I used to do the barbell 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 a little; bro science dictated i had to make the move. Then came the Athlean-X YouTube video titled “MYTHS ABOUT HOME WORKOUT!”
In the video, from September 2011, trainer Jeff Cavaliere explains that the dumbbell fly doesn’t actually “stretch” your pecs as bodybuilders claim. It turns out that your chest can’t stretch much more than it already does when doing dumbbell presses. When you try to stretch it beyond that, as many do when performing barbell flies, you actually take the tension off your chest. You start stretching other muscles and tendons (some of the pain I would feel) and you open the door to injury. It was a take I had never heard, and yet it made sense. I haven’t done a traditional barbell flight since, yet my chest is bigger and stronger. I’m now the fitness director for Men’s Health, but once a week I turn 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 burst onto 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 over 1,400 videos, and chances are his opinions on fitness have influenced the way you train. His basic teaching methods and subtle tweaks to classic exercises merge physical therapy and traditional strength training. This approach appeals to everyone from fitness newbies to seasoned trainers to the elite athletes he consults, like NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown and WWE’s Jinder Mahal. “When it comes to learning, knowledge and the science of actual training,” says coach Bobby Maximus, “Jeff is one of the best in the world.”
Cavaliere’s ability to thrive in the gated online fitness space is fueled by his experience (he’s a certified strength and conditioning specialist and physical therapist) and an insistence on educating his fans/clients instead of just their tell how to get in shape. He explains exactly why you should do everything he advises. His bedside attitude is measured, thoughtful. For example, in a 2017 video, he spends three minutes and 50 seconds explaining why you should do the face pull, a physiotherapy-derived exercise you’ve probably never heard of, for your mid-back muscles. and your rotator cuffs after every workout. . The video has over 4 million views. “People’s education is our main driver,” he says. “I really want to educate. And if they find out from me and carry on [without buying something]then fine.
Years before being 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 so for only three seasons, eventually growing weary of baseball’s constant travel demands. That’s when he started his YouTube channel, although it wasn’t originally intended to teach people about breast flies. Because Cavaliere continued to work with several Mets, including third baseman David Wright, he needed a way to send them workout videos. He started uploading these clips to YouTube.
He quickly realized that the platform had more potential and could reach a much wider audience. He started filming YouTube videos for the public in 2009, starting with a resistance band exercise meant to improve pitch speed. The clip has racked up over 400,000 views. For a few years, his wife, Michelle, did all the filming. It was named Athlean-X because it fused two popular goals: developing athleticism and adding lean muscle mass. He tied on the X because he believed his focus and training style would be the “X factor” for his followers.
Cavaliere quickly moved away from baseball, refocusing on muscle-building tips and tactics that also promote longevity and athleticism. “Training like an athlete is about 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. This approach has led to rapid growth.
Every year, Cavaliere launches a 12-week fitness program — think Total BeAXst or MAX Shred, for $97 with a meal plan — and it also now sells its own pre- and post-workout protein line. In 2015, he launched an annual in-person fitness convention, Athlean Live. “There were so many stories of people being successful with my programs,” he says. “I wanted to have a way to meet them.” He also created a multi-day event that includes science-focused seminars. The first Athlean Live attracted 30 people; in 2019, more than 200 (myself included) took part. This business is still thriving.
Cavaliere also continues to thrive, in part because he understands what you want and need in your routine. In a fitness landscape that constantly pushes newbie ideas, it offers next-level muscle building knowledge. Tapping into this wisdom can push you to new gains.
Athlean-X’s 4 Best Workout Tips
follow the muscle
A characteristic part of Cavaliere’s videos are his “muscle markers”. He uses the markers to draw lines on his own body indicating the direction in which a muscle is moving. From your pecs to your biceps to your quads, almost every muscle in your body starts at one bone and connects to another. A muscle can only contract by bringing these two joints together. “Putting your body together along the line of these fibers is going to give you the strongest, most effective contraction,” Cavaliere says.
Try it: He frequently uses this principle in training his arms, which is why he’s a fan of the “no-money loop”, which he demonstrates above. Just as you do in a bicep curl, start standing, holding dumbbells by your side. But as you curl up, try to turn your palms toward the ceiling while keeping them outside of your shoulders. This challenges your biceps to squeeze really hard, says Cavaliere. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10.
Build an explosion with jumps
Cavaliere injects athletic movement into all of his routines, so while you’re building muscle, you’re also honing the ability to move explosively, a skill that erodes with age.
End it with: 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 movement. Sometimes that means evolving the exercise.
Adjust it: The classic pressdown isn’t the best way to blast your triceps. By keeping your torso stable, you make it easier to finish the movement. Cavaliere’s solution: “Roll” your torso back at the end, forcing your tris to face more resistance at the end of the movement. Do 3 sets of 8 to 10 reps.
Ignore Risky Moves
“Just because you’ve never hurt yourself doing a biomechanically bad exercise doesn’t mean you won’t,” Cavaliere says. That’s why, in one of his most popular videos, he banned five exercises: chest flies, shoulder presses behind the neck, good mornings, leg extensions and vertical rows of dumbbells (as he demonstrates in the picture here). Her problem with the row: It places your shoulders in internal rotation, a position that can lead to rotator cuff issues.
Adjust it: Try the exercise with light dumbbells. Your shoulders will feel less restricted and you will continue to develop your rear deltoids. Do 4 sets of 10 reps. “When there are alternative exercises that not only achieve the same end goal, but do it more safely,” he says, “why not explore them instead?”
A version of this story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of Men’s Health, with the title “THE NEW FITNESS X FACTOR”.