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The favourite exercise of the legendary John Grimek, pull-overs are regarded by some as the number one chest builder and by others as a dangerous waste of time. Which is the truth, how and when should you do them and why did Grimek rate them so highly?

Pullovers are a strength move that’s fallen from favour.  That puts them in company with moves like the bent press, the two hands anyhow and the strict press, and the behind the neck press.  These moves were key components of the training of golden-age strongmen of the 1940s.  That doesn’t of itself mean we should adopt them: after all, those guys did what they could with what they had, but there’s no good reason to reach for something old just because it’s old.

The pullover might be due for a renaissance though.

Look around a gym or a random sample of people – on a bus, say, or at work – and what do you see?  Head forward posture, slumped shoulders, rounded upper backs and deflated chests, right?  Well, maybe you work in the strongman tent at the circus, but for most of us, that’s how it is.  The pullover is designed to combat that.

When you do a move like a bench press, you’re teaching your body to curl over tighter in front, compressing your chest to drive the bar upwards.  When you row, your upper back might be slightly in extension, but your chest is never getting a workout in an extended position.  The pullover might be just the thing to add to your routine to fix that.

To do a pullover, lie on your back on a bench with a dumbbell held by one end in both hands.  You’re going to move both hands back until the dumbbell is as far behind and above you as you can, then return it to the centre above your face and repeat.

That’s the pullover, in essence. 

But did an exercise that simple really build one of the world’s most famous chests?

John Grimek was one of the stars of the physique world at a time when weightlifters and bodybuilders were usually the same people.  Grimek was a seriously strong man, but he took his inspiration for physique training from classical Greek statuary and used strength moves to build a physique that was in the proportions he saw in antique Davids and Apollos.  He must have done something right, because he was simultaneously one of the strongest men in the world and arguably the most muscular man in the world. 

And Grimek swore by the pullover.

In fact, he said that using the pullover made his chest grow from ‘39 to 45 1/2 inches in less than a year.’  So what was he doing?

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