The Best Pullover You’ve Never Done: Kneeling Pullovers
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Pullovers and variations thereof are some of the most underrated upper body movements. Read more about pullovers here. Besides improving stability and mobility in the shoulder joint (when performed properly), they also tax nearly every muscle in the upper torso including the lats, chest, triceps, shoulders, and serratus muscles. In addition, they’re also incredibly effective for working the entire musculature of the core as you’re essentially resisting extension forces acting on the spine similar to ab rollouts and planks.
With that said I’m always looking for unique and effective ways to modify the pullover to further enhance the effectiveness of the exercise. In fact, over the past several years I’ve highlighted many of these including, the hollow body leg raise variation, eccentric isometric pullovers, BANA eccentric accentuated pullovers, bottoms up pullovers, foam roller variations, glute bridge variations, head off pullovers, t-bench pullovers, kettlebell variations, cable variations, decline pullovers, trap bar pullovers, Chinese plank pullovers, rapid eccentric isometric pullovers, javelin pullovers, ring pullovers and more. See my complete library of pullovers here.
With that said, one additional variation I’ve recently been tinkering with that I’ve found to be incredibly effective is the kneeling pullover and variations thereof. Think of this as a pullover exercise combined with a straight arm lat pulldown and modified cable crunch.
Here I’m performing the basic kneeling variation with bands while my awesome clients Ben Lai and Leslie Petch are performing the half kneeling and single arm variations respectively. Kneeling pullovers provides 10 unique benefits that can’t be replicated with other pullover variations.
1. The supine or laying position involved during most if not all pullover exercises dictates that the scapula be pinned against either a bench, pad, ball, or floor. In other words the scapular aren’t free to move but instead are semi-fixed onto another surface. Fortunately the kneeling variations allow the scapula to move freely throughout the entire range of motion producing more natural scapulohumeral rhythm. This further improves glenohumeral joint stability and osteokinematics of the shoulder complex.
2. The kneeling pullover allows a small natural crunching and hip flexion motion to be combined with a pullover similar to a cable crunch movement albeit without the excessive spinal flexion. As a result this combination of a pullover motion combined with a modified crunch absolutely crushes the core.
3. Unlike most pullover variations that are performed in a supine position (laying on your back), the kneeling pullovers provide no lumbar support from floor or bench. As a result the core musculature and spinal stabilizers receive additional stimulation and activation particularly during the stretched eccentric phase of the exercise. Between the crunching motion performed during the concentric phase and the extreme-anti extension components on the eccentric phase, the combination is absolutely brutal on the abs, making these one of the best core exercise you’ll ever attempt.
4. The first pullover machine from Nautilus invented by the legendary Arthur Jones was and is still considered to this day one of the most effective variable resistance machines ever produced. In fact, Jones used this piece on nearly all of his competitive bodybuilders as it was known to be incredibly effective for triggering enormous size throughout the entire upper body especially the lats. Besides looking quite similar, the kneeling pullover and nautilus machine pullover involve nearly the same mechanics not to mention very similar activation patterns. Simply put, the kneeling pullover is not just a great functional exercise that improves full body stability and alignment, but it’s also incredibly effective as an upper body mass builder. Just make sure you use appropriate band/cable tension to challenge the muscles adequately.
5. The unique mechanics of the kneeling pullover variations involve an inordinately large range of motion especially in comparison to traditional pullovers. In fact the motion actually involves the combined elements of the traditional pullover (the top-stretched 90 degrees) and the straight arm lat pulldown (the bottom contracted 90 degrees). In other words the arms move through an almost 180 degrees range of motion. This makes the kneeling pullover incredibly useful not only for improving shoulder mobility and stability but also highly effective as a functional mass builder (greater natural ROM typically correlates with increased muscle fiber recruitment).
6. The band resistance that can be employed on all kneeling pullover variations not only makes the exercise very versatile in terms of where and when they can be performed (simply anchor to the top of a door post or column) but it also provides accommodating resistance. In other words it deloads the weaker stretched position and overloads the stronger contracted position. This not only reduces stress to the shoulders and elbows joints but also improves the hypertrophy stimulus via increased muscle activation.
7. The half kneeling pullover variations not only improves stability, motor control, and alignment throughout the lumbopelvic hip complex but it also provides a nice stretch throughout the hip flexors particularly in the full eccentric position. Learning how to elongate and stretch the hip flexors while simultaneously bracing the core can do wonders for improving lower body mechanics and spinal stability.
8. Kneeling pullovers help ingrain perfect posture. That’s because they require significant t-spine extension and shoulder mobility when moving into the stretched position. However, they also help reinforce the idea of keeping the core tight and eliminating excessive lumbar extension when moving into that overhead position. The combination does wonders not only for overall spinal alignment and positioning but also for low back health and spinal injuries.
9. Kneeling pullovers do wonders for improving overhead mobility, stability and motor control in the shoulder joint that transfers exceptionally well to overhead sports/activities. They’re also great for improving the lockout position used during overhead presses and Olympic lifts.
10. Besides the anti-extension component, the half-kneeling pullover and single arm kneeling pullover both produce significant anti-rotation components. As a result these two kneeling pullover variations are a fully comprehensive core exercise that fire nearly every muscle in the abdominal region and spinal stabilizers.
If you’re looking for a program that teaches you how to incorporate unique exercises such as these into your routine, check out my Complete Templates Series.