The dumbbell pullover is a classic bodybuilding exercise that works your chest and back primarily. It is a pushing movement performed with a dumbbell – although barbell variations do exist – and, done right, the exercise hits everything from the bottom of your pecs to your abs, lats and triceps.

The movement pattern is very similar to an ab rollout and it will help round out your back and chest training.

Training big muscle groups like the chest and back at the same time isn’t the norm in bodybuilding and gym culture, so many athletes don’t know when to include the dumbbell pullover in their routines. Historically, this movement was used as a “finisher” at the end of a workout session.

Find out how to perform a dumbbell pullover safely, which muscles it targets exactly, what the benefits of this exercise are and how to include them into your training.

How to Do Dumbbell Pullovers

To perform a dumbbell pullover you’ll need a bench and a dumbbell. It’s recommended you grab a lighter dumbbell to begin with to learn the movement and test your range of motion (think upper-body version of an air squat).

  1. Place a dumbbell standing up on a flat bench and ensure it stays securely place while you get into position.
  2. Start lying perpendicular on a bench with only your upper back/shoulders across the bench.
  3. Place your feet firmly on the floor and place your hips just slightly below the bench. Your head should be off the bench too.
  4. Grab the upper head of the dumbbell with both hands and hold it straight over your chest, with your arms extended but keeping a small bend on the shoulders.
  5. Both palms should be pressing against the underside of one of the sides of the dumbbell.
  6. While keeping your arms straight, lower the weight slowly in an arc behind your head. Make sure your core is engaged and you’re paying attention to your chest and back muscles.
  7. Lower the dumbbell until the head you’re holding reaches around the same height as your head.
  8. Bring the dumbbell back to the starting position keeping your arms extended and your midline engaged.
  9. Hold the weight on the initial position for a second and repeat the motion for the prescribed number of repetitions.

Exercise tips:

  • Use a weight that allows you to safely and effectively extend your arms behind your head before bringing it back up.
  • Make sure your core is engaged throughout the movement and only perform this exercise if you don’t have issues with shoulder range of motion or similar shoulder injuries.
  • At the top of the rep, you’ll have a heavy weight looming over your head; make sure the dumbbell you’re using is safe.
  • While your arms should be extended with a slight bend at the elbow, make sure you don’t allow too much elbow flexion and turn this into a triceps exercise.

Dumbbell Pullover Muscles Worked

What muscles do dumbbell pullovers work? This exercise targets many muscles on your upper body. Primarily, the dumbbell pullover targets the muscles in your chest, back and shoulders:

  • Pectoralis major (pecs)
  • Serratus anterior
  • Latissimus dorsi (lats)

Secondarily, the movement will also have an effect on your:

  • Tres major and posterior deltoid (delts)
  • Upper abs
  • Triceps
  • Lower abs
  • Biceps

Dumbbell pullover: chest or back exercise?

Is the dumbbell pullover a chest or a lat movement? The short answer is that it’s both.

Depending on the width of your grip and the position of your shoulders, you can perform a dumbbell pullover to target either your back or chest primarily.

Make sure you engage your pecs throughout the full movement and be aware of where you feel the exercise. While holding the weight overhead at the start of the rep is mostly a chest exercise, pulling the weight overhead will require your lats to activate.

Dumbbell Pullover Benefits

There are many benefits to including dumbbell pullovers in your workout routine. They include:

  • Chest and back muscle hypertrophy: the dumbbell pullover is a good exercises to aid with muscle growth, especially when coupled with other chest, arm and back-specific exercises.
  • Improved neural pathways: this exercise will help you improve your mind-muscle connection and become more efficient. As it targets two large muscle groups, the connection required between your mind and engaged muscles is higher than with simpler exercises.
  • Midline stability: due to the body position of the dumbbell pullover, you’ll have to engage your core to perform the exercise properly and safely. Lowering the dumbbell behind you will recruit your glute and core muscles, improving you full-body stability. Core strength translates to pretty much every aspect of life, so it’s always a good idea to try to improve it.
  • Increased strength: ultimately, this is one of the purposes of fitness exercises, and the dumbbell pullover is pretty effective at helping you build strength.

Are dumbbell pullovers dangerous?

Dumbbell pullovers have been deemed a slightly riskier movement for those with shoulder issues. Check your upper body mobility and fix any issues before you attempt the dumbbell pullover. To minimise shoulder injury risk, make sure you don’t overstretch in the overhead position and use excessive range of motion.

Dumbbell Pull Over Variations

The original dumbbell pullover requires an athlete to lie perpendicular to a bench, with only the upper back touching the elevated surface and with the hips in the air.

Parallel dumbbell pullover

For this variation, lie on a bench as if you were about to do a bench press. With the additional back support you’ll reduce strain on your glute and core (although make sure you still engage both).

Dumbbell pullover with stability ball

Instead of using a standard bench, use a stability ball as your elevated surface for this variation. Contrary to the parallel dumbbell pullover, this variation will require more glute and core strength to perform, as a stability ball requires the recruitment of more assistance muscles.

Because a ball isn’t as stable as a bench, it’s recommended you stick to lighter loads if attempting this variation.

Dumbbell Pull Over Workouts

Upper Body Finisher

Three Rounds for Time:

  • 30 Wall Ball Shots
  • 15 DB Pullovers
  • 2 Rope Climbs

This is a CrossFit style workout that will tax your upper body and stamina. Make sure you don’t sacrifice technique for a slightly better time.

The Squats and Milk Hypertrophy Program

This is not a classic hypertrophy program but is still designed to create a serious muscle grow. Additionally, it was originally called the “Squats, Pullover and Milk” program.

Thought for 6 Weeks you will squat heavy and work on your upper body various times a week.

Day 1

  • A Power Clean 3×3 2min Rest
  • B1 20Rep Squats 1×20 no Rest
  • B2 Dumbbell Pullovers 1×20
  • C1 Barbell Bench Press 2×10-12 no Rest
  • C2 High Cable Flys 2×12-15 90sec Rets
  • D Triceps Rope Press Down Drop Set 2Sets 60sec Rest
  • E Biceps EZ Curls 21s 2Sets 60Sec Rest

Day 2

  • A Snatch High Pull 3×3 2min Rest
  • B1 20Rep Squats 1×20 no Rest
  • B2 Dumbbell Pullovers 1×20
  • C1 Bent Over Row 2×10-12 no Rest
  • C2 Bent Over Fly 2×12-15 90sec Rest
  • D Hip Thrust Drop Set 2 Sets 60sec Rest
  • E Calf Raise 21s 2 Sets 60sec Rest

Day 3

  • A Hang Clean 3×3 2min Rest
  • B1 20Rep Squats 1×20 no Rest
  • B2 Dumbbell Pullovers 1×20
  • C1 PullUp 2×10-12 no Rest
  • C2 Facepull 2×12-15 90sec Rest
  • D Military Press Drop Set 2 Sets 60sec Rest
  • E Cross Body Hammer Curls 21s 2 Sets 60sec Rest

Day 4

  • A – Power Focus
  • B1 – 20Rep Squats
  • B2 Dumbbell Pullovers
  • C1 Super Set – Compound Exercise
  • C2 Super Set – Isolated Exercise
  • D Isolation Exercise Drop Set Method
  • E Isolation Exercise 21´s Method

For cicuit use a mid heavy weight that will not blast you totally out. It is thought as a heavier WarmUp.

For circuit C, perform the first set of the compound exercise followed immediately by one set of the isolation exercise. Take the recommended break and repeat for a 2nd set.

For circuit D, start with a weight you can do 3-5 reps with. Drop the weights down as you fatigue for 3 consecutive drops.

For circuit E, use a moderately heavy weight and perform 7 bottom half reps. Next, perform 7 top half reps. Lastly, perform 7 full range of motion reps.

Find out more about the Squats and Milk program here.

Add the dumbbell pullover to your training routine

In general, if you’re working on your physique, it is recommended you do dumbbell pullovers 3-4 x 8-15 during your next chest workout. Make sure you focus on squeezing the pecs to initiate the movement up from the bottom position and work on holding the squeeze throughout the rep.

Using them during back day? Make sure you initiate the pull with the elbows, essentially forgetting about the hands, this way you’ll isolate your lats more efficiently.

Improve your body and training with the DB Floor Press, DB Hammer Curl and Dumbbell Shrugs.

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