How to Do a Dumbbell Pullover

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

dumbbell pullover

Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Also Known As: Lying Pullover, Chest Pullover, Pullover

Targets: Chest, Back, Core, Triceps

Equipment Needed: Weight Bench, Dumbbell

Level: Intermediate

The classic dumbbell pullover is a widely-used resistance exercise that primarily strengthens the muscles in the chest (pectoralis major) and the large wing-shaped muscles in the back (latissimus dorsi). By making variations to the movement you can also engage core muscles, the back of the upper arm (triceps), and even the lower body.

The dumbbell pullover is also considered a postural exercise by sports physiologists and researchers. Performing the full range of motion properly requires that you keep the spine in a lengthened and stable position. And lastly, this movement helps to open and increase flexibility in the chest and upper body. These areas often become tight—especially in those who have computer or desk jobs.

When you do a pullover you coordinate several different joint actions. As with all weightlifting movements, it is best to start with less weight when you first attempt the exercise. Add resistance as you become more comfortable.

Benefits

Weight training, in general, increases muscle mass. But when you choose exercises that require the muscles to stretch under load you increase the potential for muscle gain. The overhead reach required by the pullover movement stretches the muscles of the chest.

The dumbbell press challenges you to improve strength and flexibility at the same time. With a single move, you'll increase range of motion in the shoulder joint, expand the chest, and effectively build muscle.

In addition, the large movement involved in this exercise engages and strengthens nearby muscles better than related exercises. For example, in one study, researchers determined that triceps activity was higher during the dumbbell pullover than during the bench press. And other research has shown that the anterior deltoid (front of the shoulder) is preferentially stimulated during this exercise. 

But there have been several other potential benefits identified by researchers.

Upper Body Muscular Balance

It is not uncommon for weight lifters to train the front of the body more than the back of the body. It is easier to check your form in the mirror when training the chest and some feel that it is more satisfying to see results on the front of the body–which you see more often—than it is to imagine results on the back of the body.

The dumbbell pullover is one of just a few exercises that trains both the front of the body and the back of the body at the same time.

Some exercisers wonder which body part is more active during the pullover. Are you likely to see more gains in the latissimus dorsi (back) or the pectoralis major (chest)? Studies have shown that pullover exercise emphasizes the muscle action of the pecs more than that of the lats.

However, many trainers suggest that internally rotating at the shoulder joint (bringing the elbows closer to the midline of the body) helps to engage the lats.

Improved Cardiopulmonary Function

While many people turn to aerobic activity to improve heart and lung fitness, it turns out that strength training may be able to help as well. In fact, choosing exercises involved in respiration (breathing) may serve a purpose. Both the latissimus dorsi and the pectoralis major are respiratory accessory muscles which are important for breathing.

For a study published in The Journal of Physical Therapy Science, researchers evaluated the effects of an upper-body resistance training plan on young, healthy subjects with a sedentary lifestyle. Half of the group participated in a simple strength plan that included only the dumbbell pullover, chest press, and flat-bench dumbbell fly. This experimental group exercised three times per week for eight weeks. The control group maintained a sedentary lifestyle.

At the end of the study, researchers concluded that—similar to other aerobic exercises— the resistance plan improved all pulmonary function outcomes in the experimental group. They noted improvements in total lung capacity and airway flow as well as improved chest expansion and implied improvement in respiratory muscle strength.

Muscle Maintenance During Fat Loss

The dumbbell pullover exercise has been used in studies where researchers consider the effects of weight loss on body composition.

In 2016, researchers conducted a comprehensive review comparing three different types of exercise: endurance training, resistance training, and a combination of resistance and endurance training. They wanted to see which had greater effects on health, including body composition. The researchers concluded that resistance training played an important role in changing the body.

Interestingly, however, authors of that review included in their analysis an older research study in which a resistance program, including the dumbbell pullover, helped obese women maintain muscle mass during extreme caloric restriction.

While any weight training activity is likely to have a positive effect on body composition during a diet, exercises like the dumbbell pullover can provide a greater benefit because they engage multiple large muscle groups in less time.

Improved Core Stability

Stability training has become a preferred method of training for those who want to improve coordination, balance, and core strength. But not everyone likes to do exercises that require balance. As an alternative, you can include the dumbbell pullover in your routine. It may help to improve stability through the core.

In a study conducted on male prison inmates, researchers found that a training regime that included the dumbbell pullover led to an increase of core muscle strength and consequently of postural stability even though no balance exercises were included in the training regimen.

Of course, the core muscle strength and postural benefit you gain will depend on a few factors. Proper form is essential for gaining these benefits. And placing your body on a slightly unstable surface (such as a stability ball) will also help to challenge your balance.

Step-By-Step Instructions

Before you include the dumbbell pullover in your exercise routine, you should have some exercise experience, especially in the weight room. Make sure that you are comfortable holding and lifting dumbbells as you'll be moving the weights over your face during the movement. For safety's sake, you may want to try the movement with no weight before adding resistance.

To prepare for the exercise, sit on the narrow end of a stable weight bench. Place your feet on the floor slightly wider than the bench. Now roll down so that you laying on the bench with your back, neck, and head fully supported.

  1. Place one dumbbell in each hand. Extend your arms over your chest with the palms facing each other. Keep the elbows slightly bent and soft.
  2. Keep a strong back and core while you inhale and extend the weights back and over your head. Take about 3–4 seconds to reach a fully extended position where the weights are behind (but not below) your head. Keep the elbows soft.
  3. Once you reach full extension, exhale slowly and return your arms to the starting position over your chest.

When first starting out, you may want to try two sets of 7–10 reps each. As you get stronger and more flexible, add repetitions first. Then add more weight.

For those who prefer to work the lats (back of the body) more than the chest, trainers suggest that the elbows should be slightly rotated in (medially). So, in your starting position, the elbows would point towards your feet rather than out to the side.

While you will notice the muscles of the upper body engage during a dumbbell pullover, you are also likely to feel your abdominal muscles tighten in order to maintain a strong core.

Common Mistakes

There are a few common blunders that are often seen when performing the dumbbell pullover. Most mistakes involve alignment and can be remedied with improved postural awareness.

Improper Starting Position

It's important to find the right starting spot on your weight bench. If you start by sitting in the middle of the bench, your head and neck may not be supported when you lay back. This can lead to neck soreness in the days following your workout. Alternately, if you support the upper body on the bench and leave your hips unsupported, you may experience lower back pain in the days following your session.

Not Engaging the Core

Keep your lower back and abdominal area strong throughout the dumbbell pullover. During the extension phase (lifting the arms back and over your head) you may start to arch through the spine. This is especially likely to happen if you have limited mobility through the chest and shoulder area.

If you find that you are arching your back, remind yourself to engage your core. Core stability protects your back and helps to prevent injury. Try to imagine that you are tightening your midsection to prepare for a punch to the gut. If you still struggle to keep the core engaged you may be lifting too much weight.

Wrist Rotation or Flexion

Be sure to keep the palms facing each other throughout the full range of movement. Maintain strong wrists, but relaxed hands. If you notice that your wrists flop (the palms start to face up), the weight may be too heavy. Decrease the amount of weight so that you can maintain alignment through the lower arm.

Unequal Extension

If one side of your body is stronger than the other, or if you have greater flexibility on one side, you may notice that one arm extends further over your head or moves faster than the other. Try to move both arms simultaneously.

Modifications and Variations

Need a Modification?

If a weight bench is not available, this movement can be performed laying on the floor or on a mat. However, you won't get the same stability benefits and you'll have a slightly limited range of motion on a mat.

Exercisers who have a hard time getting their arms to move together can use one dumbbell instead of two. Simply place one hand on either end of the weight and complete the movements. This is also a smart option for those who want to use less resistance to start.

A medicine ball can also be used to perform the exercise.

Up for a Challenge?

You can change your body position or move off the weight bench to increase muscle engagement.

One option is to use an exercise ball instead of a weight bench. Support the head and neck on the ball. Keep the hips stable and elevated by engaging your abdominal area, gluteal muscles, and hamstrings. This movement becomes a total body exercise when you have to use the muscles in the lower body to stabilize and the muscles of the upper body to move.

Lastly, you can combine the dumbbell overhead press with a lower leg extension. For this variation, you'll start in the basic position with the back, neck, and head supported by the bench. Then, keeping the knees bent, lift the feet off the floor so that the knees are positioned over the hips. You'll be in a dead bug position.

Perform one repetition of the dumbbell pullover and finish with the arms extended over the chest. Hold the upper body still while you extend the legs long beneath you (working the abdominal muscles) and return the knees over the chest.

Continue to alternate one pullover and one double leg extension. Work up to ten repetitions.

Safety and Precautions

It is always smart to work with a certified trainer when you begin new movements. If you have a back or shoulder injury, your trainer can evaluate your range of motion and limitations, then make suggestions for appropriate modifications

Try It Out

Incorporate this move into one of these strength training workouts. The dumbbell pullover can be used instead of a chest press to add variety to your workout or you can add it as an additional movement.

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Article Sources

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