January 10, 2022 8 min read
Lat pullovers are making a comeback! Also called dumbbell pullovers, they’re a surprisingly versatile back and chest exercise. But the ease of committing form errors and confusion about the way it works the muscles it targets keeps many people from adding it to their workout.
Read through this guide to the lat pulldown to find out how it’s done, how it works your muscles, and how you can program it in your next back day routine.
While there are pullover variations that feature barbells, cable machines, and resistance bands, we’re sticking to the classic version for now. You’ll need a dumbbell and a flat bench. The starting position is a sticking point for those who use the dumbbell lat pullover in their workout. Get it wrong and you won’t get the full effect on your lats.
Follow these steps to get into the starting position for a lat pullover:
Now you’re in the starting position. Pay attention to your elbows and concentrate on lifting the weight with your lats rather than your chest, shoulders, or arms.
Here’s how to complete one lat pullover repetition:
That’s one rep. Continue for 8 - 12 total reps depending on how many you’re capable of doing.
We can’t stress this enough: your elbows are going to make or break your lat pullover technique. Don’t lock them out at any point and make sure they’re the ones leading the pull on the dumbbell.
That’s a great way to guarantee the lats are powering the move instead of the pecs.
Pulling the weight back to the starting position will make your elbows want to flare out to accommodate the motion. Resist this and keep them in place relative to the sides of your torso. Also, remember to lead with them rather than your hands.
Apart from the elbows, mastering the hip drop is vital for getting the back workout you want from this exercise. Your lower back will move as you drop the hips but focus on hinging at the hip joint rather than curving your lower back.
Keep in mind that the point of this hip drop is to stretch the entirety of the latissimus dorsi.
You’ll feel that stretch near your obliques and also in your upper back - at the furthest point of the pullover, you should find that you can’t move the weight back any further. Finally and most importantly from an injury perspective, don’t bring the weight too far back. It doesn’t need to go lower than your torso. Even if you have great shoulder mobility already, repeatedly moving the weight that low over your head will test their resilience and pose a greater injury risk.
From our perspective, this is a great back exercise and that should be the focus. Some other muscles and muscle groups will be involved as well, but lat activation is the main goal here. As a back exercise, the dumbbell lat pullover works the following muscles and muscle groups:
This is as close as you can get to an isolation exercise for your lats. Pulldowns are the nearest corollary. Pull-ups and rows also work the lats, but other muscles are heavily involved in those kinds of exercises.
The latissimus dorsi is the widest back muscle, extending from the upper back near the shoulder blades all the way down to the hips, including wrapping around the side of the torso to cover the ribs.
Lats produce arm movement at the shoulder joint with the pectoralis major and teres minor.
The largest chest muscle, what we commonly refer to as our pecs primarily power pushing movements like bench presses and push-ups. Many people think the lat pullover is primarily an exercise for the pecs, or at least that they do as much work as the lats do.
The way we’ve explained the exercise, it’s definitely a back exercise that targets the lats. That being said, if you leave out the hip drop you can target the pecs if you wanted to. We prefer to hit the chest with more targeted exercises like bench presses, but the pullover is a nice transition from back to chest or vice versa if you’re the type to program a back and chest day in your weekly routine.
Your serratus is on the surface of the first through the eighth ribs. The main purpose of this muscle is to pull the scapula, or shoulder blade, forward and up. Its principal activation is during the second half of a lat pullover as the dumbbell moves back to the starting position.
Too many bodybuilders ignore this critical muscle, limiting the range of motion of their shoulder blades and missing out on sculpting a highly visible surface muscle.
Deltoid activation during a lat pullover is primarily to stabilize the arm. The delts are located on the top of each shoulder and their purpose is to raise the arms out to each side.
Though that doesn’t happen during the pullover exercise, the delts are still necessary to prevent sideways motion. So when we say keep your elbows from flaring out, it’s partly your deltoids that kick in to hold them in place.
Together with the deltoids, your triceps help stabilize the upper arm and elbow during a lat pullover. You don’t want them to be the stars of the show, but they are seeing some activation.
Although they won’t see nearly as much action as they would in exercises like crunches or planks, the abdominal muscles have some stabilizing work to do during a lat pullover. That’s mostly because of the position of the torso during the exercise.
Since your lower body is hanging off the bench, your core muscles work to support the torso. Some people even combine a glute bridge with the lat pullover, but doing so requires your hips to be in a position that will ultimately work the pecs more than the lats.
Lifters like to argue this point over and over. Detractors say the pullover isn’t targeted enough to be included in their routines because they can’t determine what kind of exercise it is.
One study found that the pectoralis major saw greater activation during a dumbbell pullover, but we can’t be sure how exactly each test subject was performing their reps.
The takeaway here seems to be that the lat pullover will work how you want it to work.
It’s either a subpar chest workout or a great back workout, which is why we focus on lifting with that latissimus dorsi and stabilizing with the deltoids and triceps rather than powering the move with your pecs. Proper form is essential for as little risk of injury as possible. Used correctly, this move is a great addition to your back day routine.
You might not see many folks doing reps of the lat pullover when you go to the gym, but old school lifters like to use it to wear out their back before moving on to the chest if that's how their 5-day split is organized.
Lat pullovers also help you gain a feeling for pulling with your lats specifically.
We aren’t typically very aware of this muscle and if you want to sculpt it to build a barn-door back then pullover exercises are indispensable. The lat pullover tends to make the lats spread out whereas lat exercises like pulldowns will make them more powerful.
Pulldowns build strength and pullovers build muscle. Both should be in your back day routine.
Maybe the greatest benefit of this exercise is that it just feels good. As you run through the reps, you start to feel that adrenaline rush that comes from a challenging workout. This is most likely because they stretch out the lats - a muscle that takes up so much real estate is hard to fully extend in any other kind of exercise.
The method we described earlier for dumbbell pullovers is just one way to target the lats with this exercise. Use any of the following variations for a similar workout with different equipment.
Probably the best option for beginners, the stability ball pullover helps learn how your body should be positioned on a bench. It’s admittedly a bit of a bizarre position compared to other more straightforward weightlifting exercises like the bench press.
The exercise is performed in exactly the same way except you lie down on a stability ball instead. Try doing it with the ball against a wall to keep it in place when you’re first learning.
You need a cable machine or a resistance band with an anchor point for this variation. Set a light weight on the plates as you learn this exercise and progress to heavier weights over time. Stand in front of a cable machine once the weight is set.
Use a triangle or a lat bar for the best results.
Get into a wide stance with your feet about shoulder-width apart and then pull the handle toward the front of your thighs. Hold it in place for a second or two and then slowly move back to the starting position to complete one rep.
We already mentioned this variation as a good way to build core strength and get your glutes involved. Your chest will get a better workout than your lats since your hips will be higher in this variation. To do it, lie on your back and put the soles of your feet flat on the ground. Lift your hips into a glute bridge position and then move the weight above your head as explained in our pullover step-by-step above.
Swap out a barbell for the dumbbell in our earlier explanation and you have a variation with a more spread out weight distribution. You might not find a huge difference between this and the dumbbell, but since the weight is organized differently, we like to throw this barbell variation into our routine to keep the lats and chest from adapting to the original pullover exercise.
Now that you know how to do them with proper form to focus on your lats and lower the risk of injury, you can throw some lat pullovers into your next back day routine.
Whether you use the dumbbells, barbell, stability ball, or any of the other variations we mentioned, this exercise will quickly become one of your favorites once you feel the stretch on your lats and see how it helps them gain mass over time.