7 Cable Pullover Alternatives (with Pictures!)

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 6, 2022

Frequently underutilized, the cable pullover is an excellent machine-based exercise that targets the middle and upper back in a fashion that develops muscle mass quite efficiently. 

It is most often seen in bodybuilding programs wherein it acts as an accessory movement.

However, due to several issues relating to the performance of the cable pullover, many exercisers find themselves seeking out a suitably similar alternative to use instead.

Quite a number of possible alternatives to the cable pullover exist, ranging from standard bodyweight pullups to more specific exercises such as the lying dumbbell pullover.

Why Should the Cable Pullover be Substituted?

The cable pullover presents a number of problems or incompatibilities that may make it unsuitable for certain individuals, the most significant of which being that it is not as effective a back-muscle builder in comparison to other back exercises.

cable pullover

This is due to its low maximal loading capacity, poor synergist muscle group recruitment and awkward angle of resistance in comparison to the muscles of the back - apart from the latissimus dorsi, that is.

Other issues that may arise relating to the cable pullover are a simple lack of appropriate equipment, the exerciser sustaining or having a history of shoulder injuries or personal preference towards other back exercises.

How to Substitute the Cable Pullover

Considering the fact that the cable pullover is most often used as an accessory exercise to movements like the barbell row or pull up, any alternative must also be capable of acting in a similar role within the lifter’s training program.

This, of course, is only applicable if they do not wish to further alter the structure of said training program.

Furthermore, the alternative exercise must also share several characteristics with the cable pullover so as to retain its original purpose and therefore ensure that the end result of the training program remains the same - be it development of the latissimus dorsi, reinforcement of the shoulder girdle or more sports-specific purposes.

Characteristics of a Cable Pullover Alternative

As one may guess, not just any exercise is capable of acting as a suitable alternative to the cable pullover. 

An adequate substitute exercise must possess several characteristics that allow it to fulfill the same role that the cable pullover did within the lifter’s training program, while simultaneously meeting the needs of said lifter.

These characteristics encompass the obvious - such as muscle group activation - to more situational requirements, such as the exerciser being unable to fully exert rotational force through their rotator cuff, for example.

Muscular Recruitment Pattern

As the cable pullover’s primary use within a training program is its recruitment of muscle groups along the back, so too should the alternative exercise fulfill this purpose.

pullover muscles

The alternative exercise should utilize the latissimus dorsi and trapezius as primary mover muscles, while other muscle groups normally recruited by the cable pullover such as the deltoids and rhomboids are of only secondary importance.

Biomechanics

Unless otherwise dictated by the exerciser, it is advisable that the alternative exercise share similar biomechanics to the cable pullover - that being the rotation of the shoulder, near full extension of the elbows and core activation so as to maintain a neutral lower back.

Exerciser Compatibility

Apart from recruiting the right muscle groups and sharing similar biomechanics, the alternative exercise should also be compatible with whatever circumstances or preferences that the exerciser may have.

Whether this be compatibility with the lifter’s history of injury, the usage of equipment that they have access to or a greater level of intensity due to greater training experience, there is likely an alternative that meets such needs perfectly.

Optional Crossover Capacity

Though not quite a requirement, athletes and other individuals whom compete in sports may wish to also choose an exercise with a similar type of sports carry-over to the cable pullover, as the latter exercise is known for aiding in the performance of several sports or similar athletic activities.

If you are unsure of whether an alternative is suitable as a crossover exercise in your athletic training program, it is best to consult a coach who will assess its compatibility.

Cable Machine Alternatives

For the greatest similarity between exercises and the most convenience, choosing to perform an alternative that uses the same equipment as the cable pullover itself is the most advisable option.

This will not only allow the lifter to save time and energy in learning a new exercise, but also aid in the retention of characteristics that are normally a benefit of the cable pullover, such as greater specificity and a longer time under tension.

1. Cable High Pulls

A resistance exercise performed with a straight bar cable attachment or dual rope attachment, the cable high pull is one of the best possible cable pullover alternatives for exercisers seeking a similar movement in order to build back and trapezius muscle mass.

cable high row kneeling

The cable high pull and the cable pullover share the same intensity and exercise mechanics, allowing the exerciser to simply substitute one with the other and forego any subsequent alteration of the training program.

Unfortunately however, the cable high pull places a greater level of activation on the posterior deltoid head than the cable pullover, potentially limiting the total amount of weight lifted if the exerciser possesses underdeveloped deltoid muscles.

2. Cable Rows

The ideal alternative for lifters seeking further strength development, cable rows allow for a level of resistance to be placed on the back muscles that is otherwise impossible with the cable pullover.

This benefit is a direct effect of the angle of resistance involved in cable rows, especially if the seated variation of the exercise is what is being performed.

standing cable row

Furthermore, cable rows allow for a greater level of biceps development to take place alongside the latissimus dorsi recruitment that is characteristic of both exercises - though the deltoids may suffer in terms of activation intensity.

As a compound exercise that trains more muscle groups than the cable pullover, cable rows will require that the exerciser reduce total back muscle volume throughout the workout if used as a cable pullover substitute.

3. Lat Pulldowns

Considering the fact that the cable pullover is most often performed as a method of training the latissimus dorsi muscles, it is no stretch of logic that the lat pulldown is also a perfectly suitable alternative to such an exercise.

wide grip lat pulldown

When using the lat pulldown as an alternative to the cable pullover, performing the exercise with a wide grip will aid in targeting the upper portion of the latissimus dorsi, remedying one particular issue found with the cable pullover.

Furthermore, since the lat pulldown recruits the exact same muscle groups as the cable pullover, as long as the resistance remains the same then no further reprogramming will be required in order to substitute one exercise with the other.

4. Dual Grip Cable Pulldowns

A variation of the standard lat pulldown where each side of the body works independently of the other, the dual grip cable pulldown is less an alternative and more a direct progression from the cable pullover. 

Substituting the latter exercise with the former will often result in greater latissimus dorsi development alongside a number of other benefits.

When performing the dual grip cable pulldown as a cable pullover substitute, it is best to set the pulley height to above the lifter’s head so as to create a more diagonal angle of resistance, aiding in recreating the muscular activation pattern of the original exercise.

Unfortunately, due to the difference in mechanics between the two exercises, significantly less resistance can be used and as such less strength adaptations may be developed with this particular alternative.

Other Lats Exercise Alternatives

Though machine-based exercises are the ideal alternatives to the cable pullover, a lack of available equipment or simple personal preference can require that other types of exercises be performed instead.

Though quite a number of free weight exercises are capable of fulfilling this role, the lifter will find that they do not entirely replicate the specificity and training stimulus of machine-based exercises, requiring that they account for such a difference.

1. Unilateral Dumbbell Rows

Unilateral dumbbell rows or one-handed dumbbell rows are a free weight exercise that can act as a cable pullover substitute for the purposes of greater muscular control or physical rehabilitation. Due to its freeweight and unilateral nature, the risk of injury is considerably low and allows for a long time under tension per repetition to be achieved.

single arm dumbbell row

Unilateral dumbbell rows are especially useful for individuals with a muscular imbalance, allowing each side of the body to be trained independently and therefore develop evenly.

2. Reverse Rows

The reverse row, or inverted row, is the most suitable bodyweight alternative to the cable pullover, as it is also a back muscle targeting exercise used as an accessory to heavier compound movements within a workout.

inverted row

Unfortunately, reverse rows cannot match the level of resistance that cable pullovers are capable of inducing, and as such are best used only as a temporary substitute in the case that the exerciser finds themselves without access to proper gym equipment.

Nonetheless, reverse rows activate much the same muscle groups as the cable pullover while also providing a lengthy time under tension, allowing exercisers to maintain their muscle mass and current strength level without the need for weights or fitness equipment.

3. Barbell Pullovers

The barbell pullover is a free weight variation of the standard pullover wherein the exerciser will lie on a bench and perform a similar pullover motion with a loaded barbell.

barbell pullover

This particular alternative presents quite a number of advantages over the conventional cable pullover, such as greater synergist muscle group recruitment on account of its free weight nature, as well as a significantly higher level of intensity than what machine-based exercises can offer.

As such, the barbell pullover is the ideal alternative for athletes and bodybuilders who find that the standard cable pullover is insufficiently stimulating for their own physical abilities.

In Conclusion

As you can see, quite a number of possible alternatives exist to the cable pullover - each of which are just as effective at developing strength and size, if not more so. 

It is not so much which particular exercise that is chosen as much as how this alternative exercise is used in the context of your training program.

With proper rest, diet and training programming, any of the aforementioned cable pullover alternatives are perfectly suitable.

References

1. Marchetti PH, Uchida MC. Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG. J Appl Biomech. 2011 Nov;27(4):380-4. doi: 10.1123/jab.27.4.380. Epub 2011 Oct 4. PMID: 21975179.

2. Lehman GJ, Buchan DD, Lundy A, Myers N, Nalborczyk A. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dyn Med. 2004 Jun 30;3(1):4. doi: 10.1186/1476-5918-3-4. PMID: 15228624; PMCID: PMC449729.

3. Lorenzetti, Silvio, Romain Dayer, Michael Plüss, and Renate List. 2017. "Pulling Exercises for Strength Training and Rehabilitation: Movements and Loading Conditions" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 2, no. 3: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk2030033

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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