The dumbbell pullover is an upper body exercise that does not get the attention it deserves. In fact, some fitness trainers call it an “old school” exercise. Yes, it does have a long history! A 1911 book by Alan Calvert called the Super Strength book makes mention of this exercise and its benefits. According to the author, the dumbbell pullover is the best exercise for increasing the size of the “rib box.” Yet this exercise has other benefits too. Word has it that Arnold Schwarzenegger was fond of this exercise and often used it as a finisher to his often-grueling workouts. He may have been on to something! You do not see as many people doing this exercise these days, but there are some reasons to do so. First, let’s look at how to do one:
How to Do a Dumbbell Pullover:
- Sit at the end of a weight bench.
- Tilt your body backward until your lying flat on the bench.
- With a dumbbell in each hand and your palms facing each other, extend the dumbbells overhead until your arms are almost straight but your elbows are not locked.
- Slowly extend the weights back and over your head until the dumbbells are level with your head and your arms are extended. Inhale as you extend.
- Exhale as you raise the weights back up toward your chest until they reach the starting position.
- Aim for 10-15 repetitions and 3 sets.
So, what are the benefits of this upper body exercise?
Dumbbell Pullovers Work Multiple Muscle Groups
We think of dumbbell pullovers as a movement that works the triceps and lats—and they do this quite effectively, but many people think the benefits stop there. However, a study published in the Journal of Applied Mechanics found that this exercise activates the pectoral muscles in the chest even more than the lats. So, along with bench press, dumbbell pullovers can be part of your chest routine and a way to get more defined pectorals. What makes this exercise unique is you can work your lats and chest at the same time. That is not true of many other exercises.
To place more emphasis on your lats, do decline pullovers using a cable while lying on a decline bench. Doing them from this position holds tension on your lats over the entire range of the exercise for maximum stimulus on the lats.
Boost Core Strength and Stability
The dumbbell pullover emphasizes the upper body, but a study finds that dumbbell pullovers also boost core strength and stability. You can ramp up the core challenge even more by lying on a stability ball rather than a bench when you do the movement. The unstable surface of a stability ball calls your core muscles into action more. You’ll get more benefits if you tighten your core when you extend the weight behind your head. Make a conscious effort to pull your abdominals in when you overhead press and keep the tempo slow to reduce momentum.
Improve Shoulder Flexibility
Dumbbell pullovers do not just increase strength, they can also improve your shoulder flexibility. When you extend your arms back behind your head when you do a pullover, it stretches and lengthens your triceps and lats. When these muscles are shortened or tight, it makes your shoulders less mobile and restricts their motion. But approach this exercise with caution if you have a history of shoulder pain or a shoulder injury, as extending weights over your head places stress on unhealthy shoulders, especially if you use bad form.
If you cannot do an overhead press through its full range-of-motion without experiencing discomfort, you are not ready for pullovers. For greater shoulder safety, lighten up on the weight. Using heavy resistance for this exercise could lead to a shoulder injury. Also, start with a light weight of only 30% or so of your one-rep max and assess how your shoulders feel before advancing the weight. However, if you do this exercise with proper form, you should notice an improvement in shoulder flexibility over time.
Take-Home Tips for Doing a Dumbbell Pullover Safely
- Lighten up on the weight! When you begin, use a load that is no more than 30% of your one-rep max. Focus on form over resistance.
- When you extend the weight back over your head, use a slow tempo, and feel the deep stretch. A common mistake is to do the exercise too fast and use momentum.
- Make sure your shoulders are ready for this exercise. Think twice about doing it if you have a history of a shoulder injury. Even if you don’t have symptoms now, dumbbell pullovers could cause a flare-up. On the plus, side, you can improve your shoulder mobility with this exercise.
- Dumbbell pullovers are a good exercise to start with, after a warm-up, since you are stretching out your pectoral muscles with each repetition. At the same time, you’re raising your core body temperature to prepare for other upper body exercises but be sure to keep the weight light.
The Bottom Line
As long as you have healthy shoulders, the dumbbell pullover is an old school exercise that belongs in your routine. It is one of the few exercises that works your lats and chest at the same time. Plus, your triceps and core get in on the action too. Depending on the weight you use, it’s a movement that can build muscle endurance or muscle size.
- Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2013;10(11):5683–5696. doi:10.3390/ijerph10115683.
- de Almeida Costa Campos Y, Fernandes da Silva S. Comparison of electromyographic activity during the bench press and barbell pullover exercises. Motriz: Revista de Educação Física. 2014;20(2):200–205. doi:10.1590/s1980-65742014000200010.
- Effects of the Pullover Exercise on the Pectoralis Major and Latissimus Dorsi Muscles as Evaluated by EMG November 2011. Journal of applied biomechanics 27(4):380-4 DOI: 10.1123/jab.27.4.380.
- American Council on Exercise: “Lying Dumbbell Pullover”
- Physical Culture Study. “The History of the Dumbbell Pullover”