As a runner, you might think some upper body exercises are take it or leave it—they won’t serve your power on the road, so why perform them, right? Wrong, at least when it comes to certain upper body exercises, like the reverse fly.
The reverse fly exercise targets the muscles that support an upright posture, including those in the upper- and mid-back (trapezius and rhomboids) and the backsides of the shoulders (posterior or rear deltoids). These are all muscles runners need strong on the road—and off it—to keep a solid and stable running position. That’s why a reverse fly should have a spot in your regular strength workout program.
Need more convincing? Here’s all you need to know about the move and how to do it correctly, so you earn all the payoffs.
Why should runners do the reverse fly exercise?
If you spend a lot of time of sitting—at a desk, on the couch, or driving—then it’s very likely that you’ll experience stiffness in your key running muscles (like your hip flexors), but more particularly in your chest muscles (a.k.a. your pecs). Shifting attention to the muscles in the back of your body gives your front-side muscles a much-needed break, helping relieve any tension or pain you may be feeling in the neck and shoulders.
What that all means: The reverse fly can make you more comfortable and more efficient on your runs, as long as you know how to perform it properly.
How do you do the reverse fly correctly?
Andrews offers a play-by-play on how to do this move:
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and grip a light dumbbell (5 to 10 pounds is a good place to start) in each hand down by sides.
- Bend knees slightly and hinge forward at the hips by sending butt to the back of the room, lowering torso until it’s almost parallel with the floor. Take a long exhale to brace your core.
- Allow the weights to hang at arm’s length, palms facing each other. Pause here to take an inhale.
- Keeping back flat and a slight bend in elbows, exhale to lift the dumbbells out to the sides, about up to shoulder height. If you have to shrug the dumbbells upward to do the movement (meaning you lift the shoulders up by the ears), the weights are too heavy. Choose a lighter pair of dumbbells.
- Squeeze shoulder blades together as you pull the dumbbells wide (imagine you’re pinching a penny between your shoulder blades).
- Stop once your arms are in line with your shoulders. If you can’t see the dumbbells in your peripheral vision, they’re too high.
- Pause briefly before bringing the dumbbells back together, lowering the weights with control.
- Repeat. Do 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps.
Are there any common mistakes people make with the reverse fly?
Andrews says focusing on two particularly important points will help you avoid working muscles you don’t want to target (like the upper traps or neck) and maximize the benefits of the reverse fly.
First, many people shrug the shoulders up by the ears as they lift the weights. This takes the focus away from your back muscles and increases the odds of shoulder pain or injury. Aside from reducing the weight, you can prevent shrugging by keeping your movements controlled and thinking about packing the shoulders down your back, away from your ears.
Another common mistake that tends to happen during a reverse fly is lifting the weights too high. Doing this also takes focus away from the back and puts extra stress on the shoulders. Andrews says you should keep the weights in your peripheral vision; if you can’t see them, bring the weights lower.
How do I regress or progress the reverse fly?
If you want to make the reverse fly a little easier, your best bet is reducing the weight you’re lifting. Sometimes trainers recommend performing this exercise seated (and bent over) as a regression, but Andrews says that this may actually cause lower back stiffness and pain. Plus, many people find that folding over their legs puts too much pressure on their abdomen, which tends to be pretty uncomfortable. Instead, start with bodyweight (and standing) if you need to, until you nail the proper form.
For those looking to increase the challenge on the reverse fly, grab a heavier weight or slow down your reps. It takes extra control from your upper body and increased core stabilization to lift and lower the weights super slowly.
How do you incorporate the reverse fly into your workouts?
To see quick results, add the reverse fly to your standard strength workouts twice a week. Two to three sets of eight to 12 reps should do the trick.
“You could incorporate the reverse fly into either a total-body strength or upper-body day,” Andrews says. “Some people always train total body with a specific focus each session, while others do upper/lower splits. In either case, a reverse fly would be accessory work, best performed after your warmup, some central nervous system prep work, power work, and main lifts.” (Accessory work means secondary movements, typically performed toward the end of a workout to hit muscles you missed in your other lifts and oftentimes, working smaller muscle groups or single joints.)
Andrews recommends starting with very light weights for this exercise, as the move can be a little uncomfortable if you’re not used to it. “We all live in that chronic, hunched-over position, so working those upper-back muscles tends to be a lot,” she says.
How light is “light?” Andrews typically has her clients start with 5-pound dumbbells. “Use those for a few weeks to get more comfortable opening through your chest and strengthening the back side of your body,” she says. Progress by adding weight, reps, sets, and/or slowing your pace.
If you find that doing this exercise in a bent-over position is simply too uncomfortable, Andrews suggests lying face-down on a flat bench. An incline bench can also work, but this may put more emphasis on the shoulders and less on the back.