Master the Lat Pulldown Exercise for a Strong Back

Walk into any gym around the country and you’ll see one thing for sure. Someone most likely performing a variation of a lat pulldown exercise. The lat pulldown has long been considered a staple multi-joint movement.

Lat Pulldown Exercise Not Only Builds Strength, It Helps Posture Too

Many people sit in front of a computer for hours at a time each day. This can negatively effect the neck and back areas by placing stress on the muscle and connective tissue resulting from a rounded back and forward head. The lat pulldown exercise can help correct this postural issue. A weak, unused, latissimus dorsi muscle, is typically the culprit. This can eventually change by strengthening the back area using different grips and a combination of narrow and wide hand positions during the pulling movement.

Most Effective Way to Perform the Pull Movement

Have you ever thought about what is actually happening during a lat pulldown exercise? We know that it is a compound movement where muscles surrounding the shoulder and elbow joints are actively working. The action of the lat pulldown results in a downward rotation and depression of the scapula, leading to scapula retraction, combined with adduction and extension of the shoulder joint.

The big, and often discussed, question that arises is how to perform the exercise correctly. Meaning, should a front pulldown or rear pulldown be used? The answer is a front pulldown is better and safer to perform than pulling the bar behind the neck. To begin with, pulling the bar down behind the neck can eventually lead to shoulder issues like an impingement. It can also lead to rotator cuff issues, specifically in the subscapularis, one of the four muscles making up this area.

Moreover, best technique includes using an overhand grip. In addition, hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width. A study in the Journal Strength & Conditioning Research determined this was the most effective way to perform the exercise. The study concluded the wide-grip lat pulldown exercise in the front produced greater muscle activity in the latissimus dorsi. Lastly, here’s a great thesis by Gary Pugh while at the University of Florida on front versus rear lat pulldown.

Lat Pulldown Exercise Execution

First, make sure you an appropriate weight selected on the machine. Meaning, you should be able to perform 8-12 repetitions with proper form. If you cannot maintain good form, decrease the amount of weight until you’re in that range. Start by using an overhand grip. Lean back slightly. Engage your back muscles (latissimus dorsi) as you pull the bar down toward your chest. Think about pulling your elbows towards the floor. Visualize the scapula retracting (moving toward each other) as you execute the movement. Exhale as you pull the weight down and inhale on the way back up. Think, “exhale during exertion.” Keep your elbows in close to the body and maintain control as you lift and lower the weight. Engage the core to prevent rocking back and forth.

Primary Muscle Groups Worked

The lat pulldown activates the largest back muscle, the latissimus dorsi, during the movement. In addition, the biceps, posterior deltoid, rhomboid, trapezius and pec major, all come into play. A second study in the J. of Strength & Conditioning Research showed promising results using a front lat pulldown. The study found the pec major had the highest EMG activity during a front versus rear lat pulldown exercise. This study showed external rotation and abduction during a rear pulldown can be an issue for the rotator cuff. The rotator cuff has to work extremely hard to stabilize the head of the humerus in this position. Over time, shoulder pain and injuries like tendinosis can arise.

Adding the front lat pulldown exercise, using an overhand grip with arms slightly wider than the shoulders, will offer the best chance for highest overall muscle activation. Exercise options could include a narrow overhand grip, or a wider underhand grip to place more demand on the biceps while changing up the muscle activation involving the back. Use the award-winning Jefit app to help log and track all the exercises you add with the lat pulldown in your next workout. Stay Strong!

Try the Award-Winning Jefit App

Jefit app was named best app for 2020 and 2021 by PC Magazine, Men’s Health, The Manual and the Greatist. The app comes equipped with a customizable workout planner and training log. The app has ability to track data, offer audio cues, and features to share workouts with friends. Take advantage of Jefit’s exercise database for your strength workouts. Visit our members-only Facebook group. Connect with like-minded people, share tips, and advice to help get closer to reaching your fitness goals. Try one of the new interval-based workouts and add it to your weekly training schedule. Stay strong with Jefit as you live your sustainable fitness lifestyle.

Can Grip & Hand Position Maximize Your Lat Pulldown?

One of the more popular exercises used to develop the back is the lat pulldown. Many gym goers seem to like is the versatility of this compound exercise. It is an exercise that offers multiple grip variations. In addition, most gyms typically have 3-4 attachments that you can switch to. Does it make a difference though how you hold these attachments? Let’s take a deeper look and find out.

Hand Grip & Placement in Lat Pulldown

Overhand Grip

The overhand grip is used most often when performing a lat pulldown. In one study, published in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, the lat pulldown was examined for muscle activation. The study showed a pronated, or overhand grip, demonstrated greater muscle activation. The overhand grip was compared to both supinated (underhand grip) and a neutral grip.

Underhand Grip

When you look at this from a biomechanic standpoint, underhand grip does have its benefits. The underhand grip provides a far superior muscle contraction of the lats at the bottom of the movement. You can also handle more weight using an underhand grip compared to an overhand grip. Finally, the closer your hands are positioned on the bar, the more activation you get in the center of your back.

Wide Grip

Many gym goers believe if you use a wider grip you’ll get wider (“thicker”) lats. Placing your hands wider on the lat pulldown bar, decreases the range of motion in the latissimus dorsi. The best bet is to use a diverging movement pattern machine. Wider hand placement means the range of motion at the shoulder increases. Therefore, the lats work through a greater range of motion. See here in this Jefit Instagram post. The wide grip lat pulldown activates significantly more lats and upper back. This is due to the position of the arms (external rotation).

Narrow Grip

Changing the hand placement to narrow (or a close grip) allows more internal rotation of the arms. The narrow grip shifts some of the load away from the lats and puts it on your chest. Even though a wide grip gets a little more activation of the lats, the narrow grip lat pulldown puts your arms in a stronger position, and you can generally pull more weight.

Research Review on the Topic

A 2010 electromyographic study (EMG) study was published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. The study compared four variations of lat pulldowns. The study used a dozen test subjects who performed all four variations pulling from in front of the head with a predetermined load, about 70 percent of their one repetition max. Muscle response from the latissimus dorsi, middle trapezius and biceps brachii muscle groups were measured during all four lat pulldown variations. The study showed that there was a minor advantage to using a medium grip (i.e. shoulder-width) over narrow and wide grips.

Subsequent Study

A 2009 EMG study looked at the muscular activity difference between a lat pulldown in front of the head versus behind the head as well as a lat pulldown using a ‘V’ bar.  The study used 24 test subjects performing five repetitions at 80 percent of their one rep max. EMG data was recorded from the pectoralis major, posterior deltoid and biceps brachii as well as the latissimus dorsi muscle groups. There was no difference in muscular activity for the latissimus dorsi when comparing the three variations. The study, however, concluded when the primary objective of a lat pulldown is considered, the front of the head is a better choice than behind the head due to shoulder safety issues.

For best results, you can’t go wrong changing up both your grip and hand placement every few training sessions.

Try the Jefit App

Jefit is an award-winning gym workout app that helps all gym goers and athletes keep track of their fitness goals. Not only does it give you the ability to update and share your workout log with the supportive community, it has the largest exercise library that covers weight training, cardio and flexibility.