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    Photo Credit: Nicolas Smith

This or That?: Bench Press vs. Dumbbell Fly Press

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. After all, there are a lot of exercises in the world, and it's hard to know what is really the difference between them. In my series "This or That?", I'll give you two alternative exercises that work the same muscle, or that seem very similar, and explain what they do and which one you should use to meet what goals. Over time, I hope to introduce you to some new options for your standard routines, and help you to break free of some of exercises that, though you like them, may not be getting you where you want to go.

I'm going to start us off at the top, with the fit gay man's favorite: chest exercises. We all like to push our pecs, and most guys go straight for the big gun, the bench press. But there's another, less obvious option for chest work: the dumbbell fly press. Are they interchangeable? No. Is one preferable? Sure, depending on your goals. Here's the breakdown.

Bench Press
Everyone loves the bench press. You lie on your back on a flat bench, with a barbell racked above and behind you. Take the bar in your hands (with the assistance of a spotter if using heavy weights) and lift the bar off the rack so that you hold it in the air with arms extended. Bring the bar slowly down to your chest, so that your hands are just wider than your shoulders and the bar is just off your chest. Now, engage your pectoral muscles and your abdominal muscles and exhale as you push the bar straight toward the ceiling until your arms are fully extended. Then bend your elbows and bring the bar back down to just off your chest, but keeping the flexion in your chest so that you do not collapse your upper body at the bottom of your lift. Your abdominals should remain engaged throughout.

Seems simple enough, right? Here are the strengths of the bench press:

  1. Multiple muscles: This exercise engages the complete pectoralis major, the big fan of muscle underneath your "breasts" that gives your chest its size and definition—it's what you think of as your chest. Bench press also works the pectoralis minor, which lies under the pectorialis major and closer to the rib cage. Likewise, several of the muscles in the front upper shoulder and ribcage (the anterior deltoid, serratus anterior, and coracobrachialis) and the triceps will engage. In short, the bench press works the entire front of the upper torso and is therefore an exercise that gives a lot of bang for the buck (or lift).
  2. Builds strength: Because you engage multiple muscles while keeping the weight you are lifting directly over the body, you can lift a substantial amount of weight in a bench press. It is a great exercise for developing basic strength.
  3. Develops thickness: Likewise, because the push of the bench press comes from the center of the chest and the pectoralis major, this exercise will make your chest thicker. Literally—your chest will become thicker or deeper front to back rather than wider side to side.
If multiple-muscle development, overall strength, and a deep chest are what you want, the bench press is a reliable choice. But it is not the only choice. Enter the dumbbell fly press.

Dumbbell Fly Press
In this exercise, you will lie on your back on a flat bench with one dumbbell held in each hand, and both arms extended to the ceiling with palms facing each other. Keep your elbows "soft"—that is, very slightly bent so that you can transfer tension from the weights past the elbow joint into the upper arm and chest. Engage your chest (think of narrowing the center of your chest) and abdominal muscles and, as you breathe in, open both arms out wide to just short of horizontal. Then, as you exhale, bring the arms back together toward the ceiling. Throughout, your wrists should be flat so that the back of your hand is level with your forearm, and your chest and abdominals should remain engaged.

Here are the benefits of the dumbbell fly press:
  1. Targeted development: Because you bring the weights out wide of your body in a fly press, this exercise primarily works the outer side of the middle portion of the pectorialis major (that big fan of muscle we talked about before). That means that it focuses its development on the outer portions of the chest where the bench press will concentrate more on the center.
  2. Builds endurance: This exercise is done with lighter weights, meaning that you can potentially do more repetitions and build greater endurance. This exercise can also increase your thoracic expansion, or the volume of your chest cavity. That, in turn, leads to increased lung capacity that you can take to other sports and exercises.
  3. Develops width: Again, because the weights come wide of your body in this exercise, and because of the lighter weights used, the dumbbell fly will give your chest greater width rather than thickness. Want to seem wider through your chest? Looking to present a more substantial outline? This exercise is a serious winner.
In the end, both of these exercises are key to a balanced chest lifting program. But which you use more often, or in a particular phase of your program, will depend on your specific goals. But do yourself a favor: don't limit yourself to the bench press. There's a whole world of great chest exercises out there. The dumbbell fly press is just the tip of the iceberg.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.