13 Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives for Massive Upper Body Gains

by: Michael Perry

July 16, 2022

dumbbell pullovers are a key exercise in many chest workout programs (it can also target your lats with a slight variation). It's an isolation exercise that can get you serious upper body mass when done correctly.

But what if you don't have the right equipment or perhaps struggle with poor mobility in your shoulder joints? Or you just plain don't like dumbbell pullovers?

Here's our go-to list full of dumbbell pullover alternative exercises tailor-made for you.

The 13 best dumbbell pullover alternatives are:

  1. Bench Presses
  2. Chest Dips
  3. Dumbbell Flys
  4. Straight Arm Pulldowns
  5. Cable Crossovers
  6. Incline Push-Ups
  7. Straight Arm Kickbacks
  8. Pull-Ups
  9. V-Bar Pulldowns
  10. Low Cable Flys
  11. Pec Deck Flys
  12. Bent-Over Rows
  13. Lat Pulldowns

Let's go.

What Is a Dumbbell Pullover?

The pullover is a move that targets your latissimus dorsi or chest muscles, depending on how you hold the dumbbell. Here's the breakdown of how to do pullovers:

  1. Lay down on a flat bench with just the top of your head hanging over the end. As you lay down, "kick" the dumbbell into position with your thigh. Hold the dumbbell with your hands in a triangle shape around the handle. The bell should be over your chest with your arms straight.
  2. Exhale and lower the weight over your head. Keep the weight as close to your body as possible but watch out that you don't clip the top of your head.
  3. Inhale to return the weight to starting position.

Done this way, dumbbell pullovers target mostly your pectoral muscles in your upper chest. If you flare your elbows out wide, you can target your latissimus dorsi.

TL;DR: Dumbbell pullovers are an upper body move that's versatile depending on your form.

Dumbbell Pullover – Muscles Worked

We've touched on this, but let's get science-y for a second. What muscles do pullovers work?

Main muscle:

  • Pectoralis Major, Sternal
pectoralis major (pecs)

Supporting muscles:

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Teres Major
  • Triceps, Long Head
  • Deltoid, Posterior
  • Pectoralis Minor
  • Rhomboids
  • Levator Scapulae

Stabilizing muscles:

  • Triceps Brachii
  • Deltoid, Anterior
  • Pectoralis Major, Clavicular
  • Wrist Flexors

That's a lot of names, so what does it mean?

It means the primary muscle worked in a pullover is your chest muscle, specifically your pectoralis major, or the "main" muscles people think of when they think of targeting their chest.

It also works your back muscles, tricep muscles, shoulder muscles, and even core muscles.

TL;DR: Dumbbell pullovers work almost your entire upper body.

What Makes a Great Dumbbell Pullover Alternative?

The bench press is a great dumbbell pullover alternative

If you want to build muscle mass in your upper body, the best pullover alternatives are the ones that work those same muscles.

So you're going to prioritize your chest and lats first, above all others. Then, you'll think about your shoulders, and possibly arms.

But primarily, the alternative exercises in this list will focus on the chest muscles.

TL;DR: Chest and lats, then everything else.

13 Dumbbell Pullover Alternatives

Without further ado, let's talk about each dumbbell pullover alternative in turn, starting with a tried-and-true chest builder.

1. Bench Presses

The bench press has long earned its keep in the world of exercise physiology.

Whether you do an incline bench press, a decline bench press, or a regular bench press, you basically can't go wrong with this exercise.

It's a compound movement that targets your chest muscles but also uses your arms.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Lay on your back on your bench. If using dumbbells and they're heavy, "kick" them into position. If using a barbell, have the bar positioned above you. Grip the bar with your hands wider than shoulder width.
  2. Keep your feet pressed flat on the ground. Brace through your core and engage your legs.
  3. Lift the bar off the hooks. Inhale as you slowly lower the bar (or dumbbells) toward your chest. Keep your elbows slightly tucked.
  4. Exhale to press the weight back overhead.

Pro Tip:

An incline bench press targets more of your upper chest, while a decline bench press targets more of your lower chest.

Don't have in incline bench? Then check out our incline bench press alternatives.

2. Chest Dips

Dips are excellent for chest activation and — depending on how you lean — can work your entire chest or specific areas (much like changing the incline on a bench press can target your upper or lower chest).

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Standing between parallel bars, begin in a lifted position with your elbows locked and your weight supported entirely by your arms.
  2. Leaning forward slightly, inhale as you slowly lower down until your upper arms are roughly parallel with the bars, meaning your elbow forms a 90º angle.
  3. Exhale to press yourself back to starting position.

Pro Tip:

If these are already easy for you, you can add weight by holding a plate between your legs or wearing a weighted vest.

Dips are too hard on ya'? Check our chest dips alternatives.

3. Dumbbell Flys

The dumbbell chest fly is a stellar replacement for a dumbbell pullover.

It's accessible to anyone (with a set of dumbbells) and shouldn't exacerbate any shoulder issues.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Choose your dumbbell weight and lay back on your bench. Hold the dumbbells with palms facing together or slightly angled.
  2. Inhale as you lower the weights out to your sides. Keep a slight bend in your elbows throughout the entire movement. Lower until you feel a gentle stretch through your chest.
  3. Exhale to bring the weights back together.

Pro Tip:

Remember to retract your scapula throughout your chest fly to keep your shoulders back and down.

4. Straight Arm Pulldowns

This move needs a cable machine/lat pulldown machine, but if you have access to a gym, the straight arm pulldown is a solid alternative to pullovers.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Grasp the cable machine bar or handles and take a few steps back. Lean forward at about a 30º angle with your arms fully extended and a gentle bed in your elbows.
  2. Tighten your lats and make sure your shoulders are packed, down away from your ears. Keeping your arms straight, pull the cables down by flexing your chest muscles until your hands are beside your thighs.
  3. Inhale to release the weight to starting position.

Pro Tip:

Watch your torso angle. The straight arm cable pulldown is only effective if your angle remains consistent throughout your reps.

5. Cable Crossovers

Like the straight arm pulldown, cable crossovers require a cable machine.

However, they're a solid chest workout that mimics the movements of a chest fly, so if you prefer machines to free weights, this one's for you.

Equipment Needed:

  • Cable machine

How To:

  1. Start with the pulleys on the machine set higher than your shoulders. Grasp each handle and step forward in a split stance.
  2. Maintain a small bend forward at your waist. With arms stretched back, you should feel a gentle pull in your chest muscles.
  3. Exhale to pull the handles together in front of your chest. Maintain a subtle bend in your elbows throughout the movement.
  4. Inhale as you slowly — with control! — release the weights back to starting position.

Pro Tip:

Adjusting the height of the pulleys will target different areas of your chest, similar to adjusting the incline in bench presses.

Not a fan of the cable machine? Check our cable crossover alternatives.

6. Incline Push-Ups

Doing push-ups on an incline is a great step to work your way down to the floor.

It's a better option than knee push-ups, because when you do push-ups from your knees, you're not working your core muscles and lower body as much as you need to if your goal is floor push-ups.

Equipment Needed:

  • Something sturdy to brace your hands on (kitchen table, windowsill, sofa arm, countertop, incline bench, etc.)

How To:

  1. Place your hands on your sturdy surface about shoulder width apart. Extend your legs out behind you in an elevated plank position.
  2. Squeeze your glutes so your butt neither sags nor lifts. You should form a straight line from your head to your heels. Rotate your elbows in slightly.
  3. Inhale as you lower yourself down. Keep your elbows at about a 45º angle to your body and your entire body tight, moving as one unit.
  4. Exhale to press back up.

Pro Tip:

If you struggle to keep a neutral spine, try laying (or having a friend hold) a broomstick down your back. It should touch in three places: the back of your head, your upper back, and your tailbone.

7. Straight Arm Kickbacks

A straight arm kickback makes an excellent dumbbell pullover alternative. It really targets your lats and triceps muscles, two key areas normally worked in a dumbbell pullover.

Equipment Needed:

  • Dumbbell

How To:

  1. Brace your leg and supporting arm on a bench or other stable surface, like you're going to do a one-arm row. Hold the dumbbell in your working hand.
  2. With a slight bend in your elbow, exhale and lift your arm up and back. Your elbow should drive the movement, but your arm stays straight.
  3. Engage your core throughout the movement and really squeeze your triceps and latissimus dorsi at the top.
  4. Inhale as you lower the weight.

Pro Tip:

Watch your torso when doing a straight arm kickback — it should stay stationary.

8. Pull-Ups

There's nothing quite as impressive as cranking out a set of pull-ups.

They're also one of the easiest exercises to get wrong.

Too often you'll see folks using momentum to "cheat" the move, straining their neck to get their chin over the pull-up bar, or hanging all loosey-goosey. Not you, my friend.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Grip the bar firmly in your palms with your hands slightly wider than shoulder width. Begin in a hollow hang, meaning your entire body is engaged. Keep your legs out in front of you, toes pointed, quads and glutes flexed, abs tight.
  2. Look up at the bar. Initiate the pull with your latissimus dorsi muscles and exhale as you lift yourself so at least your chin reaches the bar if not your sternum. Your entire body should move as a unit.
  3. Inhale as you lower yourself back down, with control, your entire body still tight and engaged.

Pro Tip:

If pull-ups are too difficult for you, there are a few regressions you can do to build strength: negative pull-ups (begin supported above the bar and slowly lower yourself), scap pulls (just the initiated lat part of the pull), and band-supported pull-ups.

9. V-Bar Pulldowns

This is a similar move to straight arm pulldowns, except you're using the V-bar attachment. It's a great alternative to a regular dumbbell pullover.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Load a moderate weight onto the machine. Take a few steps back, gripping the V-bar handle in both hands so there's a bit of tension on the cable. Bend forward slightly.
  2. With straight arms, exhale and pull the bar down to your hips. At the bottom of the movement, really push your elbows back to engage your shoulder blades and target the lats.
  3. Inhale as you raise the weight up (with control).

Pro Tip:

If you don't have access to a machine, you can do this move with a resistance band attached to something sturdy above your head, like a door anchor.

10. Low Cable Flys

Similar to a decline chest fly, low cable flys will target your chest, including that coveted inner chest area. You once again need a machine for this one, but it's a solid move to replace a dumbbell pullover.

Equipment Needed:

  • Cable machine

How To:

  1. Place the cables on their lowest setting on each side. Grab the handles and step forward slightly into a staggered stance. Maintain a gentle bend in your front knee and brace your back foot on your toes.
  2. Palms face forward with a gentle bend in your elbows. Exhale as you pull the handles up and in, like you're picking up a really big ball.
  3. Inhale to release the weights back down, again with control.

Pro Tip:

This is another move you can do with resistance bands and a solid anchor if necessary.

11. Pec Deck Flys

This is basically the same as a cable fly, except using the pec dec machine instead.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Sit in the machine and relax your neck and shoulders. Keep feet flat on the floor. Grab the handles of the machine with palms facing forward.
  2. Exhale to press the handles together in front of your chest with a slow, controlled movement. Maintain a gentle bend in your elbows.
  3. Pause for a moment at the point where your arms are "closed" in front of you.
  4. Inhale to slowly release back to starting position.

Pro Tip:

Watch your posture here to make sure you're not leaning your shoulders forward.

12. Bent-Over Rows

Rows are an excellent dumbbell pullover alternative that targets your upper back. You need two dumbbells or kettlebells for this one, or you can use a barbell.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Choose your desired weight and get into position. Bend at the waist until you're at about a 45º angle. Keep your legs and core tight and engaged and make sure you're not overarching in your lower back.
  2. Begin with arms extended, dumbbells held in a neutral grip so palms face each other. Exhale as you lift your elbows, keeping them tucked close to your ribs, and using your back muscles to initiate the lift.
  3. Pause for a moment at the top to squeeze your shoulder blades together and really activate those muscle fibers.
  4. Inhale as you slowly lower back down.

Pro Tip:

If these are too difficult for you, begin with one-arm rows so you have a brace to build strength.

13. Lat Pulldowns

A lat pulldown is similar to a straight arm pulldown, except you're seated at the machine and bend your elbows.

Equipment Needed:

How To:

  1. Load the lat pulldown machine with your weight of choice. Sit down and grasp the bar overhead.
  2. Exhale as you pull the bar down toward your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the end of the move.
  3. Inhale as you return the bar to starting position.

Pro Tip:

You can play around with grip and "rocking" the straight bar in your pulldown to target different areas of your back.

Don't have access to a lat machine? Check our lat pulldown alternatives.

Conclusion

Whether your shoulder joints give you trouble or you want to shake up your dumbbell pullover routine, these alternative exercises have your back (literally).

Doing the exercises in this list will not only spice up your routine if you're over doing a dumbbell pullover, but will also add variety to the muscles worked, improving your overall athletic ability.


About the author

Growing up as the fat kid is what motivated him to take matters to his hands at fifteen, and he has never looked back again since!

When he's not pumping iron at the gym, you'll probably find him hooked to his record player listening to rock classics.

If only he could carry it with him to the gym. Sigh.

On this site, he'll do his best to help you accomplish the same results for yourself.

(We're talking about getting in shape, not trying to carry a record player to your local gym)

Michael Perry