straight arm cable pullover

Cable Pullover

Are you aiming to build out that V-shaped back? Are you looking for the most effective exercises to include in your back workout?

In my eyes, the cable pullover should be on your exercise list for back-building.

It’s an often overlooked choice when compared to some of the big back hitters, but the cable pullover can bring significant benefits to your growth efforts. It will focus in on your latissimus dorsi, whilst hitting a number of secondary muscles while you’re at it.

The result?

Wider back territory and better definition. If this sounds like a place you want to be, let’s get into the details of the cable pullover.

Cable Pullover Names

Before we get into it, I’d like to clear up any confusion.

The cable pullover is a strange name as you’re not actually pulling anything over your head. The name makes more sense when you do the exercise with a dumbbell on a bench – here you do pull the weight over head. But with a cable you don’t. 

For that reason, I’ve heard the cable pullover go by a few different names. They’re all similar sounding, but mean exactly the same exercise. So, if you hear any of the below, it’s the same exercise:

  • High cable pullover
  • Straight arm pulldown
  • Straight arm cable pull
  • Straight arm cable row
  • Standing cable pullover

Whatever name is used, there are benefits for using the cable station when performing the pullover. Let’s take a look. 

Benefits Of Using A Cable For Pullovers

When it comes to back exercises, the cable pullover has stiff competition. 

Bent over barbell row, single arm row, lat pulldown and pull-ups to name a few. 

Ok, the cable pullover won’t be able to compete with the big compound back exercises when it comes to sheer load and weight moved. But the cable pullover has many advantages going for it. It’s certainly a worthwhile isolation exercise to have in your training locker to really work the back muscles. 

Constant Muscular Tension

First up is the cable itself. Using a cable brings constant tension to the muscle under contraction. With the dumbbell pullover version, the tension increases as you lower the weight. But with a cable, you get that mechanical tension right from the start which is great for muscle growth. 

Focus on the back, not the biceps

The cable pullover is an isolation exercise. The only joint moving should be your shoulders.

This sets it apart from other back and pulling exercises that often involve elbow flexion (curling of the arm). Any sort of elbow flexion involves the biceps.

As the cable pullover eliminates bicep action, you’ll be directly isolating and targeting the lats with this exercise.

As well as directly targeting the wing-like lats, the cable pullover hits your rear deltoids and secondary back muscles to help groove out fine muscle definition.

Shoulder mobility

It’s a good exercise for shoulder mobility too. This is because it works the shoulder in a different plane of motion than it’s used to.

Generally speaking, most muscle building shoulder movements are pushing up or out to the side. The cable pullover sees your shoulders under tension moving down.  

This is great exercise for lifters with lower back issues. I’ve been there and you don’t want to be doing any sort of loaded hip hinge movement with a dodgy lower back. Not fun at all. This includes any sort of bent over row.

Although the cable pullover isn’t a direct replacement for a bent over row, it offers a solid alternative for you to still hit your lats in an effective manner.   

Cable Pullover Muscles Worked

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Posterior deltoid
  • Triceps (long head) 
  • Teres major
  • Upper pectorals 
  • Core (rectus abdominis, transversus abdominis and erector spinae)

The cable pullover is an isolation exercise that focuses on the latissimus dorsi

However, this exercise also hits many secondary muscles in the upper back region. 

As the pullover is a shoulder extension exercise, your rear deltoids and rotator cuff muscles, including teres major, will be working throughout to support the move and stabilise the joint. 

Helping with the stability is the long head triceps. You might be thinking, why are my triceps involved? I thought this too when I first did the exercise and I could feel my triceps burning. I thought my technique was wrong. 

Alas no, the long head tricep extends along the back of your arm, across the shoulder joint and attaches to your shoulder blade. It plays an important role in adding stability from arm to torso.  

Other muscles that you might not think are being worked include your upper pecs in the region around your clavicular head and your core. The angled position and straight back with this move ensures your central core muscles surrounding your spine are primed throughout the exercise.

How To Perform The Cable Pullover

starting position for cable pullover

Mastering the cable pullover can be a little tricky at first. There are a postural positions to keep in mind as you set up and throughout the move:

  • Flat back and bum out.
  • Slight flexion in the elbows but no curling movement.
  • Only your shoulders should be moving during the exercise.

It’s a slightly strange movement that does require a spot-on technique to be effective. Nothing that a little practice can’t sort out though. 

With that in mind, let’s get set up. 

Rope or Straight Bar?

You’ll need to be at a cable station with the pulley system set to the highest level. There are two main options of attachment you can clip on to the pulley:

  1. Rope
  2. Straight bar

I prefer to use the rope for cable pullovers. The rope allows for a fuller range of motion that keeps your hands in a neutral grip. I’ve found this really helps to hit the outside of the lats.

A straight bar is a good option too, but there are a couple of limitations. You can’t bring the movement past your quads at the bottom, and your grip will be overhand which centres the movement more. None of these are major issues however, and the move will still be effective.  

The Cable Pullover Technique

finishing position for cable pullover

Now the machine is ready, it’s time to get set up and in position.

  1. Make sure most of the weight is taken off the stack.
  2. Face the cable pulley machine and grab the rope with two hands.
  3. Take a couple of steps back until the cable becomes tighter and your arms are out in front of you. 
  4. Set a solid base with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  5. Bend forward at the hips so your torso is at a rough angle of 45 degrees compared to your legs. Keep your back straight and stick your bum out in a duck-like position.
  6. To get to your full starting position, extend your shoulders until your biceps are next to your ears. This will stretch out the lats. You might have to adjust your feet position so that your shoulders are fully extended and that your arms have a slight bend at your elbows. 
  7. Make sure your neck is in a neutral position that continues in alignment with your spine. Your eyes should look towards the bottom of the weight rack.

That’s the set up, we’re now ready for the pull movement:

  1. Pull the rope down towards your hips. Use that mind-muscle connection to contract your lats to perform the movement. The only joint moving should be your shoulders. It helps to imagine you are pulling from your elbows, but be careful not to flex them.
  2. As you pull down towards your hips, the ends of the rope should come down outside your thighs and finish below your hips but above your knees.
  3. At the bottom of the position, squeeze your lat muscles to maximise the contraction.
  4. Return the weight up to the starting position in a smooth, controlled manner.

Some trainers say that you should straighten up at your hips as you reach the bottom of the movement to increase peak contraction of the lats. This is not strictly necessary for an effective movement, but you may feel an even more intense lat contraction. Once you’ve mastered the basic move, it’s worth experimenting with.

Top Tips For Cable Pullover

As you can see, there are a few steps to get the cable pullover right. Once you’ve done it a few times, the movement will feel much more natural.

Here are some of my top tips for the cable pullover:

  • Exercise form is more important than heavy weight for this isolation exercise. Start light and go from there.
  • Go for higher reps: 3 sets of 10-15 reps is where you should be aiming.
  • Keep the core engaged and back straight for good posture.
  • Slight bend in the elbows but no flexing during movement.
  • Nice, smooth movement, not too quick – imagine you’re a well-oiled machine.

My Verdict On The Cable Pullover

The cable pullover is a fantastic isolation exercise to really target and define your lats and upper back muscles.

Although there are a few different techniques to get right with the movement, it’s worth a little time and investment becoming familiar with this exercise. 

Remember, it’s the quality of the movement in the cable pullover that counts, not the weight you pull. So, focus on the form, the mind muscle connection and a smooth application of move itself. 

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