The dumbbell pullover is a strength training exercise well known and loved by body builders 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).

This article explores the benefits of dumbbell pullovers, the muscles worked, how to perform them well, and some variations you could try — whether you’re new to exercise or experienced in training with weights.

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

The movement pattern of the exercise focuses on moving the arm in the shoulder joint, therefore creating 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 during dumbbell pullovers.

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

With focus on technique, correct breathing, and placement of the spine, the abdominal muscles also engage, giving you 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. Hold the dumbbell in both hands and sit near the end of the bench.
  3. Recline back on the bench bringing the dumbbell with you, lying flat and looking up.
  4. Keep your feet flat on the floor or on a stable part of the bench. Make sure your upper back and the back of your head are supported by the bench.
  5. Hold the end of the dumbbell with both hands and extend the arms straight up so that the weight is directly above your chest.
  6. Point the boney parts of the elbows outwards to look at the sides of the room. This rotates the upper arm bone inwardly slightly which will emphasize the effort in the chest.
  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. From this starting position, breathe in and take your arms back overhead as far as you can. Aim to bring the upper arms alongside your ears.
  9. Try and keep your arms straight but not locked.
  10. Breathe out and pull the arms up to the starting position, keeping the arms straight and flaring the elbows outwards.
  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 mean there is less range of motion available when your arms go overhead. This is useful if you find you have limited mobility or an injury to the shoulder joint.

Additionally, the floor provides 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.

Each time you do this exercise, work for more range of motion, maintaining good form on each rep.

Incorporate more work for the glutes and core

To focus on working the lats more, as well as the glutes and core muscles, change your orientation when lying on the bench.

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

Pick up the dumbbell in both hands and press your feet into the floor to lift your hips in line with your knees and shoulders. Keep your knees bent, directly above your feet.

Extend your arms bringing the weight above your chest to the start position.

Turn your elbows to point towards your knees. This will externally rotate your upper arm bone in the shoulder joint to engage the lats on the pullover.

Breathing in, take the arms back overhead and lower the hips down towards the floor.

Imagine holding a soccer ball between your elbows to keep them in and avoid flaring them out for this variation.

Breathing out, keeping the arms straight and the elbows in, bring your arms to the start position and lift the hips back 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.

This option is good to try if you are new to the exercise.

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

If you’re looking for more challenging core stability in addition to working your pecs, lying on a stability ball still offers comfortable support for the head, neck, and upper back, while on a less stable surface compared to the bench.

Use a decline bench

For an added challenge and for those already experienced with dumbbell pullovers, lie on a decline bench and use a dumbbell in each hand.

Due to the positioning of the body on a decline and with gravity assisting as the arms move overhead, it is possible to find more range of motion at the shoulders, making the exercise more challenging.

With more range of motion, the chest and lats stretch further before they contract as the arms come back to the starting position.

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

Your head is lower than your hips in this version of the exercise, so this variation is not suitable for people with high blood pressure.

  • 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.
  • Choose a focus of the exercise — angle your elbows outward to work on the pecs more or angle them inward to involve the lats to a greater extent.
  • Be aware of the range of your motion. If the mid to lower back arches excessively to bring the arms overhead, focus on more on the movement at the shoulder rather than compensating by flaring the ribs.
  • Keep your arms straight and avoid bending your elbows, especially when bringing your arms back to the starting. position. If you bend your elbows when your arms are behind your head, the exercise will change from targeting the pecs to targeting the triceps.

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

Because of its various modifications, the dumbbell pullover is an accessible exercise for many people, whether you prefer to exercise at the gym or at home.