Lat Pull Down: Building Back Strength
If you want to build back strength, development, or lose weight, make sure you include the lat pull down as part of your workout plan. This exercise targets the latissimus dorsi, teres major, and biceps. Since it’s a compound exercise and also uses large muscle groups, it fits into any workout plan. This means it doesn’t matter if you’re trying to put on muscle, lose weight, or just get healthy. A pulldown is good for all your goals. Plus, it can help you advance to doing a pull-up, an excellent total body, bodyweight exercise. In fact, pairing a good pulldown with a forearm plank and ab crunches to activate your course muscles is one of the best ways to learn how to do a pullup.
To do a proper lat pulldown, it’s good to know upper body mechanics to engage the right muscle group at the right time. Too often, people will perform this exercise incorrectly. So, to get the most back strength out of your lat pull down, here you’ll learn:
- Joint motion and muscle activation
- Correct lat pull form
- Mistakes to avoid during a pulldown exercise
- Grip differences and how to choose
- Variations other than the lat pulldown machine
Joint Motion And Muscle Activation
Like a cable row, the lat pulldown sees motions at the shoulder and elbow joint. Remember, there are three phases to any exercise. These phases include:
- Eccentric phase, where the primary muscle group is lengthening
- Isometric phase, where there is no visible movement in the muscles
- Concentric phase, where the primary muscle group is shortening
When learning these phases, most people think about the eccentric motion as the descent part of the exercise. In most cases, this is correct. However, the eccentric phase of a lat pull down occurs as you extend your arm muscles back up over your head. As seen when the weight lowers back to starting position. We’ll address the concentric phase at each joint since this is the part of the exercise most people think of.
Mechanics Of The Shoulder
As you lower the lat bar toward your chest, the shoulder will go into shoulder adduction, horizontal adduction, and extension. At the same time, the shoulder blade will retract and rotate downward. The primary muscle, then, is the latissimus dorsi. The teres major also performs internal rotation and adduction at the shoulder, so it is also a prime mover (agonist). Since the latissimus dorsi is the largest back muscle, it lends to the name of the exercise. The teres major, on the other hand, is substantially smaller and sits near the bottom portion of the shoulder blade.
Other muscles of the back and shoulder jump in and help the agonist. A muscle that assists the prime mover is a synergist. The synergists for a lat pull down are:
- Posterior deltoid. It performs shoulder extension and rotation and lies on the back of the shoulder muscle.
- Lower and portions of the trapezius. This large muscle segments and sits across the back to help pull back and down on the shoulder blade (scapular retraction and scapular depression).
- Rhomboids. A smaller muscle necessary to pull the shoulder blade back.
The muscles of the rotator cuff will stabilize the shoulder and should also be activated in your larger workout plan.
Elbow Joint Muscle Actions
The muscle group at the elbow is far more simple. The elbow will only go into flexion during this exercise. Depending on the grip, however, the elbow (humeroulnar joint) might supine instead of prone (palm facing out rather than in). During your lat pulldown, the biceps brachii is the prime mover, flexing the elbow and pulling the bar down.
Proper Lat Pulldown Technique
There are several variations of the lat pulldown. But, we’ll first address the most common way which is with the lat pulldown machine. This is where you sit and grab an overhead bar. This bar is attached to a cable and uses a pulley to lift the weight plate up. Follow these tips to perform this movement right:
- Sit on the machine with the legs snug against the thigh pads
- Ideally, the knees will naturally flex at 90 degrees and feet will be flat on the floor.
- Grab the overhead lat bar with your palms facing out.
- Your grip should be either shoulder-width apart or slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
- Draw your core muscles in to keep a neutral spine.
- Lean the torso back only slightly so you can pull the bar just in front of your head.
- Using control and during an exhale, pull the bar down as you flex at the elbows and use the shoulders to pull down through each joint motion.
- Continue pulling until you reach your end range of motion where you’ll feel your lats engage and a light stretch through the chest and front of the upper body.
Avoid These Pulldown Mistakes
To get the most from this workout, avoid these common lat pull down mistakes.
- Arching in the lower back: If you activate your core muscles, you can avoid this. If not, you should decrease the weight.
- Swinging too far back: Don’t use momentum to get the weight down. If you need to do this, you’re using less of the latissimus dorsi and more of your own body weight. This means you’ll get more out of your workout if you drop the pounds.
- Elbows winging out or shoulders elevating: If you have a tight chest or you’re trying to pull too hard, you’ll notice your elbow swings out or the shoulder internally rotates. Instead, cut the range of motion shorter.
- Pulling the bar behind your head: Do not do a behind the head lat pulldown. This forces your head to crane forward which isn’t good for posture. Even worse, you put the shoulder ligaments in a vulnerable position. Further, this method doesn’t activate the latissimus dorsi muscles to any noticeable degree.
The most common way to do a lat pull is to have an overhand grip width that is just wider than your shoulders. Some say that grip width makes a big difference in the development of your lat muscle. However, research on grip width shows that a wide grip vs. neutral grip bears no noticeable difference. In fact, a neutral grip (over a wide grip or narrow grip) shows a slight increase in latissimus dorsi activation. Similarly, a supine grip (AKA underhand grip or reverse grip) appears to have less lat activation than the normal grip. Additionally, there is no advantage for the biceps in an underhand grip.
This information is useful since grip variations are a common lat topic. With only slight changes in muscle development, the bottom line is you won’t see any big difference in muscle gain. Therefore, go with the grip of your choice.
Other Exercises For A Lat Workout
There are other ways you can target the muscles used in a lat machine pull. Here’s a list.
- Use an adjustable cable arm machine. This will allow you to do the exercise sitting or standing. You’ll also have the option to alternate arms or perform the pull one arm at a time.
- Resistance band lat pulldown. Resistance bands are good if you want to change because they increase in resistance as you continue to pull. Wrap around an overhead bar or secure above your head ins some way.
- Straight arm lat extension. This will remove the biceps of the upper arm but will still target muscles of the shoulder. Standing (sitting) facing a cable machine, simply place your palms on the bar and push down.
- Pull up. Most people want to advance to this exercise and getting stronger at a lat pull down will help.
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