How to Do a Dumbbell Pullover: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Also Known As: Lying pullover, chest pullover, pullover

Targets: Chest and back

Equipment Needed: Weight bench, dumbbell

Level: Intermediate

Dumbbell pullovers build your chest and lats (the muscles in the middle-to-lower back). That makes them an excellent addition to your upper body strength routine. It's best to start with less weight when you first attempt the exercise and increase resistance as you become stronger.

How to Do Dumbbell Pullovers

Ben Goldstein / Verywell

To prepare for this exercise, sit on the end of a stable weight bench. Place your feet on the floor, slightly wider than the bench. Hold a dumbbell with each hand. Next, roll back, so you are lying on the bench. Your back, neck, and head should be fully supported.

  1. Extend your arms toward the ceiling, over your chest. Your palms should be facing each other, and your elbows slightly bent.
  2. Inhale and extend the weights back and over your head, keeping a strong back and core. Take about 3 to 4 seconds to reach a fully extended position where the weights are behind—but not below—your head.
  3. Exhale slowly and return your arms to the starting position.

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.

Benefits of Dumbbell Pullovers

The classic dumbbell pullover is a widely used resistance exercise that primarily strengthens the muscles in the chest (pectoralis major). It also engages the large wing-shaped muscles in the back (latissimus dorsi), the core muscles, and the back of the upper arms (triceps).

The dumbbell pullover is considered a postural exercise as performing the full movement requires that you keep the spine in a lengthened, stable position. This move also helps open and increase the chest and upper body flexibility. These areas often become tight, especially in those with computer or desk jobs.

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

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

Other Variations of Dumbbell Pullovers

You can vary this exercise according to your current fitness level and workout goals.

One Dumbbell Instead of Two

Exercisers who have difficulty getting their arms to move together can use one dumbbell instead of two. Place one hand on either end of the weight and complete the movements. A medicine ball can provide the same effect.

Rotated Elbows

For those who prefer to work the back more than the chest, the elbows can be slightly rotated in (medially). So, the elbows would point more toward your feet than out to the side in your starting position.

Stability Ball for Bench

This movement becomes a full-body exercise when you have to use the muscles in the lower body to stabilize and the upper body muscles to move. To do it, support the head and neck on the ball. Also, keep the hips stable and elevated by engaging your abdominal area, gluteal muscles, and hamstrings.

Dumbbell Pullover-Leg Extension Combo

For this variation, 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 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 extending the legs before returning the knees over the chest. Continue to alternate one pullover and one double leg extension.

Common Mistakes

There are a few common mistakes when performing the dumbbell pullover, most of which involve alignment.

Improper Starting Position

If you start 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 leave your hips unsupported, you may experience lower back pain in the days following your session.

Not Engaging the Core

During the extension phase (lifting the arms back and over your head), you may start to arch through the spine. This is especially likely if you have limited mobility in the chest and shoulder area.

If you find that you are doing this, remind yourself to engage your core—as if bracing for a punch to the gut. Core stability protects your back and helps to prevent injury. If you still struggle to keep the core engaged, you may be lifting too much weight.

Wrist Rotation or Flexion

Keep the palms facing each other throughout the full range of movement and 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 weight so 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. Strive to move both arms simultaneously.

Safety and Precautions

For this exercise, you need full shoulder mobility. If you don't have a complete range of motion of your shoulder joint—whether due to injury or structural limitations—you may want to do a different chest exercise.

Also, before including the dumbbell pullover in your exercise routine, ensure you are comfortable holding and lifting dumbbells, as you'll be moving the weights over your face during the movement. For safety's sake, new exercisers may want to try the movement with no weight before adding resistance.

Stop this exercise if you feel pain in or around the shoulder area. A personal trainer, physical therapist, or your doctor can help determine if dumbbell pullovers are safe for you, given your physical makeup and condition.

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

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is a pullover for the chest or back?

    Pullovers can specifically target your chest or your back, and do activate muscles in both body parts. You can change your arm, grip, and body position to better isolate your chest or your back. Rotating your elbows in and tucking them closer as you perform the exercise can better target your back. Flaring elbows out will isolate your chest.

  • How heavy should dumbbell pullovers be?

    Dumbbell pullovers are not an exercise that you should aim to do with heavy weights which limit you to only a few reps. Choose a weight that is challenging and which allows you to perform 10 to 30 repetitions. You should feel less than 5 reps until complete failure or less before you end the set for best results.

Try It Out

Incorporate this move into one of these popular workouts.

7 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  3. Brautigam V. Why do muscles tighten up?. American Council on Exercise.

  4. Hedayatpour N, Falla D. Physiological and neural adaptations to eccentric exercise: Mechanisms and considerations for trainingBiomed Res Int. 2015;2015:193741. doi:10.1155/2015/193741

  5. Costa Campos Y, da Silva S. Comparison of electromyographic activity during the bench press and barbell pullover exercises. Motriz: Rev Educ Fis. 2014;20(2):200-205. doi:10.1590/S1980-657420140002000010

  6. Stastny P, Golas A, Blazek D, et al. A systematic review of surface electromyography analyses of the bench press movement task. PLoS One. 2017;12(2):e0171632. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0171632

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Additional Reading

By Malia Frey
 Malia Frey is a weight loss expert, certified health coach, weight management specialist, personal trainer​, and fitness nutrition specialist.