Pulling your entire bodyweight with just your arms above a bar can be a challenge. A large majority of people may not be able to do it when they have a go at it the first time. Gym workouts, however, tailor your expectations and make you stronger by focusing on other exercises that can help you with the ones you are relatively weaker at.

The lat pulldown is one such exercise that trains you to develop stronger arms and back muscles for you to be able to perform pull-ups better. Performed on a specific machine built for the exercise, it can train all the muscles you can during a pull-up with an easier movement, and not having to pick your own body weight up.

The latissimus dorsi muscles have come to be known as the 'lats', which are the large muscles in your upper back in the shape of a V, which connect your arms to the spine, hence the name: lat pulldown. Mimicking the motion of the pull-up using either grip but while seated and pulling down external weights allows you to build strength towards more intense workouts.

Well-defined back muscles add to the overall posture and appearance of a structured physique. However, like any other exercise, a lat pulldown also must be performed with the right technique and posture to avoid workout injuries.

  1. Benefits of the lat pulldown exercise
  2. How to perform lat pulldown correctly
  3. Types of lat pulldown
  4. Common errors while performing the lat pulldown
  5. Takeaways of the lat pulldown exercise

The lat pulldown exercise targets some of the major muscle groups of the upper body that include:

  • Latissimus dorsi (muscles of the upper back on either side of the spine connecting the arms)
  • Trapezius muscles (muscles behind your neck that control the neck's movement as well as the shoulders)
  • Forearms
  • Upper arm muscles
  • Muscles in the rotator cuff of the shoulders

The cable-operated machine allows the movement with less tension on other parts of the body unlike the pull-ups. It is comparatively easier to execute with the help of the machine and one can be able to see quick results.

Read more: Rotator cuff injuries

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The lat pulldown is a machine-based exercise that focuses its attention on the practitioner's posture and form while developing a range of muscles in the upper body. Here are a few key points about how to perform this exercise.

Muscles worked
Primary

  • Lats (latissimus dorsi muscles)
  • Biceps

Secondary

  • Triceps
  • Forearms
  • Traps
  • Upper chest

Intensity

  • Low (beginner)

Sets and reps

  • 3 sets of 15 reps each

Technique

  • Set the weight according to your strength and the seat according to your height and reach.
  • Grab the bar with a slightly wider grip than shoulder-width, palms facing away from you.
  • Without swinging your body backwards and keeping the back strraight, pull the bar down towards you. Aim to get the bar below your chin level.
  • With the help of your elbows, squeeze down to for your back muscles to feel the tension.
  • Slowly take the bar up back to the starting position. This is one rep.

Tip - Exhale as you pull the weight down and inhale as you return to the starting position. Do not pull with your forearms, instead use them to stabilize the movement.

The cable-operated nature of the lat machine allows you to swap the wide bar for several other attachments that make for interesting variations in pulldown exercises. Here are a few examples:

  • Close-grip lat pulldown: This technique requires you to hold the bar with a reverse or underhand grip (palms facing your side) like you do during a chin-up. The remaining movement remains the same.
  • Wide-grip lat pulldown: This one assumes a wider than the standard lat pulldown.
  • One-arm lat pulldown: In this variation, use a stirrup or a single handed grip in place of wider bars to target one side of your lat muscles. Grasp the stirrup in one hand and complete the repetitions before switching to the other side.
  • Behind the neck lat pulldown: Sit facing away to the machine, hold the bar at its widest and pull it down until it touches your traps (behind your neck).
  • V-grip lat pulldown: Swap the standard lat bar with the V-bar (palms facing each other) and bring it down towards your chest.
  • Rope lat pulldown: Similar to the V-grip lat pulldown, hold the rope with both hands with a neutral grip, and pull it down to your chin-level by stretching the ends of the rope in the outward direction.
  • D-grip lat pulldown: Use the D-grip bar instead of a wide bar, hold from its designated handles and perform the pulldown movement.

While all the variations may seem to be similar in theory, the different positions of the pulling movement employed in each variation attacks the target muscles differently.

The lat pulldown may be one of the most common exercises you'd see people performing in gyms, but equally poorly executed. You may find those struggling to lift heavier or more repetitions twisting and bending their bodies to get additional leverage, which not only does you any good, but also puts you at risk of injuries like a herniated disc, back pain, shoulder dislocation and muscle strain by putting extra pressure in the following ways:

Bending your back: Poor posture stems from bending the back in ungainly ways to get the added lifting movement. Try to keep your back straight and chest slightly out to put the tension on the lats.

Half reps: Beginners do this mistake repeatedly, as it allows them to easily complete the rep without putting much tension on the muscles, but without engaging them fully either. Always try to perform the full range of movement to be able to notice the desired positive effects.

Lifting more than your strength: When you lift more than your strength levels you risk wrong technique coming into play, along with the added risk of injuries. Focusing on correcting the range of movement with lighter weights allows you to perfect your technique and gradually gain strength. 

The lat pulldown is a great exercise to activate the upper back muscles along with multiple muscle groups in the same movement. It also acts as an efficient alternative to the pull-ups, especially for those starting out on their fitness journey.

This exercise, however, requires you to have access to a gym or a fitness centre, although the machine is commonly available at all gyms because of its multiple variations. It is also a versatile exercise that has several variations to target different muscle groups with slightly different movements.

But just like other exercises, you must warm-up before your workout routine, and follow a healthy diet as well as get plenty of rest to be able to see the desired results towards achieving a fitter, healthier body.

References

  1. Doma K. et al Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises. Sports Biomech. 2013 Sep;12(3):302-13. PMID: 24245055
  2. Lusk SJ et al Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jul;24(7):1895-900. PMID: 20543740
  3. Signorile JF. et al A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Nov;16(4):539-46. PMID: 12423182
  4. Snyder BJ. et al Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Nov;23(8):2204-9. PMID: 19826307
  5. Andersen V. et al Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):1135-42. PMID: 24662157
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