The Reverse Fly Is an Upper Back Move You Need to Know

Pushing exercises like push-ups and chest presses are some of the most famous upper body workouts, but pulling exercises provide needed balance to those moves. That's because both pushing and pulling are needed in everyday life, and if you want an evenly sculpted body, you'll need to work the muscles you don't often think about as much as the ones you do.

The reverse fly is a prime example of a pulling move that will help strengthen your upper body. It does everything from providing relief for tight chest muscles to adding stability to your shoulder area. Done with light weights, it's an accessible exercise for most. To learn everything we could about how to do a reverse fly, and why you should, we asked trainers Caley Crawford and Bethany Stillwaggon for their input. Read on for what they had to say.

Meet the Expert

  • Caley Crawford is a NASM-certified personal trainer and coach for Row House GO.
  • Bethany Stillwaggon is an ACSM-certified personal trainer and coach for Row House.

What Is the Reverse Fly?

The reverse fly is a weighted workout move designed to strengthen your upper back and shoulders. The name is apropos, Crawford says, because "you're essentially flying your arms out to the side and back down." She notes that they're essentially the opposite of a chest fly.

"This is a movement that is performed with lighter dumbbells or bands to focus on integrating each muscle fiber and creating stability in the shoulder," adds Stillwaggon. "The movement is performed with the dumbbells in your hands lifting away from the body with an almost straight arm, creating a very long arm to this lever—another reason why we want to do this movement with a light weight.  Many push movements incorporate the front deltoid and the chest, but this pull movement is here to provide balance and strength to many people’s tight chest muscles."

Benefits of the Reverse Fly

  • It can help improve posture.
  • It's great for your back and shoulders. Crawford says the move "will strengthen your upper back (rhomboids and traps) as well as your posterior delts, which will improve your shoulder health."
  • The shoulder strengthening from the reverse fly can help prevent injury when performing other moves.
  • It supports your shoulder girdle.
  • It uses numerous additional muscles for stabilization. Says Stillwaggon: "Secondary muscles are your rectus abdominus, as these are being used to stabilize your core from rocking forward and back; subscapular muscles that are helping lift your arm and draw your shoulders closer to each other posteriorly; and trapezius muscles are preventing your neck from moving or from assisting the arms."

Proper Reverse Fly Form

Reverse fly

Caley Crawford / Byrdie

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart, with light dumbbells in your hands.
  2. Hinge forward. "While maintaining a flat, active back, hinge from your hips and slightly bend your knees to support your lower back until your body is between 45 degrees hinged and parallel with the floor," says Stillwaggon.
  3. Keep your neck neutral and your body stable. Then, "use your rear deltoids to begin lifting your arms posteriorly and away from each other," says Stillwaggon. "We want to lift our rear delts (shoulders) towards each other and not lift from the neck." Move until your hands reach shoulder height.
  4. Slowly bring your arms back down to your starting position. "It should be almost as if they were your wings going in and out and you are 'flying,'" says Crawford.
  5. Pause to make sure your lats are engaged before repeating. How can you tell? "If your back hasn’t rounded, most likely your lats are still engaged in this movement," says Stillwaggon. She suggests 10-15 reps, and notes that "if you feel like you could continue with great form for multiple sets, try the next weight up."

How to Modify

  • Face your palms forward: Crawford says that "with a light weight, this could be a good option for anyone with a preexisting shoulder injury they're working through."
  • Use an incline bench and sit on it with your back against it: Crawford suggests this modification if the hip hinge is a difficult angle for you.
  • Use an incline bench, but sit on it backward for a more challenging version of the move. "Hinge it to 45 degrees and lift in the same way as a regular reverse fly, while maintaining chest connection to the bench," instructs Stillwaggon.
  • Do one arm at a time if both at once is too much for you. "This will take more core strength and stability, but will be less of a load per rep," says Stillwaggon.
  • Use a band instead of weights: Stillwaggon notes that this "adds variable tension, which means the greater it is stretched, the harder the movement becomes, therefore causing more muscle involvement at the most challenging part of this movement, the top."
  • If you have a shoulder injury, you can perform the move with no weight at all.
  • Bend your elbows for an easier version. Stillwaggon says to envision the move that way "like you are hugging a tree."
  • Change up your tempo to make it more difficult: Crawford instructs you go "quick on the concentric phase and slow [on the] eccentric. You could also add tempo on both ends or even a pause at the top full contraction—though you'll likely need lighter weight for that."

Reverse Fly vs. Lateral Raise

Both the reverse fly and the lateral raise are weighted moves that target the shoulders. They both also make primary use of your deltoid muscles. Beyond that, though, there are some differences. While a lateral raise uses the anterior, aka front, part of your shoulder muscles, the reverse fly uses the posterior, or back, parts of them. Lateral raises are performed while standing tall, whereas a reverse fly requires you to hinge forward at an angle. Because you're at an angle, you are working harder against gravity with the reverse fly than you do with a lateral raise. Both exercises create alignment through your back and shoulders when performed correctly, and both can help improve your posture.

Safety Considerations

This move is generally safe for people who don't have shoulder injuries. If you do, you can wait until you are fully healed, or try this exercise with no weights. Crawford notes that you can also try some of the modifications. "Try rotating your palms forward to externally rotate your shoulders and go lighter in weight," she says.

How you hinge your hips is key to not hurting your back with this move. "Maintain a long spine and braced core—bending from the hips, not the lumbar spine," says Crawford. She adds that if it is particularly challenging to hinge your hips correctly, "you may want to consider getting good at your hip hinge first before exploring reverse flys, or just do reverse flys with an incline bench or seated with a machine."

Knee positioning is also important for this move in order to prevent injury. "Double-check your knees are bent to alleviate lower back tension," says Stillwaggon. "Our upper bodies moving in the reverse fly should tire before our low back does. If that’s not the case, try hinging at the hips or bending your knees more. Turning sideways in a mirror is the best way to check your own form."

The Final Takeaway

The reverse fly is a pulling exercise that uses light dumbbells. It involves hinging forward and moving your arms in a manner that looks similar to flying—hence the name. The reverse fly is great for improving shoulder and back strength and can help with your posture. It's also useful for creating overall stability and alignment in your shoulders. It can be done by most people, but those with shoulder injuries should exercise caution and utilize one of the many modifications available. Pulling exercises are important in order to have a strong, balanced body, and the reverse fly is an excellent place to start.

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