Your latissimus dorsi — the fancy way to refer to that V-shaped muscle that connects your arms to your midsection — helps you with most big barbell lifts. From the deadlift and overhead squat to even the push-oriented bench press, your lats are always there to assist and stabilize you. But targeting them specifically can be tough (especially if you’re unable to do pull-ups).
Here, you’ll find all the lat pulldown variations you can want to strengthen and grow your back muscles.
Best Lat Pulldown Variations
- Mini Band Lat Pulldown
- Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
- Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Reverse-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Tall-Kneeling Lat Pulldown
- Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown
- Single-Arm Lat Pulldown
- Chest-to-Bar Lat Pulldown
- Tall-Kneeling Dual Cable Lat Pulldown
- Crossover Lat Pulldown
If you’re just returning to the gym after a break or coming back after surgery or an injury, you may be cleared for overhead work — but perhaps a little tentative about getting started. The mini band lat pulldown is a great starting point for folks looking to build confidence in the overhead movement that the lat pulldown requires.
By looping your wrists into a mini band, you’ll start training the overhead stability and mobility you need to effectively perform a lat pulldown. As you get more experienced, this reaching exercise can help you warm-up for everything from other lat pulldown variations to pull-ups and chin-ups.
Benefits of the Mini Band Lat Pulldown
- Moving through the motion of the lat pulldown with just a mini band connecting your arms will help train the proper range of motion for the move.
- This is a great way to practice the movement you need for the lat pulldown without the added pressure of external weight.
- The slight pressure from the mini band will make you focus on pulling your arms away from each other as you raise your arms up and down. This will teach you to engage your back rather than yanking with your arms during the pulldown.
How to Do the Mini Band Lat Pulldown
Loop a mini band around your wrists. Place your palms facing each other. Bend your elbows so that your hands are at eye level. With slow control, reach your arms up until you reach full extension above your head. Slowly lower your arms back to the starting position. Throughout the movement, press out against the inward pull of the mini band.
Doing resistance band lat pulldowns will give you the same accommodating resistance of cables. Unlike dumbbells or barbells, the tension will remain equal throughout your range of motion with bands and cable. This means you’ll have more time under tension, increasing your workload and muscle-building potential.
Benefits of the Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
- Performing lat pulldowns with a resistance band allows you to move through the same movement pattern as the original exercise, but without all the equipment.
- You can perform this movement anywhere you can bring a resistance band and secure it to a high base.
- The resistance band lat pulldown can be performed in the kneeling position, which can provide a lot of additional core stability benefits.
How to Do the Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
Secure a resistance band to a high anchor, such as a pull-up bar or snugly over the top of a closed door. If the anchor is high enough, you can perform this standing. If not, place a pad down and kneel on it. Keep your core tight.
With your hands spread on different ends of the resistance band’s bottom loop, let the band pull your arms up above your head. When ready, initiate the pull by trying to put your elbows into your back pockets. When the bottom of the band has reached chin level, let the band rise back in a controlled ascent. Repeat for reps.
You’ll increase your strength at your end ranges of motion with your hands spread far apart. This is particularly beneficial for lifters who are trying to get comfortable with exercises like overhead squats and snatches, which involve a wide snatch grip.
Benefits of the Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
- This variation helps you build a wider back, since it gives particular attention to your upper lats.
- The wide-grip lat pulldown is useful for athletes trying to develop comfort with exercises requiring a wider grip, like snatch-grip deadlifts and overhead squats.
- This move will challenge your shoulder mobility and can increase it if you practice it enough — just keep the weights a bit lower than normal.
How to Do the Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown
Adjust up the lat pulldown machine such that you can sit in the seat with your feet comfortably touching the floor. If it has a thigh pad, raise it as high as you need to in order to comfortably tuck your thighs under it when you sit down.
Stand up partially to reach the bar, taking a wide grip so that your arms form a Y shape with your body. If your shoulders aren’t particularly mobile, this grip should be only slightly wider than your usual grip — you can increase the width gradually as you improve your shoulder mobility.
Pull down with your elbows coming slightly toward your torso until the bar reaches your chin. Let the bar raise back up with control until you reach near full extension. Repeat for reps.
For this move, you’ll be ditching the straight bar to achieve a more natural hand positioning. You can use a V-handle to perform the lat pulldown with a neutral grip.
If you struggle with shoulder mobility, a neutral grip may be especially helpful for you. Gripping the bar like this doesn’t force you into such a stiff, slightly unnatural configuration. Your shoulders will have a bit more freedom to breathe here.
Benefits of the Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
- Keeping your hands relatively close together and in a neutral grip will help you maximize your rhomboid and trap recruitment as an added bonus.
- The neutral-grip lat pulldown is a helpful option for athletes who struggle with shoulder mobility.
- By using a V-handle, you’ll be able to keep your elbows closer to your body, which can help you start learning chin-up form.
How to Do the Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
Attach a V-handle instead of a straight bar to the cable machine’s pulley. Set up as you would for any lat pulldown, but your palms will be facing each other when you grip the V-handle. As you pull the bar down to slightly below your chin, you’ll keep your elbows tucked in closer than you normally would.
If you need to lean back slightly to accommodate the V-handle and/or your elbows, you can do so. Just keep your core tight and your back neutral.
The reverse-grip lat pulldown might have you feeling more of a burn in your forearms than the usual variation. By facing your palms toward you instead of away from you, you’re going to contract your forearms even more than usual with this move.
Some athletes find this move easier to pull more weight than in the traditional (palms facing away) orientation. Others find that their forearms become a limiting factor too quickly. Experiment with what feels best for you — and maybe use it to give your forearms some extra love on back day.
Benefits of the Reverse-Grip Lat Pulldown
- This move will place more emphasis on your forearms, which can give you a nice pump if that’s what you’re looking for.
- Some lifters find that they can move more weight with this variation — just make sure you’re keeping the emphasis on your lats.
- Your grip will likely be closer than normal for this move, so it may feel more natural for your shoulders.
How to Do the Reverse-Grip Lat Pulldown
Get set up as you normally would for your lat pulldown. Instead of taking an overhand grip with your palms facing away from you, grip the bar with your palms facing you. To accomplish this comfortably, you may have to take a closer grip than usual. Keep your elbows tucked accordingly as you pull down. Stop when the bar just barely clears your chin and let it rise back up with control. Repeat for reps.
In this variation, you’ll be building your core stability and overall full-body coordination. Since you won’t be sitting, you’re increasing the challenge to your entire body to keep yourself from tipping over.
Since balance plays a big role in tall-kneeling lat pulldowns, this variation also comes with a built-in form check. While it’s okay to lean back a bit with lat pulldowns, you don’t want to turn it into a more horizontal pull. Performing this move from your knees can help you automatically course correct if you start leaning back too much because doing so will cause you to lose balance.
Benefits of the Tall-Kneeling Lat Pulldown
- By kneeling during the lat pulldown, you’ll be challenging your sense of balance and coordination throughout your body.
- This move increases your core involvement in the move, since you’ll have to keep your core extremely engaged to maintain your position.
- Since you won’t have the seat to support you, you may topple over if you lean back too far during this lift. In that way, it will automatically correct your form if you’re leaning too much.
How to Do the Tall-Kneeling Lat Pulldown
Place a pad or mat on the ground just in front of the cable machine, underneath the pulley. Grab the bar and assume a tall-kneeling position. Let your arms settle above you fully extended. Move through your lat pulldowns as normal, moving extra slowly to help you maintain balance.
The straight-arm lat pulldown doesn’t look like your traditional variations because it requires that you keep — perhaps unsurprisingly — straight arms. Instead of bending at your elbows, you’ll maintain your arm length throughout the lift.
To do this, you’ll stand a bit further back from the pulley, enough so that the cable is just beginning to pull you forward at chest height. Don’t feel the need to establish full tension, though — you’ll be doing that when you bring your arms down toward your waist.
Benefits of the Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown
- By performing lat pulldowns with straight arms, you’ll be increasing the involvement of your lower lats.
- When you’re looking to use lighter weight but really refine your form, this exercise is an excellent way to teach movement integrity.
- You’ll increase your core engagement with this version of the lift.
How to Do the Straight-Arm Lat Pulldown
Stand a few feet in front of the pulley with the bar in your hands. The starting position will be with your arms extended out in front of you with the bar just above chest height. Experiment as needed to find a position where you can achieve tension in this starting position. While keeping your arms straight, sweep them down and back until your hands are by the sides of your hips. Raise the bar slowly. Repeat for reps with a soft bend in your elbows if needed.
This one is pretty straightforward — you’ll be performing a lat pulldown with just one arm at a time. This move is an excellent way to even out any strength and muscle imbalances you might have between sides.
You’ll also develop a lot more core strength here, since you’ll have to keep your torso from shifting from side-to-side during the pulls. Use a weight that will challenge your stronger side but is still manageable — with great form — for your weaker side.
Benefits of the Single-Arm Lat Pulldown
- By training unilaterally, you’ll combat strength and muscle imbalances.
- This move gives you a freer angle of motion, allowing you to accommodate your desired angles of pull more specifically than working with a bar.
- The single-arm lat pulldown will help you get in high-quality, high-rep work.
How to Do the Single-Arm Lat Pulldown
Swap out the bar with a D-handle or similar attachment. Set up as you would for a normal lat pulldown. (You can also perform this move in the tall-kneeling position.) Perform a pulldown with one arm. If desired, you can begin the pull with your hand in a neutral position and end with your palm facing your body. Complete all of your reps on one side before switching to the other.
Traditional lat pulldowns come down to about your chin or just below. This variation will instead take the bar — you guessed it — all the way down to your chest.
To do this, you’ll use a slightly more intensive lean back than you might usually deploy. That said, make sure you’re not turning it into a horizontal pull. You’ll also want to be sure your wrists are remaining neutral at all times, including at the bottom of the pull.
Benefits of the Chest-to-Bar Lat Pulldown
- This variation increases the range of motion of a normal lat pulldown, which is often a recipe for increased muscle growth potential.
- You can use this move to help prepare you for the increased range of motion involved in a chest-to-bar pull-up.
- Practicing this move can also help get you more confident in preparing for muscle-ups and other advanced pull-up bar work.
How to Do the Chest-to-Bar Lat Pulldown
Set up and perform your lat pulldown as normal. Instead of finishing the pull with the bar at the level of your chin, continue your pull down to your chest. This might require a larger backward lean than normal to accommodate your face. Be sure to keep a neutral chin, and avoid leaning all the way back.
This way, you’ll be able to keep your body’s movement symmetrical — therefore potentially lifting more weight — while still training unilaterally. This will quickly expose any side-to-side imbalances when one side starts to fatigue or lag behind the other in terms of form breakdown.
Benefits of the Tall-Kneeling Dual Cable Lat Pulldown
- Since both sides will be moving independently but simultaneously, this move can expose side-to-side imbalances fairly quickly.
- You’ll be able to combat side-to-side imbalances better with this variation than you will with a bar — much like dumbbell versus barbell work.
- Since you’ll be in the tall-kneeling position, you’ll require a lot more core strength and overall balance to perform this properly.
How to Do the Tall-Kneeling Dual Cable Lat Pulldown
Attach a D-handle to the pulley on both sides of the cable machine, with the anchor set on one of the higher settings. (The exact setting will depend on your height and limb length.) Grab the left D-handle with your left hand and the right D-handle with your right hand. Assume a tall-kneeling position in the middle of the cable stack machine, equidistant between both anchors.
Extend your arms out and up so that your arms form a Y shape above your head. Use your lats to initiate the pull, driving your elbows toward your back pockets until your hands reach just outside your shoulders. Slowly extend back out to full extension. Repeat for reps.
You probably know the traditional cable crossover for your chest and are likely even familiar with the reverse cable crossover for your back. But have you met the crossover cousin for the lat pulldown?
This move will have you performing the beginning of a reverse cable crossover. At the end of the move, instead of keeping your elbows locked at neutral, you’ll pull the D-handles back with a regular, row-like bend of your elbows. You’ll get a nice stretch across your muscles in the beginning of each rep and end each one with a solid pull.
Benefits of the Crossover Lat Pulldown
- This move will give you a good cross-body stretch in your back at the top of each rep, allowing you to fully activate and engage your lats.
- You’ll develop increased coordination and proprioception during this exercise, which requires you to move a lot differently than others.
- The crossover lat pulldown ends with a pull that resembles a row and doesn’t require you to reach all the way overhead. That might be a little more shoulder friendly for folks who have difficulty with overhead exercises.
How to Do the Crossover Lat Pulldown
Set up the pulleys as you would for the dual cable lat pulldown. Instead of grasping the handles in a traditional way, grab the left D-handle with your right hand and the right D-handle with your left hand. Back up until you’re standing in the center of the cable machine, far back enough to start feeling the tension and stretch from the cables. Your arms will be in an X shape in front of you.
With soft elbows, pull your arms out and down to the sides like you’re ripping the X apart. When your hands uncross, convert the reverse flye motion into a row. Pull back with your elbows until your hands are at the sides of your chest. Reverse the motion slowly. Repeat for reps, alternating which arm is on top between each set.
Muscles Worked by the Lat Pulldown
It isn’t too big of a surprise that the primary mover of the lat pulldown is, well, the lats. But there’s more to the story than that.
Spoiler alert: your lats come out to play, big time, when you perform lat pulldowns. Wide-grip lat pulldowns will help work your upper lats, or the top of that V shape that the muscle takes along your upper back.
And if you’re looking to build that flare in your lower lats, go for the straight-arm version. Just make sure to move slowly and deliberately, not using more weight than you can handle with control.
Neutral-grip lat pulldowns will activate your traps quite a lot, though this hefty muscle at the base of your neck and the top part of your back will benefit from all variations to some extent. They won’t be the primary mover — that’s the lats — but they’ll benefit secondarily nonetheless.
Your rear delts help pull your arms back and down. Being that these are lat pulldowns, that downward motion is key to the whole process.
This often overlooked muscle helps support scapular — shoulder — movement. If you’re performing lat pulldowns with a full range of motion, you’ll be hitting these muscles pretty effectively. Neutral-grip lat pulldowns will be extra helpful here.
But close-grip lat pulldowns will fire up your biceps as assistance muscles, especially when your back starts to get fatigued.
Since all lat pulldown variations require you to hold a load with curled fingers, you’ll be using your forearms to support the lift. Your forearms will be especially taxed by the reverse-grip variation. You’ll also have to work extra hard during the chest-to-bar lat pulldown to keep your wrists straight.
Lat Pulldown Form Tips
The lat pulldown isn’t quite as complicated as other pulling moves you’ll see. But still, it’s not uncommon to see some pretty wild form with this move. Read on if you don’t want to be that human in your gym performing a lat pulldown while leaning so far back you’re basically horizontal.
Watch Your Lean
Contrary to the extensive lean back you may see in a commercial gym, you don’t want to lean all the way back with your lat pulldowns. A little bit of a backward tilt can help you get the most out of each rep. But if you’re tilting your torso all the way back, you’re probably using way too much weight.
To make the most out of your lat pulldowns, use just enough of a subtle tilt backward to coax the bar into its final position by your chin or chest. This will help ensure that the pull is coming from your lat strength, not momentum.
Not all leaning is bad, though. If your form is generally locked in and you’ve got some experience under your belt, you might opt to cheat on those last couple of reps when you’re pushing yourself through failure.
Use a Full Range of Motion
You don’t want to lean too far back, but you do want to maximize your range of motion. This mainly applies at the top of your lift. Let your arms come as far into full extension as they can, letting the cable pull back up slightly at the top of each rep.
This will give your muscles a stretch on top — almost like a dead hang in a pull-up — and ensure that each rep is starting as cleanly as possible. Taking advantage of this full range of motion can help strengthen your muscles at those extremes, creating both overhead strength and mobility.
Control the Eccentric
Yes, you want to let the cable pull you into full extension at the end of each rep — but no, you certainly do not want to let it yank you. Make sure you control the ascent after each pulldown. A slow, controlled eccentric portion of the lift will not only help keep your joints safe — it will also help you maximize your muscle-building potential.
How to Program Lat Pulldowns
Lat pulldowns aren’t likely to be your biggest players on the strength-building team, but they’re a fabulous accessory move for developing back size and strength. Different variations — think the single-arm and dual cable versions — are also helpful for developing unilateral strength and overhead stability.
- For Strength: Perform three sets of eight heavy but controlled reps.
- For Muscle Mass: With a moderately heavy weight, perform as many reps as possible. Once you hit failure, drop the weight by 10 pounds and work to failure again. Perform two more drop sets to failure.
- For Endurance: Do four sets of 15 reps with very slow eccentrics.
Consider using the mini band or resistance band variations as part of your warm-up. In that case, you might opt for higher rep schemes, ranging from 15 to 20 reps per set for two sets.
Pull it Down
If you want a bigger back, you’ve got to emphasize the biggest muscle of your back. You might be going for aesthetics — X-frame, anyone? — or you might be trying to improve your deadlift or build your way up to your first pull-up. Whatever your goals, there’s a lat pulldown variation out there just waiting to be performed. Go on. The gains are waiting.
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