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Dumbbell Pullovers: Bad for Your Abs?


The dumbbell pullover is an exercise that you usually see in hardcore gyms and somewhat less frequently in the more upscale fitness centers. Its history goes back decades, to when it was performed with a bar that was lying on the floor at the end of a flat bench. You’d lie on the bench and reach back, perhaps lifting your hips off the bench to help reach the bar.

One version was just a pullover—from the floor to the chest and back for reps. The second was a “pullover and press,” which was actually a bench press. (The bench was not a popular exercise yet, so it was often combined with the pullover.) The third version was a pullover into a lying triceps extension.

Eventually, as training continued to evolve and the concept of attempting to isolate muscles in training grew in interest and popularity, those versions of the pullover faded away. The dumbbell pullover came on the scene, and it wasn’t too long before people were performing it across the bench—torso perpendicular to the bench—so only the upper back was on the bench.

Two variations emerged: 1) pullovers performed with a heavy dumbbell and 2) lightweight pullovers that were typically followed a set of high-rep squats. The high-rep squats were often referred to as “breathing squats”—because of the way you’d be breathing after performing them, usually chugging like a locomotive.

The prevailing thought was to take advantage of that state of breathlessness by using the light pullover and breathing deeply while reaching back far with the arms and dumbbells, dropping the hips and sucking in as much air as possible. This combination of exercises was believed to help people gain weight and expand their chest. The mechanism of the chest expansion was never quite explained. The weight gain came from very large muscle groups being worked hard with the high-rep squats combined with a diet that was rich in protein and calories.

There is a problem though. When the dumbbell is lowered behind your head, and you take a very deep breath, dropping your hips for an extra stretch and an extra big breath, the abdominal muscles are shut down during the inhaling process. Here’s the reason:

The line down the middle of your “six-pack” is the linea alba, or median rectus, and it’s made of connective tissue. Every time you perform the pullover described above, you stretch the linea alba a tiny bit more. Eventually, it will stretch out and weaken. Over time, the linea alba can begin to tear.

I’ve had bodybuilders come see me in a bit of a panic, asking me about this “lump” in the center of their six-pack. Fortunately, the “lump” was not a tumor, and, unfortunately, it was a small hernia or tear in the linea alba.

Later in life the tear can get larger, and the linea alba can tear over a large area. That split in the abdominal wall is known as a diastasis recti, and it’s usually surgically repaired only in very thin people, some of whom are thin women who lose pregnancy weight after their baby is born.

So, in a media-driven world that values the appearance of a guy, it is very unwise to perform an exercise that could destroy the six-pack.  Some of the seated pullover machines do not permit this type of stretching and are much less harmful to the linea alba, if at all. Many pullover machines actually encourage abdominal muscle contraction at the completion of the motion, but that isn’t the risky part of the movement. Always be careful at the furthest reach of any machine pullover.

Train smart, and then train hard.

—Joseph M. Horrigan

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