Of the dumbbell pullover, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been quoted as saying, “You will not believe the ache in the sternum that this movement will produce! It literally forces your chest apart and forces it into new growth.” Strong words from the owner one of the most famously built chests of all-time.

The pullover was a favorite move of some of the greatest athletes of the Golden Era of bodybuilding including The Oak, Reg Park and Franco Columbu. This exercise works not only the chest but also the lats, intercostals and serratus anterior (the muscles of the ribcage). Maximally developed intercostal muscles will give the illusion of a bigger rib cage when taking a deep breath or holding a pose because the ribs are pulled up by the intercostal muscles. Modern chests seem to be lagging behind those of the classic physiques that put this move to use on a weekly basis. 

Science Speaks

Some debate exists as to whether or not the pullover is a chest or a back move. For the answer, you can look to the research. A 2011 study entitled “Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG” published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics compared the EMG activity of pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles during the barbell pullover exercise, using eight healthy males as subjects.

The EMG activity of the pectoralis major and that of the latissimus dorsi of the right side were measured simultaneously during the pullover exercise during both the concentric and eccentric phases of the movement. The results demonstrated that the barbell pullover exercise emphasized the pectoralis major more than that of the latissimus dorsi.

Strength Coach Bret Contreras gave his two cents on the study saying, “I think the pecs are in a better position to actually move the weights, 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 of the lats rather quickly.”

In Praise of Pullovers

Maximizing muscular development requires hitting the muscles’ different functions through different ranges of motion and various angles.

The chest is no different. You gotta hit it from multiple angles. Your chest muscles control the movement of your upper arm at the shoulder joint. In other words, if your upper arm is moving in toward the front of your body, in some way, you will involve the chest. Presses and flyes are great but they don’t give you the whole picture. Pullovers round out the developmental picture and should be part of any chest routine – yes, even in the 21st century.

Pullover 101

Use the following steps to perform this forgotten move correctly

  • Lie perpendicular to the bench press, with only your shoulders supported
  • Your feet should be flat on the floor, shoulder width apart
  • Your head and neck should hang over the bench
  • Your hips should ideally be at a slightly lower angle than your shoulders
  • Grasp the dumbbells with your hands crossed in a diamond shape using your thumbs and pointer fingers (palms should be facing the ceiling)
  • The movement starts with the dumbbell over your chest, elbows bent 10–15 degrees (do not let this angle change throughout the entire movement)
  • Take in a deep breath, hold and slowly lower the weight backward over your head until the upper arms are in line with the torso, parallel to the floor
  • The weight travels in an arc-like motion toward the floor
  • Exhale and pull the dumbbell back over your chest, purposely squeezing the chest
  • Hold for a second, and then repeat the exercise

Do this movement with great purpose, focusing on the stretch and feel of the movement, keeping reps in the 12-plus range. If you have a history of shoulder problems, take great care when introducing this exercise. Unless you are injury-free and have a respectable amount of shoulder flexibility, you may need to start with very light weight or avoid it altogether. 

The Workout

Build a Titan-size chest using the pullover as your finisher.




Reverse Grip Bench Press



Weighted Dip



Dumbbell Flye



****Dumbbell Pullover        



1 Rest three minutes between sets. Go as heavy as possible each set in a reverse pyramid style.

2 Rest two minutes between sets. Perform dips with a forward lean to shift emphasis to pecs. Go as heavy as possible each set in a reverse pyramid style.

3 Rest one minute between sets. Focus on stretch and mind muscle connection.

4 Rest 90 seconds between sets. Weight is not important, emphasize stretch and mind muscle connection.


Josh Bryant, MFS, CSCS, PES, is the owner of JoshStrength.com and co-author (with Adam benShea) of the Amazon No. 1 seller Jailhouse Strong. His new book, Built to the Hilt, is now available at Amazon and EliteFTS. He is a strength coach at Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas, and holds 12 world records in powerlifting. You can connect with him on Twitter and Facebook or visit his website at www.joshstrength.com.