My New Favorite Exercise: The Barbell Pullover

While trying to make my way into being capable of something like a Spartan Race, I’ve had to step back and look at every exercise I do. With three days per week taken up with running, I don’t have all week to train.

Well, I do, but I don’t. I mean, I have more free time available than most due to the nature of my job, but I also have to practice with a longsword, prepare food for the family, etc. I just don’t want to spend all day training.

Besides, I live in South Georgia and it’s freaking HOT!

Anyway, I take a look at what exercises I was doing and I also watched a number of Spartan Races themselves. Now, not all obstacle course races are Spartan Races, so I watched a bunch of those too.

My goal was to look at what would be demanded of me so I could tailor my training accordingly. In the process, I started doing a movement that’s become one of my favorite exercises: The barbell pullover.

What’s so Great About It?

The pullover–it can be done with either a barbell or a dumbbell or even a machine–is unique in a lot of ways. It’s not actually a compound movement, but it works a whole lot of muscles.

In fact, debate has raged for years about whether the exercise is a chest exercise or a lat exercise. Science has finally settled that it’s more of a pec exercise than being good for the back, but EMG data still shows some activation of the lats, though not as much as the pecs.

In addition, it actually uses the serratus muscles of the abdomen. Those can be a little tricky to train.

So, what you have is a so-called isolation exercise that trains muscles like a compound movement.

Plus, it has a bit more bearing on what I’m training for than a bench press does.

So How Do You Do It?

Here’s a video that’s close to the method I use:

Now, the main difference between what I do and what’s illustrated here is that I have my arms more extended, with only a slight bend in my arms. Part of that is that I find it easier to keep my elbows out of the movement that way.

If you’ll not in the video that when the weight is down close to the chest, there appears to be a slight push up before the barbell pullover movement begins. That’s sort of a mini-bench press, and I don’t think that has much place here, though I suppose you could include it if you so desire.

There are, however, a lot of variations. I’ve seen people use dumbbells for this–I’ve actually done them with those, actually, and they’re great as well. I’ve also seen them where only the shoulders are on the bench and the rest of the body’s weight is supported with the legs.

Honestly, it doesn’t really matter how you do them, in my opinion.

And Just How Does This Help With A Spartan RAce?

Well, in fairness, I don’t know for a fact that it will.

However, there are a lot of obstacles that involve reaching over your head and pulling, much like a barbell pullover. The movements appear to use at least some parts of the chest as well as triceps, of course.

Now, the muscle-up is probably the ideal movement, if you can do one. The problem is, most folks can’t do a muscle up. I am, unfortunately, like most people. I can’t do them.

But, while I work to do those, I still need to train, and the pullover provides me with a good movement to help prime my body for the eventual muscle-up domination.

Plus, they’re kind of fun.

Not only that, but in the above-linked article, it notes just how many old-time bodybuilders absolutely loved the barbell pullover, as well as other varieties. They used it for size and strength, which doesn’t really hurt anyone, now does it?

Straight Barbell, EZ Curl Barbell, Or Dumbbell?

When it comes to performing this movement at home, you generally have three options for how to do it: The straight barbell, the EZ-curl barbell, or a dumbbell.

Which is better?

That really depends on you. Personally, of my choices, I’m currently using the EZ-curl barbell and like it well enough. Doing so allows me to superset barbell pullovers with something like skull-crushers to get my triceps involved as well.

Dumbbells also work really well, though a superset may require transitioning to another implement, which is hardly a big deal. I’ve used them and enjoy using them, especially if you have a nice set of dumbbells.

The straight barbell, however, is a little different. First, there are different types where some will work better than others. In my own opinion, shorter straight-type barbells work better for pullovers than longer ones. I don’t like trying them with my Ohio Power Bar. Frankly, the balance gets a little too wonky when you consider the bar path.

But, to each their own and all that.

Is It Enough?

That’s the $64,000 question, now isn’t it?

Frankly, I don’t know. I mean, it’s obvious it’s not enough all on its own, but is it enough to develop the kind of strength I’m talking about?

The honest answer is that I don’t know. What I do know is that the pullover can build muscle which generally corresponds to increased strength. I also know that the movement pattern is similar to some of the movements I’ll have to make during a race.

Additionally, the pullover movement has applications in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). A downward blow uses similar muscles to generate power–in addition to rotation of the body, of course–and so the pullover as applicability there as well.

So while it may not be enough, I do think this is something I need to continue performing as I move forward.

Plus, like I said, they’re kind of fun.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

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