A staple in most gym-goers’ workouts, male or female, the lat pulldown is the go-to back exercise to work the lats. The latissimus dorsi can be considered the “wings” of the back since they stretch to the sides behind the arms.
The lat pulldown is most commonly used to increase the size of those “wings”. In other words, increase back width. As a result, you improve the V-shape of your body.
But that’s not all.
The trapezius (traps), rhomboids, and posterior deltoids (rear delts) are the supporting muscles in this exercise. All of which are necessary to have a great V taper.
In this guide, I’ll teach you how to master the lat pulldown machine to get the best possible results.
The Cheat Sheet
Before you master the lat pulldown machine, you first need to master the standard lat pulldown. Here’s the cheat sheet.
Activate your core
Have you ever seen a person using the lat pulldown machine and wondered, “Why are they leaning so far back?” You didn’t? Well, now you should. Leaning beyond 45 degrees from upright means one of two things.
1. You’re yanking the bar towards you.
2. You think you’re doing it right without realizing your mistake.
Both lead to reduced activation of the upper back and lats. In short, it’s inefficient, and you may look like a flopping fish while doing it.
Activate your core/ tense your abs. This gives stability when keeping that slight upright position, therefore, making it less likely that you cheat the exercise.
Keep the chest up and out
Having the chest up and out during the movement allows for better contraction of the upper back and lats. Retracted shoulders are what cause this Try this right now. Stand upright, take a deep breath, and push your chest up and out. You’ll notice your shoulders retract and your upper back tense up.
Squeeze your shoulder blades together
The natural movement of the lat pulldown brings the shoulder blades closer together as you come down but if you want the most activation of the upper back, you’ve got to squeeze the the shoulder blades together. Pause at the bottom for a second or two to really feel the burn.
Do enough repetitions and do them with intensity
If you want a thicker, wider back, you need to be doing enough repetitions each set. A moderate rep range would be 8 – 12 reps. It’s also important that those last few reps are difficult and make you really give it your all.
Adjust the knee support properly
An incorrectly adjusted knee support is not only uncomfortable but it reduces your maximum potential strength on the lat pulldown. You want to make sure that when your knees are under the support, they have minimum space to move.
Bro tip: It’s practically necessary to have the support set properly when lifting your body weight or more. Trust me, you’ll thank me later!
Improve grip strength
This is an issue that becomes more and more obvious when you lift heavier. You’ll notice that your grip gives out before your back muscles do. Leaving you with plenty in the tank but no way to use it up.
If you have this issue or want to prevent it from arising, make sure you’re training your forearms enough and giving them enough time for recovery. You want to avoid doing any back or bicep exercises 2 days straight.
In the meantime, if your grip gives out, you can lower the weight and empty your tank using drop sets or supersets.
A Quick How To
Movements are best learnt by watching others and practising so here’s a short clip of the lat pulldown followed by quick notes.
Concentric phase (pulldown)
- Overhand grip the bar just outside shoulder width
- Place your thumb overhand with your fingers.
- Pulldown the bar in a straight line, towards your chest.
- The bar should get down to around shoulder level.
Eccentric phase (back to neutral)
- Controlled return back to neutral – avoid using momentum.
Bro tip: When you’re close to neutral, further stretch out your lats for more tension.
Maximizing Muscle Growth
Volume matters – You need to be doing enough sets and reps in your workouts to increase hypertrophy. As stated in this scientific literature, “increases in muscle hypertrophy follow a dose–response relationship, with increasingly greater gains achieved with higher training volumes. Thus, those seeking to maximize muscular growth need to allot a greater amount of weekly time to achieve this goal”
Intensity matters – Because you do more reps and sets doesn’t always mean you’re getting the hypertrophy you want. In fact, we have a term for this inefficiency – Junk volume. Rather than counting the reps, make the reps count. Focus on the mind-muscle connection, pause at the bottom of each rep and slowly bring the weight back up.
Slow eccentric – Many studies suggest that in the second half of an exercise (i.e. when bringing the weight back to neutral), hypertrophy is greater than in the first half of the movement. To take advantage of this, control the weight as you bring it back to neutral rather than letting momentum do it for you
While lat pulldown is a great exercise for the latissimus dorsi and infraspinatus (another important muscle on the back), there are other muscles just as important for getting a thick and wide back.
Your back day will consist of some sort of pulldown movement and rowing movement.
(It may also contain the reverse fly for extra focus on the rear delts)
Ideally, you want to do the lat pulldown earlier in your workout along with a rowing movement. This is because compound movements such as the lat pulldown are intense, therefore are better to do when you have the most fuel in the tank.
Doing a rowing movement with a pronated grip is one of the ways you can hit the upper back muscles. For example, The seated T bar row is one way of hitting the rhomboids, trapezius and posterior deltoids hard earlier in a workout.
(It’s my way actually. I then follow up with the lat pulldown to exhaust my lats.)
The 5 Best Lat Pulldown Variations
Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
The further your hands are apart, the more tension you put on the traps, rhomboids, and rear deltoids. The purpose of the wide-grip lat pulldown is to promote the thickness of the back by shifting some of the tension from the lats (traditional lat pulldown) to the upper back muscles.
You’ll find that some lat pulldown bars have grips on their ends (some don’t). The point is to perform the lat pulldown by grasping the bar close to the edge. Squeeze the shoulder blades at the bottom of each repetition and you’ll feel that tension on the upper back right away.
V bar Lat pulldown
Going in the opposite direction to the wide grip stance, we have the V bar lat pulldown. Using the V bar you put most of the tension on the lats. This is because your elbows are stuck to your side. As a result, this exercise focuses on back width.
The further your elbows are from your side, the more tension shifts to the upper back muscles such as the traps and rear delts. The closer your elbows are to your side, the more tension is on your lats.
Multi-grip Lat Pulldown
The multi-grip bar is used not only for lat pulldown but also for seated rows. On the odd occasion, you may even have to use it as a straight bar alternative if someone else is using it (it’s not a pretty sight using this thing for straight bar cable curls).
For lat pulldown, We’ll grip the handles on the sides. The movement itself is similar to the traditional lat pulldown but you’ll get a more natural hand position. Most tension will be on the lats however expect your upper back to also be engaged similarly to a traditional lat pulldown.
Single Arm Lat Pulldown
Using a single-handle attachment, you can isolate the lats and focus on the contraction and stretch. contracting hard when you come down and stretch as you come back up. An isolation exercise like this is better for improving your mind-muscle connection to your lats.
Also, depending on the angle your elbow is from your side, you can choose to put more tension on the upper back muscles such as the traps, rear delts and rhomboids. This will lead to a balance of activation of the upper back muscles and the lats.
Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown
If the traditional lat pulldown is a pull-up alternative, then the reverse grip lat pulldown is the chin-up alternative. You’ll find greater tension in the lats, the lower lats, as well as the biceps and forearms. The lower lats are muscles which are hard to hit, making this exercise specifically good for improving the V shape of the back. With good form, a controlled range of motion and a strong mind-muscle connection, this exercise produces a serious pump.
Advice From A Gym Bro
You can’t go wrong with the lat pulldown. It’s the alternative for the pull-up. Whether you’re working up to the pull-up or progressing with a load above your body weight. The lat pulldown covers both sides of the spectrum for progressive overload.
I’ve trained with the lat pulldown consistently for 4 out of 5 years of my experience in the gym. I still use it here and there because of how efficient it is (it also feels great to do).
It’s important to have at least one pulldown movement in your back workouts and in my opinion the lat pulldown is the best one.
Before you get fancy with variations, master the lat pulldown. Maybe you’ll even come to enjoy it like I do.
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