If you were to have a look at the average man’s chest program you would undoubtedly see the bench press near the top of his list of selected exercises. It almost goes without saying that the bench press is one of the most popular movements in the gym and I’ve written about it before in a previous article.
In addition to performing the bench press as their main movement for the chest, men will often include various ancillary or supplementary exercises to help with their chest development, with the most common exercises being things like dumbbell presses (flat, incline or decline), dumbbell or cable flys, and weighted dips. In most cases the majority of men will not deviate much beyond these few exercises and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. They will most certainly get the job done.
But what if you were sick and tired of doing cable flys? What if your shoulders couldn’t handle weighted dips anymore? Are there any other exercises that can effectively target the chest?
Why yes there is.
Let me introduce you to the dumbbell pullover.
The pullover is a long forgotten exercise that used to be considered a mainstay for most gym goers back in the golden era of bodybuilding. In fact, back then pullovers were considered the equivalent of a squat for the upper body and were regaled with as much esteem. Guys back then were convinced that you needed to include pullovers in your routine if you wanted to develop a wide and thick chest just as much as you needed to include squats to build large and powerful legs.
The relationship between the pullover and the squat couldn’t be more evident than by the way in which the pullover was performed. Back then it was done as a “breathing pullover” much in the same fashion as performing a set of breathing squats. In fact, some of you may be familiar with the infamous 20 Rep Squat routine popularized in the excellent book Super Squats by Randall Strossen. Without going into too much detail, the routine essentially had you using your 10RM max for back squats and performing 20 reps with it, taking as many breaths in between the reps to complete the lift (similar to a rest-pause technique). Well, back in the day, pullovers were actually done in the same fashion! Typically, guys would do them for sets of 20 with a lighter weight, making sure that they were maximizing their lung capacity by taking deep breaths between each rep. It was actually common to see the two exercises (breathing squats and breathing pullovers) paired together. As you’ve no doubt surmised, this was an excellent way to annihilate the entire body while also taxing the cardiovascular system.
Talk about a tremendous workout!
The pullover was touted as being able to increase the width and depth of your chest by physically expanding your ribcage. The mechanism by which this was purportedly to occur was by the growth of the cartilage in between your ribs. The pullover was thought to stretch your rib cartilage and allow you to expand your lungs (hence the deep breathing). This in turn would ultimately increase the size and depth of your chest. While we now know that this is physiologically impossible, the exercise is still without a doubt a great way to build a thick chest and a set of wide lats.
Not only is the dumbbell pullover a great exercise targeting your chest, but your lats will also get hit hard, making it an excellent compound movement.
In my opinion, the best way to perform this exercise is as a supplementary or ancillary movement to your main chest exercise. So for example, say you are doing the bench press as your main chest exercise for something like 3 sets of 5 repetitions (or 4 sets of 6 or 8 sets of 3 etc.). I would include dumbbell pullovers as a supplementary exercise to the bench press and do 2 sets of 15-20 repetitions. The key is to keep the reps high to get the most out of the exercise. Personally, I have never seen the utility of going very heavy with dumbbell pullovers. If anything, it increases the likelihood of injury as a heavy dumbbell transitioning over your face can become a dicey proposition.
Speaking of safety, nowadays many of you have probably seen the Hammer Strength pullover machines in your commercial gym. While we are not the biggest fans of machines, we do like Hammer Strength stuff and their pullover machine is one of their better pieces of equipment. The pullover machine allows you to perform the exercise in a very safe manner. Unlike the dumbbell there is no risk of smashing your face with the weight. If you have access to this piece of equipment, by all means make use of it, but we still feel you should go old school and stick with the classic dumbbell variation.
In terms of how to perform the exercise, it’s pretty straightforward. Here’s an excellent clip demonstrating how to perform the pullover (note that the commentator in this video emphasizes the pullover as a lat movement):
Just as an aside, pullovers are also great for guys who have home gyms. Perhaps you only have a single dumbbell at your disposal and therefore you cannot perform dumbbell flys or any kind bilateral pressing movements. If that’s the case, pullovers are an excellent movement to include in your routine.
The dumbbell pullover is an excellent old school exercise that can aid you in your quest for thicker and wider chest. Although the exercise has recently fallen in disfavour, it was once regarded with high esteem and heralded as the “upper body squat”. The pullover was commonly found in the routines of golden era bodybuilders and many of them swore by its effectiveness.
So for those of you who are just plain tired of doing cable flys and dumbbell presses, the pullover is an excellent accessory exercise that can help to reinvigorate your stale chest routine. Give them a try, you won’t be disappointed!
Here’s to saying fit!