Master the Lat Pulldown Exercise for a Strong Back

Walk into any gym around this big, beautiful country and you will see one thing for sure. Someone is most likely doing a version 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 have the correct weight selected on the machine. 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!