Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives: How to Target the Same Muscles

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: November 3, 2021

The dumbbell pullover is an exercise performed by lying flat against a bench and raising a dumbbell or similar weighted apparatus over the head with both arms, keeping the buttocks and lower back firmly pressed against the surface of the bench so as to fully utilize the muscles meant to be activated by this exercise.

However, certain individuals with particular exercise impairments or athletes desiring to utilize specific types of training stimuli may find themselves requiring a substitution for the dumbbell pullover.

Fortunately, a multitude of alternatives exist for this particular exercise, each capable of exemplifying a certain aspect of training normally involved when performing a dumbbell pullover, such as the activation of the chest muscles or the triceps muscles located on the rear of the arms.

Why Should Exercisers Replace the Dumbbell Pullover?

While the dumbbell pullover is a relatively safe exercise with simplistic form that a large percentage of the healthy population should be able to perform with little trouble, there are certain cases wherein the dumbbell pullover is either not an advisable choice or unsuitable for the sort of training a coach or physical therapist may prescribe.

dumbbell pullover

These individuals may possess some sort of disability or injury that makes performing dumbbell pullovers either uncomfortable or dangerous to the road of their recovery, such as tears in the rotator cuff of the shoulder, a previous history of pectoralis muscle tears, or even a history of ulnar nerve impingement.

Said individuals with the listed injuries or other forms of physical impairment should only perform the dumbbell pullover or its alternatives after first consulting a physician, physical therapist, or other qualified exercise professional.

Apart from instances where medical conditions are the main reason behind choosing to replace dumbbell pullovers, there is also the case of exercisers that wish to utilize an alternative exercise so as to provide more mechanical stress on a certain muscle group, or whom wish for exercise substitutions that do not require the same kind of equipment.

Latissimus Dorsi Alternatives to the Dumbbell Pullover

While studies utilizing electromagnetic sensors have determined that the dumbbell pullover primarily activates the pectoralis major muscle group and only incidentally uses the latissimus dorsi muscle group, there are still certain gym goers that perform the dumbbell pullover for the purpose of training the muscles located on the upper back.

Fortunately, a variety of alternative exercises that activate the latissimus dorsi far more effectively may instead be performed, not only providing an improved training stimuli but also allowing other muscle groups to be trained better as they remain unused for a longer period instead of being exercised in the dumbbell pullover.

Cable Machine Assisted Lat Pulldowns

An extremely common exercise that is available to many members of the population owing to its adjustable resistance and ease of use, the lat pulldown is a significantly effective closed-kinetic chain isolation exercise that acts as a compound movement.

The lat pulldown primarily utilizes the latissimus dorsi muscle group as well as both heads of the biceps brachii twin muscle pairs, with the deltoids and trapezius muscle groups acting as stabilizers during the concentric and eccentric portion of the exercise.

The lat pulldown is primarily performed either by attaching a sufficiently wide enough pulley grip bar to a cable machine or by utilizing a machine specifically designed for the lat pulldown itself.

lat pulldown

The exerciser will, generally, sit or stand beneath the bar and grip it firmly in both hands overhead. Keeping their legs and lower torso as still as possible, the exerciser will then draw the bar towards their clavicles, stopping as the bar comes below their chin.

After holding this position for a moment, they exerciser will enter the negative or eccentric portion of the movement and slowly allow the tension within the pulley cable to draw the bar and their hands back overhead, all the while flaring their latissimus dorsi muscles so as to maximize muscular hypertrophic growth.

Pull-ups

Perhaps one of the most commonly known exercises for the latissimus dorsi, the pull up is a closed kinetic chain calisthenic movement classified as a compound movement owing to the fact that it activates nearly every muscle located on the upper body, with a particular focus on the pull muscles such as the trapezius and biceps brachii.

The pull up is performed by the exerciser raising their arms overhead and gripping a pull up bar or similar outcropping with both hands, placing them approximately shoulder width apart. 

The exerciser will then raise themselves up by flaring their shoulder blades and drawing their chest towards their hands by bending their elbows, essentially “pulling up” their torso. The top of this movement should place the bar parallel or below the chin of the exerciser in order to fully utilize the latissimus dorsi.

pull up

It is important that the exerciser does not launch off the ground using their legs or any sort of momentum by swinging their lower body, as this will defeat the purpose of the exercise by reducing the level of mechanical stress placed on the muscles.

In the eccentric portion of the pull up, the exerciser will then lower themselves slowly back to the ground, all the while focusing on the contraction of their back muscles so as to reap the most benefit from this particular calisthenic exercise. 

Chin-ups

The sister exercise of the pull up, chin ups are simply pull ups that are performed with the hands placed closer together and a supinated or neutral grip, causing more of the mechanical tension involved in the exercise to be borne by the biceps and incorporating the pectoralis muscles more completely in the concentric phase.

The chin up, much like the pull up, activates the biceps, latissimus dorsi muscle groups, deltoids, trapezius and by some level the pectoralis major.

In order to perform a chin up, the exerciser will begin by standing beneath a pull up bar or similar object that they may grip safely. Raising both hands approximately shoulder width apart and gripping the bar with the palms facing inwards, the exerciser will brace their core and draw their chest towards the bar, pulling themselves upwards.

Some minor bending of the feet forward is entirely normal and important so as not to cause wrist or elbow impingement. Ideally, a fully completed chin up repetition should bring the bar either parallel or beneath the chin of the exerciser so as to fully activate all muscle groups involved.

A Note on Pull-ups and Chin-ups

While the pull up and chin up are quite safe to perform and excellent alternatives to the dumbbell pull over in concern to latissimus dorsi training, many individuals may find themselves unable to complete even a single repetition of the exercises.

This is entirely normal for certain members of the population as well as individuals relatively new to resistance exercises, and as such is nothing to be ashamed of.

An excellent way to still perform a pull up or chin up, even if you are unable to, is to use an assisted pull-up machine, which will reduce the total resistance of your bodyweight, allowing your muscles to perform pull ups or chin ups without the full weight of your body being brought into play.

Pectoral Muscle Alternatives to the Dumbbell Pullover

According to electromagnetic sensor data on athletes performing the dumbbell pullover, the primary muscle activated appears to be the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor pair of muscles, both of which are located on the front of the chest and are primarily responsible for the adduction of the arms.

Fortunately, in the case of choosing to replace the dumbbell pullover, a variety of alternative exercises exist that may in fact activate the pectoral muscles more effectively than the dumbbell pullover itself.

Incline Bench Press (Dumbbell or Barbell)

The incline bench press is an exercise primarily performed on a bench angled at an incline wherein the upper torso of the exerciser will be partially upright. A variation on the flat bench press, the angle at which the incline bench press is performed aids in the activation of the pectoralis minor, placing more of an emphasis on the upper torso instead of the triceps brachii.

This exercise may be performed with a barbell or set of dumbbells, and as such is quite versatile, with the only other required piece of equipment being a bench placed at an incline.

In order to begin, the exerciser will lay their back against the bench, retracting their shoulder blades and straightening their back so the lumbar portion of the spinal cord forms an arch over the bench.

incline bench press

If using a barbell, the exerciser will then place their hands at a comfortable distance apart from one another and push the bar off the rack. If using dumbbells, the exerciser will raise the dumbbells over their chest, keeping their shoulders and elbows tight so as to reduce the chance of injury.

The exerciser will then lower the dumbbells or barbell towards their sternum until their elbows are at or near parallel with their ribcage, or if the barbell touches their chest.

Resting in this position for a moment, the exerciser must then push upwards with their chest and arms, moving the weight back to its extended position away from their torso. This completes a single repetition of incline bench press.

Dumbbell Chest Flyes

Similar in appearance to the incline dumbbell bench press, the dumbbell chest fly exercise activates the pectoralis muscle pair far more than the bench press owing to the direction at which the dumbbells move during the exercise.

To do so, the exerciser will lay against a flat bench and grip a pair of same weight dumbbells in each hand. Raising the dumbbells over their chest, the exerciser will then spread their arms to either side, bending at the elbow somewhat.

dumbbell chest flys

The exerciser will feel a stretch along their sternum and below their clavicles, indicating that the pectoralis muscles are being eccentrically contracted. Once the elbows have dipped below parallel level with the ribcage, the exerciser must then draw their hands back together, squeezing their chest together and straightening their elbows so as to complete the concentric portion of the exercise.

The dumbbell chest fly may be considered an isolation exercise in this way because it does not use any other muscle group than the pectoralis group, with the biceps brachii and deltoids only acting as secondary stabilizers if proper form is utilized.

Cable Machine Crossovers

Much like a dumbbell chest fly, the cable machine assisted crossover is an exercise primarily activating the pectoralis major and pectoralis minor by drawing the arms together while under mechanical resistance, inducing hypertrophy and nearly completely isolating the muscle groups.

The cable machine crossover is performed by placing single hand pulley attachment handles at two ends of a cable machine so they are within reach at both sides of the exerciser.

cable cross over

The exerciser, remaining standing, will then grip both pulley handles and step forward, creating an angle of resistance that will draw their elbows behind the torso.

The exerciser will then draw their hands together as they are still gripping the handles, squeezing their chest as they do so and maintaining a level of resistance in their upper torso by leaning forward slightly and bending the elbows.

References

1. Marchetti, PH; Uchida, MC (November 2011). "Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG". Journal of Applied Biomechanics.

2. Neporent, Liz and Suzanne Schlosberg, Shirley J. Archer (2011) Weight Training For Dummies John Wiley & Sons. Google Books.

3. Lacio, Marcio L. de, et al. "Electromyographic Activation of Pectoralis Major and Triceps Brachii during Dumbbell Pullover." Journal of Exercise Physiology Online, vol. 24, no. 4, Aug. 2021, pp. 1+. Gale Academic OneFile

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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