Pullovers for Pectus Excavatum Improvement & Ribcage Expansion in 2022

Evidence Based This post has medical citations

The breathing dumbbell pullover is one of the best exercises you can do to make your pectus excavatum less visible.

This post will explain how to perform the breathing dumbbell pullover for ribcage expansion. 

Can You Expand Your Ribcage With Pullovers?

Yes and no. You can’t expand your bone structure to make your chest more prominent, but you can extend your connective tissue and muscles and build thickness in the torso muscles, making an appearance that your ribcage and chest look thicker. 

This is a very controversial topic. You probably heard a rumor that the pullover can expand your ribcage. In the same way, you can’t increase your height by hanging upside down in gravity-inversion boots. 

Focus on the Stretch

The ideal exercise for doing this is the breathing dumbbell pullover. The idea is for the hips to be lower than the height of the bench. You need to feel a good stretch across your torso and feel the muscle activation of the chest, lats, and ribcage muscles.

Holding the stretch for a second at the bottom will intensify the stretch. To expand the ribcage, you won’t need heavy weights.

Pick a light dumbbell and look at this exercise more as a stretching movement of the connective tissue than a muscle builder. The ideal time to do this exercise is after a back and chest workout. 

Golden Era of Bodybuilding

This was a staple exercise in the golden era of bodybuilding from the 50s to the 70s. Most bodybuilders had broad shoulders, oak chests, tiny waists, and perfect symmetrical physiques.

Everybody, not only people who weight train, will agree that the figures in this era are masterpieces. 

Old School Gyms

You will rarely see this exercise performed at most modern gyms. It has fallen out of favor with younger people that go to the gym. It is interesting how many people in old-school gyms integrate this exercise into their workout routine. I see this exercise done every time I visit one of the old school gyms in my hometown of Prilep. 

Before Arnold’s era, in the 30’s and ’40s, bodybuilders were competing with each other with the pullovers, as who would use the heaviest weight and do pullovers with it. Steve Stanko from the old York Barbell Club, back in the late 1930s, could even do 300 pounds barbell pullovers.

You can see how well developed his rib cage looked and how different his physique is from today’s bodybuilders, whose main exercise is horizontal bench pressing.

Squat and Pullover Superset

The 20 rep breathing squat was supersetted for massive chest expansion with the pullover. 

It is crucial to understand that the breathing dumbbell pullover is meant to be supersetted and performed just after you finish a set of breathing barbell squats, which are performed for 20 repetitions.

If you’re unfamiliar with the 20 rep squat, I recommend reading this article I wrote about it. In short, you put heavy weight on the barbell and squat for 20 repetitions, taking deep breaths in between each squat. You can see how it’s done in this video of Elliott Hulse.

After completing the 20 repetitions, go straight to a flat bench, and grab a light dumbbell. Picking up heavy weights won’t be as effective as a light dumbbell.

Don’t grab a 100 lb dumbbell like you see the top bodybuilders of the golden era do.

How to Do This Properly

Start the exercise by holding the dumbbell with both arms just over your sunken chest. Your body is positioned with your upper back on the bench, body parallel to the ground, legs flat on the floor.

Make sure your torso and legs are straight, like the plank core exercise. When you bring the dumbbell behind you and over your head, you breathe as deep as you possibly can, making your ribcage expands a lot.

At the same time, you should drop the hips and head down. This generates a massive stretch on the ribcage. The dumbbell pulls and stretches the upper part of the ribcage, and your hips stretch the lower part of the ribcage and the abdominal muscles.

Because the upper back is positioned on the bench, gravity pulls the entire tight ribcage area. Make sure you bring your head and hips down while taking an intense breath.

Feel the ribcage expanding. You should get the dumbbell and entire body back in the initial position when you exhale. 

For the exercise to be fully effective for your pectus excavatum and flared ribs deformity, aim to perform 15 repetitions.

Also, focus on the breathing aspect of the movement and not grab the heaviest dumbbell you can find in the gym. 

It Takes a Bit of Practice

The exercise is straightforward to perform. It takes practice to get comfortable in the position and rhythm with the breathing.

If you feel pain in the sunken chest area, grab a lighter dumbbell, and do the exercise until you feel comfortable. Try to synchronize the motion of the exercise with breathing for best results. 

The classic combination of 20 rep squats and breathing pullovers will help you expand the ribcage even if you’re an adult. 

Pullovers were responsible for developing the most outstanding ribcages of the bodybuilding greats in the golden and silver era of bodybuilding.

This is an underrated exercise I see nobody doing in commercial gyms nowadays. 

Why This is a Forgotten Exercise

I believe the dumbbell pullover has fallen out because the body parts split training has become very popular in the last 50 years. The exercise confuses many weightlifters because they don’t know whether to put it in the back or chest training sessions. 

For example, Arnold did this exercise mainly to develop his chest muscles, while others did it in the back workouts. It works many muscles and is very hard to categorize.

Not the Only Forgotten

The pullover isn’t the only forgotten exercise from that era. There are quite a few other exercises that have fallen out of favor. 

Clean and press were how people were doing shoulder presses. They didn’t have racks to pick the bar from, so they had to pick it up the floor and press it overhead. 

This exercise works the entire physique, and because of that, people nowadays do overhead pressing where they take the bar off the rack where they would work only the shoulders, triceps, and other small pushing muscles.

3 Forgotten Exercises

  • Bent press
  • Windmill
  • Turkish getup 

The way people were doing incline bench presses was they put an incline bench without a seat or a plank, and they would pick the weight from the floor and lean back on the bench and press it. They couldn’t add too much weight to the chest, but in the meantime, the musculature of the entire body, especially their back, traps, shoulders, core, benefits from this. 

Can’t Be Programmed Smoothly

Pullover works just like these exercises. However, people are missing on the incredible value they provide because they couldn’t program it correctly in their split routines like 

  1. Chest
  2. Shoulder
  3. Legs
  4. Back
  5. Arm 

What Muscles It Targets Most

The pullover is a highly unique and controversial exercise in its function for the body. It strengthens the:

  • Muscles in the ribcage
  • Works the pectorals,
  • The serratus anterior muscles (the finger-looking muscles under the shoulders) activated to stabilize the weight
  • Great exercise to develop healthy shoulders and shoulder mobility

This is one of my favorite exercises to make my pectus excavatum deformity less noticeable. 

How I Add Pullovers

Pullovers are one of my favorite exercises to do for my deformity. I love the stretch it provides and makes me feel functional. I do pullovers before pulling workouts because it improves my connection with my lats.

After doing pullovers for warm-up, I can feel the lats a lot, and I can activate them properly during the rest of my back workout. Also, I do them at the end of my back workouts, so I stretch the lats. 

Natural Human Movement

The pullover is probably the most underrated upper body exercise, especially nowadays. There are very few exercises that work in that overhead-to-the-front motion.

This is a natural human movement, as it mimics throwing stuff with great precision to hunt animals, which our ancestors did a lot for survival. We do this movement far better than every other creature.

We must be able to perform this motion, as our bodies relied on this motion for thousands of years. A pullover is a weighted form of this movement. 

Ways You Can Perform It

You can perform this exercise with

  • Barbell
  • Dumbbell
  • Cables
  • Machine

 You can also lay across the bench or by laying on it as usual.

Barbell Pullovers

Barbell pullovers require more technique, and you need to lock your arms in position to perform the movement correctly. 

If you do it on a bench, you won’t be able to expand your rib cage as much as you would if you do it across a bench where the upper back is positioned on the bench, with the feet on the floor and your hips go back as you extend the weight over your head.

You will feel a massive stretch expanding your ribcage, perfect for improving pectus excavatum. 

Dumbbell Pullovers for a Thick Chest

You can’t remove the lat activation during the exercise, but you can make your chest activate more. You need to adjust your bench so it is at a decline.

Instead of stopping when the dumbbell is at the forehead level, you must bring it down further until it is above your stomach. Make sure you maintain a mind-muscle connection and focus on activating your chest as much as possible throughout the movement.

If you go too far, you may lose activation of the chest. There is a sweet spot you will need to identify. It would be best to do all the pulling with the chest and the lats, not with the triceps, as many people do because they keep their arms fully bent.

They must be slightly bent and locked throughout the exercise for better lat and pecs activation. 

The Bottom Line

The bodybuilders in the Golden Era of bodybuilding had impressive chests and ribcages. The staple exercise in the routine was the dumbbell pullover.

Even though it can’t expand the bone structure in the chest, it can for sure lengthen the connective tissue, making your chest appear broadened.

They combined the 20-rep squat and dumbbell breathing pullover in one superset to help them achieve this physique.

I see a lot of guys with amazing bodies even in their old ages in an old-school gym I often visit in my hometime of Prilep. They always perform the dumbbell pullover.

I highly recommend you add this exercise to your workout regimen to make your pectus excavatum less obvious.

Thank you for reading; if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me or post them in the comments below.

Article by:

Mihail Veleski

My name is Mihail Veleski. I used to suffer from the pectus excavatum deformity during my teenage years.

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