Dumbbell Pullovers – The Forgotten Upper Chest Exercise

Dumbbell Pullovers

In the old classic era of bodybuilding, before steroids were around, the ‘squats and milk’ routine was the number one method for getting skinny hardgainers jacked.

What most people forget though, is it was always the ‘squats, pullovers and milk’ routine – squats for the testosterone boost and whole-body muscle growth, and dumbbell pullovers for that wide and thick barrel-chest, and great back development.

Dumbbell Pullovers - Arnold

The dumbbell pullover was a staple for classic old-timers

Bodybuilding greats like Arnold, Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and Frank Zane, swore that the dumbbell pullover played a huge role in their upper body development.

Ronnie Coleman and Dorian Yates complimented the exercise for developing sweeping wide lats. Arnold, and his mentor, Reg Park, considered pullovers to be a powerful chest exercise, while Frank Zane attributed pullovers to developing his infamous serratus muscles.

Like many other bodybuilders of his time, Arnold performed pullovers throughout his bodybuilding career, because he believed the exercise was responsible for expanding his rib-cage.

Though nobody knows for sure whether pullovers can really expand your rib-cage, one thing we do know, is that it really is an excellent exercise for the upper chest.

Arnold had such thick upper chest development, that he could balance a glass of water on his upper pecs. He used to credit his glass-balancing ability to the dumbbell pullover.

Though it’d be massively convenient for you to be able to balance a cup of tea on your pecs (as opposed to on your belly, which is something I used to be able to do), there are other reasons why you might want thick upper chest development.

Why Would You Want A Thick Upper Chest?

Nowadays there’s too much focus on the flat bench press, which overdevelops the mid and lower pecs.

As a result, the flat bench press can end up making you look like you have ‘man boobs’, even if you don’t. And for guys who do have man boobs, the flat bench press can make man boobs look worse by making them stick out more.

Larry Scott - Thick Upper Chest

There's a huge difference between perfect even chest development (like Larry Scott's above) and too much mid/lower chest development.

A nice, thick upper chest can really give your chest that stone-slab-like appearance, where the surface of your pecs is like a vertical cliff-face rather than a sloping set of man boobs.

A thick upper chest with a pec separation line that extends all the way up to the sternum, is a true mark of masculinity and real chest development.

Also, if you have man boobs, a thick upper chest can really help to improve your appearance, both by pulling the breast-fat up, and by evening out the slope made by your man boobs.

The trouble however, is isolating those upper chest fibers is no easy feat.

Most people think the incline bench press is the only solution. However the trouble with incline presses, is the greater the incline, the more stress is placed on the anterior deltoid muscles of the shoulders.

I discussed in a previous article, how the incline dumbbell press helps to solve this problem. I mentioned in that article how the incline dumbbell press was Steve Reeve’s little secret to perfect square-pec development.

Steve Reeves however, was also known to do pullovers, and pullovers are another tool you can use to develop that upper chest.

Why Are Dumbbell Pullovers Such A Good Exercise For The Upper Chest?

To really grow a muscle to its maximum potential, you have to attack it from multiple different angles.

Your chest muscles control the movement of your upper arm at the shoulder joint. Any movement where your upper arm is moving in toward the front of your body, will in some way, involve the pectoralis major muscle of the chest.

Most people make the mistake of thinking that the only way to work the chest is to push something away from you, as you do in the bench press, or in a bear-hugging motion, as you do with dumbbell flys.

This type of movement is called ‘horizontal adduction’ of the upper arms. But this is only one of many different movements your chest muscles are responsible for. If you limit yourself to only this one type of movement, your chest will only develop so much.

Pullover - Upper Arm Extension

The dumbbell pullover works your chest from a whole different plane compared to the bench press, chest flys, and dips.

Here are some of the other shoulder movements your chest is responsible for:

  • Upper arm flexion, like when you are picking up a child
  • Upper arm extension, when putting the child back down
  • Upper arm adduction – when flapping the arms downward by the sides (like a bird)
  • Upper arm medial rotation, like when arm-wrestling (yeh, I always thought arm-wrestling was all in the arms, but the main muscle involved is really the chest!).

Dumbbell pullovers involve using upper arm extension. By doing this exercise, you work the upper chest from a whole different plane than if you were to do the incline dumbbell press (horizontal adduction).

So the dumbbell pullover stimulates different muscle fibers in a whole different way, that can spur on new muscle growth in the upper chest that you’ve never experienced before.

More Chest Than Lats

Though there are those bodybuilders who do pullovers to develop their lats, EMG studies have clearly shown that the pullover stimulates the pectoralis major of the chest more than the latissimus dorsi of the back.

My Experience With Dumbbell Pullovers

I started doing dumbbell pullovers without really understanding what they were for. I just did them because I heard that the classics like Reg Park and Steve Reeves used to do this exercise religiously. It had to be for a reason, so I thought I’d give it a go.

The one thing I thought pullovers would do was expand my rib cage.

Though my upper body never quite ballooned into a barrel-chest like Arnold’s, I was surprised when just a few weeks into the exercise, I looked in the mirror and noticed my upper chest had somehow thickened up!

I was totally shocked because I wasn’t doing any incline work at the time.

Needless to say, dumbbell pullovers are now a regular part of my routine.

How Do You Do Dumbbell Pullovers?

This exercise puts your arms in a bit of a weak position, so be sure to start out with a light weight, and gradually increase the resistance as your body adapts over time.

Many of the classic old-timers used to super-set dumbbell pullovers with squats. This was from the belief that deep-breathing during pullovers would help to expand the rib-cage, and there are few exercises that’ll get you to breathe deeper than squats will.

With supersets, you do one set of squats, followed immediately by a set of pullovers, then your second set of squats followed by your second set of pullovers and so on.

Personally, I don’t do this because it’s too tough. I can’t hack it. Squats are tough enough as they are, and the only way I can survive them is by stretching, walking and sitting down between sets. What I DO do however, is do my pullovers immediately after my final set of squats.

  • Lie on a bench with your head hanging over the end.
  • Grasp the dumbbell from the side or from behind.
  • Position the dumbbell over your chest with elbows slightly bent.

Dumbbell Pullovers - Top

  • Slowly lower the dumbbell over and beyond your head until your upper arms are in-line with your torso, or below the level of your torso. Breathe in deeply while doing this.

Dumbbell Pullover - Bottom

  • Slowly pull the dumbbell up and over the chest, back to the starting position. Breathe out while doing this.
  • Repeat.
Jud Dean - Dumbbell Pullover (Bodybuilding)

What If You Don't Have A Bench?

You can also do this exercise by lying on the floor, using a barbell. The trouble with this approach is it reduces your range of motion so you don't target your upper pecs as well as you can.

To help improve the range of motion, make sure your elbows are as straight as possible. Don't fully lock your elbows straight though, as this may lead to damage of the elbow joint when using heavier weights.

You can also improve the range of motion by placing a pillow under your upper back between your shoulder blades.

Another option is to do this exercise with your head hanging over the edge of your bed. You might want to get someone to hold your feet though, so you don't end up falling on your head!

How Do You Train The Chest Beyond Dumbbell Pullovers?

There are plenty of other exercises that can help develop your chest further, including chest dips, the guillotine press, and other exercises.

However, if you want to build an impressive upper body, chest exercises alone are not enough. You have to combine chest exercises with exercises that target other key areas of the body, such as the upper back and shoulders.

And there is another problem.

Too many chest exercises and too many other exercises done together can result in overtraining and your muscles not responding. If you have been training for a while with unimpressive results, then what you need is a step-by-step blueprint of what exercises to do and when.

The best blueprint for the chest is the Chest Sculpting Blueprint, which you can learn about here:

Click here to learn more about the Chest Sculpting Blueprint


Dumbbell pullovers were one of the most widely used exercises in the classic era of bodybuilding before steroids came on the scene.

Because of the way this exercise stimulates multiple muscle groups – your chest, upper back, triceps and serratus anterior muscles, this was considered by many as the single most important exercise for the upper body.

The latest studies show that the pullover is an excellent exercise for the chest, and I have found it to work the upper chest particularly well.

Just a few weeks on this exercise, and you’ll see your upper chest thickening, giving your chest that powerful stone-slab-like appearance.

So, why not get started right now? Do a few sets and let me know how you get on in the comments section below.

If you want to get the best results, by getting a uniform and powerful chest that turns heads on the beach (just like Larry Scott above did), then you'll want to add the dumbbell pullover to an excellent chest routine.

The best chest routine is one that stimulates every area of your chest, not just the upper portion. Not only that, you also have to know how to strip away that chest fat, so your muscles look defined.

Click the following link to discover how to grow muscle in every part of your chest, while torching the fat off your chest at the same time:


49 thoughts on “Dumbbell Pullovers – The Forgotten Upper Chest Exercise”

  1. But keep in your mind that arnold was on juice ; he admitted taking it in the 70s , not only arnold but also his opponent lee frregno and frank zane, bob paris were on steroids

  2. Great article and I can relate to the experience of the author. I’ve just started doing pullovers and I’ve been training for years trying to develop my lagging upper chest. I’ve always prioritized incline movements as my lower chest was always more developed.

    I’m absolutely shocked at what happened the first time I did pullovers. I started off by supersetting chest and back exercises which got my upper body well pumped and primed and then followed by 6 sets of pullovers pyramiding the weight up. Being the first time doing this exercise I felt like my sternum was being torn apart. Was very painful but did not cause injury. I focused on a slow controlled movement breathing in as deep as possible on the eccentric portion. After I finished my sets I looked in the mirror and couldn’t believe my eyes. My upper pecs were pumped, veiny and protruding out over my collarbones. The dividing line between my pecs was like a deep canyon and that slab like appearance I’d always wanted was now on show (albeit temporary due to the pump)

    This exercise hits the upper chest in a way that incline bench and flyes never could and I didn’t even yet have a good mind/muscle connection down pat being a new movement to me. It’s only a couple weeks since I started this exercise (3x a week) and I can already see my upper chest is finally filling in. I just wish I’d done these years ago. I’ll definitely be sticking to this exercise for good and can’t wait to see where this exercise takes my development in a couple months.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Bob. I had the same experience. I only started doing pullovers because I heard classic pre-steroid era bodybuilders were doing them to build upper body mass. I had no idea they were working my upper chest until I started seeing my upper pecs really sticking out in the mirror.

  3. The dumbbell pullover is one exercise along with the traditional deadlift that everyone should have in their routine.


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