The Elite Physique

The Pullover Exercise

The Truth About the Pullover Exercise

The Pullover Exercise

The pullover exercise is a great movement, but given little credit these days.  When it comes to building muscle, you can’t really beat old school training methods.  Let’s face it, doing the dumbbell (DB) chest press while balancing on a stability ball really isn’t going to do much to build thick and dense pectoral muscle.  Sure, those silly tactics are great for those who are or want to be planet fitness wannabes.  However, if you want to build muscle, impressive muscle, stick to what our iron brothers and sisters brought to the game.  Those heavy compound movements worked then, and they work now.  The body hasn’t changed how it builds muscle.  People changed how they train.

The pullover exercise has gotten a beaten by today’s gym goers.  Perhaps it’s because they watch to many “fitness influencers” online that don’t know what they or doing.  Perhaps it’s because they watch too much YouTube demonstrating bad advice, or getting their fitness information from Pinterest, where fitness goes to die.

What is the Pullover Exercise?

The pullover is a compound exercise that targets muscle groups throughout your upper body including your latissimus dorsi, your pectoralis major, your triceps, and your serratus muscle on the sides of your rib cage.  The pullover is the only exercises that works opposing muscle groups simultaneously. Reg Park and Arnold Schwarzenegger considered pullovers to be a tremendous chest exercise.  Many other IFBB bodybuilders from the Golden Ear credit the pullover for developing their massive torsos.  It builds the rib cage, giving a massive upper body.

It strengthens your lats first, the largest muscle in your upper back.  Secondly, it zones-in on your pecs, serratus anterior, triceps, and core.  In fact, it’s one of the best exercises to include to strengthen your lats, along with pull-ups, pull-downs, and even rowing movements.  Even though it’s a compound movement, it’s close to an isolation exercise for the lats due to the intense and direct stimulation.

You can receive the full benefits for each muscle group (back and chest) depending on your free weight form.  When you place your arms and elbows a certain way, you’ll hit your pecs. Tweaking your arm placement will bring more tension to your lats. It all comes down to form and execution.

Why the Pullover Exercise Faded Out

The pullover exercise has been around for decades.  This exercise was the staple for back and chest training for icons such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lou Ferrigno, Sergio Olivia, and Reg Park.  All the Golden Era greats have credited the pullover, using free weights, for being the essential in building their massive barrel chests and wide lats. 

Arthur Jones introduced the pullover machine to the bodybuilding community.  It was labeled the “upper body squat” due to the amazing results it delivered.  It hits nearly every damn inch of your back and the chest. With the addition of the pullover machine in the 70s and 80s, everyday bodybuilders had access to specific lat training rather than just relying on free weights.  Then, here comes the year 2000 and the pullover was labeled a shoulder killer and just like that, pullovers dwindled.  The 2000’s brought more “functional training” to the gyms for the snowflakes.  I’m mean, if you don’t want to be in a gym with a bunch of meat-heads and lunks, go to Planet Fitness and let us be in our iron dungeon.

Functional Training

Basically, all forms of strength training are technically functional since they improve health and ability to perform daily activities.  The new functional training trend involves more full-body and dynamic movements than traditional weight and strength training.  Functional training trend is doing jump squats rather than the leg press or push-ups rather than the bench press.  They are similar, but not the same.  So, machines and exercises that work well for bodybuilders may not work so well for those who functional train.

Here come more people into the gym.  They see before and after photos on the Internet and watch The Biggest Loser.  They decide to hit the gym too.  Along with them are the non-lifting exercise scientists.  These are the folks who spread rumors that the pullover is dangerous, suggesting it’s ineffective and causes shoulder injuries.  Lack of information is dangerous.  The pullover is not harmful to the shoulder joint unless you overextend the stretch or lift too heavy, just as with any other exercise.  Perhaps have some knowledge of a muscle group, exercise, and machine before getting on it, overextending yourself with excessive poundage and screwing up your shoulder.  There are those of us out there that know the human body, lifts, and how to train properly.

Should You Do The Pullover Exercise?

If you want to build thick, meaty, and wide lats, then yes, include the pullover.  In addition, it improves your shoulder stability when performed properly.  Personally, I feel the machine pullover is the best.  I think you get a better range of motion and contraction using the machine rather than free weights.  Variations of the pullover include the machine, barbell, dumbbell, and cable with rope attachment.  You can choose either the dumbbell or barbell to do the pullover when it comes to free weights.  It’s good to alternant that two forms each week to prevent stagnation.  It does, like any other exercise, require proper form.

Who Should Avoid the Pullover Exercise?

Those who should avoid the pullover are functional trainers (don’t have proper understanding) and anyone with a shoulder or lower back injury.  Can it cause a shoulder injury?  Sure, anything that involves your shoulder and weight can cause injury.  Doing any cheat or shoulder exercise wrong can cause a shoulder injury.  If you don’t have the strength yet, and you overextend on the stretch, you can get a shoulder injury.  It’s not the exercise that’s the problem, it’s the operator.  Learn the proper form, and then you can do it.

How To Do The Pullover Exercise?

Now that you have some information and figured out if you should or shouldn’t do the pullover, let’s discuss exactly how to do it.  This information is for the serious lifters who really want to build muscle and advance their training.  It’s all in your form and poundage used.  I’m going to discuss the pullover exercise machine here since snowflakes feel the pullover machine is dangerous!

Now, since this is a weighted move, proper form is essential.  By implementing proper form you’ll reap all the mass building benefits and avoid those nagging shoulder injuries.

How To Do The Pullover Machine:

  • Tighten your core
  • Choose a light to moderate weight
  • Place your elbows on the padding and grasp the bar
  • Allow the carrier to draw back, stretching your lats and chest
  • Do not over-stretch to the point you pull or tear something
  • Using your lats, pull the carrier all the way down until full contraction
  • Repeat

I you can get the most effective work pullover work using the machine.  Using free weights requires perfect form, and most people these days just don’t have form.  It’s simply a lost art.  Even so, I do have advanced lifters that are followers, so I’ll cover DB pullovers for them.  Let’s go…

Dumbbell Pullover for Chest

A well-developed chest contours the body and also assists in arm adduction, flexion, extension, and rotation.  When you implement the DB pullover to zone-in your chest, you need to pay attention to your form.  Try to keep your arms straight as much as possible, without locking your elbows out.  The farther the dumbbell is away from your body, the more effective the exercise will be for your chest development.

Here’s the DB Pullover Form to Target the Chest

  • Position your body perpendicular on a flat bench face-up with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Hold a light to moderate dumbbell on one side in both hands.
  • Allow your hips to drop, tighten your core, and slightly arch your back.
  • With a slight bend in your elbows, hold the dumbbell straight up over your chest area.
  • Now, lower the dumbbell behind your head in the form of an arc until the dumbbell is about the level of the bench, but don’t overextend.  You should be able to feel the stretch in your chest.
  • At the stretched position, hold it for a second if possible.
  • In a controlled manner, return the dumbbell to the starting position over your chest, squeezing inward and down to contract the chest muscle.
  • Repeat for desired number of reps.

Pace your reps.  You don’t get anything done by speedy reps and sloppy form.  Try a 2-1-2 tempo to learn and keep the control.

Dumbbell Pullover for Lats

As discussed, the pullover targets the back too, specifically the lats.  It’s the triangular-shaped muscle that gives you that impressive v-taper, which is one of the trademarks of a well-developed bodybuilder.  It’s the muscle that helps with arm adduction, extension, and rotation.  Building your lats will assist you with important exercises such as chins and pull-ups.

You can do the DB pullover ad zone-in on the lats over the chest simply by tweaking your form.  It’s all in the positioning of your arms.  Flaring your elbows out and keeping the dumbbell as close to your body as possible is the secret ticket.

Here’s the DB Pullover Form to Target the Lats

  • Position your body perpendicular on a flat bench face-up with your feet flat on the floor.
  • Hold a light to moderate dumbbell on one side in both hands.
  • Allow your hips to drop, tighten your core, and slightly arch your back.
  • Flare your elbows outward and hold the dumbbell over your head and face.
  • Now, lower the dumbbell behind your head in the form of an arc until the dumbbell is about the level of the bench, but don’t overextend.  You should be able to feel the stretch in your lats.
  • At the stretched position, hold it for a second if possible.
  • In a controlled manner, return the dumbbell to the starting position, elbows flared, and over your face.
  • Repeat for desired number of reps.

Again, keep your reps paced.  Slow and steady wins the race.  Continue with a 2-1-2 tempo to learn and keep the control.

Tips to Keep in Mind When Doing Pullovers with Free Weights

Regardless if you are doing pullovers for chest or lats, you need to be following certain safety tips.  The following will prevent injuries and build incredible muscle.

  • Being using light poundage:  Ideally, it’s best to start with a light to moderate poundage to learn the form and prevent injuries.  When you have perfected the form, you can increase the poundage gradually.
  • Pace your temp: Use a slow and controlled pace to allow the muscle you are targeting to get the full stretch and contraction.  Fast reps are pointless and even dangerous.
  • Don’t over-flare your elbows when training lats:  Flare your elbows, but don’t over-flare.  You could lose control of the weight.  Flare your elbows until you feel the tension in your lats and that’s it.

The Final Word

So now you know that the pullover is not dangerous. What’s dangerous is lack of knowledge, piss-poor form, and going too heavy. If you have access to a pullover machine, use it. It’s great. Otherwise, use the steps and tips above to learn the form free weight form for doing pullovers for chest and back. Now, if you want more insider information, get my free natural bodybuilding lessons below…


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My name is Karen Sessions and I am a life-time natural female bodybuilder, multi-certified fitness instructor, author, specialist in performance nutrition, and a success coach. I've been in the fitness industry since 1988! I teach people Just Like You how to transform their bodies, get in shape, build muscle, lose fat and compete in Bodybuilding, Physique, and Figure Competitions. When you have the CORRECT information you can have total confidence and turn your dreams into reality... and I can help transform YOUR body. I have helped THOUSANDS of clients reach their goals and I can help you, too. Be sure to grab my free gift above so you can start moving toward your goal.

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