August 11

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Reverse Flyes | Your Ultimate Guide to Performing the Rear Delt Fly

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Your shoulder joints are the most flexible in your body. However, this freedom of movement comes at a price. The shoulder is a relatively unstable joint, which requires a lot of muscular control to maintain stability and normal function. One of the best ways to develop this control and complement the more common shoulder exercises performed in the gym is to incorporate reverse flyes into your routine.

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WHAT ARE REVERSE FLYES?

As the name implies, reverse flyes are a reverse movement of the commonly performed chest flyes. It works the rear shoulders and upper back instead of the pectoral muscles of the chest. Rather than lying face-up, we adopt a face-down (or prone) position on a bench.

The reverse flye movement involves lifting dumbbells away from the floor and out to the side of the body. We hold this top position briefly before slowly lowering the arms back to the start position.

WHY PERFORM REVERSE FLYES?

Many shoulder exercises performed in the gym target the front and mid-portion of the shoulders. On the other hand, reverse flyes target and develop the rear portion.

Reverse flyes work the posterior portion of the deltoids

Adapted from OpenStax College, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is not only aesthetically pleasing, adding balance to the look of the shoulders, but also has important functional benefits.

Many gym trainers pump out set after set of bench presses, chest flyes, and shoulder presses. As a result, there can be disproportionate development of the anterior (frontal) deltoids.

Additionally, these can lead to underdeveloped rhomboids (upper back) too. Consequently, they may also have insufficient flexibility around the shoulder capsule, better known as the rotator cuff.

This posture and strength imbalance not only leads to a round-shouldered appearance but also destabilises the shoulder. As a result, this greatly increases the risk of impingement injuries.

Unfortunately, many gym users and even some instructors fail to appreciate this fact. They continue with their imbalanced and potentially injurious training programs until injury strikes.

Incorporating reverse flyes can help address this strength imbalance. They can also help develop the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles of the rotator cuff. Consequently, you'll keep your shoulders safer from injury.

HOW DO I PERFORM REVERSE FLYES?

Start Position

  • Set up an incline bench to around a 30-degree angle.
  • Holding a dumbbell in each hand, lie face down so that the top of the bench is supporting your chest.
  • Extend your arms in front of you so that they are hanging down towards the floor. However, keep them perpendicular to the angle of the bench. That is, when viewed side-on, your upper arm should be at right angles to the slope of the bench.
  • Bend your elbows slightly and rotate your hands so that your palms face each other.

Execution

  • Maintaining a slight bend in the elbows, raise the dumbbells smoothly out and up to the sides in an arc. Aim to keep the lift perpendicular to the slope of the bench. To check this, a straight line from left to right elbow at any point of the movement should pass through the rear of both shoulders.
  • Lift the dumbbells as high as you can, without lifting your torso or head. Also, avoid altering the angle of the elbow joint, or using your neck muscles. Pause for a second at the top of the movement. Here, try to squeeze your shoulder blades together and downwards, towards your hips.
  • Lastly, lower slowly under control back to start position. Avoid letting the dumbbells just 'drop' back down.

Throughout the movement:

  • Keep breathing.
  • Maintain the constant 'slightly bent' angle at the elbows.
  • Keep your torso still and neck relaxed. Don't swing or lift your body to raise the dumbbells higher.
  • Try and keep the shoulder blades retracted (drawn back and pushed down).
  • Maintain a slight abdominal contraction to stabilise your hips and spine.
  • Keep the movement smooth and controlled.

REVERSE FLYES WITH EXTERNAL ROTATION

If you've ever suffered from a shoulder impingement injury, you'll know how debilitating the condition can be.

Adding some external rotation into the reverse flye movement increases the development of the rotator cuff. More specifically, infraspinatus and teres minor muscles.

This helps to improve the posture, alignment, and function of the shoulder joint. As a result, this variation helps to prevent impingement injuries.

To incorporate some external rotation, you perform reverse flyes exactly as described above. However, as you approach the top of the movement, begin externally rotating your arms. For example, as if you were attempting to make your palms face upwards towards the ceiling.

Viewed from your prone position looking down the arms, the right palm is rotated clockwise and the left palm anticlockwise.

Pause at the top of the movement for a second then lower slowly. As you do, rotate the palms in the opposite direction.

WHICH MUSCLES ARE USED IN REVERSE FLYES?

Much of the work is done by the rear deltoids. However, near the top of the movement, the rhomboids become progressively involved.

labelled anatomy diagram showing the rotator cuff muscles and how they are involved in reverse flyes

Adding external rotation also increases the involvement of the infraspinatus and teres minor muscles of the rotator cuff group of muscles that help to stabilise the shoulder.

HOW SHOULD I CONSTRUCT A REVERSE FLYE ROUTINE?

The rear deltoids are small muscles. So if you want to perform strict, full-range movements, you need to go very easy on the dumbbell weight.

If you're into boosting your ego rather than performing a really valuable exercise, reverse flyes are probably not for you!

Select a low enough weight that just enables you to perform 10-12 strict reps and aim for 2-3 sets.

HOW SHOULD I INTEGRATE REVERSE FLYES INTO THE REST OF MY WORKOUT?

The most natural place to include reverse flyes is with your other shoulder exercises.

Being an isolation exercise, beginners should probably perform them after any compound shoulder movements (such as shoulder press, etc.) have been completed.

More advanced trainers might want to try a pre-exhaustion routine. For example, where a set of reverse flyes is immediately followed by a compound movement that also involves the rear delts (e.g. behind the neck press).  This enables the already fatigued rear deltoids to be driven into an even deeper state of exhaustion by the (relatively) fresh triceps and anterior/lateral deltoids.

Paul Stokes Perth Personal Trainer Sports Nutritionist Group Fitness Instructor Massage Therapist

About the author

Paul Stokes

Paul Stokes BSc (Hons) is a Certified Personal Trainer, Accredited Sports Nutritionist, qualified Exercise to Music Instructor, Precision Nutrition coach, Massage Therapist and teaches 8 of the Les Mills Group Exercise programs. He currently works in the Oil & Gas industry as a Wellness Coach, imparting his vast knowledge and experience to improve the quality of life of several hundred offshore workers.

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