The DB pullover is an old school exercise you don’t often see anymore. Once a popular staple of bodybuilding programs, many credited a good portion of their aesthetics (including their v-taper) to the DB pullover. However, some say it’s a chest exercise while others say it’s for the back. Which is it? Before we begin, always use a rep max or bench max calculator when performing weighted exercises.
The DB pullover is primarily a chest exercise that also works the back. In actuality, the upper arms travel a movement pattern and engage the lats / upper back in a very similar fashion as a cable pulldown with your palms facing you. So in this manner, pullovers work the back.
However, because you’re lying horizontally and have your arms so close together (so as to hold the dumbbell), the emphasis is then actually transferred over to the chest. The chest is stretched just as much as the back is in the extended position, but your chest also has to contract in order to bring the dumbbell over you and hold it at arm’s length. This makes it a chest exercise, too.
It sounds like a cop out, but the most accurate way to describe pullovers is to say that it mostly targets the back at the extended position due to the massive stretch you can get in the lats. The lats are then largely responsible for initiating contraction and getting the eccentric started, but the chest then takes over and becomes the primary mover in the exercise.
The reason why many do the DB pullover on chest day, as well as one of the biggest reasons many lifters start to doing it is because most golden era bodybuilders of the ’60s-’70s used to say it could be done to expand the ribcage. The thought was that emphasizing the stretched position would pull the ribcage wider and many of the internal organs up inside it. This would lead potentially lead to a thicker upper torso and a narrower waist.
There have been some trainees who have shown anecdotally that this can be possible. One of the more well-known cases was Dr. Ellington Darden who paired up 20-rep breathing squats and pullovers as a teen for this very purpose. As he trained into adulthood, he continued to focus on the pullover. After consulting a spine and chest surgeon, it was estimated that possibly up to 3” of his increase chest measurement was from ribcage expansion.
This is possible because the ribs are attach to the sternum via costal cartilages. These cartilages are still somewhat pliable and elastic during one’s teenage years, but occify in their 20s. This means that the DB pullover could potentially be done by younger trainees to expand their ribcage. However, once they become a fully grown adult, the pullover can build muscle, but will likely have minimal effect expanding the ribcage.
You don’t have to keep your arms straight while performing pullovers, and it would be fairly uncomfortable to try to do so. However, while some bend is allowed in the elbow, ensure you’re not bending at the elbow during the movement itself. If you do, you’re going to take emphasis off the chest and turn the exercise into a sort of triceps extension.
Also take heed to keep a strong mind-muscle connection while executing the movement. If you lose focus, tension will come off the chest at the top of the rep, shifting instead to your shoulders and triceps as you hold the dumbbell over you.
However, if maintain proper form, you can not only add extra size onto your chest, but get a great stretch throughout the lats. You may not necessarily expand the ribcage, but you can help maintain or even improve flexibility. You’ll also be adding a seldom-used tool to your arsenal that can give you an advantage over your competition.