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Pullover: Dumbbell vs Machine

An avid weight-training patient recently asked me about the differences between the Nautilus pullover machine and a traditional dumbbell pullover across a bench. There are strong similarities and significant differences.

The prime and secondary movers in the pullover exercise are the shoulder extensors, which include the teres major (upper lat), latissimus dorsi (lat), posterior deltoid (rear delt) and the long head of the triceps. If you’re lying across a bench with the dumbbell supported directly over your head and you lower the dumbbell behind your head, those muscles are working but lengthening. That’s known as the eccentric, or negative, portion of the exercise. As you pull the dumbbell back to the starting point, the muscle contracts, or shortens. That part of the stroke is commonly called positive training. The dumbbell pullover has the greatest resistance when your arms are parallel to the floor, the lowest part of the movement. That’s because your arms form the longest lever for gravity to pull on. The closer the movement reaches the starting point, directly over your face, the less resistance, because the lever is at its shortest.

Pullover machines target the same shoulder extensor muscles, but the machine lets significant resistance occur at the same position as the start of the dumbbell pullover, with the machine bar near the upper abdomen. Gravity pulls downward on the weight stack, and the force is transmitted through the pulley system to the pads and bars you are pushing against. You’d have to perform a decline dumbbell pullover to have a similar effect.

Another benefit is that many trainees feel they have a very strong contraction in the abdominal muscles in the finished position, with the bar pulled low toward the abdomen. That doesn’t occur during the dumbbell pullover. One last point is that the machine pullover enables you to pull your shoulders slightly into hyperextension. That also occurs at the bottom position, as the elbows move backward, past your body.

So why doesn’t everyone use the pullover machine? Some trainees can’t perform pullovers at all because of shoulder pain. The source of the pain may be a tear in a cartilage ring that surrounds the shoulder socket. The extreme range of motion of the pullover can stress the cartilage ring. Trainees who have rotator cuff problems may also have pain when they do pullovers. Many also find that the machine pullover lends itself to a greater stretch at the top. The restriction of the body in the machine permits that. Most trainees won’t let the dumbbell drop as low.

The late Joe Gold, founder of Gold’s Gym and World Gym, always included a Nautilus pullover machine in his gyms. Gold thought the machine was terrific.

There’s been much debate whether to classify the exercise as a chest or back exercise. The pecs help initiate the pull, but the latissimus dorsi, teres major, posterior deltoid and long head of the triceps perform most of the work, so it should fit into a back workout. If you’re on a split routine with chest and back on the same day, feel free to include it. If your split is back and biceps in one session, place the pullover in that workout.

The bottom line is that the machine gives you resistance over a greater range of motion and also allows the abs to get a little workout. Not all gyms have a pullover machine. If your gym doesn’t have one, you can use a dumbbell and a bench and target the same muscles, but you won’t get the ab-training effect. If the pullover causes shoulder pain, you should drop it from your workouts. Plenty of other exercises can target the same muscles: barbell rows, dumbbell rows, T-bar rows, seated cable rows, wide-grip pulldowns, narrow grip pulldowns and undergrip pulldowns, to name a few. IM

Editor’s note: Visit for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the books, Strength, Conditioning and Injury Prevention for Hockey by Joseph Horrigan, D.C., and E.J. “Doc” Kreis, D.A., and The 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at

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