Every article written about the pull-over in the past 10 years calls it a "lost" or "forgotten" exercise. But after seeing this over and over again enough times, I've come to the realization that they haven't been forgotten. They're simply misunderstood!
For example, it seems that most guys who do pull-overs these days only do it as a chest exercise. That's understandable, since previous research has shown higher activation of the chest muscles compared to back muscles during barbell pull-overs.1 But I would argue that this move is equally deserving of a place in your back routine. If you do it right, it can improve both your ab strength and your overhead lifts.
Let's breathe some new life into this old-school classic.
Pull Your Way to Doorway-Cracking Lats
The lats, short for latissimus dorsi, are the largest muscles of the back. Triangular in shape, they originate at the lower back and run up either side of the spine to the humerus. The lats primarily extend, adduct, and internally rotate the shoulder, but they also act as lumbar extensors, meaning they help arch the lower back.
This diverse set of muscle actions means the lats are involved in tons of exercises. Sure, they help get you up to the bar during a pull-up, but they also help keep your chest vertical during a squat and prevent your back from rounding during a deadlift. That's right: If your lower-body lifts aren't where you want them to be, the answer might be in your upper back.
So let's all go gun our lats, right? Perfect—just pick an exercise that allows for a full range of motion and intense loading when the lats are maximally contracted. Pull-ups and rows are solid choices here, but they're by no means the only ones.
How about free-weight pull-overs using a dumbbell or barbell? The problem with these is what happens at the end of each rep. Once you return to the starting position, the weight hovers directly over the shoulder joint and you lose tension on the lats right when you want them to be flexed as hard as possible. Sure, you get an amazing stretch on the way down, but you lose the benefit of constant tension. It's similar to when you're doing dumbbell chest flyes. The pecs stretch nicely on the way down, but no matter how hard you squeeze on the way up, the pecs do virtually nothing when the weights return to the starting position.
The solution? Leave the free-weight pull-over to chest day, and try the supine cable pull-over with a cable machine for your back. You'll get constant tension throughout the movement and even a little extra range of motion to demolish your lats. Most importantly, you can finish the movement with the lats in a fully contracted position.
Supine Cable Pullover
Think of it as a straight-arm lat pull-down while lying down, but with added range of motion on the concentric portion of the movement. This pull-over variation is also a great option for lifters who have elbow pain when performing pull-ups or rows, allowing them to train around injuries.
Perform 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps after a multijoint back exercise like barbell rows or pull-ups.
Use a weight that leaves you just shy of failure.
Pull the bar until your arms are nearly parallel to the ground.
Ribs and Fibs
Old-school bodybuilders have long praised pull-overs for their ability to expand the rib cage. Theoretically, a bigger rib cage creates a bigger "canvas" on which to build a bigger chest. But is this true or just anatomical folklore?
To find the answer, we need to look back to the function of the lats. When we use our lats to reach overhead, there's usually an accompanying "flare" of the ribcage—the belly sucks in, the lower back arches, and the ribs lift up and away from the pelvis. This rib cage expansion is most likely just an optical illusion created by arching the back. The more you arch your back, the bigger your rib cage looks.
This looks great on stage and on black-and-white posters. In the weight room, however, arching your back excessively while reaching overhead—especially when you've got weights in your hands—can spell trouble for your back and shoulders. A number of things can contribute to the problem, including weak abs and stiff lats that conspire to pull you into anterior pelvic tilt. But guess what? A pull-over variation known as the "three-month-position pull-over" is a great way to work on both of those problems at the same time.
Named for the age at which babies start lying on their back and grabbing their toes, this pull-over variation strengthens the abs while simultaneously inhibiting the pull of the lats on the lower back and rib cage. It also doubles as a lat stretch, adding much-needed length to an often short and stiff muscle group.
3-Month Position Pullover
To perform it, lie down on your back with your knees and hips bent at 90 degrees. Posteriorly tilt your pelvis by pushing your lower back into the floor, turn your feet slightly inward, and press your big toes together. Hold a dumbbell or kettlebell with straight arms up toward the ceiling, then inhale through your nose to fill your belly and your back with air (imagine trying to lift yourself off the ground with your breath). That's the starting position.
Now lower the weight toward the floor behind your head while keeping your lower back flat and ribs down. Hover the weight just above the ground and exhale fully, squeezing your abs to prevent your ribs from flaring and your back from arching. Pull the weight back to the starting position and repeat
The biggest difference between the three-month-position pull-over and a traditional pull-over is rib cage position. Normally, the rib cage is allowed to lift up to enhance the range of motion of the exercise, but in this case, the rib cage is pinned down with the abs. You get an intense isometric contraction that has tremendous carryover to exercises like squats, deadlifts, and even overhead presses, where a neutral core position leads to safer lifting and better force transfer from the ground to the bar.
During your warm-up, do 1 set of 5 reps with a light weight to enhance core activation.
During your workout, do 3 sets of 5 reps with a moderate weight.
Let the exhale control the intensity, not the weight (i.e., you don't need to go heavy).
Use in place of an anti-extension ab exercise like a plank or ab-wheel roll-out.
Try this sample back workout that utilizes the pull-over for lat strength and length:
- Marchetti, P. H., & Uchida, M. C. (2011). Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 27(4).