Dumbbell Pullovers: What They Are, and How to (Safely) Do Them

There are some workout moves that are notorious for helping sculpt the muscles we associate most with people who work out and lift weights. One set of muscles that becomes well developed with weight-bearing exercise is our lats, which are in our upper backs. And a workout move that helps sculpt and shape them is the dumbbell pullover.

Dumbbell pullovers are exactly as they sound: You use a dumbbell to create a motion of pulling it over your head. They're a move that can be done by most people, even those who can only lift light weights, because there is no minimum amount of weight to use. Whether your dumbbell of choice is two pounds or 20, you can benefit from doing dumbbell pullovers. Read on to learn about how they benefit you, how to do them, and how they compare to barbell pullovers.

Meet the Expert

What Is a Dumbbell Pullover?

A dumbbell pullover is a weighted exercise that usually involves a workout bench. The pullover motion involves holding the dumbbell in your hand, and moving it from in front of you to behind you, over your head. It's a somewhat advanced move due to the equipment needed as well as the form required. Canon tells us that dumbbell pullovers strengthen and target your lats first and foremost, which is the largest muscle in your upper back. These pullovers also use and strengthen your pecs, serratus anterior, triceps, and core. Additionally, Kollath says they are used to "improve thoracic spine mobility."

Benefits of Dumbbell Pullovers

Increasing your shoulder stability and back strength are the biggest benefits of dumbbell pullovers. Canon tells us that these "benefits of the pullover come from the unique way you perform the movement." Specifically, she says that "unlike most back exercises where you are positioned upright or prone, the force from lowering the dumbbell overhead automatically engages your core, it also requires shoulder stability." This also is useful for other activities that require a strong back and stable shoulder positioning, such as swimming and running.

Dumbbell pullovers also improve posture. Canon says this is " because it opens up the chest and scapula, counteracting the hunched-over position we often find ourselves in." And, while a less important benefit than the others, this exercise can help to create more of a V-shape to your back.

Proper Form

Dumbbell Pullover

Michele Canon / Design by Tiana Crispino

Because this is a weighted move, proper form is vital to avoiding injury and reaping all the benefits of the exercise. Note that these steps are for the standard version of the pullover; modification instructions for those who are not yet able to properly do them are below.

  1. Lie face up on a workout bench, with your feet flat on the floor. Canon says to "keep your core tight and with a slight arch in your back."
  2. Grab a dumbbell; Kollath suggests starting light, and Canon recommends a "medium size" that you can lift over your head without issue and maintain proper form using. Hold the dumbbell with both hands.
  3. Bend your elbows slightly to bring the dumbbell in front of your chest. Canon says that "one end of the dumbbell should be facing down toward the center of your chest."
  4. Keeping your lower body stable and firm, and without changing the slight bend in your elbows, lower the dumbbell back over your shoulders. It should look like an arc, from in front of you to behind you, until the dumbbell is at the level of the bench. Canon tells us that you should feel the stretch in your chest, without overextending.
  5. Slowly return the dumbbell to the starting point over your chest, and repeat.

How to Modify

Dumbbell Pullover Variation

Michele Canon / Design by Tiana Crispino

Those who don't have a workout bench can do the movement on the floor, with knees bent at a 45-degree angle. You can also shorten the range of motion for the move, rather than doing the full start to finish move that begins in front of your chest and ends well behind your shoulders. Kollath suggests that for those who aren't yet ready for weighted moves, you begin by just going through the motions without any weights. This will create the stretch through your lats and work on your range of motion, without potentially causing injury.

For a more advanced version of a dumbbell pullover, use the bench only for shoulder support. Canon tells us that this offers a larger range of motion, making it a more difficult move.

This move can also be done with two dumbbells instead of one. That's ideal for anyone who needs a specific increment of weight that falls in between the standard 5, 10, 20, etc. for dumbbells. If you're using two instead of one, you can hold them side by side with one end facing down, just as you would with one.

Dumbbell Pullovers vs. Barbell Pullovers

Dumbbell pullovers are most similar to barbell pullovers. In fact, the basic movement is the same: You begin on a bench with a barbell in front of your chest, and you slowly maneuver the barbell back until it is behind your shoulders. The main differences here are that with a dumbbell, the weight is concentrated at your hands, whereas with a barbell, it is dispersed wider. That's because a dumbbell is a fairly small piece of equipment unless it's very heavy, whereas a barbell is a long piece of equipment. Additionally, a barbell is much heavier than most dumbbells. The weight of a standard barbell is 45 pounds. That should only be used for pullovers if you are an advanced exerciser. Conversely, one could do dumbbell pullovers with as little as a two-pound weight. That makes dumbbell pullovers a safer bet for everyone except very advanced exercisers.

Safety Considerations

This exercise should be avoided by anyone with shoulder or lower-back injuries. It's important to properly support your neck and not let it lift up, as that could strain your neck and shoulders. Additionally, this move should be avoided by any person who can't comfortably lift their arms over their head.

The Takeaway

Dumbbell pullovers are a weighted exercise move that helps build and sculpt your lat muscles, in addition to your triceps, pecs, and core. It's done while laying supine on a workout bench, and then moving a dumbbell from in front of your chest to behind your head. It can be done with any weight, making it a safe weighted move for people who need to use light weights. It should be avoided by anyone with shoulder or lower-back injuries, or any person who can't easily and comfortably lift their arms over their head. If you don't have a workout bench, you can try dumbbell pullovers from the floor, laying on your back with your knees bent. In addition to strengthening and stretching your lats, dumbbell pullovers help to improve your balance and create a V-shaped back.

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