December 16, 2021
If the thought of using a cable machine for anything other than chest flyes or some bicep curls and tricep pushdowns intimidates you (or you think is pointless), let this put your mind at ease – there are so many different ways to effectively utilize a cable machine for strength & hypertrophy. A cable machine can provide access to a plethora of exercises – essentially allowing you to hit each muscle group while only using one machine. One perfect example of this is the Cable Pullover.
In this post, we are going to break down how to do a cable pullover correctly (as well as pullovers with various pieces of equipment, if you don’t have access to a cable machine), common mistakes made while performing a cable pullover, benefits and muscles worked, alternatives to the cable pullover, and the training variables that you can aim for when including the pullovers into your lifting routine.
A cable pullover is a movement based on shoulder extension (which means bring your arms straight down) using a cable machine. It is an isolation exercise, being that movement only acts on the shoulder joint, which targets the back, particularly the lats.
In a nutshell, the cable pullover is done by standing facing a cable machine pulley (with a straight bar or rope handle attachment), putting yourself in a slight forward hinge, and then bringing your arms straight down toward your thighs while engaging the lats, pausing in this bottom position for a moment, then slowly returning your arms back up overhead.
While the above is the most common way to do a cable pullover, there are other ways that you can do it which we will teach you. But for now, we are going to stick with the standard standing cable pullover using a straight bar.
A cable pullover can be a confusing exercise; if you google it, you might find all sorts of images with people performing various types of pullovers. The term “pullover” can be deceiving as well, especially when it comes to a cable machine. The first and main version of the cable pullover that we are going to teach you doesn't actually involve you pulling anything over your head from behind, you are simply pulling down from overhead while keeping your arms straight.
To be clear, the dumbbell pullover involves the same biomechanics, which is shoulder extension, but since you are laying on your back and moving your arms from behind you and up overhead, the name pullover makes sense. However, and again, both the dumbbell pullover and all forms of cable pullovers that we are going to cover involve the same motion against resistance, which is shoulder extension.
Ok, so now that we've made that clear, here is how to do a standing cable pullover:
If using a rope attachment, the movement is done in the same way. The only difference is you are going to be using a close neutral grip. With that, the muscles are worked a little differently, but the form is the same. The rope attachment will activate the upper chest more than the straight bar due to the grip position. Nevertheless, both will mainly target the lats.
The cable pullover has its fair share of common mistakes, just like any other exercise; let’s take a look at a few you can avoid!
Disengaging the core: One of the biggest mistakes made when doing a cable pullover, disengaging the core can have implications on the entire movement. Core stabilization is a key benefit of cable pullovers, and not properly engaging your core muscles will most likely have you losing this benefit, as well as the correct form and posture needed for the exercise to be completed successfully. From the moment you grab the handle attachment, through the hip hinge and the shoulder flexion/extension, to placing the handle attachment back up at the pulley site, your core should be turned on.
Overbending the elbows: While this might seem like a natural movement, bending the elbows too much during the cable pullover directs more of the work to your triceps – and removing the emphasis from the lats. For the upper back to be the primary area to target, keeping a slight bend in the elbows is best; not locking the elbows out completely, but having just enough bend to still allow the lats to engage properly.
Excessive range of motion: In a cable pullover, you will notice that the ability to exceed your normal range of motion is highest when the arms are extended straight overhead. In this position (with the handle attachment toward the pulley), it’s easy to let your shoulders rise up and brush your ears, when they really need to stay down and back. Think of your shoulder blades staying retracted even though your arms are raising up, which keeps the upper back engaged and decreases the risk of over-stretching or exceeding your normal range of motion through the shoulder joint.
Moving too quickly: On some exercises, speed is key – however, with a cable pullover, that is not the case. Smooth, controlled movement will allow you to maintain proper form and technique, and will help you focus on actually engaging the muscles of the upper back in order to perform the movement correctly. If the weight is on the lighter side, it can certainly be easy to quickly swing your arms down to your thighs, and then subsequently let the weight stack pull your arms back up to the top of the exercise; instead, take control of the weight and cable yourself, and move through the cable pullover with purpose.
During a cable pullover, the main muscle group worked is the lats – even though it might look like an arm exercise! Of course, the lats aren’t the only muscle group working within the movement; secondary muscle groups include the triceps (the long head), pecs, teres major, rhomboids, and posterior delts. All of these muscles are involved in shoulder extension/flexion.
In an exercise like the cable pullover, there are muscles that help stabilize as well – and in this case, these are particularly the muscles within the core. These stabilizers tend to get overlooked, although they are a critical piece of the puzzle in regards to properly executing the cable pullover properly. After all, you need to maintain a straight spine and proper alignment through your shoulders and wrists during the course of the exercise! The main stabilizers for this movement include the rectus abdominis, the obliques, and even smaller flexors located within the wrists, all of which are necessary to ensure you move through the exercise with support.
Shoulder Extension Strength & Development: The main benefit of the cable pullover is that it is a great isolation exercise for your lats. Moreover, it works your back through a focus on shoulder extension, which is often missing in people's workouts. When you think about back workouts, it's mainly rows and pulldowns/pull ups (horizontal pulls and vertical pulls), but shoulder extension based back movements are equally important for overall back development. Your back should be worked through horizontal pulling, vertical pulling and shoulder extension, so the cable pullover is a great option for the shoulder extension portion of your workout.
Stabilizing the core (and all other stabilizing muscles): When we think of muscles working during a movement such as the cable pullover, we might automatically think the primary movers are doing all of the heavy lifting in order to pull the rope handle attachment away from the pulley – when in actuality, the stabilizing muscles are helping to support those primary lifting muscles! The stabilizers aid in supporting those working muscles, and in turn, they get strengthened at the same time – effectively helping you to produce more force, decrease the risk of injury, and allow you to move more efficiently during your workouts.
Strengthening the upper body: While this goes almost without being said, the cable pullover is a wonderful exercise for strengthening the upper body, particularly the lats. If you are on the lookout for a stellar exercise to work the upper back and lats, this is it! Not only will the lats be targeted, but you will also notice improvements in the strength of your core as well.
Possible flexibility improvement: The motion of a cable pullover can certainly point out any discrepancies within the mobility at the should joint! Obviously, a stretching routine specifically set for your personal goals is key to improving range of motion; however, the stretch that you might feel while performing a cable pullover can certainly aid in that progression! Whether your lats are tight, your shoulders, chest, or even upper back or wrists, the cable pullover will let you know – and allow you to tweak your programming as necessary to help increase range of motion throughout the pullover movement.
While performing a cable pullover is easiest with a straight bar or rope handle attachment (in terms of set up and possibly getting the best activation), there are alternative options.
Kneeling Cable Pullovers:
If your cable pulley doesn’t go very high or you feel more stable in a kneeling position, you can also do a cable pullover from a kneeling position; in this case, you would still set the pulley as high as it can go, but then place your knees about shoulder-width apart on the ground (preferably on a mat) while still performing a slight hip hinge in order to complete the movement.
Supine Cable Pullovers:
Another variation that takes you away from a standing position is performing a cable pullover while in a supine position. Some may like the variability of switching between doing the movement upright, while also trying it supine while on a stability ball or even a flat or incline bench. Remember that a stability ball will be more unstable, so ensuring that balance and stability are present is crucial.
If you want to do a cable pullover on a stability ball and/or bench, there are a few tweaks you will need to make; for starters, ensure that the cable pulley location is just slightly higher than your head will be once you are laying down on the ball. Second, once you are on the ball/bench and ready to begin the exercise, your upper back and head/neck should be able to rest on it comfortably – it shouldn’t be positioned any lower than your shoulder blades. Once you have your grip on the handle attachment, your arms stay extended throughout the movement; really focus on pulling the attachment to your thighs with your lats though, and not your triceps! Lastly, you won't be able to pull it all the way to your thighs, so you can stop when you feel the max contraction in your lats.
Straight Standing Cable Pullover:
You can try to do a cable pullover standing from standing position without the hip hinge. This will alter the range of motion and how the muscles are worked slightly as you will be starting with less of a stretch. Nevertheless, it is simply a good way to mix things up and keep your body guessing.
With an exercise like the cable pullover, the range of sets, reps, and total weight will be different for everyone – and is highly dependent on factors like current health/injury status, fitness goals, flexibility and mobility, etc.). Aside from that, there are some general training guidelines you can incorporate into your workout program accordingly.
Sets and reps: The cable pullover is wonderful for building endurance through the upper back; with that being said, anywhere from 2-3 sets of 12-15 reps is ideal, with reps slow and controlled. If your goal is to build muscle, then aiming for 4-5 sets with a lower rep range such as 8-10 would be more appropriate. Rest times for endurance can stay within a 30 second to 1 minute range, while rest times for building muscle mass can be upwards of 2 minutes between sets if needed.
It can be easy to let the weight get away from you on a cable pullover, in which case more momentum is used and/or you are moving outside of your typical range of motion in a way that might not be the safest. Think in terms of improving stability here – and move with purpose through all your rep schemes!
As for the other variations of cable pullovers, you can switch things up week to week or training cycle to training cycle (i.e. when you finish your 8 week split, alter the shoulder extension exercise on the next). It's good to add variability in terms of grip and body positioning, as well as the different equipment you use...
First of all, let's go over pullovers with different equipment.
The main types of equipment you can use for pullovers are dumbbells, barbell, EZ bar, or kettlebells.
Everyone knows the dumbbell pullover. It is a shoulder extension movement that hits the lats (as well as the upper chest). It is basically the same as doing a rope handle cable pullover due to the grip. However, with the dumbbell pullover, you can get greater stretching tension, but not as great contraction tension. So, if you are looking to really squeeze your lats, the cable pullover wins.
To do this exercise, you’ll need to find a bench for support. Grab a dumbbell and hold one head of the dumbbell with both hands, while laying flat on the bench. With arms extended, you will bring the dumbbell back behind your head (with your upper arms ending by your ears at the end of your range of motion). From here, squeeze your lats and bring your arms back overhead, maintaining a solid grip on the dumbbell and contracting your lats.
The barbell pullover is like the straight bar cable pullover due to the grip. Like the dumbbell pullover, you will get greater stretching tension but not as great contraction tension as you can with the cable machine.
Note: Cable machines have a flat resistance, which means the resistance is the same no matter where you are in the movement, whereas free weights have a resistance curve (due to gravity), so the resistance/tension changes during the different phases of the movement. Thus, when considering the stretching and contraction tension mentioned and the cable machines flat resistance, both free weight pullovers and cable pullovers should have their place in your workout routine. It's the same biomechanics, but different dynamics.
Bands: You can also use a resistance band to do pullovers in the same manner as a cable machine. And like a cable machine, it provides flat, constant resistance.
Another way you could do a pullover if you don’t have access to a cable machine is to use a kettlebell, while in a supine position on a bench or stability ball; while this variation will probably more challenging than most, it does add another level of motor control to the scenario. Stability and coordination will also be targeted while using a kettlebell (or two) for a pullover, so judge the intensity carefully and proceed as desired in regards to your training program.
Lastly, if you are wanting to challenge your core and really work on decreasing rotation throughout the torso and upper body, try a pullover with one arm! This can be done with a kettlebell or a dumbbell, and can be done laying on the ground for some added stability. The single arm component will really challenge you in regards to limiting any rotation that might occur while bringing the arm back behind your head and then extended straight above you, and can help address weaknesses and asymmetries throughout the toros and upper body.
Now, let's discuss some alternatives that are NOT just pullovers but do isolate the lats...
We are considering these alternatives to the pullover exercise because, like the pullover, they do a great job of isolating the lats.
Wide grip lat pulldown:
Similar to the traditional version of a lat pulldown, except hands grip the bar at about twice the distance of your shoulder-width (if someone was looking at you from behind, your arms would be up in an extended “V”). This variation of the pulldown isolates the lats best by decreasing the range of motion and engagement of the biceps.
Wide grip pull up:
The wide grip pull up is the same concept as the wide grip lat pulldown, it's just harder. And if you want to make it even harder, use a weight belt to do weighted wide grip pull ups.
Other lat "isolation" exercise:
If you haven’t yet attempted a cable pullover, but would like to incorporate it into your training routine, try and add a few sets! This movement can be supplementary to other back exercises as you learn to move through the exercise correctly and safely, and you will still reap the benefits of mobility and stability in the process. Eventually, you will begin to notice that not only is your back and core stronger – you might notice improvement in other areas of performance, due to your stabilizers being stronger as well!
Related: Best Cable Machine Back Exercises
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