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October 19, 2021
The lat pulldown is one exercise that should be in everyone’s arsenal if you want a bigger, stronger back and wide lats. Lat pull downs are one of the essential compound exercises for the back as most gyms will have a dedicated machine for this exercise. Almost anytime you walk into a gym you’ll see someone doing lat pulldowns but often times the form and technique is a bit off.
This post is a deep dive into the lat pulldown. By the time you finish reading, you’ll know how to do lat pulldowns, muscles worked and benefits. We’ll also give you 10 of the best lat pulldown variations that you should add to your workout programming.
The lat pull down is a compound movement that primarily targets the lats and is considered to be a vital exercise for developing back strength and increasing overall pulling strength.
There are a number of lat pull down variations that employ the use of different equipment and grips but the traditional lat pulldown involves the use of a cable machine and a bar attachment.
To perform a lat pulldown you will get into seated position on the cable machine or lat pulldown machine then reach up to grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
From there, you will pull down on the bar by adducting the lats while depressing the scapulae and flexing at the elbows. Once the bar is just under chin level or at your chest with your elbows at your sides. To finish, you will slowly let the bar travel back to the starting position.
To do a traditional lat pulldown follow these steps:
Note: Don’t try to use your body’s momentum by rocking back as you pull down. This exercise should be done in a slow controlled manner.
The lat pulldown might be one of the most common exercises you’ll see people do in the gym. This doesn’t mean people are doing them right! Below are some common mistakes we see people making in the gym when doing lat pull downs. Try our quick fix tips to ensure you’re doing lat pulldowns in the most effective and safe way.
FULL RANGE OF MOTION
You need to get a full range of motion and stretch while doing the lat pulldown. This means you should bring the bar as close to your chest as possible at the bottom of the movement while also letting your arms fully extend as the bar returns to starting position. Stretching under tension is an aspect of muscle building that should be taken advantage of.
How To Fix: You should feel a stretch in your lats at the start of the exercise then lower the bar all the way to your chest without curling your wrists.
USE A VARIETY OF GRIPS
The lat pulldown is an exercise where you can change up the grip you’re using in order to target various muscles. Many people tend to stick with one lat pulldown variation without changing it up. You can even switch up your grip with the same attachment enabling you to be as efficient and effective as possible.
How To Fix: Try switching up your grip by doing wide grip lat pulldowns, close grip lat pulldowns, straight arm lat pulldowns and more. There are multiple possibilities of exercises if you change your grip and the attachment used. Aim to change up your grip every 1-2 mesocycles.
Many people let their egos get in the way with lat pull downs and try to go too heavy. When trying to lift too much weight with lat downs form is often jeopardized. Half reps or rocking/leaning back are the two most common ways people’s form is wrong when trying to lift too heavy.
How to Fix: If you can’t do a lat pulldown with strict form then lighten up the weight!
The goal is to maximize pulling strength while keeping your shoulders safe from injury or impingement. Many people ending up leaning back and pulling back through the elbows instead of straight down.
How To Fix: The key here is to start the movement with your elbows slightly in front of you, then pull down so they are aligned directly over your hips. This will enable you to pull more weight while your shoulders aren’t compromised.
IMPROVE GRIP STRENGTH OR USE WRAPS
Sometimes while doing the lat pulldown your grip might be the limiting factor from getting a great lat workout. If your grip is giving out before your lats and back muscles do then you might need to use some assistance. You want your lats to be the exhausted muscles in the lat pulldown.
How To Fix: You can try to use chalk, work on improving your grip strength or use wrist straps/wraps.
PULL DOWN IN FRONT OF BODY
Avoid pulling the bar down behind you to the back of your neck. You won’t be able to lift as much weight to overload your lats, making them grow. You can also injure your shoulders and/or spine by pulling the weight down behind your head.
How To Fix: If you do behind the neck lat pull downs then you need to be extra aware of the possible risks involved in the motion.
AVOID USING BICEPS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE
Try to solely focus on using your lats to pull the weight down rather than the biceps. Beginners tend to engage the biceps too much when doing lat pulldowns. Another reason why people tend to use their biceps when doing lat pulldowns is because the weight they’re lifting is too heavy.
How To Fix: Try placing your thumb on top of the bar rather than wrapping fully around the bar to help with the mind muscle connection. This mimics hooking the bar and pulling down instead of gripping the bar to pull down the bar. By hooking the bar without your thumb wrapped around the bar you can focus more on pulling down through your elbows.
SET KNEE PAD LEVEL
Once you start lifting heavier weight with the lat pulldown it becomes trickier to get into starting position, especially if the weight is heavier than you are.
How To Fix: To offset this awkwardness, set the knee pad at a height that will keep you in place when seated but is high enough to allow you to use it for leverage when sitting down. You should first grip the bar then sag your body and get your knees under the pads. Make sure your toes are under your knees so that you can now push through your toes to create some leverage to hold your lower body down. Then use this force to push your body down to the seat instead of having to pull the bar down to get into place.
As you may have guessed, lat pulldowns are mainly targeting the latissimus dorsi but there are a number of muscles that come into play when doing lat pulldowns. For the sake of this post, we will cover the muscles worked when doing traditional lat pulldowns. You will however see other lat pulldown variations below that target slightly different muscles or the same muscles in different ways.
Latissimus dorsi: More commonly referred to as the lats, this is the largest and broadest muscle in the back and the upper body. The lats wrap around our back from our sides to the midback. Starting at the spine the lats stretch across the back and attach into the humerus. If you reach your hand under your opposite armpit then move down towards the lower back you will feel the lats. There’s a small area in the upper center back where the traps cover and overlap the lats.
Even though the lats is a single muscle, in fitness circles you’ll often hear trainers refer to the upper, middle and lower lats. This is because different areas of the lats are activated more or less depending on the movement as described below:
Upper Lats: Movements that involve shoulder adduction. Wide grip lats pulldowns are great for targeting the upper lats.
Middle Lats: Movements that involves horizontal abduction of the shoulder. Rows are an excellent exercise to hit the middle lats.
Lower Lats: Movements that involve shoulder extension. Lat pushdowns are perfect for hitting the lower lats.
It’s vital to use multiple exercises to fully work the lats as a whole so we believe the lat pulldown is one of the most effective methods of developing the lats. Make sure to mix in some of the lat pulldown variations to have a balanced approach to building the lats.
Related: Best Latissimus Dorsi Exercises
Trapezius: Often referred to as the traps this triangular shaped muscle starts at the base of the skull and stretches down to the lower thoracic vertebrae and across to the scapula. Many people might mistake this for a shoulder muscle but it is indeed a back muscle that plays an important role in lat pulldowns. The primary function of the traps is to move the scapula and give support to the arms.
Related: Best Trapezius Exercises
Teres Major: This is the larger of the teres muscles, the teres major helps with the extension and medial rotation of the humerus. This muscle is found above the lats and attaches to the humerus.
Related: Best Teres Major Exercises
Posterior Deltoid: Also called the rear delt, this is one of the three deltoids that comprise the shoulder muscles. The rear delt plays an important role in many pulling exercises. The primary function of the rear delt is moving the shoulder in horizontal abduction similar to the motion of reverse flys.
Rhomboids: The rhomboids are made of two muscles, the rhomboid major and rhomboid minor. The rhomboids are beneath the traps and stretch form the spine to the medial region of the scapula. The primary function of the rhomboids is to assist in the movement of the scapula.
Levator Scapulae: This muscle sits on the back side of the neck. As the name suggests, the main function of this muscle is to lift the scapula.
Rotator Cuff Muscles:
Teres Minor, Infraspinatus, Subscapularis: These three muscles assist in stabilizing the humeral head in the glenoid cavity of the scapula.
Biceps Brachii: One of the most popular and well-known upper body muscles, the biceps is comprised of two heads; the long head and short head found on the front of the upper arm. The main functions of the biceps is flexion at the elbow and flexion and supination of the forearm.
Brachialis: This muscle is an elbow flexor found in the upper arm. It is deeper than the biceps and doesn’t play any role in pronation or supination of the forearm. However, the brachialis does provide 50% more power than the biceps in the function of elbow flexion.
Brachioradialis: This muscle found on the anterior of the forearm is the most superficial muscle on the radial side of the forearm. This muscle flexes the forearm at the elbow and helps with gripping the bar when doing lat pull downs.
The lats are the primary mover when doing lat pulldowns, they do most of the heavy lifting. The traps and pec minor assist with depressing the scapulae. The levator scapulae, rhomboids and pec minor work in unison to execute the downward rotation of the scapulae.
To adduct and extend the arm the posterior deltoid and the teres major go to work while the rotator cuff muscles (infraspinatus and teres minor, subscapularis) help with stabilization of the glenohumeral joint. The biceps, brachialis and brachioradialis help to flex the elbow and grip the bar as you pull down.
Now you can see how the lat pull down is an amazing compound movement that recruits multiple muscles in order to properly perform it.
One of the greatest aspects of the lat pull down is the tremendous amount of variety that can be achieved by changing up one or more training variables. Let’s have a look at how we can alter the way your muscles will respond to different training stimuli.
Body Positioning: You can change up how you position your body with different types of lat pull downs. When doing lat pulldowns you’ll be able mix up your body positioning in a few ways including:
Grip: Lat pulldowns can be done with different grips that will slightly change muscles worked. You can use the following types of grips then mix and match them to various exercises.
Overhand Grip (pronated) or Underhand Grip (Supinated) Lat Pulldowns: The overhand grip is when your palms face away from you, thus working the upper lats more compared with using an underhand grip.
Wide/Shoulder-Width/Close Grip: Wide grip lat pulldowns will work the upper lats whereas shoulder-width grip will work the mid lats more and close grip activating the lower lats more.
Neutral Grip Lat Pulldown: The neutral grip with your palms facing each other with allow you to lift more weight than an overhand grip as your lats will be in better biomechanical position.
Seated/Standing/Kneeling: You’ll see below that lat pulldown variations can be done seated, standing or kneeling. By switching up this body positioning you can target the lats differently. This allows you to focus on any weak areas or work on muscle imbalances.
Angle: In certain lat pulldown variations like the V-bar lat pulldown you can lean your upper body back slightly which will allow you to lift more weight and get a fuller range of motion during the exercise.
This study looked at how the lats were activated when comparing three different pronated grips: wide, medium and close grip. The EMG results showed that during the concentric phase of the lift the lats were activated almost equally. The difference in muscle activation was in the close and medium grip the biceps showed more muscle activation. The wide and medium grip demonstrated more muscle activation in the lats compared with the close grip.
Another interesting study on lat pulldowns and how the grip changes muscle activation was done in 2009. This study looked at how the lats, biceps and middle traps were affected using four different grips; close-supinated, close-pronated, wide-supinated and wide-pronated. The results showed that the pronated grip, both close and wide activated the lats more than the supinated grips.
To put it simply, you should switch up the grips you use when doing lat pull downs to keep your workouts interesting while stimulating your muscles differently. Variety is an important part of making progress in the weight room.
Note: It’s not possible to isolate a specific area of the lats but you can use different training variables to try to target a certain area of the lat more than the others.
Equipment (and Attachments):
You can use a number of attachments in tandem with the cable machine that will allow you to employ various grips and body positions. Some of the attachments that can be used are straight bar, V-bar, D-handles and ropes. If you’re doing lat pull downs at home then you could use resistance bands or a towel (yes you read that right). If you’re in doubt continue on to see how you can use a towel to mimic a lat pull down.
The lat pull down is one of the most versatile back exercises that can be done. We put together 10 of the best lat pull down variations that will help you build an all-around beast of a back.
The wide grip lat pulldown is one of the favorite exercises of bodybuilders to hone in on working the upper area of the lats. This will help to increase the width at the top of the V taper. The wide grip lat pulldown will be little more difficult to do compared with the regular lat pulldown, so remember to drop the weight a little and check your ego at the door.
Note: Make sure to stay looking straight head throughout the movement while you minimize the rocking or leaning to assist with the lift.
Follow the same cues as a traditional lat pull down except for your hand placement which will be slightly narrower than shoulder-width apart.
You can also go a little wider, as such...
This version of the lat pull down uses a neutral grip which forces your elbows to be tucked while pulling down. This enhancement of shoulder extension translates to your lats having a greater capability of moving the weight. You will be able to lift more weight when doing the V bar lat pulldown because more muscles will be activated. You’ll also be leaning back slightly while performing this lat pulldown variation, giving you more leverage to move more weight. Overall, this is a great lat pull down variation that offers a full range of motion and activates the entire lats. Don’t miss this exercise that can help you to put on size and strength.
Note: Don’t use rocking momentum to pull the bar down, focus on using your lats.
The kneeling neutral grip lat pulldown is an awesome exercise to get a full stretch in the lats. This exercise can help you to build a wider back. Even though the grip might be similar to the V-bar lat pulldown, in this variation your arms start out to your sides at a wider angle. This starting position leads to the upper lats, teres major and lower traps to get major activation. We find that the body positioning of this exercise makes it easier to really focus on squeezing and contracting the lats.
Note: Let your arms become fully extended before completing the next rep in order to get maximum stretch in the lats.
This lat pull down imitates a chin up as you will be gripping the bar with your palms facing you. Using this grip position, you will transfer more tension to your lower lats. Besides just targeting your lats, this exercise will engage your biceps and middle back a bit more than a traditional lat pull down. So, if you’re aiming for an exercise that will torch both the back and biceps at the same time then this is the one for you.
Note: Keep your core engaged and don’t arch your back. Don’t wrap your thumbs around the bar if you feel like your biceps are doing most of the work.
The single arm or one arm lat pulldown enables you to achieve balanced muscle and strength gains on both sides of your body. This unilateral exercise will make it possible for you to work on the weaker lat so it catches up to the stronger side. The offset nature of this exercise also engages the core more as it has to work harder to stabilize your body throughout the movement.
Note: Keep your shoulders squared throughout the movement.
Besides looking bad-ass, the cable crossover lat pulldown is an excellent exercise to work the back. When doing this exercise form is everything, don’t go too heavy with this one. This exercise will work the lower lats and the mid back really well. It’s a great exercise to help you get acquainted with your rhomboids. Make sure to squeeze at the bottom of the movement to get the most out of this motion.
Note: You can also perform this exercise from your knees if you’re too tall or if you want to make it harder to cheat by using your body’s momentum.
This exercise is also commonly referred to as the lat pushdown or pullover, regardless of what you call this exercise the same rings true; it is a great shoulder extension exercise to work the lats. By performing this exercise properly, you will directly work on the lats while your shoulders, triceps and pecs will also be activated. This movement mimics a dumbbell pullover which will give you a complete range of motion. The key here it to not try to go too heavy where your form will be jeopardized. You can do the straight arm lat pulldown with a bar attachment, rope attachment or with resistance bands.
Note: Hone in on the mind-muscle connection of using your lats to push down the bar towards your hips.
Resistance band lat pulldowns are a perfect option for you to get this exercise done at home if you don’t have a cable machine. All you need to do this exercise is a resistance band and a horizontal anchor like a pull up bar. Resistance bands are awesome for lat pulldowns because they place continuous tension on your muscles but result in less wear and tear on your joints.
Note: You can do this exercise standing, seated or kneeling just follow the same form cues from above.
This might be the easiest at home lat pulldown that your can do. All you’ll need is a towel to do this lat pulldown. Because you won’t be using any external resistance with this exercise, you need to make sure you’re focusing on squeezing and contracting your lats the entire time. You can do this exercise lying on your stomach, kneeling or standing up straight.
Note: Keep tension on the towel the whole time by pulling your hands away from each other.
We are assuming that your end goal is hypertrophy or muscle gain with the lat pulldown. The lats tend to respond better to higher volume compared with some other large muscles.
The best rep range for lat pulldowns will be anywhere from 8-15 reps. You can go higher than this if you’re really focusing on time under tension and getting maximum contraction with each rep.
If your end goal is to add more power and strength than you could shoot for 6-10 rep range.
You should try to hit one variation of the lat pulldown at least twice a week for a total of 4-8 sets.
We believe the key to unlocking your genetic potential is variety. Mix up the sets and reps along with the lat pull down variations you’re doing every 1-2 mesocycles and employ progressive overload.
Lat pulldowns are an exercise that produces numerous benefits, here are few reasons why you should be incorporating lat pulldowns into your workout programming.
Strengthen The Largest Upper Body Muscle: Lat pulldowns directly target the lats which is the largest muscle in the upper body. If you want to increase your pulling strength then you need to be doing lat pulldowns. Lat pulldown will aid in improving your overall upper body strength which can then transfer to enhancing your other lifts such as deadlifts and ability to do pull ups.
Train To Failure: Lat pulldowns are one of the best cable machine back exercises because you can push yourself to the absolute limits without needing a spotter. Lat pulldowns are a good match to follow the progressive overload principle to help you build muscle and strength.
Compound Movement: Lat pulldowns are an exercise that require multiple muscle to work in unison to complete the movement properly. This means besides just working large muscles like the lats, you’ll also hit synergist muscles that aid the lats including the traps, teres major and rhomboids.
Reduce Injuries: Performing lat pulldowns properly and consistently will strengthen your back. By improving the strength and functionality of the back muscles you will reduce your chance of injuring your back while doing every day pulling activities.
Improve Posture: A common problem that plagues society today is the hunched over look from sitting at a desk all day looking at the computer or having our head buried in our mobile phones. Lat pulldowns can help to alleviate this slouching by working the muscles that are responsible for keeping our shoulders back.
Improve Confidence: Lat pulldowns are one of the best exercises to widen the back. Working on the width of the back helps to develop the often-sought-after V tapered look. A strong, well-built back will make you look better and feel better, resulting in more confidence all around.
We consider the tried-and-true tradition lat pulldown or the wide grip lat pulldown to be the best. Considering the fact, you’re doing lat pulldowns, the chances are that you’re trying to build your lats. Both of these lat pull down variations will achieve maximum lat activation.
Pull ups and lat pulldowns are both great exercises in their own respect. Some people consider lat pulldowns to be an exercise to do when regular pull ups can’t be achieved. However, both pull ups and lat pulldowns should be a part of your workout program. You can mix up the training variables with both exercises to target the lats differently.
Pull ups may serve as a test for overall upper body strength but it might be hard to exhaust the lats with pull ups. The lat pulldown will let you work the muscles to failure while getting a higher volume of work in. The high volume can help to build strength and muscle. At the end of the day, you should be doing both lat pulldowns and pull ups if possible.
Related: Pull Ups vs Chin Ups
Absolutely, you should be doing lat pulldowns regularly. Lat pulldowns are one of the best compound exercises to work the lats to exhaustion. This leads to more strength and muscle gains. If you haven’t been doing lat pulldowns regularly then you need to start now. Make sure to mix it up with some of the lat pull down variations that we covered above so that you don’t get bored. Ladies, lat pulldowns are great for both genders, and they, in combination with several other best women's back exercises, can sculpt and tone your back muscles.
You should be doing a type of lat pulldown almost every day you work your back or are focused on pulling exercises. This means for most people you should be doing lat pulldown or a variation at least once a week for 3-4 sets.
Yes, you can do lat pull downs at home. Most people don’t have a lat pulldown machine in their home gym so you can use resistance bands or even a towel to mimic the lat pulldown. See the above step by step instructions on how to do lat pull downs at home. No excuses!
By now you we hope you understand the merits of doing lat pulldowns. The method in how you incorporate lat pulldowns into your workout routine depends on a few factors including your fitness level, available equipment and training goals.
With that said, lat pulldowns or a variation should be added to the day or days you work back and/or pulling exercises.
If you’re able to do pull ups then you should do those towards the beginning and then hit some lat pull downs to completely exhaust the lats.
Keep your workouts fresh while the gains compounded by deploying a variety of lat pulldowns into your workout routine. Lat pull downs are one of the most effective and efficient exercises. Even if you can do unassisted pull ups, you should try to mix in some lat pulldowns. Everyone can benefit from doing this amazing compound exercise.
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