An Ode to the Pullover

The pullover is the duck a l’orange of the exercise world. A hugely popular exercise with the top bodybuilders of the 70’s and 80’s, the pullover has since been bastardised by the general population and consequently fallen out of favour. So, is the pullover due a comeback? I think it might be…

What is the pullover?

Guess this is a pretty good place to start. The movement of the pullover exercise is simple extension (concentric) and flexion (eccentric) at the shoulder whilst the body remains stable. It’s important we understand the muscles involved in the pullover if seeking to evaluate its potential uses.

Shoulder extension

The following muscles facilitate extension of the shoulder:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Teres major
  • Pectoralis major (sternal head)
  • Deltoid (posterior head)
  • Triceps brachii

During the pullover, these muscles work concentrically to produce the ‘pullover’ part of the movement (shoulder extension) and then work eccentrically to control shoulder flexion.

How to use the pullover

  • Lat assistance exercise

Because of the size and number of different attachment/insertion points associated with the latissimus dorsi, bodybuilders have attempted to attack it from all angles. Traditionally, the pullover has been used with a view to developing lat width or ‘wings’. Whilst such colloquialisms may not hold entirely true, pullovers can certainly be felt in that point under the armpit where the lats and teres major converge.

Focus on pulling the weight over with the elbows and use a neutral or externally rotated shoulder position to get the greatest contribution from the lats. I think that the lats, more so than another muscle group, require you to ‘feel’ the movement in order to really get into them.

  • Chest assistance exercise

Although commonly seen as a lat-based exercise, EMG data from Marchetti and Uchida (2011) suggests that the pec major is activated to greater extent during the pullover. Given that the majority of chest-based exercises focus more towards horizontal adduction at the shoulder, the pullover would seem to be a worthwhile inclusion if seeking more complete chest development.

Internally rotating the shoulder will help to maximise the contribution from the pecs as this facilitates a more favourable line of pull. This can be achieved by performing pullovers with dumbbells or plates.

  • Serratus strengthener?

The contribution of the serratus (and pec minor to some extent) during the pullover is a much argued point, so let’s examine this with some anatomy. Concentrically, the serratus acts to protract, upwardly rotate and elevate the scapula. Isometrically/eccentrically, it works to resist or control scapular retraction. During shoulder flexion the scapula should upwardly rotate, so we should therefore have a little contribution, but we wouldn’t expect anything major to be going on here.

Decker et al (1999) performed an EMG study to evaluate the serratus contribution to various exercises. The authors reported that a standing shoulder extension exercise (the motion of a pullover) elicited less than 20% of maximal voluntary isometric contraction. The exercise ranked a distant 8th out of the 8 exercises they evaluated for serratus contribution, this was despite generating comparable mechanical forces. Long story short, if want to develop your wings and build those serratus, there are better exercises to choose than the pullover.

The ‘hidden’ benefits

  • Improve shoulder mobility

I won’t dwell on this for too long. We all know that the best way to stretch is with full ROM resistance exercise and I also featured the pullover in my four best exercises article. Make sure you don’t over-exert yourself on this one, either with load or with stretch. Keep all the motion coming from the shoulder and stay within a comfortable, pain-free ROM. My standard pullover is prescribed in a dead bug-like position with hips and the knees at 90o to help ensure that all the motion does come from that old shoulder.

  • Integrated ab training

On that note, ever think about what the shoulder’s doing during dead bugs and aleknas? That’s right, shoulder extension. So long as you focus on resisting lumbar extension as you’re taken back into shoulder flexion, the pullover becomes a fantastic anti-extension exercise for the abdominals.

If you want to turn the abs element up a notch from my standard variation then you can do two things: a) lengthen the lever arm by extending your knees, and b) finish the concentric portion of the movement with a strong isometric crunch-type contraction. Speaking from personal experience, I’ve found that heavy pullovers induce the greatest DOMS in the abs, although Zercher squats and chin ups would push them fairly close.

Pullovers make a particularly fantastic pairing with hanging leg raises. It that instance, the abs are stretched from the bottom as the hips extend. In the case of the pullover, the abs are stretched from the top as the shoulder moves back into flexion.


Do you incorporate the pullover in your own or in your athlete’s training? Let me know your thoughts by dropping a comment below.

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