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I used to do the dumbbell fly in almost every chest workout, because it’s one of those chest exercises that everyone tells you is essential. Never mind that it hurt my shoulders just a bit; bro science dictated I had to do the move. Then came Athlean-X’s YouTube video titled “HOME CHEST WORKOUT MYTHS: The Chest Fly Fallacy!”
In the video, from September 2011, trainer Jeff Cavaliere explains that the dumbbell fly doesn’t actually “stretch” your pecs the way bodybuilders claim. Your chest, it turns out, can’t stretch much more than it already does when you do dumbbell presses. When you try to stretch it beyond that, as many do when performing dumbbell flies, you actually take tension off your chest. You begin to stretch other muscles and tendons (part of the pain I’d feel), and you open the door to injuries. It was a take I’d never heard, and yet it made sense. I haven’t done a traditional dumbbell fly since then, and yet my chest is bigger and stronger. I’m now the Men’s Health fitness director, but once a week I giddily transform into a student, logging on to the Athlean-X YouTube channel like 12 million other people to watch and learn from Cavaliere’s latest video.
Such is the impact of Cavaliere. Thirteen years ago, he emerged on the online fitness scene with a grainy one-minute, 18-second YouTube video shot in a friend’s basement. Since then, his Athlean-X YouTube channel has swelled to more than 1,400 videos, and there’s a good chance that his takes on fitness have influenced the way you train. His methods of teaching the basics and his subtle tweaks to classic exercises fuse physical therapy and traditional strength training. That approach appeals to everyone from fitness newbs to experienced trainers to the elite athletes he consults with, like NFL receiver Antonio Brown and the WWE’s Jinder Mahal. “When it comes to learning, knowledge, and actual training science,” says trainer Bobby Maximus, “Jeff is one of the world’s best.”
Cavaliere’s ability to thrive in the jammed online fitness space is powered by his background (he’s a certified strength and conditioning specialist and a physical therapist) and an insistence on educating his fan base/clients instead of simply telling them how to fitness. He explains exactly why you should do whatever he advises. His bedside manner is measured, thoughtful. For instance, in one 2017 video, he spends three minutes and 50 seconds breaking down why you should do the face pull, a physical-therapy-derived exercise you’ve probably never heard of, for your midback muscles and rotator cuffs after every workout. The video has more than 4 million views. “Educating people is our main driver,” he says. “I truly want to educate. And if they learn it from me and they go on [without buying something], then fine.”
Years before he was Athlean-X, Cavaliere earned his master’s degree in physical therapy from the University of Connecticut. He joined the New York Mets as the team’s head physical therapist in 2006 but did that for just three seasons, eventually growing weary of baseball’s constant travel demands. That’s when he created his YouTube channel, although it wasn’t initially meant to teach people about chest flies. Because Cavaliere continued to work with several Mets, including third baseman David Wright, he needed a way to send them exercise videos. He began uploading these clips to YouTube.
Soon he realized the platform had more potential—and could reach a much wider audience. He began filming YouTube videos for the public in 2009, starting with a resistance-band exercise meant to enhance pitching velocity. The clip racked up more than 400,000 views. For a few years, his wife, Michelle, did all the filming. He branded himself Athlean-X because it fused two popular goals: building athleticism and adding lean muscle. He attached the X because he believed his focus and training style would be the “X factor” for his followers.
Cavaliere quickly shifted away from baseball, refocusing on muscle-building tips and tactics that promote longevity and athleticism, too. “Training like an athlete is taking your body and your performance seriously,” he says. “I want you to know your anatomy. But every guy wants to build muscle. Even more than they want to lose fat, they want to build muscle.” That approach led to rapid growth.
Each year, Cavaliere releases a 12-week fitness program—think Total BeAXst or MAX Shred, for $97 with a meal plan—and he also now sells his own line of pre- and postworkout proteins. In 2015, he launched an annual in-person fitness convention, Athlean Live. “There were so many stories of people having success with my programs,” he says. “I wanted to have a way to meet them.” He also created a multiday event that includes science-focused seminars. The first Athlean Live drew 30 people; in 2019, more than 200 (me included) attended. That business is still thriving.
Cavaliere continues to thrive, too, in part because he understands what you want and need from your routine. In a fitness landscape that constantly pushes beginner ideas, he offers next-level muscle-building knowledge. Tapping into that wisdom can push you to new gains.
Athlean-X’s 4 Best Workout Tips
Follow the Muscle
A signature part of Cavaliere’s videos is his “muscle markers.” He uses the markers to draw lines on his own body, showing the direction a muscle travels. From your pecs to your biceps to your quads, nearly every muscle in your body starts at one bone and connects to another. A muscle can contract only by bringing those two joints together. “Bringing your body closer together along the line of those fibers is going to give you the strongest and most efficient contraction,” Cavaliere says.
Try It: He uses this principle frequently in his arm training, and it’s why he’s a fan of the “no-money curl,” which he’s demonstrating above. Much as you do in a biceps curl, start standing, holding dumbbells at your sides. But as you curl upward, try to turn your palms to the ceiling while keeping them outside your shoulders. Doing so challenges your biceps to squeeze extra hard, says Cavaliere. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10.
Build Explosion With Jumps
Cavaliere injects athletic moves into all his routines, so while you’re building muscle, you’re also honing the ability to move explosively, a skill that erodes with age.
Finish With It: End your workout with an explosive bodyweight exercise. Do 4 sets of 6 box jumps at least 3 days a week.
Manipulate Your Resistance
To build muscle, you want to challenge the targeted muscle as much as possible during the move. Sometimes that means evolving the exercise.
Adjust It: The classic pressdown isn’t the best way to blast your triceps. By keeping your torso steady, you make the end of the move easy. Cavaliere’s fix: “Rock” your torso backward at the end, forcing your tris to face more resistance as you finish the move. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Skip Risky Moves
“Just because you’ve never gotten injured doing an exercise that is biomechanically bad doesn’t mean you won’t,” says Cavaliere. That’s why, in one of his most popular videos, he outlawed five exercises: chest flies, behind-the-neck shoulder presses, good mornings, leg extensions, and barbell upright rows (as he’s demonstrating in the image here). His issue with the row: It places your shoulders in internal rotation, a position that can lead to rotator-cuff problems.
Tweak It: Try the exercise with light dumbbells. Your shoulders will feel less restricted, and you’ll still develop your rear delts. Do 4 sets of 10 reps. “When alternative exercises exist that not only accomplish the same end goal but do it safer,” he says, “why would you not explore them instead?”
A version of this story originally appears in the March 2022 issue of Men’s Health, with the title “THE NEW FITNESS X FACTOR”.