Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown is one of the best exercises for your back. It’s also very adaptable. Yet, you need to do it right. Whether you're a complete beginner or more experienced, this guide will help you get the most out of each rep.

Time to master the lat pulldown like a pro. If you want to perform it safely and learn how to maximize your back gains, this guide is your solution. It will also help you perfect your form and program it correctly for your goal and fitness level.

How To Do

  1. Adjust the pad to press against your thighs. This helps keep you stable when pulling the bar. 
  2. Keep your heels off the ground. Stay on your toes to ensure a full range of motion. This helps engage your lats properly for maximum lat gains.
  3. Grip the wide bar with an overhand grip with your elbows underneath your wrists. 
  4. Take a deep breath in and engage your core. Pull the bar to about chin level. Avoid pulling it lower as it may cause your wrists to bend or elbows to flare out.
  5. Keep your torso upright and pull your elbows down. Make sure your torso is stationary with your abs and glutes engaged. 
  6. Stop the downward motion when the bar reaches your upper chest.
  7. At the bottom position, squeeze your shoulder blades slightly together and down while keeping your shoulders square.
  8. Slowly return the bar to the starting position with a controlled movement, using the full range of motion.
  9. Repeat for the desired reps and sets.

Tips From Expert

  • Focus on pulling with the lats, not just the arms, to maximize lat activation.
  • Avoid using momentum or swinging your body to lift the weight; maintain controlled movements throughout.
  • Visualize pulling your elbows down, rather than behind you to engage the lats more effectively.
  • Keep your chest lifted and shoulders relaxed to avoid unnecessary tension in your neck and upper traps.
  • Do not follow the bar back up with your whole body. Instead, stay in the seat at all times.
  • Keep the balls of your feet on the ground for force generation.
  • Avoid bending the wrist or pulling with the wrist. This can lead to overuse injuries and inflammation of the tendon.
  • To avoid overusing your forearms, make sure your wrists are directly under your elbows as you pull. 
  • Don't rush through the exercise; focus on the quality of each rep to maximize muscle engagement and results.

Optimal Sets and Reps

The sets and reps range provided in the chart below are based on training style. Use the chart as a general guide when programming the lat pulldown.

Training Type Sets Reps
Strength Training 3–5 4–6
Hypertrophy 3–4 8–10
Endurance Training 3–4 15–20
Power Training 3–5 1–3

How to Put in Your Workout Split

The lat pulldown is a compound exercise that primarily targets the latissimus dorsi.

This seated exercise allows for focused engagement of your lat muscles. Furthermore, it offers versatility through various grips, such as the wide overhand grip, narrow grip, or neutral grip.

You can incorporate lat pulldowns into your workout splits as follows: 

  • Full-Body — You can add lat pulldowns to your full-body workout, alongside compound exercises like hip thrusts, lunges, or bench presses. Additionally, you can include deadlift variations and isolation exercises like bicep curls and core exercises to finish.
  • Back — Dedicate a day to focus solely on back exercises, including lat pulldowns, pull-ups, rows, and other variations. These target different back muscles.
  • Upper/Lower — Include lat pulldowns in upper-body workouts, alternating with lower-body exercises on separate days.
  • Push/Pull — Pair lat pulldowns with other pulling movements like rows and chin-ups in a pull-focused workout. Program push exercises such as the shoulder press and chest press on another day.

Depending on your training focus, the lat pulldown can be adapted in several ways. To improve strength, aim for heavier weights and lower reps. Use the programming table above as a general guide.

For muscle growth, choose moderate weights and stick to the recommended reps and sets outlined in the chart. You can improve muscular endurance by using lighter weights and higher reps. As for power training, you should focus on explosive movements and longer rest periods. 

Remember to select weights that challenge you while also allowing you to maintain proper form. Adjust the weights according to your strength level, experience, and training goals.

Primary Muscle Groups

Latissimus Dorsi

Large, triangular shaped muscles located just below your shoulder blades. They extend along your spine down to your pelvis.

Latissimus Dorsi

The latissimus dorsi, commonly known as the lats, are large, flat muscles that span the lower to mid-back. The lats are responsible for upper arm movement, particularly in shoulder extension, adduction, and internal rotation.

The lat pulldown exercise primarily targets these muscles by mimicking the motion of a pull-up in a seated position. When performing a lat pulldown, the shoulder blades are drawn down and back. This engages the lats to pull the bar to the chest.

Because of its attachment to your upper arm, the lats can also slightly internally rotate the shoulders. These combined actions effectively stimulate muscle growth and strength in the lats, improving overall back definition and posture.

Secondary Muscle Groups

Upper Trapezius

Triangular shaped muscles located between your neck and shoulder blades.

Middle Trapezius

Muscles located in the middle of your back between your upper and lower traps.

Lower Trapezius

Small, triangular shaped muscles located below your middle traps and between your lats.

Biceps Long Head

Most outside part of your bicep.The front of your upper arm.

Biceps Short Head

Most inside portion of the biceps. Located at the front of your upper arm closest to your chest.

Wrist Flexors

Muscles that span the inside of your lower arm, between your elbow and wrist palm side up.

Wrist Extensors

Muscles that make up the back portion of your lower arm, between your elbow and wrist.

Posterior Deltoid

Muscles located at the back of your shoulder. Helps with posture.

Upper Trapezius

The trapezius is a triangular-shaped muscle divided into three parts: the upper, middle, and lower trapezius. The trapezius muscle originates from the base of the skull and extends down to the shoulder blade and collarbone. 

The upper trapezius is located at the back of the neck and upper back. Its primary functions include scapular elevation, upward rotation, and to some extent, adduction. 

The lat pulldown indirectly targets the upper trapezius by requiring it to assist in stabilizing the shoulder girdle. It also supports the movement of the scapulae as the arms are pulled down. 

During the upward phase of the lat pulldown, your upper trapezius plays a significant role. They help to rotate and elevate your shoulder blades. 

As the shoulder blades are drawn down and back, the upper trapezius contracts to stabilize and control the scapulae. This action helps maintain proper posture and shoulder positioning throughout the exercise.

Middle And Lower Trapezius

The middle portion of the trapezius helps retract (pinch together) the shoulder blades. The lower portion of the trapezius helps pull the shoulder blades down and downwardly rotate it. As these movements are done against resistance, they will strengthen and grow them. 

The trapezius are also responsible for proper shoulder blade positioning and stability.

Posterior Deltoid

The posterior deltoids, or rear deltoids, are one of the three heads of the deltoid muscle. The posterior deltoid is located at the back of the shoulder. The posterior deltoid originates from your shoulder blade and inserts into your upper arm.

It plays a backstage role in stabilizing and supporting movement during the lowering phase. As you pull the bar down towards your chest, the posterior deltoids help extend and stabilize the shoulder joint. This ensures a controlled and safe movement.

Biceps Short Head

During a lat pulldown, both the long and short heads of the biceps play a secondary role in elbow flexion. This is particularly true when pulling the weight down towards the chest. They also contribute to maintaining stability in the movement and the shoulder joint as the weight is lowered. 

However, the engagement of these muscles varies based on grip, technique, and elbow positioning. The short head of the biceps, situated on the inner side of the arm, is more active during close-grip pulldowns. When the elbows are positioned in front of your body, the short head of the biceps is prominently engaged.

Biceps Long Head

The long head of the biceps, located on the outer side of the arm, also aids in elbow flexion. Alongside this, it assists in stabilizing the shoulder joint to maintain proper form during the lat pulldown. 

It is more engaged when the elbow is positioned beside the body. Therefore, elbow positioning significantly affects biceps activation.

Wrist Flexors And Extensors 

The wrist flexors and extensors make up part of your forearms. Your flexors are on the inside while your extensors are on the outside. Both are important for maintaining grip strength and stability throughout the exercise.

When performed correctly, the forearm flexors and extensors actively stabilize the wrist joint. The flexors help maintain a secure grip, while the extensors stabilize the wrists as you return to the starting position. 

Equipment

Lat Pulldown Machine

Lat Bar

Lat Pulldown Machine

This is a great piece of equipment for working your lats and core. Ensure your legs are under the pads.

Lat Bar

This provides a useful cable machine attachment that allows you to work your lats. Ensure you use the right grip width.

Alternatives

Exercises that target the same primary muscle groups and require the different equipment.

Who Should Do? 

Those Who Want To Improve Their Posture

Modern lifestyle issues, such as repetitive work and poor posture, can increase musculoskeletal problems and lead to pain. Exercises that target the shoulder stabilizers can improve shoulder stability, overall posture, and shoulder function.

The latissimus dorsi (lats) are crucial muscles that help stabilize your spine and support shoulder movement. If they become tight, they can contribute to a more rounded shoulder posture. Maintaining proper function and mobility of the lats can help prevent bad posture and muscle imbalances.

Athletes

Strong lats play a crucial role in sports such as climbing, swimming, and kayaking. Each of these involves pulling and pushing motions. They support shoulder joint stability during overhead movements and enhance torso stability. 

This can improve dynamic performance in sports like basketball, tennis, or volleyball. In addition, weightlifters, wrestlers, and Jiu-Jitsu athletes benefit from strong lats as they help maintain posture and leverage. This is essential for executing takedowns and other techniques effectively.

Seniors

Lat pulldowns are a low-impact exercise that can be adapted for various strength and fitness levels, making it suitable for older adults. Incorporating weight lifting can prevent muscle atrophy and enhance bone density. It can also improve overall functionality in daily life. 

This reduces the risk of injuries in everyday movements such as carrying groceries and reaching shelves.

Bodybuilders

Lat pulldowns are favored by bodybuilders because they effectively isolate the back muscles This allows for targeted muscle gain, also known as hypertrophy, without causing excessive fatigue in other muscle groups. This focus on the back helps bodybuilders develop a strong, and well-defined back, which is essential for overall muscle symmetry. 

Who Should Not Do?

Severe Wrist Or Elbow Injuries

Gripping the bar may aggravate conditions like carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. In such cases, take a break and consult with your doctor for exercise recommendations. 

In most cases, you don’t need to avoid exercising completely. Instead, you can use alternative stretches and rehabilitation exercises. Additionally, resistance bands or exercises that are gentler on your grip might be more suitable.

Lower Back Injuries

The lat pulldown involves pulling a weighted bar, which can strain the lower back, particularly if done with an incorrect technique.

If this is a concern, seek guidance from a qualified fitness professional to learn the correct form and technique. Begin with lighter weights and increase gradually under supervision.

If you are pregnant or have any pre-existing medical conditions, consult a healthcare professional before starting a new exercise program. Then, modify exercises based on medical and professional advice and your limitations.

Benefits Of The Lat Pulldown

Better Upper Body And Grip Strength

The lat pulldown is an excellent exercise for building upper body and grip strength. Compound movements that target multiple muscle groups, like the lat pulldown, are highly effective for muscle building. This exercise engages several muscles in the upper body, including the lats, deltoids, biceps, and traps. 

Consequently, it not only builds strength in these muscles but also improves grip endurance. This is due to the sustained hold on the bar during the movement. By incorporating the lat pulldown, you can achieve a well-rounded upper body and improve grip strength. 

Recently, this has been suggested as a good marker of general health.

Better Posture

As we mentioned above, slouched posture is a huge issue in today’s society. Alongside the other back muscles, our lats play a huge role in maintaining good posture. They influence our arm movements and shoulder position in everyday movements and activities. 

Training your lat muscles with lat pulldowns can therefore improve the positioning of your shoulders. This improves our posture, reducing the incidence of pain and injuries.

Highly Adaptable

Performing lat pulldowns allows for different grip variations to target various parts of the back and arms. The adjustable resistance and reps allow for progression and adaptation based on fitness levels and goals. Common variations include the wide grip, narrow grip, and underhand grip variations.

Safe And Low-Impact 

Most gyms offer access to lat pulldown machines. These are generally safe for a wide range of age groups and abilities when performed correctly. They provide a controlled pulling movement that does not require significant balance or coordination.

The seated position and controlled nature of lat pulldowns also make them low-impact. This means that they may be more suitable for individuals coming back to training after prolonged inactivity. This would need to be assessed by a trained healthcare professional first. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Should a lat pulldown touch the chest?

There is no golden rule that the bar must touch the chest during lat pulldown. The most important consideration is whether you can touch the chest with the bar while maintaining proper form.

Should you do a heavy or light lat pulldown?

There are several factors to consider when selecting the appropriate weight for your lat pulldown. Heavy weights can be used to build muscular strength. Lighter weights focus more on muscular endurance. Base this on your training goals.

Should you lean back on lat pulldowns?

In general, it’s recommended to maintain a neutral spine and avoid excessive leaning, especially with the elbows pulled behind you. That’s because this limits stress on your lower back muscles.

How wide should the grip be on a lat pulldown?

You can change your grip width according to your training goals and target muscles. A wider grip will emphasize the outer portion of the lats, developing width in the upper back. Use a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip to start.

Resources

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  5. Adel Elzanie and Varacallo, M. (2024). Anatomy, Shoulder and Upper Limb, Deltoid Muscle. [online] Nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537056/.
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