The dumbbell sweater might be the most controversial exercise in the world of bodybuilding. According to most experts, it is one of the most effective chest and back exercises. At the same time, minor adjustments in your sweater technique can shift the target to different parts of the body.
Its effectiveness in activating various upper body muscle groups has been known for decades. Along with the squat, this exercise is one of the oldest tricks in the book of bodybuilding. It can make you feel great pumping in your chest, stretching the lats, building the serratus, and it has even been credited with the ability to stretch your rib cage.
The only known disadvantage of dumbbell sweaters is that they can overload your shoulders. And although everyone did it years ago, nowadays it seems almost forgotten.
In this article, we’re going to try to prove that theory wrong and reintroduce the dumbbell sweater into your routines in all of its former glory.
The early history of the dumbbell sweater
The sweater was first named the best exercise for deep chest development by Alan Calvert, founder of the Milo Barbell Company and Strength Magazine around 1911. It quickly became a staple for upper body development. In the 1920s, the most popular bodybuilding practice was drinking gallons of milk and doing heavy lifting. High rep squats combined with light dumbbell sweaters with a high number of repetitions. Needless to say, the combination of big lifts and big calories made this recipe a success story. Everyone did.
Back then, the bodybuilding trend was to do low volume workouts that included an upper body exercise or two. The sweater (or breathing dumbbell, as it was called) was mostly included in this type of workout.
The popular belief was that this helped expand the chest, presumably due to the deliberate deep breathing between repetitions that stacked up to the deep breathing required to perform the squats at the beginning of the workout.
Although the ability to expand the chest with this exercise has long been proven a myth, many lifters have reported great results combining the squats with sweaters supported by robust amounts of milk.
The path from favorites to oblivion
During the popularization of bodybuilding in the 1950s and 1960s, the dumbbell sweater retained its status as an essential exercise for upper body sculpting. Given that they found a thick running chest to be ideal, the dumbbell sweater fit their plan perfectly.
In the 1970s and 1980s, the gyms were better equipped and had a larger selection of specialized equipment for specific body parts. Even the sweaters have their own mechanized variant of the Nautilus sweater machine that Arthur Jones invented in the early 1970s.
However, the increased reliance on machines was also the reason for the decline in popularity of some classics of the old free weight, such as the free weight sweater. As a result, its popularity declined in the 90s. Since then, his reputation has been tarnished by various “sports scientists” who have managed to kill his good name by saying it was ineffective and dangerous to the shoulders.
On the flip side, this is the complete opposite of the testimonies of legends who have nothing but praise for the sweater and for all the various reasons.
Arnold attributes his epic chest to dumbbell sweaters. On the other hand Dorian Yates and Mike Mentzer worked their lats on the classic Nautilus sweater machine. The heavy sweaters were part of Ronnie Colemans Back training while Frank Zane traced his serratus muscle development back to sweaters at a young age.
You have to admit, this is an impressive list of names of people who have enough gravity to make any fitness professional blush in the armchair. It is up to you to choose who to follow.
The main argument against sweaters is the fear of shoulder injuries. Ultimately, this exercise puts your body in an uncomfortable position of your body as you move a heavy weight across your face with your arms fully extended. So if you don’t have enough strength in your shoulders and good shoulder flexibility, it can be a burden.
However, by working on your shoulder and back mobility, you can solve this problem. To test if you’re ready for the sweater, try if you can do an overhead press or full range pull-ups.
Once you are sure that you have adequate shoulder mobility, this classic movement can be tried.
The dumbbell and sweater technique
For the classic dumbbell sweater, we recommend lying on a bench with your full back. Avoid using the variant with your upper back over the bench as it does not bring any significant benefits, while it can affect your freedom of movement.
Take a light dumbbell with both hands and hold it against the plates above your chest. Keep both arms straight and slowly lower the weight towards your head. Maintaining the muscle-mind connection is key to a successful sweater. You should feel all the muscles in your upper body stretch.
With your arms almost locked behind your head, lower the weight as much as possible. Test your limits, but don’t go too far. It should feel comfortable. Pull back to the starting position.
Performing multiple sets with a lighter dumbbell will allow you to check your body system and see how your shoulders, chest, and lats are holding up the stress of the exercise. You can also discover the focus of the exercise. Do another set of tests with a light barbell or EZ curling iron. The mechanics of the movement are the same, except that you hold the bar with a pronounced grip.
Repeat the tests with different hand positions, varying the grip from wide to close and neutral. If any of the light tests results in shoulder pain or an uncomfortable feeling in the shoulder, this should be avoided, especially with heavier weights.
Pump up your pecs
The dumbbell sweater has earned its reputation as one of the best chest building exercises. It’s only natural, because this complex step includes all of the benefits of dumbbell flies and cable crossings in all of their variations. It offers both shoulder extension and shoulder adduction.
However, if you want to add sweaters to your chest routine, we recommend using this as a finisher exercise after other muscles are already tired. The main reason for this is that the sweater requires very many muscles to participate, although the main focus is on the pectoral muscles. Execution also requires a good mind-muscle connection, which is a poor exercise for starting the chest day.
We recommend doing 3-4 sets of 8-15 repetitions of barbell or dumbbell sweaters at the end of your chest day. Make sure you squeeze your pecs in the lower position to start the movement and try to keep them tense throughout the repetition.
Use dumbbell sweaters to target the lats
With minor variations, you can also use the sweater to isolate the lats, largely eliminating the help of the other muscles. This makes the sweater a perfect isolation exercise for the development of the back. When aiming for your lats, you should bend your elbows and extend them slightly. Focus on pulling your elbows while keeping your forearms and hands relaxed to eliminate the biceps contribution.
If the sweaters are used as a lats pump exercise, do them as the first exercise on the back day. They tire the lats forward and help improve the mind-muscle connection.
Perform 4 sets of 8-12 reps of dumbbell sweaters with your elbows slightly bent. Slowing down the rep speed will allow you to focus on isolating the lats.