Nowadays it’s not uncommon to hear that using weight machines in the gym isn’t functional and can cause muscle imbalances. While I agree that most machines do little to help you train in proper movement and strengthen the small stabilizing muscles, there are some that still have their place in a well-rounded training program. One such machine is the cable or “lat” pulldown.
Since it is technically a machine, I feel it just doesn’t get the love it deserves. Pull-ups and chin-ups still reign supreme for strength but are very difficult to do well and might not be in the cards for most people. When performed properly, lat pulldowns can be extremely beneficial to build upper body strength, mass, and keep your shoulders healthy.
Vertical pulling exercises such as the lat pulldown primarily target the latissimus dorsi or ‘lats’ muscles but also hit the lower and middle trapezius, the rhomboids, and the serratus anterior. The largest of these muscles, the lats, originate at your thoracic and lumbar spine spanning most of your back and insert all the way on your humerus.
Besides allowing the motion for pull-ups, the lat muscles also act as very powerful spinal stabilizers for posture during exercises such as squats and deadlifts, as well as other athletic movement. Needless to say, having a strong back is key to overall strength and fitness.
Good technique hard to picture? Take a look at this video for some pointers:
Pulling the bar behind your neck – I’m not quite sure where this originated but behind the neck pulldowns should be avoided at all costs. You are essentially shortening the range of motion of your lats and missing the important part of the exercise.
Pulling down below your chest and letting the elbows point backwards – This not only disengages your lats but will cause your shoulder to come forward which is known as anterior glide. If you have cranky shoulders this may cause some irritation and lingering pain to emerge.
Using body English or momentum – This will change the angle you are pulling to and cause it to become more of a mid back exercise rather than lat pulldown. If you need momentum to pull the bar down chances are you are using too much weight.
Go too wide – There is also no need to go too wide as this can also shorten the range of motion and for those with cranky shoulders this is a surefire way to irritate the joint. Again, I recommend grabbing the bar above or just outside your shoulders, which is typically where the bar bends.
Want to make sure you’re not using bad technique and asking for an injury? See this video:
For those who have already done significant damage to their shoulders over the years and find that pull-ups or lat pulldowns still cause pain and inflammation there are certainly other options. With the help of a cable column or functional trainer you are able to do a more joint-friendly variation by allowing your shoulder to move more freely. It also comes in handy when there is a line at the only lat pulldown machine in the gym.
The half-kneeling one-arm lat pulldown is an exercise I use quite frequently with my clients as it not only targets the lats but becomes a great core exercise as well. By putting yourself in the half kneeling stance and pulling, you must brace your abs to prevent your back from arching and losing proper positioning in your shoulder joint.
For reference on motion and technique, check out this video of the half-kneeling, one arm lat exercise: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woPvAfvBBi8
I hope this helps you improve your lat pulldown technique and choose the best variation to keep your shoulders healthy! Go ahead and them a try and let me know what you think!