The Ultimate Pullover Exercise For Functional Hypertrophy and Strength
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
If you didn’t have a chance to check out my recent article on T-Nation this week, discussing pullover mechanics, you may want to check that out. I also highlight a number of pullover variations to help maximize form. With that said, here’s one of my favorite pullover exercises that incorporates several of my go-to training protocols including the head off position, hollow body leg raise, kettlebell loading, and alternating eccentric isometric protocol.
And just in case you were wondering, yes, you’ll need to summon every muscle fiber in your body to keep yourself from flipping off the bench. Here’s why this exact combination is so effective when applied to pullovers.
1. Alternating Eccentric Isometric Protocol
The alternating eccentric isometric protocol is a highly potent hypertrophy stimulus. The key is holding the non-moving arm in the eccentric isometric position (rather than the top position) as this requires an incredibly high level of strength, motor control, stability, and full body activation. The degree of core innervation is also very high. This specific protocol is exceptionally powerful for inducing a hypertrophy stimulus in the lats, triceps, and chest as it exploits all 3 mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy.
First, holding the stretch or eccentric isometric position while the opposite arm is moving creates significant micro trauma and muscle damage which is pivotal for growth particularly sarcomere hypertrophy. Second, the isometric position involves constant tension which is something that's difficult to replicate with free weight variations of pullovers. This produces significant metabolic stress and cellular swelling to take advantage of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. The amount of tension and levels of motor unit recruitment in the eccentric isometric position are also through the roof thereby creating incredibly high levels of mechanical tension and intramuscular tension (another key component for triggering hypertrophy).
Oh and just in case this didn’t tax the core and stabilizers enough, there's a significant anti-rotation and rotary stability component that isn't present during the bilateral or isolateral versions. This stimulus is further exaggerated when holding a hollow body leg raise position which leads me to my next point.
2. Pullovers With Hollow Body Leg Raise
Performing a hollow body leg raise during pullovers 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.
3. Head-Off Pullovers
The head off protocol eliminates cervical compression that typically occurs when the base of the head is pressed into another surface. Reducing these compressive forces and allowing cervical elongation to occur during pullovers not only improves neck strength and postural alignment, it also allows optimal t-spine extension to occur. In turn this optimizes scapulohumeral rhythm and glenohumeral joint positioning as the shoulders can maintain a more centrated and packed position without moving into excessive internal rotation - a common problem when the neck is pushed into cervical flexion.
The head-off pullover is one of the most effective variations for instilling these optimal postural mechanics as it promotes improved spinal alignment and proper shoulder positioning.
4. Kettlebell Pullovers
If you could only choose one type of loading methodology to use for pullovers, kettlebells would be the obvious winner. That’s because there’s more constant tension on the targeted muscles due to the kettlebells providing a constant angle of pull as they hang behind and below the arms. In fact most pullover movements performed with free weights provide tension predominantly in the full stretched position with little tension throughout the other portions of the movement.
Kettlebells on the other hand provide more constant tension throughout the entire range of motion. They also create an enormous amount of recruitment in the fully stretched position due to the hanging nature of the kettlebells that provide a massive pull against the lats and upper torso.
Protocols and Training Recommendations
This is one of the most intense pullover variations you’ll ever attempt. Due to this extreme intensity, constant tension, and eccentric stress, I recommend performing 1-2 sets of 5-8 reps per arm towards the end of your workout routine. These can fit on any upper body training day including, back, chest, arms, and core.
If you’re looking for a training program and instructional guide that teaches you how to incorporate different movements such as these into your training routine, check out my Complete Templates Series.