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Fact checked by Kirsten Yovino, CPT Brookbush InstituteFACT CHECKED
There are many great exercises to add strength and muscle to the lats. Row variations, chin-ups, and pull-ups will all give you wings. However, an exercise that’s often neglected but fantastic for isolating the lats is the straight arm pulldown. Unlike most compound lat exercises, there is limited bicep action, which drives more activation to the lats.
To best develop the lats, you need well-rounded back training that includes horizontal pulls, vertical pulls, and horizontal-vertical pulls (i.e. the machine high pull). These are all great compound exercises that train two or more muscle groups. But, you are still missing pure shoulder extension based movements, which isolate the lats, such as the cable straight arm lat pulldown (FYI some people call it a straight arm lat pushdown or cable pullover).
The straight-arm lat pulldown is a pure shoulder extension exercise that a lot of lifters miss in their efforts to develop a wide back and posterior of steel.
This article will explain:
Ready to build some wings? Let’s go.
The straight-arm pulldown is a lat pulldown variation with a couple of important differences. With this variation, you’re standing, and your elbows are locked out the entire time. Because you’re standing and not bending your elbows, you’ll take your lats through a larger range of motion for better muscle-building potential and you won't be using your biceps to assist the movement.
It’s a great exercise to hone in on your lats.The straight arm pulldown exercise is as close to an isolation exercise for the lats as there is.
The only downside with this lat pulldown variation is there's a low ceiling for load potential. This is really purely an accessory movement.
This exercise is performed on a cable machine or lat pulldown machine, and it can be done with various attachments to train the lats from various angles for greater muscle development. You can also do it from an upright standing position or a slightly leaned forward hip hinge position.
Straight arm pulldown seems like an isolation exercise for your latissimus dorsi muscles (lats) but it’s not the only muscle group it works. There are also secondary muscles trained with this exercise which are:
All that said, the straight arm pulldown is surely a lat dominant exercise and really as isolated as it's going to get for the lats. The other muscles that you'll really feel working during this exercise are your triceps and your abdominals.
Besides building a great set of lats, there are a few important benefits of performing straight-arm lat pulldowns. And here they are:
Like all exercises, you need to do it correctly to get the best possible results. With the straight arm lat pulldown, it is better to start light so you can master it and really feel your lats working.
There’s not much to the straight-arm pulldown, correct. You keep your arms straight and pull the bar down to your thighs. But there are a few things to look out for you to get the best out of this exercise.
Too Much Weight: Let’s get the obvious over with. Some lifter’s egos get in the way because of the reduced load in comparison to the lat pulldown and go too heavy. Don’t do that because you want to feel your lats and not your arms.
Bending The Elbows: Following on from above when the load is too heavy, lifters tend to bend their elbows during the straight arm lat pulldown. This takes the focus of the lats which is the point of this exercise. You want your arms fully extended, or they can be very slightly bent, but they must maintain that same bend throughout. What you want to avoid is elbow flexion and extension during reps. Keep your elbow pinned.
Bad Shoulder Positioning: Keep your shoulder blades down and back so that your shoulders are packed. This will allow you to focus on the lats.
Not Using A Full Range Of Motion: The main benefit of the straight arm pulldown is that it takes the lats through a bigger range of motion for better gains. And when you don’t fully stretch your lats at the end of the movement or pull it down to your thighs, you’re leaving gains on the table.
Straight arm pulldowns are an exercise with a ton of benefits but it’s not a great fit for everyone. This does cause some stress on the elbows. So, if you’re suffering from golf or tennis elbow or sore elbows in general let pain be your guide with this exercise.
Another drawback would be the load potential. You won't ever go super heavy with the straight arm lat pulldown, so to progressive overload, you need to use other methods like increasing reps and decreasing rest time, as well as incorporate training techniques such as drop sets. All that said, you still will be able to increase the load, there is just a somewhat low ceiling for what you'll be able to do with proper form.
Even though this exercise may seem strictly hypertrophy focused, it is also a common exercise included in strength training programs.
The beauty of the straight arm pull in various attachments is used to train your back muscles from different angles and using various grips.
Here are a few straight arm pulldown variations for better variety and gains...
Using a stirrup handle, rope, or even no attachment, you’ll be able to train unilaterally to strengthen the imbalance between sides for better muscle development. You’ll be able to use a neutral, overhand or under grip here with the underhand grip training the lower trapezius more.
Bonus! Try to do a lateral straight arm pulldown:
The rope straight arm lat pulldown uses a rope attachment which allows a neutral grip. This helps to reduce the stress on your wrists, elbows, and shoulders if this is an issue for you. Being able to pull the rope apart at the end of the movement gives your upper back some love along with the lats.
You can do this with a hip hinge or neutral hips and upright stance.
Alternatively, you can use a wide grip attachment and do wide grip straight arm pulldowns to target your lats differently.
If you haven’t got access to a cable or lat pulldown machine, the resistance band pulldown is a great alternative. The band stresses your joint a little less, so you’ll be able to do more reps with this variation. The neutral grip is our strongest grip and is easier on the elbows and shoulders if you have any issues there.
If you don't have bands, you can buy them here from us.
If you haven’t access to a cable or lat pulldown machine, then performing these alternatives will reap all the benefits of the straight arm pullover and more.
The dumbbell pullover trains the lats, yes, but it also trains the chest too. When done with good form it takes your upper body through a large range of motion, like the straight arm pulldown giving you more muscle-building potential.
This is performed with either a barbell or EZ curl bar. An EZ curl bar is a little easier on your elbows, but the barbell allows for more weight. The wider grip as compared to the dumbbell pullover allows some lifters to feel a better contraction and stretch in their lats.
The machine high row does use the biceps, but the angle of this variation puts the lats through a large range of motion similar to the straight arm lat pulldown. Because your lower and upper body are in a fixed position, this stability allows you to drive more engagement where you need it most, the lats.
Other Good Alternatives:
The straight arm lat pulldown is an exercise a lot of lifters miss when it comes to building a bigger back. It’s often overlooked because it is not as sexy nor do you use a lot of weight in comparison with other row variations or pulldown variations. Nevertheless, this exercise isolates the lats really well.
When used in combination with other effective, compound back exercises at the end of your workout, you’ll fully exhaust your lats for better gains.
Performing 2-4 sets of 8-15 reps of straight arm pulldowns at the end of your back day will help give you lat muscles that look like wings. And be sure to switch things up and do different variations from time to time - straight bar, wide bar, rope attachment, and even resistance band pulldowns.
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