Building a barrel chest and thick back may be two of your goals, and making the dumbbell pullover a key movement in achieving them. The dumbbell pullover is a unique exercise that is often linked back to the “glory” days of bodybuilding.
Bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman, and Dorian Yates all used dumbbell pullovers to build serious muscle mass and increase overall upper body strength capacity.
In this article, we will go through everything you need to know about the dumbbell pullover, including:
- Dumbbell Pullover Form and Technique
- Benefits of the Dumbbell Pullover
- Muscles Worked by the Dumbbell Pullover
- Who Should Do the Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Pullover Mistakes
- Dumbbell Pullover Sets, Reps, and Programming Recommendations
- Dumbbell Pullover Variations and Alternatives
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the dumbbell pullover. Further below we will discuss a wide variety of variations and alternatives to the dumbbell pullover.
Lie down on a bench (not perpendicular) with you head towards one end, similar to a bench press set up. With a light dumbbell help with both hands, extend the elbows so that the weight is above your chest.
Some lifters may lie perpendicular to the bench, often then allowing the hips to drop as the go into shoulder flexion. This is often a counterbalance rather than an effective way to stretch the lats. In this case just stay set up vertically on a bench.
Coach’s Tip: Set your legs, hips, and torso tightly into position, similar to that of a bench press. Be sure to minimize lumbar extension in the movement to force greater shoulder flexion.
With a light load (you should not need more than 20-30lbs to start) above you chest, let the hands and dumbbell move backwards as you feel the stretch in the chest and lats. It’s important to keep the elbows almost-locked out.
Reach back as far as you comfortably can, making sure to focus on feeling the stretch of the lats, chest, and triceps.
Coach’s 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.
3.Raise the Load and Repeat
As you come upwards out of the bottom position, stay focused on using the chest and lats to do the movement. Many lifters will lose sight of the true purpose of this exercise and heave loads around, using the shoulders, biceps, and other muscle groups. In doing so, you render this chest and back isolation exercises useless while also adding serious shoulder strain.
Start by completing 10-12 controlled repetitions. After each rep, try to assume a slightly deeper stretch.
Coach’s 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 this incorrectly.
Below are three (3) reasons why the dumbbell pullover is beneficial for lifters and athletes of all types.
1. 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 samples done by 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 great stimulus for growth.
2. Improves Upper Back Stability
The dumbbell pullover challenges stability throughout the body simply by the position it places the lifter in during the set up. The glutes and core muscles must be firing to stabilize the spine and lock down the other joints of the body.
In doing so, the lifter is forced to use the scapular region and upper back to stabilize the arms and load throughout the movement, which can help to recreate the tension and stability needed for other exercises like bench pressing and overhead movements.
3. Can Improve Shoulder Mobility
The dumbbell pullover can in fact help to improve shoulder mobility in that it places a stretch upon the lats and triceps; two muscle groups often responsible for impeded shoulder mobility overhead. Additionally, by strengthening the muscles of the serratus and back at deep ranges of shoulder flexion, you can work to establish greater stability and control which will enable your body to feel capable of achieving and supporting this deeper range of motion.
The dumbbell pullover is an exercise that has the ability to train opposing muscle groups at once. This exercise is a good upper body single joint exercise to develop muscle hypertrophy.
- Latissimus Dorsi
Who Should Perform Dumbbell Pullovers?
Below are a few groups of athletes that can benefit from including dumbbell pullovers within their training programs.
Strength and Power Athletes
Strength and power athletes can benefit from including the dumbbell pullover within the accessories of their training program. Increasing back strength, scapular stability, and overhead capacities can improve pressing performance for both powerlifters and weightlifters. The additional increase in upper body mass can also aid in overall development of a lifter as they advance in their respective sport.
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 pull/chin-ups will often suffice.
Sport athletes can benefit from including the dumbbell pullover into training programs if they have already included many of the compound lifts meant to build the back and chest. While single joint movements are great at increasing muscle hypertrophy, athletes often have limited time and energy to devote to strength training outside of their actually sports training; making specialization key.
That said, overhead athletes who are involved in volleyball, baseball, football, and swimming can directly benefit from this moment.
General Fitness and Desk Bound Individuals
For general fitness and desk-bound individual purposes, the dumbbell pullover may be too advanced and require too many prerequisites to incorporate at the start of training. Many beginners lack proper shoulder mobility and core stability to perform this movement.
While this exercise does help to develop chest and back muscle growth, beginners and general fitness goers alike should focus on compound movements to increase overall development, functional movement, and maximize their training investment. Once they have progressed in their training and have increased training frequency, more specialized movements like the dumbbell pullover can be incorporated within training programs.
While this is an isolation exercise and it’s simplistic in nature, there are still a couple mistakes that should be avoided.
1. Forcing Range of Motion
If you have limitation in overhead movements or have shoulder problems when bringing the arms overhead, then you may want to limit range of motion for this exercise or opt for a different movement. Progress with a range of motion that allows for proper form to be achieved.
2. Shooting the Hips Off the Bench
The hips should be grounded throughout this exercise to prevent any stress on the lumbar. Similar to shooting the hips off the bench in a skull crusher or bench press, the hips should remain in a static position. Keeping them here can actually promote better mechanics by limiting forced ranges of motion.
Below are two (2) primary sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for coaches and athletes to properly program the dumbbell pullover specific to their training goals. Note, that the below guidelines are simply here to offer coaches and athletes loose recommendations for programming.
1. Muscle Hypertrophy – Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
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.
- Sets + Reps: 4-5 sets of 8-12 or 15-20 repetitions .
- Tempos, pauses, and eccentrics can be done throughout the range of motion to induce additional muscular damage and hypertrophy.
2. Muscle Endurance– Reps, Sets, and Weight Recommendations
The dumbbell pullover can be a great way to build muscular endurance in the chest, back, and serratus muscles.
- Sets + Reps: 2-4 sets 15-20 repetitions
- 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 (3) dumbbell pullover variations to build chest and back strength and hypertrophy and improve scapular stability.
1. 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 the fact that they cannot perform adequate shoulder flexion to place the load behind them.
Additionally, by performing this movement from a stability ball, you can work to increase the end range of motion and place a larger stretch upon the muscles to further stimulate muscle growth.
2. “Deadbug” Dumbbell Pullover
The deadbug 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 proper technique of the pullover.
To do this, place a lifter in the deadbug position while lying on a bench. The head should be towards the end to allow the hands to arms to move backwards and towards the floor as the shoulder joint moves into flexion. The feet should stay up in the 90 degree deadbug position, with the core staying locked in place. Next, reach the hands back like a regular dumbbell pullover, lift, and repeat.
3. Single Arm Dumbbell Pullover
The single arm dumbbell pullover is done similarly to the regular pullover, weight the exception that the lifter focus 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 two (2) 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 and pull/chin-ups 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.
1. Straight-Arm Cable Pulldown
The straight-arm cable pulldown is a more back dominant movement, one 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.
2. Dumbbell Chest Flye
The dumbbell flye is a single-joint exercise that targets the pectoral muscles as well as works to increase scapular stability and control, similar to the dumbbell pullover. While this movement lacks the overall ability to target the lats, it can be paired with other movements, such as the straight-arm cable pulldown to offer a very similar training effect.
Start by lying supine on a bench with the dumbbells extended above the chest.
Be sure to pack the shoulder blades aggressively, similar to that of a bench press, with a slight arch in the upper back. Once the shoulder blades are packed, actively pull the dumbbells way from one another, feeling a stretch in the chest and anterior shoulder.
Coach’s Tip: that this movement does not need to be heavy. The key is to keep the elbows slightly bent yet fixed, to isolated the pectoral muscles that are responsible for movement at the shoulder joint.
2.The Eccentric / Lowering
Continue to increase the width at which the hands reach to the sides, increasing the distance between the dumbbells.
Often, lifters will focus on depth first, rather than width of the flye, which can decrease chest involvement and increase shoulder discomfort.
Once you have reach a fully stretch position, focus on holding a brief stretch in the pectoral muscles prior to contracting them to initiate the movement upwards.
During this stretch phase, focus on keeping the shoulder blades pinned together and downwards, to minimize anterior shoulder involvement/discomfort.
To return to the initial start position (step one), contract the pectoral muscles and perform a “bear hug” to keep the dumbbells apart and returning in a hugging motion, rather than simply pressing up.
More Back and Chest Training Articles
Here are a few more articles you can read to develop a thicker back and a barrel-like chest!