If you’re looking for a shredded physique with that V-shape torso, then you need to give your lats some loving. This wing-shaped muscle is the largest in the upper body and covers the width of the mid and lower back. As such, training this will help you grow thickness and strength. One of the most iconic exercises targeting the Latissimus Dorsi is the lat pulldown. It’s a compound exercise that targets the lats but is flexible enough to have plenty of variations to keep your workout exciting and achieve your fitness goals more effectively.
What is a Lat Pulldown?
A lat pulldown is a strength training exercise designed to specifically work the Latissimus Dorsi. This is the largest muscle in the upper body and is responsible for movement in the shoulders, torso, and arms. Building mass in this muscle will improve your strength and give you that much sought-after V-shaped back. The lat pulldown is generally performed using a lat pulldown machine and is an excellent alternative to pull-ups, especially if you’re new to strength training. Another feature of the lat pulldown is its flexibility – there are several variations you can do with different hand positions to work the area differently for maximum results.
What Muscles do Lat Pulldowns Work?
The primary muscles worked in the lat pulldown are the Latissimus Dorsi and Teres Major. The exercise also works the posterior deltoid, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, and forearms, plus your triceps, rotator cuff, and core which stabilize you during the movement. As such, it’s an excellent upper body and back workout. Plus, depending on the grip you use, it can emphasize and work different muscles more, making it ideal for keeping your training interesting and building width across your back.
Wide Grip vs. Close Grip Lat Pulldown
As mentioned, the grip you use while performing the lat pulldown can affect the muscles emphasized. The main two options are a wide or close grip. Research has shown the greatest activation of the lats during the eccentric phase of the movement with a wide overhand grip. Meanwhile, a narrow grip puts more emphasis on the biceps brachii and the lower region of the lats. However, the differences aren’t massive, and you won’t necessarily see more significant changes in width and size with one more than the other. What you choose will depend on your goals, and each grip has its place in a well-rounded workout schedule to limit boredom and increase adherence.
Lat Pulldown vs. Pull-Up
The lat pulldown is similar to the pull-up, which also works the lats. The main difference between the two is that the former is an open-chained exercise, with the latter a closed chain. This means that in a pull-up, the body moves against an immobile force (in this case, the bar), while in a pulldown, the resistance comes from a moveable force (in this case, the weight plates). While a pull-up is considered a more functional movement, a lat pulldown is still an effective strength training exercise. Additionally, pull-ups can be more challenging because you don’t have an adjustable weight. Consequently, if you’re new to training and are still building your upper body and back strength, lat pulldowns are a great place to start as you work your way up to pull-ups.
How to do a Lat Pulldown
The mechanics of a lat pulldown are simple; however, the lats are notoriously difficult to activate. When this happens, the traps and biceps tend to take over, which in turn steals the gains you’re aiming for. Counteract this with an improved mind-muscle connection, so you can actively feel a solid contraction through the muscle. You can achieve this by including lat activation drills in your workout before your pulldowns and being mindful of cues that can help. These cues include pulling with your elbows instead of your hands and using a thumbless grip, so your fingers are less engaged and simply act like hooks. Finally, when you’re pulling, focus on depressing your shoulders before starting the move, bringing them back and down for correct posture.
- Sit at the lat pulldown machine with your chosen weight selected. Adjust the pads so they sit securely across your knees, which should be at 90 degrees with your feet flat on the floor.
- Hold the bar with your chosen grip, and pull it down, so you’re seated.
- Depress your shoulders, brace your core, and lean back slightly (20-30 degrees) while maintaining a neutral spine.
- Focus on your elbows as you pull the bar towards your chest, bringing your elbows back and squeezing should shoulder blades together.
- Stop when you feel a good stretch across your chest and full contraction through your lats. Depending on your mobility, this might be just in front of or touching your upper chest.
- Hold for a couple of seconds, then return the bar to the starting position with control.
How to do a Lat Pulldown at Home
While most people won’t have a lat pulldown machine at home, you can still build strength and mass in your lats at home with little equipment. One option is to use a resistance band securely attached overhead. Then, you can kneel or stand and either do a traditional pulldown by bending your elbows at the side or a straight-arm variation. Alternatively, you can use sheets knotted and secured over a closed door to do a bodyweight lat pulldown. Start by sitting on the floor with your legs out straight and sheets wrapped around your hands for a firm grip. Then, pull your elbows down and back, lifting your body off the ground, before returning with control, focussing on your lats. If that’s too challenging, you can bend your knees and then progressively straighten your legs as you get stronger.
Lat Pulldown Alternatives
While the lat pulldown is the classic move for the pulldown machine, there are plenty of alternatives and variations you can do to mix up your workout and get the best results. You’ll be able to work all of the muscles in your back to build thickness and strength more effectively. With some, you’ll need different attachments, while for others, it’s a case of changing your body position and grip. Of course, there are also alternatives that don’t use a pulldown machine if you don’t have access to a gym.
Rope Face Lat Pulldown
Elevate your face pulls to work even more of your back by turning it into a face pulldown with the cable attachment. Using the same seated position with your legs secured under the pad means you’ll get more stability and be able to load the weight more than in a traditional face pull. As you pull the weight towards your face, focus on driving your elbows down and back to engage the lats with the vertical pull as opposed to the horizontal pull. Of course, you’ll still also feel this in your posterior deltoids, upper traps, rotator cuff, and mid scapular muscles.
Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
Another alternative is the straight arm lat pulldown, which changes it to a single-joint movement, where you only move at the shoulders. This allows you to target the lats even more. You can do this standing at the pull-down machine with a bar or maintain the traditional seated position and use the rope attachment instead. The latter gives you a greater range of travel, so you don’t hit the bottom with the straight bar. This allows you to get your elbows closer to your sides for a stronger contraction of the lats, with a quality stretch on the way back up.
Test your straight arm scapular strength with a S.A.S.S pulldown. It’s a grueling but effective exercise that builds on the traditional lat pulldown. As such, that’s how you start. However, instead of heading straight back up with the weight, you’ll extend your arms straight out in front of you, trying to keep them parallel to the floor. That weight will want to pull back up, so it can be a real challenge! Try to hold it for a couple of seconds, then brings your arms back toward your body before returning to the top of the move. Straight arm scapula strength is vital for helping maintain correct form in other exercises such as deadlifts.
Single Arm Lat Pulldown
One of the best ways to achieve results with muscle development is to take the muscles through their full range of motion from stretch to contraction. While a traditional lat pulldown does provide a nice stretch, it’s only on one plane of movement. You can increase this stretch to include both a side bend and rotation stretch by switching to a single-arm lat pulldown. Rather than sitting face on to the machine, sit side saddle with one knee locked under the pads and opposite hand bracing for stability. Then, using a handle attachment, complete the pulldown, but add a slight rotation away at the bottom for the maximum stretch. It’ll be a challenge, but you’ll feel the difference!
Create a stable shoulder by working on your scapular strength, plus engage your mid and lower traps with a scapular pulldown. For this move, you’ll keep your arms locked out straight and above your head the whole time. Then, counterintuitively, you’ll start with your shoulders in a shrugged position before bringing the bar down slightly by pulling down with your shoulder blades, helped along by the mid and lower traps. The focus on this should be quality reps, whether that’s one or ten.
Banded Lat Pulldown
If you don’t have access to a gym or have limited equipment, you can still build a big, thick, muscular back using just exercise bands. A banded lat pulldown uses a sufficiently sized band to provide the resistance, with mechanics similar to a straight arm lat pulldown that focuses on the adduction function of the lats. This helps to remove your biceps from the equation. Remember to drive your elbows back and down, keeping them tight to your body while keeping your arms straight. If you bend your elbows, you’ll turn the move into a tricep pushdown instead.
Lat Pulldown FAQs
What Does Lat Pulldown Work?
The primary muscles that the lat pulldown works are the Latissimus Dorsi and Teres Major. However, other muscles are also used, including the posterior deltoid, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, and forearms, plus your triceps, rotator cuff, and core.
Do Lat Pulldowns Work Biceps?
While the focus of a lat pulldown is the Latissimus Dorsi, the biceps do some synergistic work in the movement. However, if you want to involve them even more, try using a narrow or medium grip, or an underhand grip, as this will increase the engagement.
How Much Weight For Lat Pulldown?
The ideal amount of weight you use on the lat pulldown machine will depend on your experience and strength. Beginners, on average, start around 84 pounds, with intermediate lifters using 179 pounds and advanced lifters a massive 242 pounds. However, if you need to start lower, that's not a problem. Once you can comfortably do your chosen reps and sets, add a small amount of weight, such as five pounds, gradually building up over time.
Why Are Lat Pulldown Harder Than Pull Up?
A lat pulldown can be more challenging to control because it's an open-chain exercise, meaning the force (the bar) moves, which can be harder to keep steady. However, it's easier to adjust the weight on a lat pulldown, which can make it a better exercise for beginners who are still building sufficient strength in their upper body to perform a pull-up.
Is a Lat Pulldown a Compound Exercise?
Lat pulldown is a compound exercise as it moves at both the shoulder and the elbow joint.
Should Lat Pulldown Touch Chest?
Whether or not your lat pulldown touches your chest will depend on your shoulder mobility. You should stop once you feel an excellent contraction through your lats and a stretch across the pecs, which will generally be either just in front of or touching the chest.
Is Lat Pulldown Machine Good?
The lat pulldown machine is a great piece of equipment in the gym, as it lets you do the lat pulldown, plus a host of variations, including face pulldowns, straight arm pulldowns, S.A.S.S pulldowns, and scapular pulldowns. Plus, you'll have a choice of attachments and hand grips to mix things up.
Alexandra Linde is an experienced writer holding a bachelor's degree in Journalism. She is the owner of Alexandra McKiterick Creative and has expertise in travel, fashion, fitness and lifestyle. Alex has previously written for Flightcenter, Travello, and Backpacker Deals.
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