Build Bullet Proof Lats With Straight Arm Pushdowns

Do you use this lat exercise in your program?

If you read my last article, you know already have a feel for what this article is about: “fluffy” bodybuilding isolation movements that can actually have a lot of benefits for strength athletes. Last time, I explained how modern sports are all about specialization (heck, just look at how early parents start their kids playing football to see that). But in the case of the strength athlete, diversification can be very important in helping to overcome plateaus, prevent injury, and ultimately realize one’s potential.

This article, as well as my previous one on the Svend Press, and several to follow, will share some strategies and movements strength athletes can adopt from bodybuilders to improve their training and their performance. Specifically, I want to focus on the lats, and how too many chins, rows, and pulldowns – staples of many lifters I know – can actually be detrimental.

Pulling Problems

Too much pulling can lead to suboptimal performance and health, just like too much pressing. You’ve probably heard the recommendation to perform one set of a pulling motion for every set of pressing you do. But unfortunately, most pulling movements aren’t going to help the smaller supporting muscles that are likely to get aggravated by overuse – in fact, they can put a ton of extra stress on those muscles. 

Here are just a few of the maladies you might run into if you’re doing too many pulldowns or rows:

  • Rotator Cuff Strains: Yup, that blasted rotator cuff is back again.  Remember, it’s a group of muscles that support the shoulder girdle, and the shoulder is involved in both pulling and pressing – so if you’re hammering the upper body, chances are, you’re hammering the rotator cuff, too.

  • Biceps fatigue: Proper pulling motions will limit the involvement of the biceps, but not eliminate it completely.  In fact, I find that I get a better back workout when I begin my sets using very strict form, but cheat a little using my arms towards the end – an example of overload or intensification that you’ve probably used yourself.  Unfortunately, the biceps are much, much smaller than the lats, so by the end of your training session, you might not be getting much stimulation at all for the muscles that you’re actually trying to work.
  • Boredom! This might seem trivial, but I’d argue that boredom might be the most overlooked killer of gains.  Pulldowns and rows are not contested lifts in any strength sport, and there are only so many variations that you can perform before you fall into the “same old, same old” mindset.  

If you suffer from any of these problems, the straight-arm pushdown is definitely a weapon you want to have in your arsenal.

Performing the Straight-arm Pushdown

  • Emphasize the stretch: This is a great warmup movement because of the stretch you can achieve using a pulley or cable machine. At the end of the range of motion, allow your scapula to protract (come forward) and lean away from the weight stack to really stretch out the lats. As you drive the weight down, retract the scapula, bring your chest up, and slightly arch your back to help drive the elbows down.
  • Think pullover, not pushdown: I actually hate the name of this movement, because calling it a pushdown (at least in my mind) encourages involvement of the triceps. In fact, it’s going to feel pretty natural to try to recruit your triceps here, because of the position of your elbows relative to your shoulders. Instead, try moving your hands more in an arc than a straight line, trying to keep them as far away from your body as possible throughout the entire range of motion, just like you would in a dumbbell or machine pullover.
  • Slow it down and stay light: This is not a movement you can load up and go to town on – save that strategy for barbell rows and deadlifts. Instead, you want to keep this movement light and really focus on the tempo: use a strong but controlled concentric and try to lower the weight as slowly as possible. This will help you to keep tight form and really emphasize the stretch as explained in point 1 above.

Again, this movement is very easy to cheat on, so try to avoid that temptation!

Some Sample Back Training With the Straight-Arm Pushdown

Fair warning: back day is my favorite training day, so this one might be a bit brutal! 

And don’t forget, this is just an example program. You need to incorporate it into your training thoughtfully with respect to your body and your goals.

  1. Facing-Away Lat Pulldown. Just warming up here with two very light sets of 20. Make sure to keep your sternum arched, breathe high into your chest, and drive the elbows down as far as you can.
  2. Deadlift. I’m not a fan of high-rep deadlifts used very often, because I think they do have a slightly higher risk of injury than other movements, and deadlifts performed for reps don’t have as much correlation with a possible 1-rep max. However, they can be a nice challenge occasionally, and since we’re training for hypertrophy, I think something like this could be fun:
    • 2×3 with 85% 1RM 
    • Drop the weight about 10% and do one set of max reps
  3. Superset (2 rounds):
    • Straight-Arm Pushdown. Performed exactly as described above, for sets of 12-15 reps.
    • Banded Chin. As many reps as possible on both sets.
  4. Superset (2 rounds):
    • Chest-Supported Row. I generally prefer barbell or T-bar rows, but because we pushed deadlifts, I don’t want to strain the low back.  Sets of 6-8 here.
    • Dumbbell Shrug. These are usually pretty easy, but not after rows! 15-20 reps per set.
  5. Reverse Hyperextension. After a really demanding back session I like to get a little traction, so use fairly loose form here and crank out 3 easy sets of 10.  If you don’t have a reverse hyper, you can use a regular hyperextension machine and do very light sets of 15-20 to get some bloodflow through the lumbar area.

Have your own back training advice for strength athletes?  Share it below!

Feature image from Elite FTS YouTube channel. 

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack

Ben Pollack is a professional powerlifter and holds the all-time world record raw total of 2039 in the 198-pound class. He has won best overall lifter at the largest raw meets in the world, including the US Open, Boss of Bosses, and Reebok Record Breakers.

Ben earned his Ph.D. in the history and management of strength and fitness from the University of Texas at Austin in 2018, and has published articles in a number of scholarly publications, including The Journal of Sport History, The Journal of Sport Management, and Iron Game History: The Journal of Physical Culture. He also coaches strength athletes of all skill levels, including several internationally-elite powerlifters and world record holders. You can contact Ben through his website (phdeadlift.com) or via email at [email protected]

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