Dumbbell Pullover – The Most Controversial Exercise

The pullover might be the most controversial exercise in the world of bodybuilding. According to most experts it’s one of the most effective chest and back exercises. At the same time, slight adjustments in your pullover technique can shift its target to different body parts.


It’s effectiveness in activating different upper body muscle groups has been known for decades. In fact, together with the squats, this exercise is one of the oldest tricks in the book of bodybuilding. It can give you that great feeling of pump in your chest, stretches the lats, builds up the seratus, and has even been attributed with the ability to stretch your ribcage.

The only known downside of pullovers is that can overload your shoulders. And although years ago everyone was doing it, nowadays it seems almost forgotten.

In this article we’re going to try to prove this theory wrong, and reintroduce the pullover into your routines in all of its former glory.


The Early History of Pullover


The pullover was first declared the best exercise for developing a deep chest by Alan Calvert, founder of the Milo Barbell Company and Strength magazine, around 1911. It quickly became staple exercise for upper body development. In fact, back in the 1920s, the most popular bodybuilding method involved drinking gallons of milk and performing heavy, high-rep squats combined with light, high-rep pullovers. Needless to say, the combo of big lifting and big calories turned this recipe into a success story. Everyone was doing it.

Back then the bodybuilding trend was to perform low volume workouts that included one or two upper body exercises. The pullover (or breathing pullover, as it was known) was included in this type of training more often than not.

The widespread belief was that it helped in expanding the ribcage, presumably as a result of the intentional deep breathing between reps, which stack up to the deep breathing necessary for performing the squats earlier in the workout.

Although the ribcage expanding capabilities of this exercise have been long proven a myth, plenty of lifters reported great results from combining the squats with pullovers, backed up by sturdy amounts of milk.

The Road From Favorite to Forgotten

During the period of popularization of bodybuilding in the 1950s and ’60s, the pullover retained its status of an essential exercise for upper body sculpting. Having in mind that they considered having thick barrel chest an ideal, the pullover fitted perfectly in their plan.

By the 1970s and ’80s, the gyms were better equipped and had greater variety of specialized machines for targeting specific bodyparts. Even the pullovers got their own mechanized variation in the Nautilus pullover machine invented in the early ’70s by Arthur Jones.

However, the greater reliance on machines was also the reason for the drop in popularity of some old-school  free weight classics, such as the free-weight pullover. As a result, its popularity diminished in the ’90s. Since then, its reputation has been tarnished by various “exercise scientists” who managed to kill its good name by saying that it was ineffective, and dangerous for the shoulders.

On the other hand, this is the complete opposite to the testimonials from legends, who have nothing but praises when it comes to the pullover, and for all the different reasons.


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