Serious strength athletes and steadfast gym-goers know that prioritizing heavy compound movements will always do more to get you bigger than frilly accessory exercises. But single-joint moves are not useless training afterthoughts.
The backs and chests of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman, and Dorian Yates are all proof that the dumbbell pullover — a tried-and-true accessory movement from the Golden age of bodybuilding — can build serious muscle mass and increase overall upper body strength potential.
In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the dumbbell pullover, a move we love to build a stronger torso, including:
- Dumbbell Pullover Video Guide
- How to Do the Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Pullover Mistakes
- Benefits of the Dumbbell Pullover
- Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Pullover
- Who Should Do the Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Pullover Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Dumbbell Pullover Variations
- Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives
- Frequently Asked Questions
Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it shouldn’t take the place of advice and/or supervision from a medical professional. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. Speak with your physician if you have any concerns.
Check out BarBend’s in-depth and thoughtful video guide on how to execute perfect dumbbell pullover reps.
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the dumbbell pullover. Along with tips on how to execute proper form.
Step 1 — The Set-Up
Lay face up on a bench, with your feet firmly planted on the ground. Maintain a slight arch in your lower back. Hold a light to a moderate dumbbell at one end with both hands (20 to 30 pounds should be sufficient to start). Slightly bend your elbows and press the weight over your chest.
Form Tip: Set yourself as you would for a bench press — squeezing your legs, abs, and shoulder blades together.
Step 2 — Reach Backwards
Without letting your lower body or hips move, lower your arms back, maintaining a slight bend in your elbows. Keep lowering the weight until you feel a stretch in your chest muscles and lats.
Reach back as far as you comfortably can, making sure to focus on feeling the stretch of the lats, chest, and triceps.
Form Tip: Depth in this movement is not a good initial marker of an effective range of motion. Focus on feeling the stretch first, as every shoulder joint and lifter is different.
Step 3 — Raise the Load and Repeat
Focus on pulling your arms back into position with your lat muscles. Again, keep your elbows just slightly bent throughout all phases of the lift. If you go too heavy, you risk recruiting your biceps and shoulders and possibly straining a muscle.
Start by completing 10-12 controlled repetitions. After each rep, try to assume a slightly deeper stretch.
Form Tip: Focus 100% on feeling the muscles doing the work. If you don’t feel the chest and back muscles doing the majority of the work, odds are you are performing the dumbbell pullover incorrectly.
Don’t let the simplicity of the dumbbell pullover fool you — there are ways to mess it up. Here are two rookie mistakes to avoid.
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Forcing Your Range of Motion
If you have serious overhead mobility limitations, you may want to limit the range of motion for this exercise or opt for a different movement.
However, with the dumbbell pullover, you only need to lower the weights as far down until you feel your lats and chest contract. If you have trouble finding this range, start by lowering the weight to the point that’s comfortable, hold it, and then come back up. During your next rep, lower the weight just a smidge farther, and hold. Repeat this until you can find an acceptable range of motion.
Shooting the Hips off the Bench
The hips should be grounded throughout this exercise to prevent any stress on the lower back. Like when performing skull crushers or the bench press, the hips should remain planted. Keeping your hips static can actually promote better mechanics by limiting forced ranges of motion, leading to injuries in extreme cases.
Below are three reasons why the dumbbell pullover is beneficial for lifters and athletes of all types.
Builds a Bigger Chest and Back
The dumbbell pullover can help increase chest, back, and serratus size and strength at the same time. This movement is one of the more well-known bodybuilding staples done by seven-time Mr. Olympia winner Arnold Schwarzenegger, and rightfully so.
By performing this exercise for moderate to higher repetitions, you can increase the stretch placed upon the upper body muscles and provide a great stimulus for growth.
Improves Full-Body Stability
As you lower the dumbbell behind you, you’ll need to brace the glutes and core muscles to prevent yourself from rocking off of the bench. The lifter must also contract the scapulas and upper back muscles to stabilize the load throughout the movement. This learned stability will carry over to similar exercises like dumbbell flyes and chest presses.
Improved Shoulder Mobility
The dumbbell pullover can improve shoulder mobility in that it stretches the lats and triceps — two muscle groups often responsible for impeded overhead mobility. Also, achieving such a deep stretch will help you establish greater stability and control, enabling your body to feel capable of achieving and supporting this deeper range of motion.
The dumbbell pullover trains opposing muscles, the chest and back, at once. Here’s a breakdown of the primary muscles that the dumbbell pullover works.
The serratus is one of the primary muscle groups targeted during the dumbbell pullover. The serratus anterior — located on the upper rib cage — pulls the scapula forward and aids in stabilizing the shoulder during heavy pulls, carries, squats, and presses.
The lats span the entire length of your back and pull your arms to your sides (known as flexion). During the dumbbell pullover, the lats are the primary mover, as they pull your arms back to the starting point. They are also worked during the lowering phase of the lift, as they’re stretched under load.
Due to the slight elbow bend, the triceps are under load throughout the duration of the dumbbell pullover. Though, they’re not the main mover during this exercise.
The pectorals are used during the concentric (lifting) phase of the dumbbell pullover. This is often why the dumbbell pullover is programmed on chest days. However, you can include them on most days throughout your training program.
Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from including dumbbell pullovers within their training programs.
Strength and Power Athletes
- Powerlifters: Developing the lats and serratus can improve performance in the big three as they enable you to brace your back more effectively. For example, during the back squat, the muscles developed with dumbbell pullovers will let you set your base more effectively.
- Strongmen and Strongwomen: The same benefits that powerlifters experience carry over into strongman. However, the added shoulder mobility and stability gained from dumbbell pullovers can improve performance during overhead carries and farmer carries and pressing movements such as log presses.
- Olympic Weightlifters: The dumbbell pullover can be a great way to establish increased stability for overhead movements like the snatch and clean & jerk while also assisting in positional strength during pulls (snatch and clean grip) well as front squats, overhead squats, and back squats.
Competitive CrossFit and Fitness Athletes
Competitive CrossFit and fitness athletes can include the dumbbell pullover within training programs if they are looking to increase chest and back development. That said, a steady regimen of bench pressing, dips, rows, and chin-ups will usually suffice.
Beginners may be better off sticking with the basics, like pull-ups, pull downs, and seated rows. These moves are generally less complicated and offer more bang for the buck. That said, after months of solid training, the dumbbell pullover can be added into a program mainly. For everyday gym-goers, the benefits are the same as above.
Below are three primary sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to program the dumbbell pullover specific to their training goals properly. Note that the below guidelines are here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.
To Gain Strength
Generally speaking, you shouldn’t lift heavy with this exercise (as is the case with most single-joint exercises). For that reason, this isn’t a move that’s necessarily conducive to getting strong. However, the stability and mobility it grants you will carry over to other lifts that can help you get stronger. So, we do suggest programming this into your strength-building programs. Aim for three sets of 8-12 reps, starting with light weight for more reps and working up to heavier weight for fewer reps.
To Build Muscle
The dumbbell pullover is a great exercise for chest and back growth. It can be performed on either day, as both muscle groups are primary movers.
It is suggested that lifters experiment with various repetition schemes and loading to determine which works best for their fiber types. Start by performing three to four sets of eight to 12 reps using full ranges of motion, deep stretches on the muscles, and focused muscle contractions.
To Improve Muscular Endurance
The dumbbell pullover can be a great way to build muscular endurance in the chest, back, and serratus muscles. Start by performing two to four sets of 15-20 reps with controlled repetitions and a slow tempo. Be sure to keep the shoulder blades stable during this movement, as fatigue can often cause poor set up and unnecessary stress on the shoulder and elbow joints if done incorrectly.
Below are three dumbbell pullover variations to build chest and back strength and hypertrophy, and improve shoulder stability.
Dumbbell Pullover on Stability Ball
By performing the dumbbell pullover on the stability ball, you help reinforce glute and core stabilization throughout the range of motion. Many lifters will perform this movement with excessive spinal extension, often masking that they don’t possess the mobility to perform the move well.
Additionally, performing this movement from a stability ball increases the end range of motion and places a larger stretch upon the muscles to further stimulate muscle growth.
Dead Bug Dumbbell Pullover
The dead bug is an excellent exercise to reinforce core stability and positional awareness. By combining this exercise with the dumbbell pullover, you can increase core stability and reinforce the proper technique of the pullover.
Single-Arm Dumbbell Pullover
The single-arm dumbbell pullover is done similarly to the regular pullover, weight the exception that the lifter focuses on one arm at a time. In doing so, they can often increase muscle activation and awareness of proper technique and set up.
Below are three dumbbell pullover alternatives that can be used to improve back and chest hypertrophy.
It is important to note that the dumbbell pullover is a unique exercise that is tough to replicate. If you cannot perform a full overhead press or pull-up with proper stability in the upper back, it is suggested that you attack those issues first and then proceed to this advanced chest and back developer.
Straight-Arm Cable Pulldown
The straight-arm cable pulldown is a more back dominant movement that can increase back and serratus development. While it doesn’t train the chest muscles, you can pair this movement with a chest flye (see below) and get a similar overall training effect.
Dumbbell Chest Flye
The dumbbell flye is a single-joint exercise that targets the pectoral muscles and increases scapular stability and control, similar to the dumbbell pullover. While this movement doesn’t target the lats, it can be paired with other movements, like wide-grip pulldowns, to target the lats.
Incline Bench Rope Cable Pullover
The incline bench cable pullover increases the range of motion of the standard dumbbell pullover while minimizing shoulder pain (for some individuals) due to the pull line.
Can you do the dumbbell pullover without a bench?
Yes, but it’s not ideal. The bench allows you to achieve a full range of motion. Performing these on the floor will drastically limit your range of motion, and therefore the stretch on your lats and chest. You can use a foam roller in place of a bench to add some elevation or, if you’re desperate, a pillow. If the floor is your only option, still go for it — you’ll still get something out of it.
Can you lift too heavy during the dumbbell pullover?
Yes. Your focus should be on performing this in a full range of motion so that you feel a deep stretch on the muscles. If you find yourself more focussed on lifting heavy and not achieving a contraction, go lighter and keep the elbows less bent.
Is the dumbbell pullover necessary in most programs?
To be honest, no. While this can be helpful for some individuals when placed in warm-ups or accessory blocks, it is certainly not necessary. Some lifters may even find they have discomfort when doing them. Experiment with these, and understand they support bigger movements and muscles, and should not be prioritized in the same way squats, deadlifts, presses, rows, and sports specific work is, in any program.