It’s one such exercise that has fallen out of favor for some reason: dumbbell pullovers. Until the 1990s, it was a standard chest exercise. Now the exercise has rather become an oddity in the gym. Time for a revival?
1. The dumbbell pullover is a versatile exercise that targets multiple muscle groups.
2. By making small adjustments in the execution, you can emphasize one of those muscle groups: chest, lats or triceps. All three variants train the muscle in a unique way.
Dumbbell pullovers are a true classic in the world of bodybuilding. The most famous bodybuilder of all time — Arnold Schwarzenegger — is one of the greatest advocates of the exercise. And who are we to argue with arguably the greatest chest in bodybuilding history? Fellow giants, including Ronnie Coleman, Frank Zane and Dorian Yates, have also praised the pullover.
The pullover has nevertheless faded into the background and that must have its reasons. So let’s take a closer look at the effectiveness of this exercise. But first the most important points regarding the correct implementation.
The best way to perform the dumbbell pullover is as follows:
- Lie with your upper back on a weight bench that is perpendicular to you. So in the width direction.
- Only your feet touch the floor and your knees are at a 90-degree angle. Lower leg vertical in other words.
- Your knees and hips are in one imaginary line, slightly lower than your shoulders (or slightly lower than the bench. This allows you to stretch out more: a ‘trick’ we learned from Arnold and why you should do the exercise best transversely on the bench or cross bench).
- Now grab a dumbbell* that you have placed next to you on the bench. Support the bottom of one end of the dumbbell with both hands, forming a diamond with your thumbs and middle fingers.
- Raise the dumbbell above your chest with almost straight arms; this is your starting position.
- A slight bend (10-15 degrees) in the elbows is allowed and even desirable, as long as you maintain the bend angle during the movement. In short, don’t turn it into glorified triceps extensions.
- Depending on whether you mainly want to train the lats or the chest (see below), keep your elbows turned inwards (lats) or slightly outwards (chest).
- Now bring the dumbbell back in an arc until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. If your shoulder mobility allows you to get that far at all.
- Hold this position for a moment and now bring the dumbbell back to the starting position in the same line.
- Repeat for desired number of reps.
* You can also perform this exercise with an EZ bar.
Warning: perform this exercise with fixed dumbbells. Adjustable dumbbells with a screw closure are also possible. Spring closures and ring closures are not recommended, since the dumbbell is above your face at any time.
With the dumbbell pullover you put several muscle groups to work. A compound exercise, in which mainly chest, shoulders, triceps and the broad back muscle (latissimus dorsi, or the ‘lats’) come into action. The lats are the main accessory muscle in the exercise. So, strictly speaking, it’s a chest and push exercise, although you might intuitively think it’s a pull move.
The involvement of both chest and back in the exercise creates a dilemma: should you do it on chest or back day? A dilemma that may have contributed to the unpopularity of the exercise. The question obviously becomes irrelevant if you train your chest and back in one day, like in a full body workout.
A 2011 American EMG study conducted on eight healthy men shows that muscle activity of the chest is indeed greater than that of the lats. Unfortunately, the research says little about the actual effectiveness of the pullover as a chest exercise. However, a 2014 Brazilian study does. And sorry Arnold, the results are a bit disappointing. The researchers had twelve experienced strength athletes perform both the bench press and the pullover. In the figure below the results. The bench press targeted both parts of the pectoral muscle better than the pullover, and also stimulated the front of the shoulders (delts) better.
But what about the activity of the other muscle groups in the pullover? Well, the lats do indeed play a relatively large role in the exercise (obviously more than with the bench press). But that doesn’t make the dumbbell pullover a lat exercise. At least not in the standard version. In addition, the great activity of the triceps is noticeable, greater than that of the bench press.
THE SOLUTION: DIFFERENT VERSIONS
Fortunately, doing the pullover doesn’t really have to be a dilemma. You can adapt the execution of the exercise in such a way that you mainly train the chest, the lats or the triceps. Of course you can never completely isolate one of these muscle groups, but if you reduce the role of the auxiliary muscles, for example the lats, the exercise does not have to have a negative effect on another training, for example the back training. In addition, this way you get the optimal return from the exercise for one specific muscle group.
Below we discuss the different versions of the (dumbbell) pullover for the chest, lats and triceps.
VERSION FOR THE CHEST
It’s no surprise that you train your chest better with bench press than with pullovers. You should therefore not see the pullover as a replacement or alternative for the bench press and chest flyes, but as an addition to it.
Yet an important addition. Because there are countless variations possible on presses and flyes, the basic movements remain the same. And that while the pectoral muscles are still responsible for other movements, such as stretching the upper arms. It is precisely that movement that is trained with the pullover.
To put minimum strain on the lats and maximum strain on the chest, do the following:
1. Grab the dumbbell and turn your elbows out as demonstrated in the video below. This ensures internal rotation of the shoulders, which mainly activates your chest muscles. Keeping your elbows in (see below) causes external rotation of your shoulders, especially your lats.
Bend your arms only minimally, however, don’t keep your arms completely straight; a slight bend is necessary for a correct and safe execution.
2. Limit the range of motion from the back of your head to above your chest. Do not stretch further back, but also do not move the dumbbell further forward than the point where it is above your chest.
3. Ensure optimal tension on your chest as you bring the dumbbell back up. You can do this by pressing your hands together as if to squeeze the dumbbell – a tip from YouTube coach Jeff Cavaliere; see the video below. Or by trying to hit the ceiling with the dumbbell. That’s a tip from another contemporary pullover supporter, Christian Thibaudeau.
VERSION FOR THE LATS
To optimally involve the lats in the exercise, you should do the following:
1. Keep the elbows turned inwards throughout the exercise (see point 1 in chest execution). Again, only hold a small nod in your arms – almost stretched out.
2. As you move the dumbbell back, lower your hips for maximum stretch. Your arms probably won’t come lower than your head.
3. Tighten your lats as much as possible when you raise the dumbbell (a good mind-muscle connection is very important here). Meanwhile, move your hips back up.
You can activate your lats even more by adding extra resistance to the exercise, as happens with the following variations of the pullover specifically for the lats.
Dumbbell pullover with resistance band
By using a cable you maintain resistance throughout the movement:
Decline cable pullover
By using a reclined (decline) bench you shift the accent even more to the lats, at the expense of chest:
Cable pullover on a Swiss ball
Nautilus pullover machine
The easiest and best, however, is when your gym has an old Nautilus pullover machine. This makes the pullover a true lat killer, at least if we six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates may believe (and we do). He was an avid user of this device (see the beginning of this video) that lets you fire your lats throughout the entire ROM.
Of course, you also train the lats with numerous back exercises (in principle with all row and pull-up variants), but with the pullover you train neither your other back muscles nor your biceps, so you can really isolate your lats. Just like straight-arm pulldowns, by the way, that other isolation exercise for the latissimus dorsi.
EXECUTION FOR THE TRICEPS
The most surprising result of the EMG research is the role of the triceps. This turns out to be significantly greater with the pullover than with the bench press. If you want to increase the role of the triceps even further, you should try the PJR pullover. Because you bring the long head of your triceps into a fully extended position in this exercise, it takes a harder time than any other triceps exercise.
The difference with the ‘regular’ pullover is that in the upward movement you do a kind of ‘mini triceps extension’, as demonstrated in the video below by bodybuilding coach Paul Carter, the creator of the exercise.
The dumbbell pullover is a versatile exercise that targets multiple muscle groups. By making small adjustments in the execution, you can emphasize one of those muscle groups: chest, lats or triceps. All three variants train the muscle in a unique way. You can also program the pullover more easily this way. For example, if you do the chest variant, you can safely train your lats the next day. If you trained your lats the day before, it kind of depends on how hard it is. Because the lats will also function as an auxiliary muscle in the chest variant.