Strengthen Your Back and Core With This Pullover

Strengthen Your Back, Arms, And Core with This Pullover

Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.

If you’re looking for a great upper body movement that also anhilates the core, look no further than this unique pullover exercise.  Essentially you’re performing an eccentric isometric dumbbell pullover while holding a hollow body leg raise.  Here’s one of my incredibly fit and strong clients Mitch Ellis demonstrating it.

In case you’re wondering Mitch is 60 years old and getting stronger by the month not to mention his form is better than most athletes in their 20’s and 30’s.  So when it comes to age, there’s no excuse for not pushing yourself on the basic movement patterns while periodically incorporating unique and advanced variations to spark new improvements.

Benefits of Pullovers

Pullovers and variations thereof are some of the most underrated upper body movements.  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, deltoids, 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 on the spine as you move from shoulder flexion to extension.  In fact the movement pattern is very similar to an abdominal rollout or long lever plank.  The further the shoulders move into flexion (the stretched position) the greater the extension forces on the spine are that the lifter must resist by firing the entire musculature of the core particularly the rectus abdominals and transverse abs. 

The Hollow Body Leg Raise

Performing a hollow body leg raise further exaggerates the stress to the core and abdominal musculature.  However, it also helps to promote a more neutral spine during the eccentric phase of the movement.  Most lifters when performing the eccentric phase of the pullover produce too much range of motion and overstretch the shoulder girdle.  This also tends to produce excessive lumbar arch and extension in the low back, which can lead to back pain and decreased core activation.  Performing the hollow body leg raise helps to eliminate both of these issues.  

Contracting the core by holding the hollow body leg raise position not only promotes better anti-extension and a neutral lumbar spine, it also helps to ensure the lifter doesn’t over stretch the shoulders or use too much range of motion (ROM) in the eccentric position.  That’s because increased core activation helps to stabilize and lock the spine into position resulting in concurrent activation potentiation (increased neural drive up the kinetic chain).  As a result this translates into improved shoulder stability where the lifter can more easily centrate and pack the glenohumeral joint.  This also helps prevent hypermobility and over-stretching of the shoulder joint. 

By focusing on maintaining these dialed in shoulder mechanics the lifter can feel where using excessive ROM would cause these optimal body mechanics to be breached.   In addition the lifter should concentrate on keeping the shoulders moderately depressed and retracted even in the stretched position.  This is critical for avoiding excessive range of motion that can lead to joint stress and shoulder injuries.  Unfortunately many lifters allow excessive elevation and protraction of the scapula on many upper body movements including pullovers.  This can spell disaster for the joints and connective tissue not to mention the fact that it minimizes the strength and hypertrophy stimulus.  Think optimal and natural range of motion, not maximal or excessive range of motion.

Eccentric Isometric Protocol

By incorporating eccentric isometrics (slow negative followed by a pause in the stretched position) this not only maximizes the strength and hypertrophy stimulus of the exercise but it also teaches the lifter to use somatosensory feedback to fine-tune their body position and movement mechanics.  In other words, each of the various factors previously discussed in terms of optimal range of motion and ideal shoulder mechanics can be more easily adhered to.  That’s because emphasizing the stretched position causes the lifter to have a better sense of his or her body position through improved kinesthetic awareness and enhanced proprioceptive feedback.  Simply put, if you’re having trouble finding your mechanics on pullovers and determining the optimal technique, simply incorporate eccentric isometrics into the movement and your body will naturally learn the optimal form.  This is true of all movement patterns, not just pullovers. 

Note on Ankle Dorsiflexion

 Dorsiflexion of the ankles and feet is ideal during any straight leg position as it helps to produce greater concurrent activation potentiation and therefore increased neural drive up the kinetic chain (greater activation to all muscles including the working extremities).  During a leg raise hold, the dorsiflexed ankle position also helps to contract the quads. This places a slight stretch on the hamstrings and glutes thereby promoting improved spinal rigidity, which contributes to improved thoracic positioning.

 In essence, the straight-leg dorsiflexed foot position promotes better postural alignment and upper back activation.  This helps to reinforce proper shoulder mechanics as the lifter will find it more natural to fire the lats and centrate the glenohumeral joint.  So yes, dorsiflexing the ankles actually translates to improved shoulder function and upper body mechanics.  This is critical for joint health and performance during pullovers or any other movement. To ensure there isn’t excessive lumbar extension focus on keeping a tight core, which will almost automatically occur as a result of the hollow body leg raise hold.

Constant Tension Cable Pullover

The hollow body leg raise pullover can also be performed using a cable or bands as shown here by my awesome client Elizabeth Yates. In fact performing pullovers with a cable station provides constant tension to the targeted musculature inkling tension in the full contracted position.  Combined with the hollow body leg raise this does wonders not only for strengthening your entire upper body and core but also for eliminating excessive lumbar extension and low back pain.  

General Recommendations

Because of the longer time under tension per repetition (due to the eccentric isometric protocol), I recommend several sets of 5-8 repetitions.  To really crush the lats and upper back, super-setting these with pullups helps to pre-exhaust the targeted muscles.  This helps to ensure the arms don’t give out before the targeted musculature (upper back and lats).