Regardless of whether you are a bodybuilder, strength athlete, or general gymgoer, the cable pullover is a great lat isolation exercise. This variation of the dumbbell pullover relies on using a cable machine as opposed to a free weight — and your lats and chest alike will reap the muscle-building benefits.
Performing this move with a cable machine sets you up for a lot of muscle growth because your lats experience constant tension from the resistance. When you do a pullover with a free weight like a dumbbell or barbell, the tension on your lats changes throughout the range of motion. This might give you somewhat less opportunity for building muscle through high tension.
The cable pullover is a seriously useful exercise whether you want to pre-exhaust your lats, finish them off with an isolation exercise, or simply add a lat accessory. Here’s everything you need to know about this lat (and chest) builder.
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- How to Do the Cable Pullover
- Cable Pullover Sets and Reps
- Common Cable Pullover Mistakes
- Cable Pullover Variations
- Cable Pullover Alternatives
- Muscles Worked by the Cable Pullover
- Benefits of the Cable Pullover
- Who Should Do the Cable Pullover
- Frequently Asked Questions
Check out this step-by-step guide on how to do the cable pullover exercise. You will need a dual-adjustable pulley cable machine. It may also be useful for you to have a weight bench or exercise mat to lie down on.
Step 1 — Set Up
Attach a triceps rope or straight bar cable attachment to the cable machine. If you are using a weight bench, set up the cable machine so that it is roughly three to six inches above the surface of the bench.
Whether you’re lying on the ground or on a bench, make sure that the cable attachment is about three to six inches from your hands. Athletes with poorer overhead shoulder mobility might want to set the cable attachment to start higher (at about six inches). If you have good overhead mobility, set the cable attachment to start lower (at about three inches).
Hold onto your chosen cable attachment and position yourself on the bench or exercise mat with your body facing the ceiling and your head closest to the cable machine. Start with your arms above your head by the sides of your ears.
There should be tension going through your arms from the resistance. But if there is slack, then you need to wiggle yourself further away from the cable column.
Coach’s Tip: You can position yourself with your feet on the floor, or in a hook-lying position where your feet are on the bench and knees are tucked to about 90 degrees. The hook-lying position is advantageous as it helps you keep your back flat on the bench.
Step 2 — Drag Your Arms
Cue yourself to reach towards the front of your hips as opposed to the floor so you can keep your shoulders down. You want to avoid accidentally shrugging upward during your pulldown.
Coach’s Tip: If you are using a straight bar cable attachment, make sure you use an overhand grip.
Step 3 — Slowly Return
Inhale as you slowly raise your arms back up to the start position. Make sure that you keep your back flat on the bench or mat throughout the range of motion. Repeat steps three and four for subsequent repetitions.
You can integrate the cable pullover into your training regardless of what your goal is, be it for strength, muscle mass, or muscular endurance. Depending on that goal, you’ll train the cable pullover with different set and rep schemes.
- For Muscle Mass: Aim for three to four sets of 10 to 12 repetitions. Aim to keep around two to four repetitions in reserve (RIR, or the amount of reps you can do until failure).
- For Strength: Perform three to four sets of eight repetitions. Aim to keep three to five reps in reserve.
- For Endurance: Do two to three sets of 15 to 20 repetitions, with about one to three repetitions in reserve.
With a fairly complex setup, it’s easy to make some beginner mistakes with the cable pullover. These mistakes can potentially lead to you injuring yourself at worst or minimizing the effectiveness of the exercise at best. Either way, here are three big training mistakes to avoid with this move.
Over-extending Your Lower Back
Over-extending or over-arching your lower back will present as a large gap between your back and your bench or ground. The reason why you do not want to arch your back like this is that you shorten how much your lats can stretch. This makes the exercise a lot less effective.
You can lengthen your lats — and get the most out of this move — by keeping your back flat on the bench or ground.
Setting the Cable Too Low
If you set the cable attachment to start too low, the angle of the resistance may move the tension to a completely different muscle group. With the cable set too low, you may feel it more on your shoulders and your chest muscles and less on your lats.
Bending Through Your Elbows
Make sure you’re keeping your arm angle the same throughout your reps. Start and end each rep with the same elbow angle, keeping it consistent during movement.
If you find yourself bending through your elbows, you may start to recruit other muscle groups — which may not be what you want. When you bend your elbows as you drag your arms down, you may start recruiting your biceps. Bending your triceps on the way back up puts more emphasis on your triceps.
This unintentional angle change might also put your elbows through unnecessary strain, especially if you’re prone to struggling with elbow pain.
You may want to choose a different cable pullover variation depending on your exact goals. Here are three different variants.
Resistance Band Pullover
If you are training at your home gym or work out at a commercial gym that does not have a cable machine, you may want to choose an alternative like the resistance band pullover. You can set up the same station but attach a resistance band over a fixed anchor, such as a power rack.
Using a resistance band will allow you to alter the level of resistance by swapping in different bands. But, you won’t be able to as easily switch the weight as you can with a cable machine.
Standing Cable Pullover
The standing cable pullover relies on using a cable machine, too. But this time, you’ll be in a standing or half-squat position.
You may want to choose this variation if setting up for a traditional cable pullover is too much of a hassle. This might be because you don’t have the space to wheel in a weight bench or because you just want a quicker set-up.
Single-Arm Cable Pullover
The single-arm cable pullover would be a better variation if you are someone who has a lot of strength imbalances between both sides of your lats.
You can perform all the sets on one side first before performing on the other side. Or, you can alternate between sides through your sets. You may want to choose the former if you have a lot of major asymmetry in your strength or size.
Here is a list of cable pullover alternatives if you do not have access to a cable machine or if you want to simply switch things up a bit to stay motivated.
The dumbbell pullover is a beginner-friendly and popular variation of the pullover to train the lats.
The barbell pullover is similar to the dumbbell pullover. To make sure you’re keeping tension on your lats, maintain a slight bend in your elbows as you execute this exercise.
This will make sure that there is still some tension on your lats at the top of the movement. Because you’ll be performing this with a barbell, your elbows can be more bent than necessary with the cable pullover. However, still make sure to maintain a consistent arm angle.
The decline pullover can be done with dumbbells or a barbell. It is an intense and effective progression from the flat bench or floor pullover. This exercise variation relies on using a decline bench, which will help you increase the range of motion that you move through in your lats.
Generally speaking, the broader your range of motion, the bigger your muscle-building capacity. By lying on a decline, you’re giving your arms more space to move — and your muscles more space to grow.
The cable pullover is primarily an isolation exercise that targets one large set of back muscles — the lats. It also activates other muscle groups to assist during the movement.
The lats are the main muscles that get worked during a cable pullover. They are attached from the pelvis and spine and attach to the back of the upper arm bone — the humerus.
As the primary mover in this exercise, your lats will get stretched under the load during the eccentric phase. And they’ll get a lot stronger along with that.
The rhomboids help with the rotation of your shoulder blades when your arms move during this exercise. So when your arms are moving during this one, your rhomboids are firing.
Since you’ll be maintaining a slight bend in your elbows, your triceps will also be involved as stabilizers here. That’s why some lifters will feel this move in their upper arms. But the triceps aren’t your prime movers, so make sure the majority of the force is coming from your back.
The serratus anterior is that elusive muscle on the sides of your upper rib cage. Because the serratus helps pull your scapulae forward, it’ll be pitching in here to help stabilize your shoulders as you go overhead and back.
The cable pullover won’t tax your chest in the same way as the traditional dumbbell variation, but it’ll still involve your pecs to a certain degree.
It might be an isolation exercise, but there’s not just one good thing about the cable pullover. Here are some benefits of this move so you can look for what may suit your training needs.
Improve Lat Flexibility and Shoulder Mobility
The cable pullover can help improve your lat flexibility and shoulder mobility. It does this by loading and stretching your lats through a large range of motion, specifically through its longest muscle length.
Strengthen Your Pulls
The cable pullover targets your lats in a big way. This makes it beneficial for improving your performance in other pulling exercises where you may feel your lats are the limiting factor. So if they’re giving out in your deadlift — or even in your bench press — the cable pullover can add high-quality training volume to help break your lats out of their shell.
One big key here is that this pull won’t tax your lower back or even your biceps in a direct way. This is huge, because your biceps can become a limiting factor in other lat-focused exercises. Your lower back can also undergo a lot of stress with many compound pulling moves.
By adding cable pullovers to your routine, you can improve your pulling strength in a targeted way — without putting your lower back through added strain or letting your biceps limit the work.
Boosts Time Under Tension
The cable pullover is one of the better lat isolation exercises out there that manages to keep tension on the lats throughout the range of motion. This is especially true because you’re using a cable as opposed to free weights.
Cables provide accommodating resistance, which keeps the tension on your muscles consistent throughout your range of motion. This leads to more time under high-quality tension — and that’s a recipe for muscle growth.
There are various populations that should perform the cable pullover. This movement may have direct or indirect carryover to specific training goals. Here are some people whom the cable pullover will benefit.
Bodybuilders are concerned with increasing muscle mass specifically and shaping each muscle purposefully. The cable pullover is particularly useful for when a bodybuilder wants to focus on their lats more without directly training their biceps at the same time.
Novice resistance trainers may not be able to feel their lats during a lot of pulling exercises. For this reason, it may be useful to use an exercise like the cable pullover to help them develop a better mind-muscle connection with their lats.
This can be very helpful down the line as beginners learn to deadlift and bench press heavy weights. Both of these moves require strong lat activation in ways that may not be intuitively obvious to beginners. The more you know what it feels like to engage your lats — as with the cable pullover — the more effective your overall training can become.
Pull it Over
Whether you’re looking to increase muscle mass or add strength to your bigger pulls, you might want to add the cable pullover to your repertoire. By targeting your lats without putting stress on your lower back or biceps, you’ll add high-quality back volume for an excellent return on investment.
Still hankering to know more about the cable pullover? Here are some common questions that get asked about this pullover variation — and, of course, answers.
Is the cable pullover for your chest or lats?
The pullover that is performed with a cable machine is primarily for your lats. Your chest will come into play to a small extent during the concentric phase, but not as much as with other variations. If you perform a pullover with a free weight like a dumbbell or a barbell, it can be more for both chest and lats.
How heavy should pullovers be?
This is by no means an exercise where you want to max out. But you still want to give yourself a nice training stimulus.
Pullovers should be heavy enough that you can perform all of the sets and reps with consistent form with very little technique breakdown. You should aim for a weight that allows you to have between one and five repetitions in reserve, depending on your goal.
When should you do pullovers?
Pullovers should generally be done at the end of a workout to finish off your lats. The only time it should be kept earlier on is if you are attempting to do pre-exhaust your lats, where you impose some fatigue on them before a compound exercise.
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