Is the dumbbell pullover a chest or back exercise? If you’re running a push/pull routine, should it go on a push day or a pull day? Let’s find out.
- How to Do a Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Pullover: Chest or Back Exercise?
- Incline vs Decline Dumbbell Pullovers
- A Better Alternative to the Dumbbell Pullover for the Lats
How to Do a Dumbbell Pullover
- Hold a dumbbell in both hands while lying crossways on a bench.
- Drop your hips and keep them low throughout the exercise.
- Keep a slight bend in your elbows the whole time.
- Lower the dumbbell behind your head until you feel a stretch in your lats.
- Return the dumbbell to the start position.
Dumbbell Pullover: Chest or Back Exercise?
The pullover does work a number of different muscles in the upper body, the main ones being:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres major
- Pectoralis major
However, studies show that it’s more of chest move than it is a back move
In one study, published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics, researchers compared electrical muscle activity in the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles during the barbell pullover .
They rounded up a group of healthy male volunteers, all of whom had been doing the pullover as part of their regular training, and got them to do a single set of pullovers with electrodes placed over pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi.
This allowed them to chart electrical activity in the chest and back, to see which muscle was doing the most work.
As you can see in the figure below, muscle activity in the chest was a lot higher than it was in the back.
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A follow-up study shows very similar results . This time, the researchers looked at how several pullover variations, including the bent-arm and straight-arm pullover, affected muscle activity in a group of national male javelin throwers.
Electrodes were placed over a number of different muscles:
- Upper trapezius
- Deltoids (anterior, lateral and posterior)
- Pectoralis major (clavicular and sternal head)
- Latissimus dorsi
- Rectus abdominis
Once again, it was the chest that registered higher levels of muscle activity than the lats.
In a similar trial, Brazilian researchers found that the chest and triceps are a lot more active during the pullover than the lats . The results are shown in the figure below.
Apart from the fact that pullovers don’t seem to hit the lats very hard, there’s another potential problem.
There are many times when I’ve done dumbbell pullovers, and woken up the next day with really sore triceps. That’s because pullovers also hit the long head of the triceps.
Depending on how your training program is set up, this could mess around with recovery.
It’s not so much of an issue if you’re doing full body workouts. But if you’re doing pullovers as part of a pull day workout, for example, and training your chest, shoulders and triceps on a push day, your triceps won’t get much of a chance to recover.
Of course, there are different ways of doing pullovers.
You can do them with barbells, dumbbells or an EZ bar. You can do them with your elbows flared out to the side or tucked in.
These small variations in technique may well lead to greater lat recruitment. It’s a subject covered in more depth in the video below.
But even then, I don’t think you’ll be able to change pullovers completely from a chest- to a lat-dominant movement.
Incline vs Decline Dumbbell Pullovers
No matter how you do them, tension in the lats tends to dissipate relatively quickly once you’ve moved past the bottom portion of the exercise.
That is, your muscles are working the hardest when your arms are parallel to the floor.
Assuming you’re doing pullovers on a flat bench, the exercise gets progressively easier as you move the dumbbell above your head.
However, you can mitigate this to a degree by doing them on a decline bench, as shown in the video below.
A Better Alternative to the Dumbbell Pullover for the Lats
As far as training your lats is concerned, a better alternative to the dumbbell pullover is the straight-arm pullover, which Jeff Cavaliere demonstrates in the video below.
Compared to the dumbbell pullover, the straight-arm pullover does have a number of benefits.
Because it’s done with a cable machine, the tension stays on the lats the whole time. With the dumbbell pullover, tension in the lats tends to dissipate relatively quickly once you’ve moved past the initial portion of the exercise.
Doing the straight-arm pullover with one rather than two arms at the same time also has a number of benefits.
For one, hitting one side of the body at a time helps to eliminate any size and strength imbalance that might exist between your right and left sides.
It also allows you to twist your upper body a bit at the top at the top and bottom of each rep, giving you more of a stretch in the lats at the top and a stronger contraction at the bottom, which you don’t get when using both arms together.
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