By: Josh Bryant
One area where many (not all) modern-day pro bodybuilders are lagging behind the old timers is the chest.
Heavy pressing variations, which have built nearly every “herculean hood”, are now performed much lighter for “feel” despite the fact that current crop of pros are 50 plus pounds larger than their 60s and 70s counter parts.
Some of the newest machines may seem slicker than a harpooned hippo on a banana tree. But the reality is they are as useful as a pogo stick in quick sand!
Many old-timers swear their superior chest development was, in a large part, due to pullovers!
Why the change?
The hogwash spewed by the “functional training” movement began in the 1990s. Men with pseudo-scientific backgrounds and muscular development that rivaled Pee-Wee Herman and body fat percentages that made Biggie Smalls look stage ready started calling the shots.
Amazingly, many hard-working trainees accepted “functional” recommendations as gospel.
“Functional training” ideas seemed cute on the surface, but when these hubristic keyboard warriors said bye-bye pullovers, this was like saying bye-bye chest development.
Before steroids arrived on the scene, the ‘squats and milk’ routine was the number one method for helping trainees get big.
Too often, people forget the “Super Squats” routine was originally called the ‘squats, pullovers and milk’ routine; squats to spike “T levels” and overall muscle growth and pullovers for a mammoth, barreled chest and gargantuan bat wings (lats) to match .
Let’s examine the pullover and how they can help take your upper body to the next level.
Dumbbell Pullovers for a Big Chest
“You will not believe the ache in the sternum that this movement will produce! It literally forces your chest apart and forces it into new growth,” said Arnold Schwarzenegger in regards to the dumbbell pullover.
The dumbbell pullover was a favorite of some of the greatest chests of all time like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Reg Park, and virtually any old-timer. This exercise works not only the chest but also the lats and the intercostal serratus anterior (the muscles of the ribcage).
Maximally-developed intercostal muscles will give the illusion of a bigger rib cage when taking a deep breath and holding a pose because the ribs are pulled up by the intercostal muscles. I believe one of the reasons chest development hasn’t caught up with other body part development is because of the elimination of any pullover variations.
How to correctly perform a dumbbell pullover:
• Lie perpendicular to the bench press, with only your shoulders supported
• Your feet should be flat on the floor, shoulder width apart
• Your head and neck should hang over the bench
• Your hips should ideally be at a slightly lower angle than your shoulders
• Place the dumbbell between your hands, that should be in a diamond shape using your thumbs and pointer fingers (palms should be facing the ceiling)
• The movement starts with the dumbbell over your chest, elbows bent 10–15 degrees (do not let this angle change throughout the entire movement)
• Slowly lower the weight backward over your head until the upper arms are in line with the torso
• The weight travels in an arc-like motion toward the floor
• Pull the dumbbell back over your chest, purposely squeezing the chest
• Hold for a second, and then repeat the exercise
Important notes: Do this movement intention style, focusing on the stretch and feel the movement, keeping reps in the 12+ range.
If you have a history of shoulder problems, be careful when introducing this exercise. You may need to avoid it.
IFBB Pro Bodybuilder Cory Mathews Performing Dumbbell Pullovers
Some bodybuilders feel the barbell pullover isolates the lats more effectively than the dumbbell pullover.
Shocking to many, science says otherwise!
A 2011 study entitled, “Effects of the pullover exercise on the pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles as evaluated by EMG” published in the Journal of Applied Biomechanics compared the EMG activity of pectoralis major and latissimus dorsi muscles during the barbell pullover exercise, using eight healthy males as subjects.
The EMG activity of the pectoralis major and that of the latissimus dorsi of the right side were measured simultaneously during the pullover exercise during both the concentric and eccentric phases of the movement.
The results demonstrated that the barbell pullover exercise emphasized the pectoralis major more than that of the latissimus dorsi.
Strength Coach Bret Contreras gave his two cents on the study saying, “I think the pecs are in a better position to actually move the weights, but down in the bottom position, the lats get a good stretch under load. The problem is that the torque diminishes as the movement rises, so tension dissipates of the lats rather quickly.”
While barbell and dumbbell pullovers are primarily a chest exercise, they, of course, still hit a host of other muscle groups.
Pullovers for Lat Development
Many bodybuilders opt for the pullover as their go-to “bat wing” or lat builder.
While using a straight arm cable pulldown, the tension remains constant throughout the movement, unlike the free weight version, shifting greater emphasis to the lats.
Arthur Jones, founder of Nautilus, made millions from his pullover machine. Many professional bodybuilders from the “Golden Era” and today feel the Nautilus Pullover is the Rolls Royce exercise for lat development.
The Nautilus machine allows for constant tension on the lats throughout the entire range of motion. Bret Contreras says, “It’s like a free weight pullover and a straight-arm pulldown combined. It’s an instance where machinery allows for something cool that you can’t do with free weights.”
Take home lesson: while studies are limited, feel and common sense concur, chest development is emphasized with barbell and dumbbell pullovers; lat development is with a machine.
More on Pullovers
Maximizing muscular development requires hitting the muscles’ different functions, i.e. at “different angles.”
The hamstring flexes the knee and extends the hips, only doing leg curls or Romanian deadlifts will not develop the hamstrings to their fullest potential.
The chest is no different!
You gotta hit it from multiple angles. Your chest muscles control the movement of your upper arm at the shoulder joint.
In other words, if your upper arm is moving in toward the front of your body, in some way, you will involve the chest.
Presses and flys are great but not the whole picture.
Bodybuilding immortals that have monopolized Sandows trophies like Arnold, Dorian Yates, Ronnie Coleman and Frank Zane, adamantly profess pullovers played a titanic role in their Herculean upper-body development.
Coleman and Dorian Yates liked the exercise for developing lats that terrorize tailors and fill out door jambs.
Reg Park and his star pupil, Arnold, considered pullovers to be an obligatory chest exercise; the aesthetic assassin Frank Zane attributed pullovers to developing his notorious serratus muscles.
Don’t neglect the pullover!
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