.
- Allow the cable to travel to the middle of your thigh, but no further. The cable should not pull your arms back any further, but should remain aligned with the torso.
- Hold the tension at the bottom of the movement and repeat the same process for reps.
High Cable Fly
- Set the cable to highest setting, or at least we’ll above shoulder height. Take the cables in both hands and hold them in a downward angle.
- In a staggered stance step forward in front of the machine, creating greater tension in the cables. Keep your hands close together and pointed downward at hip height. Position them a few inches away from your body with a slight bend in the elbows.
- With your core braced, lean your torso forward (tilted downward a few degrees) away from the cables’ origin.
- When you’re certain you have sure footing and your body is centered, begin opening your arms. Allow your arms to follow the path of the cables, up and behind your body towards the machine. Control the handles as the weight goes back and pause when your hands are aligned with your chest.
- Feel the stretch in your chest and hold this position for a moment. With your arms slightly bent, begin to bring them together towards the mid-line of your chest. Your hands should travel in the same direction as your torso; forward with a slight downward angle towards the floor.
- Pause again when your hands are nearly together several inches away from your body. Feel the squeeze in the mid-line of your chest and the upper chest. Hold this position for a second or two and then allow the arms to open once again. Repeat this process for as many reps as you see fit.