The pull-over, from a bodybuilding perspective, is one of the best exercises for the long head of the triceps, when performed with a bent elbow. The risks involved here are overblown, with the pull-over actually reducing elbow stress, though many apply to a straight elbow pull-over that can be riskier for the shoulder. A pull-up may be the better option in this case, to stretch and emphasize the teres major.
The pull-over has long held an association with old-school training. A legendary routine known for adding muscle to anyone courageous enough to try it included the pull-over.
This routine revolved around the 20 rep breathing squat. You would complete this rest-pause style. This meant that as long as you kept the barbell on your back, you could take as much rest between reps as needed instead of performing them continuously. The experts suggesting this routine often stated that you should manage to get 20 reps with a weight you could normally handle for only 8 reps. They may have exaggerated this point, but they certainly needed to convey the brutality of your impending task.
Following a single grueling set of squats, you would perform breathing pull-overs. This occurred immediately after as a superset for another 20 reps. Typically you would perform this only with a light weight. It aimed to take advantage of the heavy breathing after the squats combined with the stretching the ribcage’s cartilage on this exercise to expand it. It also served as a cool-down.
The pull-over has you lie across a bench. You grab a weight plate, dumbbell, or barbell. You place it overhead and look at it as if preparing for a bench press. You keep your elbows near full lockout and rigid. You then extend your shoulders over and behind your head as far down as possible. After reaching your limit, you pull it back to the starting position.
Many trainees would finish this superset with perhaps a couple sets of bench presses, rows, curls, and possibly some sit-ups. Sometimes you would include dead-lifts and overhead presses but usually less total exercise was encouraged. You would perform this routine 2-3 times a week. You would combine it with plenty of food, likely with a simple option like GOMAD.
This routine worked and still works very well, far better than most out there. It emphasizes all the right ingredients. You promote anabolism with the calories and allow recovery by keeping the training abbreviated. You work hard enough to stimulate growth in the most important exercises. The squats seemed not only to lead to more muscle throughout the whole body due to the indirect effect, but also improved your conditioning and work ethic.
In general, the pull-over associates with routines like the one given that will lead you toward success. These old-timer programs revolved around the basic free weight and mostly compound exercises. Many of the early weightlifters and bodybuilders considered this the best upper body exercise. Many even focused on it before the other obvious choices like the bench press or pull-ups. The machine pull-over also established a reputation as a unique and valuable tool. Many that otherwise despise machines would make an exception and include it with their free weight exercises.
You would feel hard-pressed to find an upper body exercise that works more muscle than the pull-over. Many trainees used it as an addition to their chest routine. Others used it as a way to better isolate the lats. Some used it to hit the smaller tie-in muscles like the serratus anterior and intercostals. Most struggled to find a place for it in their routines though since it worked so many muscles. It hits the lats and chest in one movement. It addresses the long head of the triceps, rear deltoids, and the abs as well. As mentioned, some used it to expand their ribcages by stretching out their cartilage.
This all may give you the impression that we need to promote its triumphant return. Unfortunately, the pull-over harms the shoulders and works the major muscles away from their optimal lengths for tension, with tension serving as the main stimulus for more size and strength. Though today it has largely become a forgotten exercise, it should stay so for these reasons.
You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.
– Yogi Berra
- It loads the shoulder in an overhead position.
When elevating the arm, the bone that runs from the elbow to shoulder, known as the humerus, drives into a small process located on your shoulder blade. This smashes the rotator cuff, a group of small muscles and tendons that hold the shoulder together. Some trainees tolerate this effect better than others but everyone will experience impingement to some degree.
Although you avoid pressing overhead, which can further the damage due to the contraction of the bigger shoulder muscles that makes the process even worse, impingement still occurs.
The hands usually travel out of sight and far behind the head, which furthers the damage by more severely impinging the tissue.
- The longest moment arm fails to match where your muscles work strongest.
The further the weight in your hands travels away from the working muscles, the worse leverage becomes. You have to work harder to handle the same given weight. This explains why it feels so tough to hold even a light weight far away from your body such as during a lateral raise. A good exercise has the longest moment arm occur when the muscles function most strongly.
Although the pull-over works a lot of big muscles, it works them all in stretched positions. The moment arm is longest exactly when the muscles are weakest. The length-tension relationship establishes that an elongated position allows less tension. The components that bind together to create a muscle contraction spread too far apart.
- The hips tend to rise with heavy weight.
This counterbalancing to prevent this hip raise can be dangerous and may you lose your balance.
You must feel stable to best build and express strength. This allows your force to efficiently go in the right direction. It also prevents the stabilizers from overwhelming the exercise.
The hips moving will distract you. This limits effort. It makes coordination limit you instead of your strength.
- The resistance rotates.
If an exercise has the weight travel through a rotational path, avoid it at all costs. Otherwise you force the body to move under a load with an unnatural pattern.
The joints will get exposed to shearing forces with this pattern. Moving in straight lines maximizes compression, the force you bones and joints handle best. This uses more muscle at the right lengths to build strength and size anyway.
- It lacks clear endpoints.
This makes progress hard to measure. The distance you travel behind your head is imprecise. If you go until you feel the limits of your shoulders, you ask for injury.
- Core work does not justify the problems.
Avoid the Pull-Over
I almost feel guilty criticizing this exercise. Those whom like it tend to do a lot of things correctly. The sort of people attracted to the pull-over, as a general rule, like to work hard and have a more intimate knowledge of the basics. Without looking beneath the surface, it does appear as an excellent selection.
The pull-over may have some merit to expand the ribcage, especially with younger trainees. This may serve no purpose though beyond cosmetic reasons. Nonetheless, if you aim to expand your ribcage, you would stay safer using vacuums and other techniques that do not expose you to the risks mentioned here.
Avoid following arguments by tradition or popularity. These arguments carry a lot of weight in the fitness world, as opposed to examining the facts. Many exercises fail to match our anatomy and biomechanics, yet many trainees perform them because everyone else does.
Avoid the pull-over.