Dumbbell Pullover for Back vs Chest

When building a solid and broad back, we often think of exercises like pull-ups or barbell rows. But did you know one of the primary functions of the latissimus muscles is to pull your arms over your body?

For this reason, the dumbbell pullover is one of the best exercises to target your lats. And you can also use it to activate your chest and upper abs.

But the muscles used depend on how you perform the exercise. So let’s look closer at how to do a dumbbell pullover for back vs chest.

Dumbbell Pullover Exercise

What Is a Dumbbell Pullover?

The dumbbell pullover is a versatile exercise that targets multiple muscle groups in the upper body. You do it by pulling a dumbbell over your body while lying on a bench.

However, it’s essential to understand the mechanics of the pullover exercise to activate the right muscles. The sections below will explain the muscles used with each variation.

Dumbbell Pullover Muscles Worked

The primary muscles worked during a dumbbell pullover are the upper latissimus dorsi or lats. These are the largest muscles of the back inserted in your sides and up near your armpits.

Dumbbell pullovers can also work your chest and serratus muscles during the top half of the range of motion. Mainly when using the straight arm technique.

If you’re not familiar, the serratus are finger-like muscles attached to the rib cage just below your chest.

Dumbbell Pullover Muscles Worked

Dumbbell Pullover for Back vs Chest

The main difference between a dumbbell pullover for back vs chest is your arm position and the range of motion used.

Dumbbell Pullover for Back

To target your back muscles, keep your arms bent more and flare your elbows out. This bent arm position puts more load on the lats and less on the chest.

Think about keeping the dumbbell close to your head as you perform the exercise. It’s okay to feel your chest but focus on the stretch through your lats.

  • Bend your arms more

  • Flare your elbows out

  • Keep the dumbbell closer to your head

  • Focus on the lat stretch at the bottom of the range of motion

How To Do A Dumbbell Pullover For Chest

While the dumbbell pullover is not a direct chest exercise, there are ways to involve the pectorals in the movement. Start with your elbows closer together and keep your arms as straight as possible throughout the exercise.

In addition, pull the dumbbell further towards your feet at the top. You will still feel your lats doing some work, but focus on squeezing your chest and serratus at the top of the range of motion.

  • Keep your arms straight

  • Hold your elbows closer together

  • Focus more on the top half of the range of motion

How To Do A Dumbbell Pullover For Back vs Chest

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Dumbbell Pullover Body Position

Before beginning the exercise, you can lie lengthwise as you usually would or lie with your body across the bench.

Usually, I recommend lying across the bench so you can drop your hips and get more stretch through your lats. In addition, the cross-bench position gives you more leverage when using heavy dumbbells.

To do this, squat down with your back facing the bench and put your upper shoulders in the center. Then place your feet flat on the floor to provide a sturdy base.

Bent Arm Dumbbell Pullover Body Position

Dumbbell Pullover Hand Placement

The next step is getting a grip on the dumbbell. I like to set the dumbbell on the bench before I lie down, so it’s within reach.

Unlike other exercises, you don’t hold the dumbbell handle. Instead, wrap both your hands around the inside of one end of the dumbbell, as shown below.

With your back on the bench, raise the dumbbell to arm’s length over your chest. From this starting position, you’re ready to do a dumbbell pullover.

Dumbbell Pullover Hand Placement

How To Do a Bent Arm Dumbbell Pullover

Hold the dumbbell straight in front of your face with your hands on the inside of the top plate. Now slowly lower the dumbbell over your head while bending your arms slightly.

Continue lowering the weight until you feel a stretch through your lats. Then pull the dumbbell back up to the starting position by squeezing your lats.

Repeat this movement for the desired number of reps, then carefully place the dumbbell back on the bench beside you.

To recap, here are the step-by-step directions:

  1. Lie across a bench with your shoulders in the center
  2. Hold the dumbbell with your hands overlapped on the inside of the top end
  3. Lower the weight over your head until you feel a stretch through your lats
  4. Pull the weight back up to the starting position by squeezing your lats
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps and set the dumbbell down

Bent Arm Dumbbell Pullover Video

Bent Arm Dumbbell Pullover Form

When doing dumbbell pullovers for your back, the key is to keep your arms bent throughout the movement. But do not extend your arms to move the weight.

Think about flaring your elbows out and pointing your fingers towards the middle of the dumbbell. Also, focus on feeling the stretch in the bottom half of the range of motion.

Bent Arm Dumbbell Pullover Form
Bent Arm Dumbbell Pullover Arm Position

How To Do a Straight Arm Dumbbell Pullover

Hold the dumbbell straight in front of your chest with your hands on the inside of the top plate. Now slowly lower the dumbbell over your head while keeping your arms relatively straight.

Lower the weight until it’s about even with the bench. Then raise the dumbbell back to the starting position by pulling from your serratus and squeezing your chest.

Repeat this movement for the desired number of reps, then carefully place the dumbbell back on the bench beside you.

To recap, here are the step-by-step directions:

  1. Lie across a bench with your shoulders in the middle
  2. Hold the dumbbell with your hands overlapped on the inside of the top end
  3. Lower the weight over your head until it’s about even with the bench
  4. Raise the dumbbell back to the starting position by pulling with your serratus and squeezing your chest
  5. Repeat for the desired number of reps and set the dumbbell down

Straight Arm Dumbbell Pullover Video

Straight Arm Dumbbell Pullover Form

When doing a dumbbell pullover for chest, it’s critical to keep your arms as straight as possible. Because pulling your upper arms together is one of the primary jobs of the pectoral muscles.

In addition, focus on the top half of the range of motion where your chest does more of the work.

Straight Arm Dumbbell Pullover Form
Straight Arm Dumbbell Pullover Arm Position

Dumbbell Pullover Variations

So far, we’ve looked at the dumbbell pullover performed on a flat bench. But you can also do an incline or decline version as well.

Incline Dumbbell Pullover

An incline dumbbell pullover uses an incline bench at an angle of 15-45 degrees. The angle of the bench puts the muscles under more tension when your arms extend behind you.

Decline Dumbbell Pullover

A decline dumbbell pullover uses a bench with a downward angle. The decline puts the muscles under more tension when your arms pull over your chest.

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Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives

If you don’t have dumbbells, you can still perform the pullover exercise using a barbell, cable, machine, or weight plate.

Barbell Pullover

The barbell pullover is performed similarly to the bent-arm dumbbell pullover, except for how you hold the weight.

For this exercise, grab the barbell or EZ bar with an overhand grip about shoulder-width apart. Then perform the pullover movement while keeping your arms bent.

Cable Pullover

The cable pullover uses a rope or bar attachment. Adjust the pulley to about head level and stand facing the cable.

Grab the handle, so your arms are extended straight out in front of you. Now pull the handle down towards your hips.

Dumbbell Pullover Alternative

Machine Pullover

A pullover machine consists of a seat with a padded bar that moves over your head. This machine is great for replicating the bent-arm dumbbell pullover for lats.

Plate Pullover

Finally, the plate pullover uses a weight plate instead of a dumbbell. This exercise is better for targeting your lats because your upper arms are wider apart.

Hypertrophy Training Program

The dumbbell pullover is a handy exercise for hitting your lats without doing a row or pulldown. And you can even use it to activate your chest. But to reach your overall fitness goals, you need a complete resistance training plan designed for muscle gain.

To maximize muscle growth (aka hypertrophy), you should adjust ten specific training variables. Check out my free hypertrophy training program to see how to optimize your workouts.

Hypertrophy Training
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