Though most traditional bodybuilders stay away from weight machines due to the thought that they can cause muscle imbalances, the lat pulldown is the one machine that most will make an exception for. Basically a substitute for a pull-up or chin-up, the lat pulldown can be extremely helpful in building a strong back – as long as the form and technique is right.
Lat Pulldown Benefits
Lat pulldowns primarily target the latissimus dorsi, also known as the “lat” muscles. Though the lats get the most work during the lat pulldown, the lower and middle trapezius as well as the rhomboids and almost every other muscle in the back gets worked in some way.
The lat muscles act as stabilizer muscles during exercises such as the squat, deadlift and other movements, which makes having a strong back crucial to proper form as well as spinal health.
Use Proper Form
All of the benefits of the lat pulldown become erased when they are done with improper form.
The proper form of the lat pulldown is to:
Keep your chest up and back tall as you bring the bar down to your chest
Keep your elbows pointed straight down
Squeeze from your armpits to engage the lats more
Lower the bar only to your chin or just below
Position your hands just outside your shoulders on the bar
These simple techniques can help you to get the most from you lat pulldown.
Common Form Mistakes
Unfortunately there are a lot of common form techniques that are made during a lat pulldown that erase the effectiveness of the exercise.
Pulling the bar too far down and letting the elbows flare backward
Pulling the bar too low on the chest causes the lat muscle to disengage, essentially stopping them from working hard. When the elbows move from a downward position to pointing backward it causes your shoulders to pitch forward, which can cause shoulder pain and irritation.
Pulling the bar behind the neck
This position completely erases the effectiveness of the lat pulldown for the lats. The behind the neck motion shortens the movement for the lats, which cuts the work they have to do. There is also more risk of injury with this variation.
Using momentum to pull
Using momentum to pull the bar down does not help to build muscle or strength. Be humble enough to know when you are trying to pull too much weight and lighten the weight in order to really put the focus back on the lats. Pulling too heavy of a weight can also cause the biceps to engage more, which then takes away from any lat progress.
Positioning the hands too wide
Too wide of a grip on the lat pulldown machine will cause more shoulder pain than progress. The recommended wide grip is only slightly wider than shoulder width.
Lat Pulldown Variations
Just like pull-ups, lat pulldowns can be done with an underhand or an overhand grip. A variety of bar choices also allow you to hit your lats from several angles.
The standard straight lat pull down bar is the perfect choice for either overhand or underhand pulldowns, with an overhand grip putting more emphasis on the upper lats and an underhand grip placing more of the emphasis on the lower lat muscles. A combination of these two is the best choice when looking to build a strong, thick back.
Another bar that can be used for lat pulldowns is the close grip v-bar. With your palms facing each other in more of a neutral grip you are able to hit the lats from a different angle. With the close grip v-bar you can hit the lower and middle traps as well as the rhomboids and serratus, making this lat pull down variation a great way to hit all of the muscles in your back.
Lat pulldowns are a terrific substitution for those who can’t perform pull-ups or chin-ups. Though lat pulldowns can be helpful in growing back strength and muscle mass, they need to be performed properly in order to see any progress.