November 12, 2021
Baby got lats! If you want that impeccable V-shape that so many men wish to attain, you need to develop your lats, aka your wings. There are a lot of great back exercises which can be used to develop your lats. This article is going to go over everything you need to know about one of them, the close grip lat pulldown.
In this, you’re going to learn:
While we can safely assume the close grip lat pulldown trains the lats, you’d be foolish to think that’s all these trains. Here are the muscles that are going to get huuuge with the close grip lat pulldown.
LATISSIMUS DORSI (THE LATS):
The latissimus dorsi, or “lats”, for short, are going to be the primary muscle trained during the close grip lat pulldown. In fact, the lats are the primary movers for any movement which involves vertical pulling, such as pull-ups or chin-ups. This is because the latissimus dorsi has two main functions; extension of the shoulder and adduction of the shoulder. These involve pulling the shoulder down in front of you (shoulder extension) or out to the side (shoulder adduction). Both of these actions occur to a degree with the close grip lat pulldown.
Related: Best Latissimus Dorsi Exercises
The posterior deltoids are one of the three heads that compose the shoulder. The anterior and medial heads are activated to a higher degree with movements that occur on the anterior (bench press) or side (lateral dumbbell raises). As the shoulder can move in three directions, the posterior deltoid is left with being in charge of movements that occur on the posterior. In reality, the posterior deltoids are used much more with other pulling or back-centric movements rather than with what many consider traditional shoulder exercises (overhead pressing).
Its primary function is shoulder extension and assisting the latissimus dorsi in pulling the arms down. Still, when performing the close grip lat pulldown, you actually lean back and pull the bar down at an angle rather than straight down. This furthers the activation of the posterior deltoid.
Related: Best Posterior Deltoid Exercises
The trapezius muscle is a large muscle in the upper back composed of a lower, middle, and an upper portion. Their primary function is to control the scapula, whether it’s elevating, depressing, or retracting the scapula. During the lat pulldown, the traps are activated to pull the scapula together.
Related: Best Trapezius Muscle Exercises
The teres major is a small, thick muscle that connects the arm to the scapula. It sits above the latissimus dorsi and assists with extending the shoulder joint by pulling the arm down. While a smaller muscle, it plays a very important role on scapular control and humerus stability.
Related: Best Teres Major Exercises
The biceps are involved in virtually every pulling exercise. Same here with the close grip lat pulldown. The biceps is the primary elbow flexor, so you’re not pulling on a bar without using your biceps. HOWEVER, the biceps are not the primary focus of this movement. In fact, overuse of the biceps is one of the most common errors (See below!). You’ll use the biceps, but you want to focus on using your back to pull the bar down rather than your biceps. Think about your arms as a rope that attaches the bar to your back rather than the actual pulling force. Regardless, you’re still going to get great bicep activation, especially at the end of the pull.
Lat pulldowns are traditionally performed using a lat pulldown machine, which we will discuss (check other varieties further below). The first step is choosing the correct handle attachment. Because you will use a much narrower grip, you have a more comprehensive selection of attachments to use. You can still use a traditional lat pulldown bar, but you could also use a long straight bar or shorter curved bar.
After hooking the attachment to the pulley system, you need to set the knee pads. These are going to allow you to pull down with full force without being lifted into the air, so you’ll want to adjust them to be snug. Your knee should be flush with the pad when your feet are flat on the floor.
Next, it’s generally easier to first grab the bar and sit, especially if you’re a bit shorter. Grab the bar overhand (you can adjust the grip later), sit down onto the seat, and stick your knees under the pad. Now adjust the grip so that your arms are basically straight up and your arms are even. You can let the bar pull your shoulder blades up at this point. Now you’re ready to go.
The first movement is to retract your scapula. Before pulling down on the bar, pull your scapula down and back and pretend like you’re squeezing them together. At this same time, you’re going to lean back so that your torso is at a slight angle.
Now you’re ready to go. You are going to pull the bar down by pulling your elbows back and down. Concentrate on driving your elbows through the floor. You are going to do this until the bar hits your body which should make contact on your chest above the nipple. Once at the bottom, remember to continue squeezing your scapula together.
Now you are going to let the bar back up in a slow and controlled manner. Allow the bar to go all the way up until it reaches the top level. At this point, you are going to allow the bar to pull your shoulders up and protract your scapula. This is one full rep. Continue by starting with first retracting your scapula.
A relatively simple exercise, the close grip lat pulldown still produces some common errors. Here are the top mistakes seen during the close grip pulldown and how to fix them.
TOO MUCH BICEP USE:
Pay attention as this can apply to virtually any pulling movement. We touched on this a bit above but want to expound on this more here. When performing the lat pulldown, many people mistakenly think the goal is to touch the bar to the chest. While this is definitely what you want to happen, it doesn’t mean “by any means necessary”.
What happens is that when people pull, they try to use their biceps too much to pull the bar to the chest. This takes away from the back muscles and generally leads to other errors in the movement. Instead, what you need to do is focus on driving your elbows down and back rather than pulling the bar. Your elbows will definitely flex and your biceps activated, but this should be a result of driving your elbows.
In your next session, pretend like the bar is just along for the ride as you pull down.
TOO MUCH BODY MOVEMENT AND LEAN:
Stop bouncing!!! While some lifters may use a tad bit of body movement to help pull a heavier load (which is acceptable within context), it is in a controlled manner. You are not ripping your torso backward.
Further, you should only be leaning back slightly. You’ll see some guys leaned back so far they’re basically doing an inverted row. Don’t do this. Lean back just enough so that you are able to pull the bar down all the way.
NOT RETRACTING YOUR SCAPULA:
Another huge problem with ALL pulling movements is not retracting your scapula. This is a huge issue because you’re neglecting the movement that builds a firm foundation for your arm to operate from.
Think of your scapula as the foundation from which your arms operate from. When your scapula is pulled forward, it creates a very loose shoulder girdle for your arm to function from. What happens is a series of events begins which can cause deficiencies all the way down your arm. Because your scapula isn’t firm, you can’t optimally pull using your back muscles. To compensate for the lack of force, the shoulder must take over. However, it’s not in a strong position either, so your elbow must compensate. This places a great amount of strain on these joints which can turn into injury. Proper scapular control is so essential that studies have determined it to be one of the sole causes of elbow pain.
All of this can be avoided simply by retracting your scapula. Not only are you going to save your joints, but you’ll also be able to pull more weight.
The close grip lat pulldown is a fantastic addition to throw into your revolving list of back exercises. Here are some of the reasons why this should be included in your next back session.
1. IT TRAINS YOUR ENTIRE BACK:
The close grip lat pulldown is an incredible compound exercise that will virtually train every single posterior muscle. While it’s labeled the “lat” pulldown, you can use it to add strength and size to your back as a whole.
2. CREATES HIGHER BICEP ACTIVATION:
Studies have shown that the biceps are recruited to a higher degree than using a wider grip because of the greater flexion at the elbow. While we said the biceps shouldn’t be your main priority (they shouldn’t!), they still get a better workout when using proper form and that’s not something we’re going to ignore.
3. ALLOWS A HEAVIER LOAD:
The close grip lat pulldown places your body in a much stronger position biomechanically. What this means is that you are able to use a higher load for more reps. This lat pulldown variation is an excellent method to apply a load on your muscles then you are usually used to.
4. IMPROVES PULL UP PERFORMANCE:
If your pull-ups suck, using the close grip lat pulldown is a superb exercise to strengthen the muscles you need. Because the knee pad will activate the same back muscles as a pull-up without requiring stability from the core muscles. This allows you to target the muscles you need to improve your vertical pulling strength.
5. IMPROVES POSTURE AND SCAPULAR CONTROL:
A huge contributing factor to poor posture is weak posterior muscles. What can happen is an individual’s posterior muscles (chest, anterior deltoids) become either too tight or overdeveloped. This causes them to overpower the posterior muscles and pull the shoulder forwards. If this is the cause of your poor posture (there are other causes as well), the best remedy is to perform stretching exercises and emphasize scapular control.
This is one of the reasons we instruct you to allow your shoulders to pull up at the end of the eccentric portion. It forces you to perform what’s essentially a scapular pulldown (or perhaps you’ve seen some people do scapular pull-ups) every single rep. This is a fantastic posture exercise to fix your body position.
6. DECREASES SHOULDER PAIN:
Using a wider grip can sometimes cause discomfort in the shoulder joint. This could be due to a variety of reasons, including:
These conditions can cause a wider group to be very uncomfortable due to the added stress and tightness that is placed on the shoulder joint. By using a closer grip, your arms are brought inward, which takes a significant amount of pressure off the shoulder capsule and helps alleviate any discomfort. A study that examined different modifications to exercises that can relieve pain suggests using a grip that’s at least shoulder-width apart or slightly closer. While you still need to figure out the root of the problem and fix your shoulder mobility, using the close grip lat pulldown is a great option to use while you troubleshoot this issue.
The close grip and wide grip pulldown have quite a few differences that you should be aware of during exercise selection. Both are great exercises and can be used in conjunction for optimal results. That being said, the hand grip width gives birth to all of the differences seen in these two lat pulldown variations.
Major Biomechanical Differences
The differences in grip width are just the beginning of the biomechanical differences that you experience in these lat pulldown variations. When you perform the close grip lat pulldown, your elbows are going to come to the front of the body. What this does is forces you to achieve more shoulder extension. Further, having your elbows out in front puts you in a position of biomechanical advantage, which allows you to move more weight, as discussed above.
Now compare this to the wide grip lat pulldown. As your hands are spread out, it forces your elbows to go out to the side of your body. Therefore, when you pull down during the wide grip pulldown, you are actually performing shoulder adduction rather than shoulder extension. In addition, when you place your hands farther out, you will create less flexion in the elbow. Together, these two differences mean the wide grip lat pulldown generally elicits more lats and less biceps activation.
The close grip lat pulldown, along with every other lat pulldown variation, is best used for muscle hypertrophy. This means that you should use moderate weight with moderate reps. if you’re not sure where to start, use a rep scheme of 3X8-12.
First, choose a weight that allows you to perform 3 sets of 8 reps and is relatively challenging. For progressive overload, increase the reps of each set until you can achieve 3x12, or close to it. Then you’ll add some weight and repeat the process.
The close grip pulldown is a great exercise, and with some slight variations, you can create other exercises that are just as effective. Here are the 3 best close grip lat pulldown alternative exercises.
You won’t see this exercise very often, but you should definitely start doing it, especially if you need additional help with your pull-ups. Instead of using knee pads to hold you down, you’re going to perform this exercise by placing your knees on the ground. This will take away the support that your knees usually provide with the knee pad and cause higher core activation.
You are effectively doing an assisted pull-up, yet your lower body stays in the same position. In fact, in a study examining different vertical pulling movements, the kneeling lat pulldown exhibited the most similar muscle activation and firing sequence as a free hanging pull up.
However, there is a particular way you need to perform these. Regardless of how many pull-ups you can do, you want to use a weight that just barely starts to lift your knees off the ground. This will create the instability you are looking for to mimic the core stability seen during pull ups.
Another great close grip lat pulldown alternative is the neutral grip lat pulldown. This movement is performed similarly to the tight grip lat pulldown, except you will use a “V-handle” attachment, which will allow a neutral close-with grip. One of the main benefits this offers is that it can relieve stress on the elbow.
When using either an underhand or overhand grip, your forearm flexors are activated to grip the bar and pull. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing unless you are experiencing elbow pain. When you grab a bar, your forearm muscles converge into a tendon that is attached to the elbow. Therefore, overworked forearms are a common cause of elbow pain as the tendon can become inflamed. Using a neutral grip can help alleviate that activation of your forearm, thus being more comfortable.
Another great benefit is that most trainees are strongest in this position. In other words, they are able to move more weight due to the mechanical advantage. Therefore, if you are going to go heavy with a lat pulldown movement (6 or less reps), using the neutral grip lat pulldown would be a great choice.
However, keep in mind that studies have shown this version generates the least amount of activation of the lats. Use this information for your exercise selection.
We want to discuss the last great alternative is the close grip lat pulldown but using an underhand grip. This exercise is performed in the same manner as the overhand versions except you will have an underhand grip. Because your hands will be in a supinated position, your elbows will be pushed internally, even farther than the close grip. Therefore, when you perform this variation, your elbows should come down flush to your sides. This will cause a little bit more activation in your traps, making it a great option to develop your middle back.
TIME TO FLY
There’s a reason the lats are called “wings”. When you lift your arms up, the lats stretch out as if you’re about to take flight; at least they do if you’ve been doing your lat pulldowns. Your latissimus dorsi isn’t going to develop itself if you don’t give it a reason. Therefore, start making the close grip lat pulldown (and alternatives) for that reason. You now have everything you need to know.
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