You might remember golden era bodybuilders doing the pullover, their bodies arching across benches, lats flared wide, pumping out reps. Seasoned lifters have long known about this exercise, but these days, it's rare to see someone do it.
But is a back or a chest exercise? Should you include it with upper-body pulling work or upper-body pushing? Even practitioners squabble about it.
If you haven't done it in a while, here's a reminder: The toughest part occurs when the arms are flexed overhead, and it gets much easier when your arms are perpendicular to your torso. This means the resistance profile of the pullover has an extremely steep descending curve when you do it with free weights.
Let's go over the standard variations, dig into some research, discuss the variations you can do for stiff shoulders, and then get into the modifications that'll improve the resistance profile so you can make more gains.
But first, the elephant in the room...
Though we'll discuss it in depth, research is inconclusive about whether pullovers are best for pectoralis major (chest) or latissimus dorsi (back). However, I feel it trains the back more robustly, applying a much greater mechanical stimulus on the lats than the chest.
Performing pullovers with back training has never interfered with my subsequent push session. Therefore, my bias is to include pullovers with the rest of my pulling movements during back training. You'll see why.
You can do the free-weight pullover with a barbell, an EZ bar, a multi-grip bar, a kettlebell, or a dumbbell. For those with limited forearm mobility, the Olympic bar may not be appropriate. For ease and simplicity, my preference is a heavy dumbbell.
You can lay on a flat bench in traditional position or you can lay cross-bench with your hips bridged and shoulders supported on the bench, your choice.
Cross-Bench Dumbbell Pullover
Maintain tension in the abs and glutes. There's no added benefit to allowing an extreme arch of the spine.
Because resistance is lost at the top, end the movement at or before the weight crosses over your eyebrows. Importantly, keep the elbows pointed forward to promote external rotation at the shoulders and to better target the lats, if that's what you're wanting to hit.
The pullover is a resisted shoulder extension. So which muscles are contributing the most during the shoulder extension: pecs or lats?
Well, if you look up "shoulder extension" in an anatomy textbook, it'll be listed as an action of the latissimus dorsi, not the pectoralis major. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. The truth is more nuanced. Textbooks provide muscle actions from the anatomical arms-at-sides position. The pullover is performed overhead, toward end-range shoulder flexion (around 100-180 degrees).
To address the pecs versus lats question, we must make educated interpretations based on anatomy and muscle physiology. First, we need a solid framework to understand a muscle's effectiveness for a given action, such as shoulder extension.
- The action of a muscle describes how it tends to move a joint when it shortens (concentric contraction). A shoulder extensor has a line of action behind the center of the shoulder. It crosses behind the joint– when this muscle shortens, it pulls the shoulder into extension.
- A muscle's effectiveness for producing a given action is the muscle "moment," which is determined by the product of muscle moment arm (distance between the muscle's line of action and the center of joint) and muscle force (end-to-end pull). This is basic physics: Torque = Force x Distance.
Muscle actions seem straightforward, but actual application of these principles to predict the effectiveness of an exercise for training a given muscle is much more complex.
Muscle moment arms change during a movement as muscles bend and wrap around bone. (8) This is why we can't simply reference the textbook action of a muscle and call it a day. Special techniques are required to measure muscle moment arms. Even the thickness of a muscle due to hypertrophy can affect moment arms. (10)
It's not possible to directly measure muscle force from a single muscle during exercise. It's tempting, but incorrect, to infer force from technologies such as surface EMG. More on this later.
To make valid conclusions about an exercise, basic anatomy is a good place to start.
The latissimus dorsi originates in many places: the posterior iliac crest, the lower thoracic vertebrae, the lumbar vertebrae, the lower ribs, and the scapula. It ultimately crosses the glenohumeral joint (ball and socket of the shoulder) before inserting at the intertubercular groove (anterior upper arm).
The pectoralis major originates on the collar bone, the sternum, and the ribs. The muscle inserts on the greater tubercle of the humerus (lateral upper arm).
There are several methods for calculating muscle moment arms using cadavers, imaging, and computer models. Multi-joint muscles and muscles with multiple parts (i.e. multiple origins) are particularly challenging. The latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major are multi-joint muscles with multiple parts.
So, what are the moment arms of the lats and pecs during the pullover? We don't have good data on that.
A study using a single cadaver showed a small (<5mm) extension moment arms for the iliac part and lumbar vertebral part of latissimus dorsi at 120-degrees of flexion and zero moment arm for the thoracic vertebral part of the lats. (1) However, they didn't investigate any further into the range of motion.
The same study showed slightly larger (<10mm) extension moment arm for the costal part of pectoralis major at 120-degrees of flexion. (1) Note: The clavicular part and sternal part are shoulder flexors; they have flexion moment arms.
The pectoralis major has a larger extension moment arm than latissimus dorsi at 120-degrees of shoulder flexion. This is where some coaches get hung up. They claim, "Pullovers are for pecs, not lats."
However, 120-degrees barely ventures into the pullover and fails to address its most effective range – around 180 degrees of shoulder flexion. Unfortunately, I'm not aware of hard data on the moment arms of the latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major through the range of motion trained by the pullover.
So we need to make a few educated inferences. If you're doing the pullover with good form, then you'll maintain external rotation (elbows forward) throughout. Even if you missed this cue, external rotation naturally occurs as the shoulder is flexed over 120 degrees. (7)
Why does this matter? External rotation wraps the tendon of the latissimus dorsi further around the humerus, which likely results in a larger moment arm as the arm lowers to that overhead position.
Just ask yourself this: What do you feel being stretched as you reach the bottom position of the pullover where your arms are overhead?
Most say they feel their lats because this muscle is commonly tight. Relax, I know sensation isn't a reliable indicator of exercise quality, but this is commonsense biomechanics.
If the latissimus dorsi didn't have an extension moment arm, it wouldn't be progressively stretched as you lower the weight to the bottom position of the pullover. In fact, the bottom position of the pullover resembles a common test for measuring lat length. (4)
Muscles that are lengthened in the end position of an exercise and are then shortened as the load is lifted are undeniably trained by the exercise.
Take-home: Both latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major (costal part) will be trained by pullovers.
Skip to the next segment if you're not triggered by the thought of doing pullovers on back day. Read this bit if you still are.
Some, but not all, surface electromyography (sEMG) studies show relatively low signal for the latissimus dorsi during the pullover. (2,3,5) Some "evidence-based" coaches have gotten ahold of one or two of these sEMG studies and extrapolated the findings to once again claim that pullovers are a rubbish lat exercise. Let's talk about that.
First, we need to understand sEMG and the limitations of this technology: (11, 12)
- sEMG is a recording of the electrical activity from the nervous system as it attempts to recruit muscle tissue and generate a muscle contraction.
- sEMG is not a measure of mechanical tension or contraction force.
- sEMG disproportionately represents electrical activity that occurs close to the electrode. Therefore, sEMG activity cannot be said to represent the muscle activity of the entire muscle, which is especially relevant to multi-part muscles such as lats and pecs.
- The sEMG signal is not a valid measure of the quality of a dynamic exercise.
- A higher sEMG signal does not imply greater hypertrophy will occur.
Then, what's sEMG good for? For starters, it's great for determining the on-versus-off state of a muscle. (12) The info we get from sEMG during dynamic exercise might be interesting and useful for other things, but we must resist the urge the infer the superiority of an exercise for a certain muscle just because it shows high sEMG signal.
Pullover studies show some sEMG signal in the pecs and lats. (2,3,5) Both muscles are "on" during the exercise. The rest is academic.
Yes, but let's first determine if you have tight lats. Try this flexibility test:
If you "failed" and shoulder flexion was more limited when you brought your knees toward chest, you might benefit from the pullover as a flexibility exercise. Functional anatomy informs the pullover's role as a potent flexibility and range-of-motion exercise.
- When stretched to long muscle lengths, the viscoelastic nature of muscle dramatically increases the passive tension in muscle.
- Mechanical tension can be used to improve flexibility.
A loaded exercise can be just as good (or better) than a static stretch for improving flexibility. The pullover results in peak mechanical tension for the latissimus dorsi at the bottom position.
To make the pullover most effective for improving overhead range of motion, I recommend the Hooklying variation:
Placing your feet on the bench helps maintain posterior tilt and slight lumbar flexion. You want your low back in contact with the bench. This improves the stretch-mediated tensioning of the lats. Use a slow eccentric tempo around 2-3 seconds and do 3 sets of 10-15 reps. To enhance time under tension, a 2-3 second pause in the bottom position can be added.
The most effective part of the traditional pullover occurs at end-range – the bottom position when arms are flexed overhead. As we pull out of the end-range position, the resistance applied by the dumbbell or barbell dramatically drops. When the weight is over your face (shoulders at approximately 90-110 degrees of flexion), there's little-to-no resistance to shoulder extension.
Some of Arthur Jones' most sought-after Nautilus machines were designed to address some of these limitations. However, these are rare. If you'd like to improve its resistance profile and stimulate the lats better throughout the range of motion, try the banded variation.
Banded Dumbbell Pullover
Anchor a band low behind the bench and wrap it around the dumbbell. Band resistance gradually builds as the resistance applied by the dumbbell drops off. Alternatively, a cable column set to its lowest position can work too.
Decline Bench Pullover
This shifts peak resistance earlier in the shoulder flexion range of motion. This variation makes sense for lifters who need to cut their pullover short due to shoulder pain at end-range. Also, the ability to lock your feet into the decline bench is a game-changer when going heavy.
From a resistance profile standpoint, it may be viewed as a hybrid between a free-weight pullover and a standing straight-arm cable pulldown.
To preface our discussion on pullovers for muscle-building, here are three final functional anatomy notes:
- The muscle force is the sum of active plus passive tension. (9)
- The muscle force represents the acute amount of end-to-end mechanical tension in muscle. Note: There are other important types of mechanical load that affect muscle tissue, such as forces transmitted laterally within muscle fibers. (13)
- Mechanical tension is a key driver of muscle hypertrophy. (6,13)
A simple model describes mechanical tension, muscle damage, and metabolic stress as the somewhat interdependent drivers of muscle hypertrophy. (6,13)
Recall that the pullover places a massive stretch on the latissimus dorsi and the costal fibers of pectoralis major at the bottom position. Training muscles at long lengths (stretched) promotes high mechanical tension and potentially more muscle damage.
This may explain why those unaccustomed to training the latissimus dorsi and/or costal pectoralis major in their lengthened positions are likely experience initial delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when they add the pullover.
For hypertrophy, place pullovers toward the end of the workout, aiming for 2-3 moderate-to-high (10-20) rep sets with a weight that approaches failure. Leave 1-3 reps in reserve.
The pullover undoubtedly trains part of the pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, and other muscles including the serratus anterior, triceps brachii, teres major, abs, and more. So when should you do them?
It depends. When used to restore overhead range of motion, program them frequently (3-5 times per week) to maximize total weekly time under tension. This may mean you do them on both push day and pull day. Load them lighter initially and gradually build as tolerated by the shoulder.
The pullover undoubtedly trains part of the pectoralis major. By the same logic, the chin-up does too. Yet we don't commonly program this exercise on an upper-body push day.
To be truly evidence-based, we must combine the best available research with our own experiences. Rarely does this mean hard-and-fast rules. Program the pullover how you see fit.
- Pullovers train the costal part of pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi, as well as a variety of other muscles, including triceps brachii, serratus anterior, and teres major.
- Some will benefit from pullovers as a shoulder mobility exercise, particularly variations that accentuate the stretch on the lats.
- Modify the resistance profile by adding an elastic band, using a cable machine, or performing the pullover on a decline bench.
- Training effects may be primarily driven by mechanical tension, which peaks in the bottom position (arms overhead) of the traditional pullover.
Pullovers are one of few lat exercises that don't require heavy gripping or high involvement of the mid-back (rhomboids, middle trapezius). When grip and mid-back are spent from basic exercises such as rows and pulldowns, the pullover may fit nicely into your program.
Or, if you're a contrarian, throw them in at the end of a chest session to hit the outer portion of the pecs. Just appreciate that you're training chest AND back with this classic exercise.
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- Borges E et al. Resistance training acute session: pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi and triceps brachii electromyographic activity. J Phys Ed Sport. 2018;18(2).
- Campos YD et al. Comparison of electromyographic activity during the bench press and barbell pullover exercises. Revista de Educação Física. 2014;20(2).
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- Marchetti PH et al. Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG. J Appl Biomech. 2011;27(4):380-384.
- Schoenfeld BJ. The mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and their application to resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Oct;24(10):2857-72.
- Sharkey NA et al. The entire rotator cuff contributes to elevation of the arm. J Orthop Res. 1994 Sep;12(5):699-708.
- Sherman MA et al. What is a moment arm? Calculating muscle effectiveness in biomechanical models using generalized coordinates. Proc ASME Des Eng Tech Conf. 2013 Aug;2013:V07BT10A052.
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