Earlier this week I was given a very generous gift. The gift in question was a complete set of Wills’ Cigarette Cards. Produced for an Irish and English audience in 1914, the cards depicted various physical culture exercises one could engage in to keep fit and healthy. The irony that the cards could only be obtained by buying a packet of cigarettes was evidently lost on the manufacturers.
In any case I gleefully went about examining my present and stumbled across the below photographs. Said to be breathing exercises with dumbbells, the movement represents an early iteration of the pullover exercise.
As is so often the case, I set to work uncovering the history of this particular movement with the result being this very article. So today, we’ll begin by examining the popularity and history of the pullover from the early to late twentieth-century. The pullover exercise has fallen from grace in the lifting community, from a once hallowed movement to a more niche and often poorly executed assistance lift.
The Early History of the Pullover
As attested by the Wills photographs above, the pullover exercise was fairly common knowledge amongst physical culturists in the opening decade of the twentieth-century. Much to my shame given the fact that my PhD research encompasses this era, I have been rather slack about discussing some of the more unusual exercises from this time. One point that constantly fascinates me was the interest and popularity in ‘deep breathing’ exercises used in conjunction with traditional weightlifting. It was here that the pullover exercise was first devised.
Men like J.P. Muller devised whole workouts around the ability to breath deeply, newspaper columnists such as the Irish Times’ ‘Huck Finn’ advised dumbbell deep breathing exercises akin to the Wills’ Cards. That the pullover movement, not to be confused with the pullover and press exercise, was linked to improved breathing capacity surely helped to elevate its importance at this time.
While it has proven nigh on impossible to find the first exerciser to use the pullover exercise, the lifting community has often pointed to Alan Calvert’s 1911, Super Strength book as a pivotal moment in the exercise’s popularity. Described by Calvert as “the very best exercise for increasing the size of the rib-box”, the pullover was highlighted as an exercise of great importance. Interestingly Calvert praised the pullover on two fronts. In the first instance it was seen to help increase the size of the rib cage and build muscle. Coupled with this was the pullover’s positive effect on breath capacity. More muscles and longer breaths. The pullover seemed to do it all.
From Super Strength to Super Squats
While Calvert can perhaps be credited with first introducing the exercise to a mass audience, the pullover’s true popularisation came a decade later with the emergence of squat based hypertrophy programmes. As detailed previously on this website, the 1920s and 30s saw the emergence of weight gaining programmes based on a system of 20 rep squats. Much to the delight and torture of gym goers, this programme advised a heavy set of squats followed by a set of lightweight and high rep pullovers. The reasoning for this combination followed Calvert’s in that it was believed to extend the size of the rib cage. In later years the combination was seen as a form of active rest.
In any case were you to chat to someone from the mid-twentieth century about the importance or usefulness of the pullover exercise, you would likely have been told that it was essential for anyone seeking to gain weight and muscle. This was the case not only for proponents of the 20 rep squat like Peary Rader and Mark Berry but also, as shown by Randy Roach, men like Bob Hoffman and Joe Weider. Joseph Curtis Hise included it as part of his essential chest exercises in 1946 while Reg Park regularly used over 200 lbs. for his barbell pullovers.
It was a favourite and highly regarded movement which, in the advent of the ‘golden age’ of bodybuilding, continued to flourish.
A New Age of Pulling
As noted by Frank Zane, the 1960s and 70s saw bodybuilding aficionados from Bill Pearl to Mike Mentzer use the pullover exercise to build their chest and lat muscles. Frank in particular credited the exercise for helping to develop his famous vacuum pose shown below.
What is fascinating about this particular period was the introduction of the machine pullover thanks to the controversial Arthur Jones. Jones, the man behind the infamous Colorado experiment and the founder of Nautilus, first created a pullover machine in 1948. It wasn’t until 1970 however, when Jones began to devote his attention fully to bodybuilding, that a mass produced Jones’ machine would hit gyms around the United States.
Created as part of Jones’ high intensity ethos, he modestly titled his pullover machine ‘the upper body squat’ Writing in Ironman Magazine in 1970, Jones waxed lyrical about his device
Some new “gimmick?” An unproven theory? Think what you like, but we built one test subject’s lats to a point that would normally have required at least tow full years of training, in less than six weeks, on a program of three weekly workouts of exactly forty-eight minutes each. During the same period he gained over fifteen pounds of muscular body-weight, increased his arms almost exactly tow inches, and increased his strength enormously.
No drugs, no special diet, no marathon workout; just a simple routine of three sets of four very basic exercises; full squats, standing presses, barbell curls, and movements on our new lat machine
Sergio Oliva using Jones’ Pullover Machine
While machines had been used as part of a health and fitness regimen since the late nineteenth-century, the popularity of Jones’ ‘upper body squat’ and Nautilus machines in general was unprecedented. As noted by Kunitz, machines comprised solely of Nautilus machines sprouted up during the 1980s, each with a pullover machine. We see then that both the free weight and machine variations were being used during this period. In fact it is likely that this period saw the greatest number of people using the pullover in some way, shape or form.
How and why then, did the movement fall out of favour?
The Fall of the Pullover
While the early 1990s saw the pullover maintain its popularity amongst elite bodybuilders, as evidenced by Dorian Yates‘ and Ronnie Coleman’s use of the movement, a pushback began to emerge against the pullover from this period. A fine example of this can be seen in Joseph Horrigan’s 1990 article entitled ‘Pullover Complications’.
Echoing many within his field, Horrigan stressed the potential for shoulder and abdominal injuries caused by the movement. Horrigan’s warnings have continued to this day. In fact just two years ago Horrigan repeated this advice within Ironman Magazine, the same magazine which three decades previously publicised Jones’ own praises of the pullover. How the times change eh?
Speaking of which, we also have to mention the relative decline in the popularity of Nautilus equipment from the beginning of the present century. Admittedly an anecdotal point, but when I began training every gym seemed to have a Nautilus machine of some kind, some even had the ‘Upper Body Squat’. Having trained in the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland over the past five years my own experience points to a fall in the machine’s presence on the gym floor. That being the case, it is undoubtedly the fears cited from the 1990s about the safety of the pullover movement which caused its increasingly scarce appearance.
As someone who has always used the pullover exercise, both as a back and chest exercise, it is strange to see it described as the most controversial or long forgotten exercise. Who knows, maybe this article can enact a sea change…
Before We Go
If you’re interested in incorporating the pullover into your current routine, Critical Bench produced an informative video detailing four different pullover variations.
As always…Happy Lifting!
A continual talking point for myself and a friend is whether or not the pullover is a back or chest exercise. He is adamant that the movement only works the chest whereas I believe that depending on your focus and hand placement it can work either the lats or the pecs. Feel free to weigh in and show my friend why he’s wrong!
As someone who commenced serious resistance training in 1964, I followed heavy squatting with pullovers for many years. I always limited the pullovers to light weights. They never did me any harm, but in hindsight, I don’t think they did me much, if any, good either!
Hi Jan, funnily I’m in the same boat as you. I spent years – YEARS – doing heavy and light pullovers. Not sure why but I sure did enjoy them
A little late to the party but I think pullovers are a great exercise and it’s a crime they’ve been declared ‘unsafe’. I find decline pullovers place more emphasis on the lats are my go to variation for that reason
Not at all! And I’m glad to have found another pullover fan – I’ll constantly used decline pullovers on back day!