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

Summary

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:

https://chestsculpting.com/how-to-lose-chest-fat/

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

  1. Garry,
    there is an imbalance between my left and right pec. my left pec seems bigger than my right pec. How do i even out the imbalance ?

    Reply
    • Hi Venkat

      It depends on how big the difference is. Some times it can be genetic, other times it’s because of a training defect – a postural/positional problem, or using too much effort with one side of your body. If it’s the latter, then you need to correct the defect in your training. Also, if you are concerned more about symmetry than overall size, then stop training the bigger side, and only train the smaller side using a dumbbell. Do this for as long as it takes for the smaller pec to catch up.

      Reply
  2. Damien  hey Garry I brought your how to loose man boobs love it  on my way to work and I’m 13 hours into a fast thanks for everything I’ve lost near 5 kg in 4 weeks and getting pretty muscley and doing well pretty sure boobs are slowly going down but got a lot of loose skin to.

    Reply
  3. Damien Also Garry what do you thInk? I swapped cereal for yoghurt is that a good move or not I no its dairy and I’m worried about it raising insulin? What do u think I should do I figured it was better than milk and cereal also any snack tips I can Have sometimes I’ve been eating rice cakes? Sometimes I need something other than nuts and fruit to fill me a bit more, also what do u think about cuppa soup don’t get a lot of time to eat at work but need something.

    Reply
    • Swapping cereal for yogurt is an excellent way to go! Yogurt can be both good and bad. On one hand it can contain a lot of carbs (especially those flavor-enhanced commercial varieties), while on the other, it can contain healthful probiotics (i.e. the traditionally fermented stuff).

      Regarding snacks, it’s hard at first when you’re going low-carb (no cakes, biscuits, croissants, potato chips, or chocolate), but with a little creativity, you can find lots of different high fat/high protein alternatives. Aside from fruit, nuts’n seeds, here are a few examples: almond butter, eggs, jerky, canned salmon or tuna, sardines, smoked salmon and cold shrimp.

      Soup is fine, as long as it’s meat/veg based, and not chock-full of carbs and artificial ingredients.

      Remember the 80/20 principle. You don’t have to be obsessive with your diet by eliminating all carbs completely. It’s ok to enjoy the occasional treat :)

      Reply
    • Your sternum will strengthen over time. I used to get some very concerning cracking, popping and even pain in my sternum when I was doing dips, but now I experience no such thing, even when doing very heavily weighted dips. If the cracking and popping is particularly severe, you might consider lowering the weight a little, and increasing the weight gradually over time.

      The exercise does hit your triceps, which isn’t such a bad thing. A common mistake that people make with this exercise, is they bend their arms as they lower the weight, and straighten their arms as they raise the weight. This will increase the involvement of the triceps. You can reduce (though not completely eliminate) the involvement of the triceps by making sure your elbows stay fixed at the same angle (slightly bent) throughout the movement.

      Reply
  4. I know you have talked about the importance of a strong back before but I am really looking some key free weight workouts for this.  I have had problems with my back in the past because of a herniated disc and when I was diagnosed with this I was told I need to work on my overall back strength.  The problem is I don’t really know where to start.

    Reply
    • Hi David

      With a herniated disc, you have to be very careful about how you exercise and which exercises you do. I highly suggest you work closely with a physiotherapist to establish a set of back exercises that you can handle without causing any damage. He/she will likely tell you to start with a very light weight with slow and controlled movements, and to progress very slowly and carefully in how much you lift.

      I hope it works out for you, and do let us know how you get on.

      Reply
  5. The reason why I came to this website was because I used to have a big chest but have not worked out as much as I should for quite a while now.It seems to me that a well sculpted chest comes along with a strong back.

    Reply
    • Hi Johnny, congratulations on getting your hands on the program. Follow the exercise regimen I set out in my book. Whichever chest exercise you choose to do three times a week – whether it’s the bench press, pushups, or dips, add in a single set of dumbbell pullovers at the end.

      The way this works is that the portion of your pecs worked by dumbbell pullovers are partially pre-exhausted by any of the three above chest exercises. Rather than overwork your chest by doing three sets of say pushups, followed by three sets of pullovers, you need only three sets of pushups followed by just one set of pullovers to fully exhaust the upper portion of your pecs that are targeted by this exercise.

      Hope that makes sense.

      Reply
    • Not very good in my opinion, as the incline reduces the effective range of motion. Since the movement is in an arc, as soon as your arms are vertical, there is no longer any resistance against gravity.

      If on the other hand, you could do decline pullovers, where your head is in a lower position than your legs, then you would be increasing the effective range of motion. However, the greater the decline, the more you will focus on your mid and lower pecs, and the less on the upper pecs.

      It’s also very difficult to assume this position with the equipment available in most gyms. You may be better off simulating the movement using an overhead pulley while standing. With a pulley, you can have an effective range of motion throughout the entire movement. But this would mean that rather than just focus on the upper chest, you are focusing on the entire chest.

      So if you want to put the main focus on the upper pecs, your best bet is to stick to the old-school classic, horizontal dumbbell pullover.

      Reply
  6. Hi Garry, excellent recommendation. But when I do it I feel it just below the lats, mostly. The chest stretches but dont feel the burn.

    Any idea why?

    Reply
    • Hey Andy

      The burn or pump is not a pre-requisite for muscle growth. Keep with the exercise, and you’ll see your upper chest thicken. I get best results when I do my dumbbell pullovers immediately after doing squats.

      Reply
  7. Hi Garry great info on pullovers. Some ppl say it is a lat exercise but I feel it in my chest. But not in upper chest but ribcage area. Can u shed some light on this?

    Also is 3 sets of dips followed by one set of pullover 3 times a week sufficient for chest? Thanks Garry.

    Reply
    • Hi Moorthy

      According to a lot of classic bodybuilders, the dumbbell pullover is an excellent ribcage expander, so you are right that you also feel it in your ribcage area.

      3 sets of dips followed by one set of pullovers 3 times a week is an excellent workout for the chest. But remember, you should never stick to just training the chest. The secret to losing man boobs and getting a great body, lies in training the whole body. Even if you are only concerned about the shape of the chest, at the very least, you have to also train your upper back muscles, like I discuss in this article:

      https://chestsculpting.com/2-powerful-keys-to-a-wide-chest/

      To learn more about whole-body weight training for losing man boobs, check out the following article:

      https://chestsculpting.com/how-to-lose-chest-fat

      Reply
  8. Hey Garry,
    Please recommend me which one of them should I buy and which one of them would be fastest way to reduce my man boobs. I don’t want my college life to suck and ruin my teenage. I am 17 years old and I will do anything to become masculine and look manly. So please help me choose one of them. Thank you in advance.

    Sorry forgot to state the link- https://chestsculpting.com/products/

    Reply
  9. great Information Garry…. I had googled lot of upper chest workouts and the results are incline bench,barbell press,flyes. Also it had tried all,but nothing feed me good…I think this makes me a perfect chest…
    Thank u a lot

    Reply
  10. Hi there,

    What are your thoughts about the ab-wheel?! It’s basically the same movement. And also chopping wood and slamming poles in the ground.

    Krgds,

    Kristian Kragt

    The Netherlands.

    Reply
    • Kristian. EMG studies have shown that the ab-wheel rollout is the most powerful ab exercise there is for building those ab muscles. I understand why you would say it is the same movement as the dumbbell pullover–your arms do make the same movement, but since with the ab-wheel rollout your knees are in contact with the ground, a lot of the work is done by your abs, so your arms play less of a role than they do in the dumbbell pullover.

      Reply
      • The ab-wheel is brilliant, but once you have mastered it the only advance you can do is more reps, which is good. To advance further try the olympic barbel for ab-rollouts, you can add weight and make it more challenging. When rolling out I always make sure the tip of my nose touches the floor when at full extension and on your last rep hold the extension for a few seconds, sort of like a plank, this really tests you!

        Reply
  11. Good stuff Garry, I have done db pullovers for years, but i don’t lie on the bench like in the drawings, I lie across the bench with my upper back/shoulders on the bench, I feel I have more muscles activated this way, legs, core etc, I have never done it the way in the drawings, but I think I could handle more weight this way, my max this way is 40kg, the limiting factor is getting the db off the bench, I always train alone.

    Reply
    • Since this exercise predominantly targets your chest, low rep/heavy weight training is better.

      High rep works well for muscle groups that contain lots of slow twitch endurance fibers, e.g. legs, back and biceps.

      Reply
        • Hey Al. Keep at it, as your sternum and the tendon attachments to your sternum get stronger with this exercise over time, you’ll start to feel it more in your muscles. I had the same experience when doing dips.

          Reply
          • Thanks again, Garry. How much weight can one normally do with dumbells? With barbells I think we can do more but with dumbbells how much can stronger ppl usually do? Currently I am working with 20 kg dumbbell.

          • Depends on how strong you are, but you are right, you can lift more with a barbell because you don’t need to rely on those stabilizers as much.

    • You can do it with two dumbbells, but I don’t see the point, when you can pile on all the weight you need with just one dumbbell.

      The difference would be that you would need to work harder to stabilize two dumbbells, so muscular effort will be siphoned away from your chest and lats, and toward the stabilizers in your arms and shoulders.

      Also, using two dumbbells will force a wider grip, which means you’ll focus more on your outer pecs, as opposed to the mid pec where you get the pec separation line.

      Since the pullover is one of the best exercises for building upper pecs and especially for building that pec separation line in your upper chest, I’d say you’d get better results using one dumbbell.

      Reply
      • How much weight indicates we’re strong at pullover? For bench press, it is 1.5 times our bodyweight, so is there any standard for pullover?

        Reply
  12. actually this resisted movement activates the sternal head of pec major…. that is not upper chest. possibly know your anatomy before writing so many words in this article.

    upper chest (clavicular head) is mainly activated by resisted cross body front raises to 90%.

    Reply

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