by Chris Colucci T-Nation
Let’s say you walk into the gym, ready for another session, when you notice five guys gathered near the dumbbell rack and a flat bench, all doing an exercise you’ve never seen before.
Curious, you ask one guy what he’s doing. In a funny, not-quite-German accent, he tells you, “I do zis every chest workout. Ze pump you get feels incredible, like being wiz a woman.” The second dude, with an even funnier accent, drops a 200-pound dumbbell to the floor after finishing his set. “Yeah, buddy! Love doing these with light weight. Light weight, baby!”
The next guy, a wide British monster who casts a shadow that covers half the wall, chimes in. “I include this lift in every back workout. The stretch on the lats and the peak contraction are the key.” The fourth dude, who’s super-ripped and would be a great fitness model, says, “I’ve been doing this for years and it really built up my serratus. It makes a huge difference in my ab poses.”
Lastly, there’s an old-timer who looks like some well-built movie star your mom had a crush on in grade school. He sits up after a set and tells you, “This will stretch your rib cartilage and gives you the kind of barrel torso that Hercules would be proud of.”
You’ve just been introduced to the complicated, confusing, even contradictory world of the pullover. Years ago, it was considered one of the most essential exercises in bodybuilding.
Nowadays, you’re more likely to sneak a peek of a MILF taking off her pullover in the ladies’ locker room than you are to see a pullover being performed in the gym.
If it used to be such a great muscle builder, what happened? It’s not like the exercise changed its mind and decided to not be useful anymore.
It’s time to take another look at this forgotten classic and bring it back into regular rotation.
Where It Began
Around 1911, Alan Calvert, the founder of the Milo Barbell Company and Strength magazine, wrote about the barbell pullover as being “… the best exercise known for developing a deep chest.” He also said that a lifter should never use more than 50 pounds (for up to 20 reps) on the exercise, but regardless of the exact weight and rep scheme, advocates of the pullover were all around early in the game.
Have you heard of the old “squats and milk” routine, where skinny newbs are told to drink a gallon of milk everyday while training with heavy high-rep squats? Most people forget that, from day one, the plan was actually “squats and pullovers and milk.” Seriously.
In the 1920s, the popular training theory was that heavy, high-rep squats combined with light, high-rep pullovers was the fast track to building a large body. Did it work? Well, yeah. Big lifting plus big calories are a solid combo.
For training economy, if you were only going to do one or two upper body exercises (because low volume workouts were “in style” back then), the pullover was considered a must-have.
The breathing pullover, as it was known, was generally done lying on the floor instead of a bench, bringing a barbell from overhead to, um, overhead. The relatively long range of motion and considerable time under tension made it a good choice for loading a whole bunch of upper body muscle in one shot.
The primary benefit was thought to be an expansion of the ribcage, from the deliberate deep breathing between reps that compounded with the deep breathing that took place during the squats earlier in the workout.
Whether or not that was actually happening, we’ll discuss later on. In any case, plenty of lifters reported great results from the “squats, pullovers, and milk” plan.
Through organized bodybuilding’s early years in the ’50s and ’60s, bodybuilders continued to credit the pullover as being essential in sculpting their upper bodies. A wide and thick barrel chest was an ideal, and the prevailing thought was that you couldn’t get there without lying on a flat bench and swinging a barbell or dumbbell arm’s length overhead.
By the 1970s and ’80s, bodybuilders were getting accustomed to more fully equipped gyms with a much wider variety of specialized machines to better target specific bodyparts.
One of the benefits of this technological boom was access to the recent Nautilus pullover machine. Invented in the early ’70s by bodybuilding guru Arthur Jones, the machine was nicknamed “the upper body squat” as a credit to its relative importance among exercises. But the new variety of machines also led to more varied workouts and a lesser reliance on certain old standards, such as the simple flat bench pullover.
In the ’90s, however, the popularity of the lift dropped sharply, likely due to the rise of “functional training” and a general wussiness creeping further and further into gyms.
By the 2000s, “exercise scientists” with petite arms and rotund bellies had successfully spread pullover-phobia throughout the gyms, citing everything from impending shoulder injuries to plain old ineffectiveness, and the lift was reduced to something only seen in black and white pictures, not something practiced by wise and responsible lifters.
The key takeaway of this history lesson is: If we look back on this one exercise’s testimonial list, we’ll find some impressive names, even if the actual why/how-to advice is conflicting.
Arnold credits dumbbell pullovers for helping to create his epic glass-balancing chest development. Reg Park, bodybuilding icon and inspiration to Schwarzenegger and many others, also considered pullovers to be a tremendous chest exercise.
Dorian Yates made pullovers an essential part of his legendary lat workouts, preferring the classic Nautilus pullover machine. Mike Mentzer, an early follower of Arthur Jones and the first bodybuilder to receive a perfect judging score, also advocated the Nautilus pullover as a superior lat exercise.
Ronnie Coleman has done heavy pullovers as part of his back training for years, and Frank Zane believes that doing pullovers from a young age helped to develop his serratus muscles, which became a focal point of his signature vacuum pose.
This isn’t exactly a list of armchair lifters debating the best brand of Swiss balls, so let’s consider following their lead, m’kay? The only problem is that we’ve got a forest of contrasting information to sort through first.
Certified Shoulder Killer? Not Quite
The most common cause of hesitancy before incorporating pullovers into one’s routine is a fear of shoulder injuries. There’s something justifiably nerve-wracking about lying down while holding a heavy weight at the end of fully extended arms and then moving that weight precariously over your face.
Fortunately, there are a few simple steps we can take to make sure you get the most benefit while still abiding by the Personal Trainer’s Golden Rule of “Do no harm.”
First things first: Mobility check. Can you overhead press with a full range of motion (knuckles touching, your shoulders to arms locked straight overhead)? Can you do pull-ups or chin-ups with a full range of motion (dead-hang, arms locked straight to full contraction)?
If either of those are a “no,” we need to work on your shoulder and upper back mobility, particularly the upper body drills in this great piece from Tony Gentilcore.
Once your body can function the way it’s supposed to, it’s time to take the exercise itself for a spin. Lie on a flat bench (the “usual” way, not with only the upper back across the bench and your body perpendicular. There’s no major benefit, and the “hip drop” everyone uses as they lower the weight is more of a counterbalance than actual improvement in the ROM).
Grab a light dumbbell, as if you were going to do a triceps extension, palms against the plates and the handle positioned between your thumbs and index fingers.
This should be as easy as squatting with an empty bar because we’re basically learning the movement and testing range of motion, so around 25 pounds should be plenty. Start with the weight even with your chest and both arms straight, and slowly lower the weight towards your head, paying attention to the muscles you feel stretching throughout the upper body.
Go as far back as is comfortable, while maintaining almost-locked arms, before pulling back in to the start position. As you’re going through the reps (12-15 for now), try lowering a bit further until, ideally, your hands are at least level with the bench, if not slightly below.
Once you’ve done an easy set or two with the dumbbell, take a self-inventory and see how your shoulders, chest, and lats are feeling – what’s tight, what’s loose, what’s getting pumped – and then repeat the test with a short barbell or EZ-curl bar using a pronated (palms-down) grip, again with a weight that has you thinking, “This is way too light for me.”
If you’re still feeling any shoulder funkiness after trying pullovers with light-ish weight, higher reps, and different hand positions (a little wider, a little closer, neutral-grip with a “triceps bar”), then, to paraphrase something Old Ben once said on a dusty road on Tatooine, “These are not the exercises you’re looking for.”
Sometimes exercises can be contraindicated for some people. That’s fancy trainer-speak for, “You just shouldn’t do this, and if you do, you’ll probably hurt something and blame me.”
Pullover as Pec Pumper
So you passed the assessments. Now let’s use the freaking pullover to build some muscle.
The dumbbell pullover is probably best known for being a chest builder, and it kinda makes sense that it should. If we think about flat, incline, and decline dumbbell flyes, pec-deck flyes, and cable crossovers at all angles, then pullovers seem like just another variation of the motion. Shoulder extension and/or adduction – moving the arms from “back there” to in front of the body. Sounds like it’s all the same kind of movement pattern, right?
Interestingly, Bret Contreras’ work with EMG analysis makes a legit case for using the pullover as part of a chest workout. Contreras found that dumbbell pullovers incited more chest work than straight-arm cable pulldowns or dumbbell pullovers incited lat work.
Furthermore, Contreras has since added to this idea, saying, “In November 2011, a new study came out in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics and it showed that the barbell pullover worked much more pec than lat.
“I think the pecs are in a better position to actually move the weight, but down in the bottom position, the lats get a good stretch under load. The problem is that the torque diminishes as the movement rises, so tension dissipates off the lats rather quickly.
“The biomechanics of the straight-arm cable pulldown are such that the torque doesn’t diminish through the range of motion like it does in the free weight versions, but it’s still not a perfect movement.
“The machine pullover rocks because it keeps constant tension on the lats through the fullest ROM. It’s like a free weight pullover and straight-arm pulldown combined. It’s an instance where machinery allows for something cool that you can’t do with free weights. My old gym had one and I loved it.”
With this in mind, if we’re looking to use pullovers for chest work, it would make the most sense to use them as one of the last exercises of the session after other muscles are already fatigued.
Even though, technically, pullovers seem to activate the pecs more than other muscles, it can be a tricky exercise that requires plenty of other muscles to assist in the movement. Combine that with most peoples’ poor mind-muscle connection, and there are too many variables in play to make it a good choice for the first exercise of the day.
Try wrapping up your next chest workout with 3-4×8-15. (It’s never a bad idea to do that first higher-rep set before bumping up the weight.) Be sure to focus on squeezing the pecs to initiate the movement up from the bottom position and work on holding the squeeze throughout the rep.
Pullover as a Lat Blaster
Ever heard the technique tip for better pulldowns and rows: “Focus on pulling with the elbows, forget about your hands?” Well, that’s a pullover. It’s pure lat contraction from a position of maximal stretch with little to no forearm or biceps contribution.
A properly performed pullover, or one of a small handful of variations, is also the only way to isolate the lat muscle without significant assistance from the rhomboids, teres, traps, or any of the numerous back muscles.
Fact is, trying to build a big back without including this kind of isolation exercise would be like trying to develop great hamstrings without doing leg curls. You could probably get the job done, but it’ll get done faster and more efficiently if you attack the muscle directly.
Because of this, pullovers tend to work best as the first exercise on back day, to pre-fatigue the lats, and improve muscle activation and mind-muscle connection.
Kayak rows, recently popularized by Christian Thibaudeau at the Indigo-3G™ camp, are a particularly brutal variation of the straight-arm pulldown, incorporating not only the constant tension of cables but adding a unilateral element by alternating sides between reps.
Bodybuilding competitor, coach, and exercise innovator John Meadows explains his pullover preferences. “I used to do all pullovers lying perpendicular across the bench. Then I had abdominal surgeries in 2005 and 2006 that left a lot of scar tissue that made these very painful for me, so I was experimenting and found that lying fully on the bench was easier on my stomach and hit my lats just as hard, if not harder.
“You can get more ROM if you hang your head slightly off the bench and slowly, carefully bring the weight a little deeper each set. It crushes your serratus this way, too. You can’t do that while lying sideways across the bench without eventually straining your rotator cuffs.
“Also, I only bring the dumbbell up to my forehead to maintain constant tension.”
Check out the Mountain Dog in action below:
At your next back workout, begin the day with either dumbbell pullovers or straight-arm cable pulldowns for 4×8-12. Remember to focus on isolating the lats and feeling them work, so slow down the rep speed if necessary, exaggerate the peak contraction (especially effective with cables), and emphasize the stretch at the bottom (or the top, with cables).
The Million Dollar Question: Can Cartilage Grow?
Remember all those folks in the 1920s who were so psyched about their ribcages expanding from the breathing pullovers? Well, don’t tell them, but their rib cages weren’t actually “expanding” in the sense that they thought.
Sure, their chest, back, and torso measurements were increasing, but it was from good old-fashioned muscle growth. Pecs can grow, lats can grow, the intercostals – those yummy bits of muscle that connect the ribs and are what you eat when you have “spare ribs” – can even grow (relatively), but cartilage? Nope.
As mentioned earlier, the popular theory at the time used relatively low volume and a sparse number of exercises per workout. The pullover just happened to be a great combination of ROM and resistance, and don’t forget that it was being done by eager new lifters squatting often and eating well.
So the “ribcage” ended up growing the same way, and for the same reasons, that your triceps started growing the week you learned what push-ups were. It was a new stimulus being placed upon muscles that had never been trained, so they love the attention and respond quickly.
Hey, You… Pullover!
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of the how’s and why’s, isn’t it time to work this certified classic into your program? Simply put, if you’re trying to put on muscle, then you should definitely find a spot for the pullover.
Is it a chest exercise? Some bodybuilders and scientists say it is. Is it a back exercise? Some bodybuilders and scientists say it is. Is the pullover simply a near-total “upper body” exercise the same way that a squat is a near-total “lower body” exercise, which tons of guys have used to build giant bodies?
That might be the best way to consider it.