Dumbbell Pullovers, a foundational movement for mass

by: Paul Leonard

Max Leonard, Paul’s son, uses pullovers as part of his BJJ training regimen

Pullover! Now who wants to hear that when they are driving? Not me, but that one time when my wife called it out during our honeymoon in Maui so we could hop in a deserted waterfall that was alright with me. In today’s modern strength training athlete’s toolbox it appears the traditional dumbell pullover has been forgotten as a mass maker extraordinaire. Like many lifters who were influenced in the 80s by Arnold Schwarzenegger, I began doing pullovers as soon as I began lifting 35 years ago. I know that doing this base building movement allowed me to build a significantly larger rib cage, wider lats, thicker triceps, and more mobile shoulders. A larger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle and that is what eventually happened with me as I began competitive Powerlifting three years after beginning to train. The base I built allowed me to enter strength competitions for the next thirty years.

If you are a younger strength athlete, begin doing pullovers immediately because the soft tissue of your rib cage, serratus muscle, intercostals, and shoulders can be permanently enlarged and strengthened by properly performed pullovers.

Pullovers can be coupled with breathing squats to further harness the natural anabolic power of the squat. A set of squats for 20 reps immediately followed by a set of cross bench pullovers for 10 reps allows the lifter to stretch the rib cage due to the heavy breathing caused by the preceding squats. For a less torturous way to do pullovers, a more traditional 5 sets of 8 reps can also be done with heavier weights than possible after an arduous set of squats.

The key to correctly performing a pullover is to position yourself properly on a sturdy flat bench. Become familiar with how to hold a dumbbell so that you can execute a full range of motion. Fast twitch muscles such as the triceps, lats, pecs, and delts thrive on being stretched with a load and then firing off in full contraction to bring the dumbell to rest above the chest. I am most familiar with the cross bench pullover, although I am aware that you can do a pullover while positioned length wise on a flat bench as well. This position would not allow as great as stretch as the cross bench version during which your hips are lower than your shoulder girdle but it could be a viable option if the lifter cannot into the proper cross bench position.

I myself prefer to complete my pullovers after I press heavily, either flat or incline benches. I have seen lifters be successful training the pullover during a pressing workout, as part of a lat workout or supersetted with breathing squats.

For you aspiring Strongman competitors, a heavy pullover program will allow you to bear hug stones, keep your arch during a heavy yoke or carry, and provide you with the tricep strength to lock out a heavy log over head. For you Jiu Jitsu fighters or wrestlers, having a larger, more muscular torso is advantageous because it makes you harder to take down and nearly impossible to mount due to the fact you will have a torso similar to a grizzly bear.

An analytical look around the landscape of the modern day strength monsters allows one to realize that mega raw benchers such as James Strickland, Matt Wenning, and Eddie Hall all spent their formative years as competitive swimmers. Imagine how many reps they completed with their shoulders and lats going through the full range of motion against medium resistance in the form of water while they trained in swimming. Now, you may not have access to an Olympic size pool to train in, but if you frequent the MF connection then surely you have access to weights. I believe that frequent pullovers can almost mimic some of the training done by swimmers.

A study of the shoulder joint reveals it is the only joint in body that moves through a 360 degree range of motion. The shoulder is designed to move for speed. By training the dumbbell cross bench pullover you are overloading and strengthening this joint in a way that no other exercise can.

I will say that when I began training in the epic Workout Plus Gym in Dedham, Massachusetts I was able to use an original Nautilus pullover machine which I found as an effective tool but it did not hit my triceps like the cross bench dumbell pullover. Pullover machines take the hands and triceps out of the exercise and therefore are not as effective in stimulating every upper body muscle that the dumbbell version effects.

Recently my sons have taken a much stronger interest in strength training. After one recent workout, my youngest son Max remarked to me that “dumbbell pullovers make him feel better at the end of his workout.” That is insightful of my son and also it reminded me that more people should complete exercises that promote their health, specifically in this case the exercise that increases the range of motion in their shoulders while building strength in all of their upper body muscles. When I complete dumbbell pullovers my pecs, both of which I have torn bench pressing, feel great and get stronger with no threat of injury.

Give cross bench dumbbell pullovers a shot at your next workout. Gradually increase your range of motion as you lower the dumbbell behind your head and close to the floor.  Allow your joints to get used to the increased range of motion with a weight in your hand. When you pull the bell back over, focus on initiating the lift with your lats and the long head of your tricep as those muscles work in unison to initiate the movement. Position your elbows during the movement so that the most muscle building stress remains in the muscles and not in locked out joints.

Pullovers can totally revamp your physique people. Invest in yourself by engaging in an aggressive dumbbell pullover program and you will soon begin to hope that your favorite style of shirt comes in an XXL size because that is the only thing that will fit your ever growing chest.