Dumbbell Pullover Exercise Guide
Despite working the chest muscles, the dumbbell pullovers are actually better classified as a back exercise. They are a bit of an exercise anomaly in that they work two opposing muscles simultaneously: the chest and the back muscles (the latissimus dorsi in particular). The chest muscles are the primary movers, but several muscles of the back assist during the movement. Dumbbell pullover is an excellent exercise to develop the size of your chest and improve the overall posture of your upper body, and is useful exercise if training for throwing sports or martial arts. However, you should avoid this exercise if you have any shoulder problems. If you use this exercise to open rib cage, you must work with light weights and avoid bending too much at the elbows.
Dumbbell Pullover Exercise Instructions
STARTING POSITION (SETUP): Lie across the flat bench with your shoulder blades resting on a flat bench and your body extended out perpendicular to the bench, feet flat on the floor and knees bent. Hold one dumbbell with both hands over your head. Drop your hips (pelvis) below the level of the bench (lower than a shoulder girdle), allowing a greater stretch- and thus greater development-in your lats. Begin by holding the dumbbell straight up over your chest with your arms straight.
*Instead of lying across the flat bench you can lie on a bench with your head close to one end, and your shoulders, glutes, and head in contact with the pad.
EXECUTION (ACTION): Holding the inside edge of a dumbbell at arm’s length overhead, allow the weight to go behind you (until it reaches bench level), keeping your arms straight (or with your elbows slightly bent), stretching your pecs and lats but keeping your hips down. Reversing direction, pull the weight back up using your latissimus dorsi, breathing out only after reaching the uppermost position to ensure that your core is stable throughout the movement.
Muscles Involved in Dumbbell Pullover
Pullovers are one of those exercises that incorporate a large number of muscles. For some it’s a great lat exercise, while others get a great chest stretch. The serratus and shoulders also play a role.
This exercise develops the bulk of the pectoralis major, long heat of triceps brachii, teres major, latissimus dorsi, serratus anterior, rhomboids, and pectoralis minor.
- MAIN MUSCLES: latissimus dorsi, teres major and minor, pectoralis major
- SECONDARY MUSCLES: serratus anterior, triceps (especially the long head), rhomboids
- ANTAGONISTS: pectoralis major, deltoid (front)
- Using an excessive weight in this exercise can cause your lower back to arch, which could damage your intervertebral discs. Always use a weight that is light enough to enable you to maintain good form throughout the full range of motion.
- We prefer the variation in which you lie on your back across a bench. This position gives you a better range of motion as well as a more effective stretch than if you were lying completely on the bench.
- Lower the weights behind your head as far as comfort allows while keeping your arms straight (or with your elbows slightly bent). But in that case you should remember to keep your elbows bent at the same angle during the entire range of motion.
- Your torso should remain still and parallel to the floor, with your upper back resting on the bench and your feet firm on the floor for stability.
- If you use this exercise to open rib cage (although we think that this is not possible), you must work with light weights and avoid bending too much at the elbows. If possible, use a convex bench or place yourself across a horizontal bench and position the pelvis lower than a shoulder girdle.
- Make sure that you don’t pull the weight so far that your arms end up perpendicular to the floor. There is no resistance from the gravity at that angle, which means that there is no tension on the working muscles – and no tension, no benefit.
You can perform this exercise with a narrow grip on the barbell, using an E-Z bar, or with a weight plate. In all these variations you can bend your arms slightly on the downward movement past the head. This allows a greater range of movement and puts more emphasis on the triceps. In each case, ensure that your feet stay planted on the floor.
The demands on your muscles do not vary much between using a barbell or dumbbells, although the barbell can make balance more difficult.
- Barbell pullover
- Plate pullover
- E-Z bar pullover
- Specialized pullover machine
- Use two light dumbbells (one in each hand) instead of one heavier dumbbell
You can do pullovers using a high pulley. Stand in front of a high pulley and grab a small bar (preferably, a slightly twisted bar) using a pronated grip (thumbs facing each other). The narrower the grip, the better the stretch will be. Keep your arms straight and bring the bar toward your thighs. Hold the contraction for one second before coming back up. The pulley exercise does not necessarily replace the dumbbell pullover exercise. The two exercises might seem similar, but they are actually different and complementary. With a dumbbell, you get a better stretch, but the movement is harder on your shoulder. The pulley helps you maintain continuous tension during the contraction phase, which you cannot do with dumbbells.
Another great middle back exercise (latissimus dorsi exercise) is the dumbbell pullover. The dumbbell pullover requires paying strict attention to form. This is an isolation movement; the only joint that should move is the shoulder. Throughout the exercise, keep your arms extended, with elbows slightly bent. Do not flex and extend your elbows during the movement.
Despite the large muscle recruitment, the pullover is more a stretching exercise than a muscle-building one. It is a good way to increase the flexibility of your rib cage.
You can lie lengthwise on the bench as you normally would, or you can lie across the bench. We suggest the latter, as it allows you to drop your hips and shoulders and really stretch the rib cage. The other way prevents you from getting the full range of motion.
Pullover variation in which you lie across the flat bench is a favorite of old-school bodybuilders, who believed it could increase the size of their rib cages. We can’t imagine how that could be possible, although you still find the idea advanced in books written by bodybuilding gurus.
Using an excessive weight in this exercise can cause your lower back to arch, which could damage your intervertebral discs. Always use a weight that is light enough to enable you to maintain good form throughout the full range of the movement.