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Popularized by Olympic champion Casey Victor in 1973, the pullover exercises are starting to become a popular (again) exercise in fitness programs due to their ability to work a whole range of upper body parts like the chest, back, arms and shoulder muscles, including secondary movers and stabilizer muscles.

You will discover what muscles are used during the pullover machine exercise and some alternatives to the exercise for those who don’t have access to a pullover machine at your local gym.

Let’s get right into it!

What muscles does the pullover machine work?

Pullover machine exercises are considered the “squat” of the upper body since they touch every muscle of the upper body.

The pullover machine target muscle is the lattissimus dorsi (Lats), this is the broadest muscle in the upper body involved in major movement activities and rotation of the shoulders.

The pullover machine also stimulates the triceps and chest (pectoralis major).

Primary Muscle Movers

  1. Latissimus Dorsi (Lats)
  2. Pectoralis Major (Chest)
  3. Teres Major (Thick muscle in the upper arm)

Secondary Movers and Stabilizers

  1. Triceps
  2. Serratus Anterior (surface rib muscles of the 1st to 8th rib)
  3. Abdominals
  4. Rhomboids (Muscle located below traps, between shoulder blades)
  5. Trapezius (Traps)

Pullover Machine Methodology

As Dr.Joel Seedam explains, the lat muscle should not be strained during any exercise as this can lead to cartilage injury.

The pullover machine is ideal for upper chest training since it is safer, easy to execute, and highly effective.

Since the semi-circular arc is fixed, the machine can travel through in a fixed manner giving the same resistance throughout the session for a smooth exercise.

As demonstrated in the video below, safety is critical to get the most from the pullover machine.

Begin each session by adjusting the machine to your height. You don’t need to go super heavy if you are a beginner, rather focus on control and contraction to prevent injury.

As you gain experience and learn the exercise, start to progress in a heavier weight.

Ensure that you secure your position with the belt as this offers an extra layer of security. Adjust your seat and belt correctly, you should reach both handlebars and footrest without straining.

Don’t have a Pullover Machine?

Here’s the closest you will get to the pullover machine and all gyms (at least the ones worth their weight) should have a lat machine.

Below is how to correctly perform the pullover exercise on the lat machine similar to the pullover machine.

Sit on the bar, use the overhand grip to get a firm grip and pull the bar downwards as you exhale.

Ensure the bar reaches your abdomen. Finally, allow gravity to move your arms upward slowly as you exhale.

Repeat the exercise as much as desired.

Pullover Machine Safety Tips:

  • As a beginner, start with at least two sets of 8 repetitions and increase the strength and resistance as you progress.
  • Avoid the machine if you experience shoulder pain. Remember the exercise involves stretching the shoulder joints. If you have insufficient shoulder flexibility, then you might end up straining the back, leading to injuries.
  • Use the machine for the intended purpose. Remember, the pullover machine is ideal for toning back muscles, mainly lats, and rarely affects the biceps. If your fitness goal is to gain ripped biceps, then include rowing exercise in your fitness routine.
  •  Always consult a physician or fitness expert before starting this program. If you have a recent injury or any medical condition, get a professional opinion before starting.
  •  As a general guide, start small, with minimum resistance, lightweight and shorter sessions, and progress as you gain experience.

Are pullovers push or pull?

The pullover exercise would be considered a combination of push/pull due to the nature of the exercise. But this also depends on the exercise you are performing and the machine or weights in use.

The pullover machine, pushing the weight over your head and pulling towards your abdomen would be considered push/pull.

Most people include the pullover exercise in either push/pull days.


Pullover Machine Exercise Alternatives

The pullover machine is an excellent upper body isolation exercise. The drawback is some gyms might not have one.

But we can perform alternative pullover exercises that can be just as good or better than the pullover machine.

These pullover alternatives can enable you to gain flexibility, muscle strength and better growth because you are required to recruit additional muscles to support the exercise.

Let’s take a look into pullover exercises.

Decline Kettlebell Pullovers

This could be considered a more advanced exercise. Laying down on a decline exercise bench slowly lower the kettlebells over your head with a slight bend at the elbows and squeeze the lats to pull the weight back to the starting position.

To increase the difficulty pause at the bottom of the exercise for 2-3 seconds to maximize muscle exhaustion.


Dumbbell Pullovers

To get started, grab a single or double dumbbell in each arm. With the dumbbell in your hands, raise each hand above your head with the hands facing forward.

Slowly, lower the dumbbell to shoulder height as you keep the back engaged.

Raise them back up and repeat for 3-15 times. Ensure that you start with a slow speed and increase the momentum as you master the skill.

For maximum lat exhaustion, raise the end of the bench.


Lying Cable Pullover

Aim to keep your core tight and your lower back pushed into the floor. Slow and steady raise the cable bar above your head and push the cable towards your legs with a slight bend at the elbows.

Focus the movement directly on flaring your lats and moving the cable bar in a slow and controlled movement. Practice mind to muscle control for best results.


Final Thoughts

Getting strong muscles is a fitness goal for many people. Improved breathing, better movement, and enhanced posture are some of the benefits of strong upper muscles.

The pullover exercise is a straightforward method to build upper body muscle size and strength.

Depending on if your gym has a pullover machine, simply use the alternative pullover exercise. Include the exercise in your workout program at least 1-2 days per week or a 4 day workout split.