The dumbbell pullover has been a staple in many bodybuilding programs. In this article I’m going to 1) help you understand which upper-body muscles it best helps to develop, based on muscle activation research, 2) show you a quick and easy tip we use to make this exercise safer on your shoulders, and 3) a dumbbell pullover variation that’ll help you get even more benefit out of this classic exercise.
Use Dumbbell Pullovers on Chest Day, Instead of Back Day
Many trainers and lifters alike often refer to dumbbell pullovers as primarily a lats exercise. However, a 2011 study in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics showed that barbell pullovers activate the pecs to a higher degree than the lats. So it makes sense that dumbbell pullovers, since they’re the very same motion, also activate the pecs better than the lats.
The practical application of this is that we now feel dumbbell pullovers are better placed in chest-focused workouts instead of back-focused training days. However, if you train back and chest on the same day, then you’re already set.
Save Your Shoulders! Use Two Dumbbells Instead of One
Our first training priority, before getting folks bigger, stronger and leaner, is not to injure anyone during the workout. In order to ensure safety and prevent injury, we compare the risk versus the reward of every exercise. In fact, using exercises that are easy on the joints but still place maximal stress on muscle is the premise behind all the exercises and techniques in my Joint Friendly Strength Training DVD.
With that in mind, when using dumbbell pullovers we prefer to use two dumbbells, one in each hand, instead of the traditional method of both hands on a single dumbbell. By using two dumbbells with your palms facing each other (i.e., neutral grip), your arms are spread a bit wider than when holding a single dumbbell. This position increases the subacromial space, potentially reducing unnecessary impingement stress on the shoulders when your arms reach overhead.
Use A Decline Bench to Change the Force Angle
To help you understand how to create a new training stimulus from a staple bodybuilding exercise such as the dumbbell pullover, you need a quick biomechanics lesson, using biceps curls as an easy example, which we’ll then apply to dumbbell pullovers:
During a biceps curl, the point in which the muscle is maximally stimulated is when the lever arm is at its longest. This occurs when the forearm is at a 90-degree angle with the load vector.
If you’re using free weights, gravity is your load vector. Therefore, the point of maximal loading would be when your elbow reaches 90 degrees of flexion or when your forearm is parallel to the floor. The farther away you move from a 90-degree angle with the load vector, the shorter the lever arm becomes and the less work your biceps have to do. That’s why in a free-weight biceps curl, the closer you move toward the bottom or top of the range, the less work your biceps get because the lever arm is shortening. That’s precisely why people tend to rest between reps at the top and bottom position when doing barbell or dumbbell curls.
When we apply this reality to performing dumbbell pullovers on a flat bench, we quickly see that the point of maximal loading is when your arms are directly overhead. In other words, your muscles are working the hardest when your arms are parallel to the floor, because this is the point where the lever arm is at its longest. And when performing dumbbell pullovers on a flat bench, the exercise gets easier, and your working muscle get less stimulation the closer your arms get to being perpendicular to the floor. This is why performing dumbbell pullovers while lying on a decline bench can be a great complement to using a flat bench.
When lying on a flat bench you create the most load (i.e., point of maximal loading) on the working muscles in their lengthened position. However, when lying on a decline bench, you create the most load on the working muscles closer to their midrange position because your arms don’t become parallel with the floor until farther into the range of motion.
In short, modifying the angle from which you perform dumbbell pullovers can give you another way to apply this battle-tested exercise.
The idea isn’t to exclusively use one type bench or the other to perform dumbbell pullovers; the idea is to alternate both versions (flat bench and decline bench) to create a maximal force angle at different points in the range of motion, which can only help to keep your workouts more comprehensive and more effective.