Dumbbell Pullover: The Benefits, The Muscles Worked and How To Do It

If you are interested in the sphere of bodybuilding, weight lifting, or you just love working out, then you will want to know about all of the best ways that you can build strength and muscle mass.

One of the favored methods of building muscle in the chest and back is with an exercise called dumbbell pullovers. This exercise is done with dumbbell weights lifted over your head to improve your range of motion, shoulder muscles, chest muscles, lats and even the triceps. If you want to train like one of the pros, then you will definitely want to implement this workout into your routine. If it’s good enough for Arnold Schwarzenegger, then it’s good enough for us! 

What Is A Dumbbell Pullover?

A dumbbell pullover is also known as a chest pullover, a lying pullover or even just a pullover. The main purpose of this exercise is to work the back and chest muscles, in order to strengthen them, and help you gain muscle mass. 

That being said, the dumbbell pullover is also utilized by sports physiologists as it is a postural exercise that takes place lying down, which can help lengthen and stabilize the spine. This, in turn, increases the flexibility of your upper body and chest muscles, as you are participating in a full range of motion during the pullover movement.

This only works as long as you are performing the dumbbell pullover correctly, and engaging all of the right muscles, with the accurate movement. This is why, in this guide, we will show you exactly how to do a dumbbell pullover, with a step by step guide, and a video tutorial. But first, let’s take a look at which muscles the dumbbell pullover works.   

What Muscles Dumbbell Pullovers Work

The good thing about dumbbell pullovers is that you can work multiple muscles at once. A classic dumbbell pullover is widely used as a resistance based exercise, which can strengthen the muscles in your chest (pectoralis major), along with the larger wing shaped muscles found in the back (latissimus dorsi). 

If you implement some variations to your movements and technique, then you can also simultaneously work your core muscles, and engage the muscles in the back of your upper arms, such as the triceps. 

When it comes to the dumbbell pullover, there is a lot of debate as to which is the target muscle that is mainly worked in doing this exercise. This comes as no surprise, as many people can perform this exercise in various ways in order to work out different muscles simultaneously. 

What we mean by this, is that different body positioning, techniques, arm positions and various different ranges of motions can shift the load, and the weight during this exercise. This will then require different muscles to engage, in order to perform the dumbbell pullover successfully.

However, generally speaking, and depending on how this exercise is done, the main emphasis will be placed on the lats, or latissimus dorsi, and the chest, or the pectoralis major. This is why this exercise is very popular, as you can build strength and muscle in the back and the chest at the same time!

In addition, other muscles will be worked out during this routine, but not to the same extent. These muscles are the serratus anterior, the triceps, and the front and rear deltoid muscles found in the shoulders. 

Some studies have shown that during the dumbbell pullover exercise, the chest is worked out more than the lats, and will activate the chest muscles more. However, this is subject to how the exercise was performed, which weights were used, and the positioning of the subject. 

As added fuel to the fire, bodybuilding champions such as Ronnie Coleman and Arnold Schwarzenegger have repeatedly shown that they perform dumbbell pullover exercises in their chest and back routines, so it is clear that both muscle groups are engaged during this exercise. 

On the other hand, the exercise database ExRX.net, describes the dumbbell pullover as an isolation exercise that is perfect for building chest muscles only: click here. This helpful online exercising tool states that the target muscle in the dumbbell pullover is the pectoralis major, whereas the assisting muscles are latissimus dorsi (lats), teres major (upper outer back), rhomboids (upper inner back) rear delts, and the triceps. 

This mentality is also replicated in popular weightlifting websites such as Muscle and Strength, where they also list the dumbbell pullover as a chest building exercise. The article mainly emphasises the importance of this exercise for the pecs and how you can improve and build the chest area. With this article, it explains how straighter elbows and arms, with a more restricted range of motion is the best way to emphasize the chest during the dumbbell pullover.

On the other side of the debate, many weightlifting and bodybuilding enthusiasts swear by dumbbell pullovers for back exercises. The argument is that dumbbell pullovers are perfect for improving the lats, and building strength in the back muscles

This is what has caused a lot of confusion as to which workout days you should implement a dumbbell pullover workout routine into. Do you do it on chest day? Or back day? Do you do it on both? Especially if you are trying to target and isolate a certain set of muscles, how do you know which muscle group routine should include the dumbbell pullovers? 

Some professionals such as Mike Mentzer, Ronnie Colemand and Dorian Yates swear by doing dumbbell pullover exercises on back day, with either a pullover machine or dumbbells. On the other hand, Arnold Schwaezenegger and Reg Park prefer to use dumbbell pullovers as a means of developing the chest muscles.

What it comes down to is your own form and technique, as the way you do this exercise will affect which muscles are targeted. If you prefer to emphasize the lats, then do this exercise for back day, and instead just lie perpendicular on the bench, to help increase the stretch in your lat muscles.

If you are unsure which day to perform your dumbbell pullovers- chest or back, then our advice would be to just choose a day that works better for you and your workout routine. As this exercise can work out both the lats, pecs and tricep muscles, you can still achieve amazing results, building up your strength and your muscle mass. 

The Benefits Of Doing Dumbbell Pullovers

As you may have already noticed, there are a lot of benefits to implementing the dumbbell pullover into your workout routine, and this is one exercise that you will not want to forget about or cast aside.

The benefits of doing dumbbell pullovers are astronomical, as you can work out many muscles at once because this movement is a great compound exercise. This is because you can simultaneously engage the chest, lats, the triceps, your delts, serratus and many other supporting muscles just by performing the dumbbell pullover frequently. 

Therefore, you can build a lot of mass and muscle in your chest and back muscles, whilst also improving the definition, shape and size of the triceps and serratus muscles, too. As supporting and stabilizing muscles are also engaged with this exercise, it is easy to build up the strength in them, whereas you may not be targeting those muscles in other exercises. 

What is even more impressive is that the dumbbell pullover is an effective exercise for building your core muscles and strengthening the core. In addition, you can use this exercise to give you greater flexibility, shoulder strength, mobility and range of motion, with repeated practice and routine. 

What Size Dumbbells for Dumbbell Pullover?

For the dumbbell pullover, you will need to start with lighter weights until you have the technique really down. In addition, this will help you adjust and alter your movements, so that you know which muscles are being worked. 

We would recommend starting with the same weight that you can comfortably and easily use for bicep curls. However, if this is too much, then simply go lighter, and work your way up. If you do not have any dumbbells at home, or in your gym, then you can find some here:

How To Do The Dumbbell Pullover

If you are ready to implement the dumbbell pullover into your regular workout routine, then we have an easy step by step tutorial of how to do it. Keep in mind that for this exercise, you will need some experience using weights, and you should be comfortable and confident holding and lifting dumbbells frequently during this workout, as they will be going near your face in this exercise. 

Once you are ready to begin, you will need to sit on the narrow end of a weight bench. Make sure that the bench is stable, and able to take your weight lying down. Then, put your feet on the floor, in a position that is a little wider than the weight bench itself. 

Next, roll down so that you are laying flat down on the bench, with your head, neck and back fully supported. Once in this position, take one dumbbell in each hand. If you have not done this exercise before, or are not confident, then always start with lighter weights, for safety reasons and the best practice. 

With the dumbbells in each hand, extend your arms out over your chest, but keep your palms facing each other, and your elbows slightly bent. 

Then, with your back strong, engage your core, inhaling and extending the weights back and over your head. Keep the weights back and behind your head for about 3 to 5 seconds in a fully extended position, but with your elbows held soft. 

When you are at a fully extended position, you can then exhale, and slowly bring your arms back to the starting position. 

Once you have the correct movement, positioning and extension down, you will want to start doing reps. If you are a beginner, then you will need to start with two sets of 7 to 10 reps each. Then, as you progress with this, and gain more strength, you may want to increase the weight. 

How To Do The Dumbbell Pullover – Video Tutorials

If you are more of a visual learner, then do not worry, we have got you covered. With this handy video tutorial from Maximillan Tapper on Howcast, you can learn exactly how to do a dumbbell pullover in no time:

As an extra added bonus, if you want some top tips of the best ways to perform the dumbbell pullover, then you should check out this video tutorial from ATHLEAN-X:

This popular pro athlete trainer, strength coach and physical therapist, Jeff Cavaliere runs a Youtube Channel called Athlean-X, where you can get so many tips about exercising and bodybuilding

With the above tutorial, you can learn how to build your chest muscles with the dumbbell pullover, however in a later video: Best Dumbbell Exercises- Back Edition  you can instead do these exercises in a different way to emphasize the lats.

Just skip to 3:26 as this is where he begins the dumbbell pullover tutorial, and watch until about 4:55. In this video, Cavaliere states that you should aim to set up your body in a way that is perpendicular to the weight bench, instead of laying flat on it. When you lie in this position, you will be able to manipulate and maneuver your hips better, so that you can lower them below the height of the belt.

This way, you will be able to increase the tension in the lats muscles, when you are lowering the dumbbell behind the head. The addition of the lowered hips will give you that extra stretch for your back muscles, if you want to isolate them. 

Cavaliere argues that this will increase the eccentric tension in the muscles, which has a range of benefits. For instance, the International Sports Association states that the benefits of eccentric resistance training are improved muscle groups, increased strength, and the prevention of muscle breakdown and muscle wastage. 

If the chest is more important to you, then Cavaliere offers another exceptional video tutorial that you can follow: 8 Best Chest Exercises.

For emphasizing the chest in your dumbbell pullovers, you will need to skip to 3:35 for this tutorial. In this video, Cavaliere shows you how to alter the dumbbell pullover to work out the chest, simply by turning your hands more inward. 

For this, you do not need to flare out the elbows, as you would if you were trying to work the lat muscles. In addition, you will need to restrict the range of motion on your arms, so that when you are returning to the start position, you are not emphasizing the lats. The key is to stay within the range of tension for your pec muscles to thrive. 

How NOT To Do The Dumbbell Pullover

When you are first learning how to do the dumbbell pullover, there are a few things that you should not do. For instance, it is vital that you have the correct starting position, with your head and neck fully supported. Otherwise, you can injure your neck, and you may be in some real pain for the next few days. 

On the other hand, if your hips are also unsupported by the bench, then you may have some lower back pain in the future. Therefore, always ensure that you have the proper form before beginning your exercise.

In addition, you will need to engage your core, and keep your abdominal muscles strong throughout the exercise and movement. To do this, you will need to keep your lower back and abdominal muscles strong, and avoid arching through the spine when lifting the arms. 

If you feel yourself arching your spine when performing this exercise, then remind yourself to engage the core, as this will give you more stability and will help you avoid a back injury or muscle strain. If this is still a struggle for you, then you may need to reduce the weights of the dumbbells you are using. 

You will also need to keep the palms facing each other throughout the whole exercise, maintaining strong wrists for the best results. If you struggle to do so, then again, reduce the weight of the dumbbells. You will also need to ensure that both arms extend fully, and in the same way, this will help you work out any imbalances you have. 

Dumbbell Pullover: The Chest Or The Back? 

Depending on which muscle group you want to target, you will have to perform the dumbbell pullover differently. In a video tutorial from Muscle and Strength you will be able to see how this is done exactly. 

For the best results, you will want to start with a lighter weight, so that you can really feel which muscles are engaged, and working, so that you can make that muscle and mind connection. Whilst during this, you will be able to feel when the chest or the lat is emphasized, and you can vary your technique a little.

To do this perfectly, you will want to keep the hands interlocked on the dumbbells, and keep the starting position with the dumbbells above the chest, and the arms extended. Then, you can shuffle your body on the bench, until you find that sweet spot with the head hanging off only slightly, with the base of the bench at the bottom of your skull.

For targeting both the chest and the back, the positioning on the bench is exactly the same. The main difference is how you position and move your elbows in this exercise. If you want to target the chest, and emphasize this, then you will need to keep your arms as straight as possible, and your elbows in tight.

On the other hand, if you want to target your lats, then flare out the elbows through the whole movement, and keep the dumbbell close to your body.  

How Many Sets For Dumbbell Pullovers

For most exercises that are new to you, you should always start slower and work your way up. The best way to start with dumbbell pullovers is with 3 sets of 15 reps. Once you have mastered that, then you can move onto 4 sets of 15 reps, during a chest and back exercise day. 

If you want to train like a pro, then you will find in his book, The Education of a Bodybuilderthat bodybuilding legend, Arnold Shwarzenegger does 5 sets of 15 reps when doing dumbbell pullovers! 


To summarize, the dumbbell pullover is a great exercise for working out your back, chest and lats, and will help you gain strength and muscles in those target groups. We do recommend that whenever you try to learn new exercises for your routines, especially when it comes to weight training, you should have a certified trainer with you, or at least someone to spot you in case of an issue, or an injury. But, with our advice and tips, we will have you training like a pro in no time. 

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Article by:

Daniel DeMoss

I’m a personal trainer based in Denver (Matrix Gym) and a true fitness nerd. If I’m not training clients or working out at my home gym, I’m probably skiing, cycling or hiking with my dog Rufus.