This article provides an overview of the dumbbell pullover, and in it I will discuss:
- its benefit to your workout program,
- the muscles it works,
- proper exercise technique,
- sets & rep suggestions.
I’ll also provide dumbbell pullover how-to videos illustrating proper starting position setup and the two main variations in correct form that are commonly used.
This is so you can see how subtle adjustments in arm & body positions can shift the emphasis onto different muscles, depending on your particular training goals.
Science resources included
As is my custom here on heydayDo, I will provide links to all of the relevant sports science and medical resources, clinical studies, & nutritional data used in this article.
What muscles dumbbell pullovers work
DB pullovers engage a handful of muscles, and sports science research (& lots of pro bodybuilders) have proven that the chest & the back — specifically the pectoralis major and the latissimus dorsi muscles — are the main beneficiaries in terms of muscle growth.
But between the chest & the back, which one benefits the most from the dumbbell pullover?
Well, in the next few sections I’ll share information from several strength training experts, and you’ll see that the pullover is viewed primarily as a lat/back exercise by some people, and as mainly a pec/chest exercise by others.
And this occurs because there are a couple of different ways to perform the pullover, and I go into detail on those variations in the How To Do A DB Pullover section later on in this article.
DB pullovers: chest or back
As I said, there are a variety of opinions on what the main target muscle is with a dumbbell pullover, which isn’t too much of a surprise given that they’re performed in a variety of ways.
Different arm positions, different body positions, & different range of motions — although slight — subtly shift the load throughout the different muscles involved in the dumbbell pullover.
Depending on how the exercise is performed, the primary emphasis will typically be on either the lats (latissimus dorsi),
or the chest (pectoralis major),
or (and to a much lesser extent) the triceps, serratus (serratus anterior), & the front & rear deltoid muscles in your shoulder:
Opinion #1: Pullovers are mainly a chest exercise
What sports science research has found
EMG (electromyography) — in case you didn’t know — measures muscle activity during stimulation (like weightlifting) by attaching electrodes to the person doing the lifting.
If the person does different types of exercises, EMG testing will show which exercise activated the muscle more, or which muscles were activated & by how much.
A small study in Brazil a decade or so ago using EMG found that pullovers activated the chest more than the lats (pectoralis major vs. latissimus dorsi). (6)
Subsequently, you may now read or hear that “science shows” the DB pullover works our chest more than our lats.
A couple of things to keep in mind:
- the test was using a barbell;
- the subjects’ arms were fully extended & kept completely straight throughout the movement;
- the subjects lay on the bench — not across it — and their head, back, & butt remained in contact with the bench throughout the movement.
These are important distinctions, because the massive lats of bodybuilding champions like Arnold Schwarzenegger or more recently Ronnie Coleman were built incorporating dumbbell pullovers into their chest & back routines, respectively.
And they were performed much differently:
- dumbbells not barbells;
- laying perpendicular across the bench, with their head hanging off one side and their hips & butt below the level of the bench;
- elbows slightly flared
I say that because the pullover’s pretty well-known for building some impressive lat muscles on pro bodybuilders, as you’ll read about a little later on.
In any event, on ExRx’s dumbbell pullover page, they list the following muscles being worked and their level of participation in the DB pullover exercise:
- Chest (Pectoralis Major, Sternal)
- Lats (Latissimus dorsi)
- Teres major (upper outer back)
- Triceps (long head)
- Rear delts (Deltoid, posterior)
- Rhomboids (upper inner back)
- & a couple more minor ones
Another interesting thing for me: no mention of the serratus anterior muscles, for reasons I’ll share in a bit.
Strength Training Anatomy
In his excellent best-selling book Strength Training Anatomy, author/illustrator Frédéric Delavier also lists the dumbbell pullover in his section on chest exercises.
Here are the muscles he considers mainly responsible for the DB pullover movement, with four of the five being listed in ExRx’s description:
- Chest (Pectoralis major)
- Triceps (long head)
- Serratus anterior
- Teres major
Muscle & Strength
The large weightlifting & sports nutrition website Muscle & Strength.com put dumbbell pullovers in with their chest exercises too.
They list the lats, triceps, & shoulders as secondary contributing muscles.
I can tell from their written tutorial that they are indeed emphasizing pec muscles more than lats, based on these two technique suggestions:
- they say keep arms straight;
- they also say “do not let the dumbbell come too far forward”.
As you’ll learn down in the tutorial section, straighter elbows/arms & a restricted range of motion are two characteristics of the “chest emphasized” DB pullover.
Opinion #2: pullovers as a back exercise
The very well-informed powerlifting site T-Nation — in their appropriately titled article Bodybuilding’s Most Controversial Article — discuss the long & interesting history of the pullover, including its inclusion in the workouts of some of pro bodybuilding’s greatest competitors.
They also go on to discuss how to program it into a workout if you haven’t used it in any training routine to this point.
One of their suggestions is to begin your back workout with DB pullovers, because
“pullovers can pre-fatigue the lats and improve muscle activation and mind-muscle connection.”
They also mention a handful of well-known bodybuilding champions with huge lats who all insisted on programming pullovers into their back workouts, and I’ll drop names in a couple of paragraphs.
All this chest & back target muscle info has caused the raising of a pretty common question among beginner & intermediate lifters thinking about programming the DB pullover into their routine:
“Should I train dumbbell pullovers on chest or back day?”
Well, by now we certainly know that bodybuilding experts can be found on both sides of the chest or back fence regarding which day to do dumbbell pullovers.
Or more specifically, which muscle group routine should include sets of pullovers.
And T-Nation even notes that professional bodybuilding champion Frank Zane credits years of pullovers for developing his amazing serratus muscles.
(So would those pullover sets be done on Ab/Core Day? 😄 Just joking…I bet he did ’em on Back Day.)
Some top pros do/did pullovers on back day…
They go on to say that pro bodybuilders Dorian Yates, Mike Mentzer, & Ronnie Coleman did pullovers on back day — with Mentzer & Yates using the Nautilus pullover machine, and Coleman using dumbbells.
…and some did it on chest day
T-Nation also mentions how Arnold Schwarzenegger and Hercules himself, Reg Park, thought of pullovers as a chest developer, though those two obviously knew better than most how that exercise contributes so much to lat & serratus growth too.
Speakin’ of Arnie…
Opinion #3: Arnold did them on chest AND back day
Some of the time anyway, but it’s not how you might guess at first: he would do chest and back on the same day.
I first learned about DB pullovers from Arnold Schwarzenegger when I began weightlifting back in 1982, when a friend gave me his copy of the book Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder.
In chapter five of the book — the chapter’s titled Accelerated Training: Six Days A Week — his Tuesday/Friday muscle grouping consisted of back, then chest, then shoulders.
And he included dumbbell pullovers as the final exercise in the chest workout he designed, suggesting we
“choose a weight that will permit you to do five sets of 15 repetitions.”
I do my DB pullovers on back day, and it’s because my technique closely follows the form used to emphasize the lats.
This is described below in the AthleanX video in the section Variation 2A (lat emphasis), featuring strength coach Jeff Cavaliere:
- I’m lying perpendicular across the bench, with my hips below the level of the bench which increases the stretch in my lats.
- My elbows are flared out somewhat.
I can tell these two adjustments put the work more on the lats compared to keeping my arms straight, hips level with the bench, and shortening my range of motion.
My pullovers are the last back exercise I do before I move to a smaller muscle group — which is most often my biceps — during my various training cycles.
On both my 4-day & 5-day workout splits I’m always doing my back the day after chest day, and I love the way the dumbbell pullover stretches out the upper pec muscles as well as the shoulder & triceps muscles that are a little sore from the previous day’s workout.
Plus it feels good having DB pullovers at the end of a back workout too, which for me usually consists of pull ups, chins, & rows.
Do them on the day you feel like
At the end of the day I don’t think it matters too much either way which muscle group we associate the DB pullover with, because it provides muscle-growing benefit to both our lats & our pecs.
Especially since we’ve seen elite pro bodybuilders performing pullovers on either chest or back day and achieving amazing results…or as in Arnold’s case, doing DB pullovers on a day that included chest and back.
And in an article about the dumbbell pullover coincidentally written on Schwarzenegger.com, Cory Gregory — fitness expert & co-founder of athlete supplement company MusclePharm says simply enough:
“But my advice – and the easy solution – is to just pick a day and do it. The key is just adding it to a day and getting the work done.
I’m with him. So after you have a handle on the subtle technique differences that exist between a lat-oriented pullover vs. a chest-oriented pullover, I’d humbly suggest doing whichever version you like more on whatever day works.
How to do the dumbbell pullover
There are more than a couple of ways experienced lifters perform the dumbbell pullover, and in this section I’ll share key points and a few helpful videos about the most popular techniques.
Before we kick it off, I wanted to provide a link to a 10-second video from the ExRx database:
It shows how to get the dumbbell ready to start your pullover set, and how to get rid of it when you’re done, when you’re doing the across-the-bench pullover.
(The first video below shows the setup if you’re just going to lay on the bench.)
First up is a tutorial video from online trainer Scott Herman by way of Muscle & Strength.com, where he shares his ideas on how to use the pullover to target more of your chest or your back.
* Note how Scott is laying on the bench, as opposed to laying perpendicular across it like many do, and as you’ll see in the next video.
* Start off with a lighter weight simply to make the necessary mind:muscle connection. This is to allow you to feel a chest or lat emphasis, depending on which of his two variations you do.
* Get your hands interlocked around the dumbbell handle, and in the starting position you’re holding the dumbbell above your chest with your arms extended.
* From there, slide your body until your head’s hanging a little off the bench, with the edge of bench at the base of your skull.
* This positioning is the same for both chest & lat targeting.
* Keep your elbows in tight for chest emphasis, with your arms as straight as possible.
* For lat emphasis flare your elbows out throughout the movement, while also keeping the dumbbell close to your body & head.
Variation 2A (lat emphasis)
Next up is pro athlete trainer & strength coach Jeff Cavaliere, he of the massively popular YouTube channel AthleanX.
This is a multi-exercise video featuring what he considers the best back exercises you can do using dumbbells, so you can see he’s putting the DB pullover in with other lat development movements here.
Note that this vid is nearly twelve minutes long, and that the dumbbell pullover tutorial starts at the 3:27 mark (207 seconds in) and goes ’til 4:54.
I embedded the video’s URL here with the 207 second timestamp attached to it, so hopefully it’ll start then — though YouTube’s a lot more aggressive about making us watch ads these days.
* He says we ought to set up our body so that it’s perpendicular to the bench instead of laying on it like we saw in the previous tutorial video from Scott Herman.
* The reason we lay across across the bench is so that we’re able to manipulate our hips, which in this case means we’re able to lower them below the level of the bench.
* Doing this increases the eccentric tension in our lats’ muscles while lowering the dumbbell behind our head, thanks to the extra stretch we created by lowering our hips.
* When Cavaliere says that the eccentric resistance** from that stretch is “a known stimulus for muscle hypertrophy**”, he’s referring to all of the sports science research done confirming the benefits of eccentric training.
- Per the ISSA (International Sports Science Assn.), benefits of eccentric resistance training include:
** eccentric resistance – a good example of this is the “negative” rep, fighting the pull of gravity as you resist the downward motion of the weight, or of your body weight at the end of a pull up.
** muscle hypertrophy – just means muscle cell growth.
Variation 2B (chest emphasis)
And here’s Jeff Cavaliere with the pullover again in another “Best DB exercises” video, this one on dumbbell chest exercises.
He mentions a couple of small but key adjustments you’d make to shift the pullover’s target muscle from your lats to your chest, and I go over those below.
The dumbbell pullover tutorial runs from 3:35 to 4:32, and I’m embedding its start time: hopefully YouTube won’t override it.
* To emphasize chest work with the pullover, Cavaliere recommends focusing on turning your hands inward and not flaring your elbows out as much as you would when using the pullover for lat development.
* His other suggestion is to restrict the range of motion (to just 30-40 degrees) so that on the return you’re not coming all the back over your lower chest like you would for lat emphasis.
In other words, stay within the range of constant tension on your pec muscles.
Dumbbell pullover benefits
Here are a few good reasons to program the dumbbell pullover into your training routine.
* It’s a great compound movement that works many muscles: chest, lats, triceps, delts, serratus, & others.
* The DB pullover is capable of building mass in your chest & back muscles, and developing the shape & definition of your serratus & triceps muscles as well.
* It employs & thus strengthens many smaller stabilizer muscles.
* The dumbbell pullover can improve shoulder mobility & strengthen your core. (8)
* Eccentric resistance in the stretching portion of the pullover movement provides many benefits, including accelerated muscle growth, strength, & defense against muscle wasting. (9)
Besides wondering if it’s a back or chest exercise, I think the question most beginner & intermediate weightlifters ask is the one below.
I answered it by tracking down the routines or recommendations from champion bodybuilders and weightlifting authorities, and list them here.
How many sets for a dumbbell pullover?
The first batch of set & rep schemes for the dumbbell pullover comes from Arnold Shwarzenegger’s own words.
From his part autobiography, part hardcore bodybuilding training manual The Education of a Bodybuilder:
5 sets of 15 reps
From his 800-page monster, The New Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding:
Level 1 Exercise Program: 3 sets of 15
Level 2 Exercise Program: 4 sets of 15 (& in a superset with seated cable rows on a “Chest & Back” day)
Competition Exercise Program: 4 sets of 15 (in a tri-set with seated cable rows & one-arm cable rows…yowza 😜)
And here are a few more from the routines of two multi-Mr. Olympia winners & two strength training experts:
Ronnie Coleman: 4 sets of 20 (2)
Frank Zane: 3 sets of 12, 10, & 8 (3)
Cory Gregory: 3-4 sets of 12-20 reps (4)
T-Nation: 4 sets of 8-12 (5)
Related strength training articles here on heydayDo
I hope that my overview article on the dumbbell pullover is useful to you, and I wish you well on your fitness journey.