When you’re looking to build a strong and well-developed back, finely-tuned accessory work can come in handy. The lat pulldown is a compound back exercise that can be a valuable tool for increasing back strength, muscular development, and improving pull up strength.
Because it is an overhead pull — performed with cables or a machine — it gives you a unique opportunity to develop your vertical pulling strength without performing a full pull-up. Even if you can do strict pull-ups, lifters of all levels can benefit from including lat pulldowns into their training program. There’s a pad that will hold your thighs down, teaching you to isolate your back muscles to make sure your upper body is doing all the pulling with no kipping.
This cable exercise isn’t just good for building the ability to do your first pull-up. It will also help you isolate your back for a more muscular, wider back — especially if you use a wide-grip variation.
In this article, you’ll learn all about how to properly perform the lat pulldown. You’ll also learn about the unique benefits of the lat pulldown, which muscles it works, and how you can integrate it into your training program to increase back size and strength.
- How to Do the Lat Pulldown
- Benefits of the Lat Pulldown
- Muscles Worked by the Lat Pulldown
- Who Should Do the Lat Pulldown
- Lat Pulldown Sets and Reps
- Lat Pulldown Variations
- Lat Pulldown Alternatives
How to Do the Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a machine or cable-based exercise that mimics the movement patterning of a pull-up. This makes it a great isolation exercise to increase pull-up strength. Lat pulldowns also isolate your back to increase hypertrophy because your knees are held down by the pad you put your thighs under.
Below is a step-by-step guide on how to perform the lat pulldown. This particular exercise guide will describe the double overhand, medium-width grip.
Step 1 — Grab the Bar and Sit Down
Start by taking a medium-width, double overhead grip on the bar, a few inches outside the shoulders. Make sure that the bar itself is resting in the middle of the palm, not in the fingertips. You can choose a thumbless grip or you can wrap your thumb around the bar.
Sit down, making sure that your arms are fully extended and under load when seated to maximize the stretch on the lats. Your feet should be flat on the floor and your thighs situated snugly underneath the leg anchoring pad.
Coach’s Tip: Think about flaring your lats out as you reach overhead.
Step 2 — Arch Your Back and Pull Straight Down
Sit up as tall as you can, feeling the stretch on the lats and triceps. With your chest up and back arched, pull the bar down to the middle to lower chest (sternum). As you pull down, try to minimize leaning back.
Coach’s Tip: When you pull the bar down to your chest, be sure to not let your shoulders hunch forwards. Instead, drive your shoulders lower towards the floor.
Step 3 — Reach Back Up and Repeat
Once you have touched your sternum, let the arms go back overhead with control. Make sure to feel a big stretch and tension on the lats. Pause in this fully-stretched position, and repeat steps 1-3 for more repetitions.
Coach’s Tip: To maximize the pulldown, think about driving your elbows down towards your back pockets.
Benefits of the Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is an excellent addition to lifters’ programs at any level. Whether you’re trying to do your first pull-up or want to build a wider back, consider adding these to your repertoire.
Build Pull-Up Strength
If you want to get better at pull ups, you need to be doing pull-ups. But if you’re not able to perform one yet — or if you can’t yet perform enough pull-ups to get a high amount of training volume in — you can use the lat pulldown to increase the training volume. You can also use the kinds of heavy loads (eventually approaching your bodyweight) necessary to build a stronger pull-up.
Build a Bigger, Wider Back
If you are looking to increase your back width and size, lat pulldowns can help. You can train the lats directly in very high volumes, with heavy loads, and a variety of grips. Most people cannot perform pull-ups in high enough volumes (3-5 sets of 10-15 reps, or 3-4 sets of 20-30 reps) multiple times a week to stimulate significant muscle growth of the back.
Enter lat pulldowns — lots of lat pulldowns. You can add significant amounts of training volume and muscle without being limited by pull-up or grip strength. Plus, since your legs are anchored down during the move, you’ll be isolating your back muscles for an added pump.
Muscles Worked by the Lat Pulldown
The lat pulldown is a back-specific movement that allows you to isolate the lats to a very high degree. You may also find that pulldowns also train your biceps. However, if this is the case, you may not be engaging your lats properly. Instead, you might be compensating with your biceps and forearms. If this is the case, you need to decrease the load and try using a wider grip or thumbless grip.
The lats, also known as the back muscles, are the primary mover in the lat pulldown. If you also feel biceps, or feel them more than the lats, you are probably pulling too much with the arms. Take a wider grip and be sure to initiate the pull by bringing the shoulders back and down.
The rear delts work to assist the lats in this vertical pulldown movement. Slightly flared elbows and parallel grips also activate the rear delts.
Who Should Do the Lat Pulldown
Lat pulldowns can benefits all lifters, regardless of sport or training level. Whether you’re a strength athlete, CrossFitter, or casual gym-goer, you can benefit from having these cable exercises in your program.
The lat pulldown can be a great back-building exercise for stronger and bigger athletes. If you’re a powerlifter working a lift-based training split, for example, it may not fit into your program to perform high volume pull-ups multiple times a week. You may also not want to produce that much fatigue in the grip and total body.
The lat pulldown lets you train your back from a variety of angles without taxing other muscle groups, the central nervous system, or your grip as pull-ups would.
CrossFit and Fitness Athletes
Lat pulldowns can be a great way to strengthen the back muscles, rear delts, and train the back in higher volumes while avoiding injuries. In sports like CrossFit, ballistic-style pull-ups like kipping pull-ups and muscle-ups are often trained in high volumes under high amounts of fatigue.
If you’d like to avoid that level of fatigue in your program, the lat pulldown can build serious amounts of muscle. Whether you are tired, your grip is shot, or when you cannot perform strict pull-ups properly, lat pulldowns can help increase volume while helping you avoid injury.
The lat pulldown is a great way to build a stronger, more muscular back to improve back, overhead strength, and shoulder health. Often, beginning gym-goers and even more seasoned lifters struggle with performing pull-ups or doing them properly. If this is the case, adding in pulldowns after pull-ups, or also adding them into programs that have assisted pull-up variations are a great way to build pull-up strength and still train the back enough to develop muscle (and minimize injury).
Lat Pulldown Sets and Reps
If you are looking to increase back size and strength, the lat pulldown is one of the best exercises you can do in your training. This machine-based movement allows you to train all rep ranges, and take every set to muscle failure (no failure of the whole body or being limited by other factors).
Below are the two primary sets, reps, and weight (intensity) recommendations for you properly program the lat pulldown.
To Build Muscle Mass
The back muscles grow in response to higher volumes and losing in both the low, moderate, and high rep ranges. For optimal back development, it is recommended that you train the back a few times a week using a variety of rep ranges.
Start by programming three to five sets of 10-15 repetitions with moderate to heavy loads OR two to four sets of 15-25 repetitions with moderate loads to near failure, keeping rest periods of 45-90 seconds.
You can include heavier lat pulldowns on a third training day to have a fully-developed back.
To Increase Strength
The lat pulldown can be done to increase general upper body pulling strength, and further develop the back muscles. Maintain good form and focus on moving the heavy load with the back only, and not the whole body.
Start by programming 3-5 sets of 5-10 repetitions with heavy loading, resting as needed.
Avoid kipping back, yanking with your arms, or using excessive momentum. The goal is to increase back strength, not total body strength.
Lat Pulldown Variations
The lat pulldown done with a regular overhand grip will make you stronger and help grow your back. But if you are looking to truly maximize back development you will want to use some of the variations below to continually progress your training.
Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
The wide grip lat pulldown can help build you a wider back. The width of the grip can vary, but generally it’s wide enough that the biceps are unable to assist as much in the pulldown.
This, in turn, increases the pulling demands on the lats. Additionally, the wider grip can be done to help increase back width.
Underhand Lat Pulldown
The underhand lat pulldown is done by taking an underhand (supinated) grip on the bar, like you would in a chin up. Take an underhand grip at roughly shoulder width. Your shoulders should not round forward as you pull. Keep the elbows close to the sides of your body.
This grip places more stress on the biceps, as well as the lats, and can create overall size and hits the back muscles from a slightly different angle to optimize development.
Parallel Grip Lat Pulldown
The parallel grip lat pulldown has you taking a grip where your palms face one another (neutral grip). The width between the grip can vary depending on the individual or goals.
This grip is helpful if you have shoulder pain in a pulldown or pull up, or if you are looking to optimize back pulldown training with more diversity in the grips to hit the back from different angles.
Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
You usually perform this variation standing. It involves keeping the elbows straight or slightly bent. The movement here is more of an arching pulldown, where the hands push the bar down with straight elbows.
This allows you to truly isolate the lats and take the biceps pulling strength out of the movement. This exercise usually involves higher reps with less weight to maximize muscle contraction and growth.
Lat Pulldown Alternatives
In the event you do not have access to a lat pulldown, you can use some of the alternatives below to train the lats and back directly. If you are performing any of the lat pulldown alternatives below, you may also be able to vary your grips (underhand, wide grip, parallel) depending on the bar or equipment set up.
Strict Pull Up
The strict pull-up is a viable alternative to the lat pulldown. It trains the back muscles in the same movement pattern as the pulldown.
If you find that you cannot accumulate enough repetitions, using good form, to get a significant muscle pump and failure (the back muscles failing, not general strength failure), try the other assisted pull-up variations below.
Band Assisted Pull Up
This is a band-assisted variation of the pull up, which allows you to perform more pull-ups due to the resistance bands aiding in the lifting aspect of the movement.
Machine Assisted Pull Up
The machine assisted pull-up allows you to adjust the level of assistance based on your abilities. Unlike the band-assisted pull-up, it also forces you to maintain a strict position and form, whereas lifters can sometimes use momentum or swing excessively during “strict” or band-assisted pull-ups.
Got more questions about lat pulldowns? Read on to figure out everything you ever wanted to know about this crucial back accessory.
Why should I train lat pulldowns?
If you want a bigger, stronger, and more developed back, lat pulldowns can be great for your training. But building a bigger back via pull-ups isn’t accessible to everyone. Lat pull downs will help if you are at all attempting to increase back size and strength without massive fatigue.
Should you do lat pulldowns if you are good at pull ups?
Lat pulldowns are useful for building a bigger, more developed back. With these, your grip or overall strength and fatigue won’t be a limiting factor. Pull-ups are very demanding on the body. While they are great exercises, lat pulldowns may be better when you’re fatigued.
How low should you pull the bar down to you in the last pulldown?
This can vary based on grip width and the individual. However, pulling the bar down to the upper chest is often a good starting point for very new beginners. Some lifters will pull the bar down to their sternum. This can create an excellent contraction if the shoulders do not round forward during the movement. Conversely, some lifters will pull the bar only to their chin, which allows them to lift more weight but may sacrifice range of motion and a better contraction.
The lat pulldown is a great back isolation exercise to build wider lats and a stronger back. You can perform a wide array of pulldown variations, change grips, and even change angles slightly to customize your back training experience. The lat pulldown can be a beneficial movement for lifters of all levels and a great supplement to pull-ups and other back exercises.
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