Body builders love the dumbbell pullover for its strength training benefits and for working the chest and back.

You don’t have to be a body builder, though, to try this exercise. It’s suitable for many people as part of a resistance training program that can also improve cardiopulmonary function (1).

The benefits of dumbbell pullovers, the muscles worked, how to perform them well, and some variations you could try are explored in this article.

Dumbbell pullovers are a great exercise for the upper body with variations to target the chest and back muscles. The focus of the exercise is dependent on the orientation of the upper arm bone in the shoulder joint and the direction the elbows are pointed.

The movement pattern of the exercise focuses on moving the arm in the shoulder joint, which creates mobility in this area.

Another benefit? Dumbbells are an accessible piece of equipment, they can be used at home or in the gym. There are lots of different sizes and weights of dumbbells which can accommodate different people depending on their goal.

The heavier the weight used with a lower rep range will help you build muscular strength and hypertrophy. A lighter weight and higher rep range — for example more than 15 reps — will offer progress toward muscular endurance.

The pecs are the main muscles that move the weight.

In addition, the lats, teres major, triceps, anterior deltoids and — depending on the grip — the wrist flexors all play a part in this exercise.

The abdominal muscles engage with the added benefit of core work.

  1. Select an appropriate weight dumbbell and use a flat weight bench. If you’re not sure what weight to select, start light and work your way up. You could start by calculating 30% of your body weight and using the closest sized dumbbell available (2). If this feels too heavy or too light for you, go up or down accordingly.
  2. The dumbbell is in the middle of the bench.
  3. Lying flat and looking up, lie back on the bench and bring the dumbbell with you.
  4. You can keep your feet on the floor or on a part of the bench. Make sure the bench supports your back and head.
  5. The weight should be directly above your chest if you hold the end of the dumbbell with both hands.
  6. The sides of the room are visible from the elbow boney parts. The effort in the chest will be emphasized by the rotation of the upper arm bone.
  7. Try and keep your pelvis and lower back in a neutral position. Neither flatten your lower back into the bench or hyperextend it the opposite way.
  8. Take your arms back as far as you can from this starting position. Bring the upper arms with you.
  9. Try to keep your arms straight.
  10. Pull the arms up to the starting position, keeping the arms straight and flaring the elbows.
  11. Try between 8–10 reps where fatigue is felt towards the end of the set. For strength training results, multiple sets offer better training benefits compared to single sets (3), so go for 2–3 sets with rest in between.

Lie on the floor if you don’t have a bench.

Lying on the floor will make it harder to move when your arms are overhead. If you have limited mobility or an injury to the shoulder, this is useful.

The floor has a wider base of support which can be useful if you are a beginner.

Limit range of motion to modify

To maintain good form during the exercise and avoid overarching your lower back, especially if your shoulders are tight, start with a smaller range of motion. Keeping your arms straight, take them overhead to the point where you can keep your spine, ribs, and pelvis still.

You should work for more range of motion each time you do this exercise.

Incorporate more work for the glutes and core

Lying on the bench can be a good place to focus on working the lats and other muscles.

“Place the dumbbell on the bench so that it is within arm’s reach and lie on the bench with the back of your shoulders, neck, and head supported.”

Pick up the dumbbell in both hands and press your feet into the floor to lift your hips. Keep your knees bent.

The weight is above your chest when you extend your arms.

Turn your elbow to point. This will help you engage the lats on the pullover by rotating your arm bone.

Lower the hips down as you breathe in, taking the arms back overhead.

If you hold a soccer ball between your elbow you can keep them in.

Keeping the arms straight and the elbow in, breathe out, and bring your arms to the start position, lifting the hips up in line with knees and shoulders.

Use a medicine ball

Placing your hands on the sides of a medicine ball means the palms of the hands face inwards which can support good positioning of your elbows and upper arms. Sometimes this variation is more comfortable and easier to maintain good wrist positioning.

If you are new to the exercise, this option is a good one.

Use a barbell

Barbells can be useful if you have experience of the exercise and are looking to use a heavier weight. In this case, it’s a good idea to use a spotter too.

When using a barbell means the palms of the hands will face forwards, making it easier to flare the elbows outwards to work the pecs more than the lats (2).

Use a stability ball instead of a bench

Lying on a stability ball is still a good option if you want to work your pecs and have more comfortable support for your head, neck, and upper back.

Use a decline bench

For an added challenge, lie on a decline bench and use a dumbbell in each hand.

The exercise is more challenging due to the positioning of the body on a decline and the fact that the arms move overhead, making it more difficult to find range of motion at the shoulders.

The chest and lats contract as the arms come back to the starting position with more range of motion.

Remember to keep the ribs down and focus on range of motion at the shoulders, rather than lifting the middle back.

This variation is not suitable for people with high blood pressure because your head is lower than your hips.

  • Due to the position of your body during the eccentric phase of the pullover when the arms go back overhead, the ribcage has lots of room to expand laterally. So, remember to breathe deeply to get the most out of the movement.
  • If you want to involve the lats in the exercise, angle your elbows outward to work on the pecs more or inward to involve them.
  • You should be aware of the range of your motion. If the mid to lower back arches excessively to bring the arms overhead, focus on the shoulder movement rather than the ribs.
  • When you bring your arms back to the starting position, keep your arms straight and avoid bending your elbow. If you bend your elbow behind your head, the exercise will change from targeting the pecs to the triceps.

Adding dumbbell pullovers to a strength training program will help your pecs, lats and core, depending on your set up.

The dumbbell pullover is an accessible exercise for many people, whether you prefer to exercise at the gym or at home.