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:
Lat Pulldown: Technique Tips
- Keep your chest tall/bring your chest to the bar
- Keep your elbows pointed straight down
- Squeeze your lats/think of pulling from your armpits
- Lower to your chin or just below
- Grab just outside your shoulders or a little wider
- Also try using the ‘V-grip’ handle
Lat Pulldown: Common Technique Errors
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:
Lat Pulldown: Shoulder-Friendly Variation
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
Half-Kneeling Lat Pulldown Variation: Technique Tips
- Half kneeling split stance: in-line, front knee at 90 degrees, on ball of back foot
- Grip with same hand as back leg
- Start thumbs down and finish thumbs up as you pull (this will give you bonus shoulder external rotation to work your rotator cuff)
- Pull from your armpit and stop when your lat is tight
- Your elbow should be pointed straight down at the bottom
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!
This is a great article, Steve. Thanks for sharing and taping the videos. The most common mistake I see is either the swinging of the body aggressively and/or not keeping the torso upright. I like to finish some upper body / back intensive workouts with lat pull-downs, really helps blitz the back.
I have noticed a lot of guys at he gym have the pads near the knees which makes you lean in — not near the hips as in clip which makes for a good straight pull down and gets directly under the pulley
First and foremost, thanks for the article, and I genuinely love builtlean.com. It has inspired me endlessly.
Now, while I think there is room for the lat pull down, especially with beginners trying to build some initial lat strength, I find the statement “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” rather negative, and might give people the excuse to not try. Anyone can train towards doing well executed, full pull ups. I believe this 100%. They are not difficult as a rule. Starting with horizontal pulls is an excellent option, for example. I always recommend something like an elastic band around the knees on a pull-up bar, to lower your weight, while still training the pull-up movement. You loose so much by sitting down. Not just the stabilisers in the shoulder, but a huge amount of excellent core and mid-section training, as well as often overlooked grip and forearm strength. I’ve never met any male who committed to doing pull ups, dropping body fat, and couldn’t do them. And once you’re there, it’s so easy to hold onto pull-up strength! Females can too, it just can take a little more perseverance!
Thanks Johnny for sharing your thoughts and pumped to hear you enjoy the site. I do understand where you are coming from, will hear what Steve has to say as well. We may adjust that sentence.
Johnny – While I don’t disagree that most people can certainly train towards being able to do pull-ups there are still many people that just can’t or shouldn’t. There was a point in my career where I would have agreed with you whole heartedly but I have found many reasons pull-ups may be a contraindicated exercise for some people. Here are a few:
1. Those who lack the mobility to bring their arms overhead into shoulder flexion shouldn’t be doing overhead pulling or pressing for that matter until the lack of mobility is addressed. This may be due to shortened lats as it is which will contribute to a gross extension pattern creating extension (arching) of the low back to get the arms overhead.
2. Those with poor tissue quality in the posterior shoulder capsule may experience anterior glide where the shoulder moves forward in the socket and irritate the joint.
3. Pull-ups can really beat up the elbows due to traction and the required grip strength.
Not everyone will experience the above, it is fairly prevalent in those who spend much of their time sitting and at a desk which may contribute to lack of mobility, overactive lats, etc. For this population I would recommend focusing mainly on horizontal pulling and the shoulder friendly version I show above as it doesn’t place the extreme load on the joints and will still train the lat when executed properly.
Thanks a lot for the explanation, Steve. That’s really helpful.
Again, love the series Stephen!
Hey Kristin, thanks for letting us know about the broken link. This one should work => http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=woPvAfvBBi8. My opinion is a physio ball is definitely a viable option for lat pulldowns and can actually help isolate the lat muscle to a greater degree. Because of the unstable surface, it almost prevents a lot of the cheating that is typically done with the exercises.
Great article, I learned a lot! I do have one quick question: What are some alternatives to the lat pulldown if one does not have access to the machine?
Thanks in advance for your help!
@Michelle – I think assisted pull ups, or using a resistance band with an anchor point above you. For example, if you have an anchor point above a door and kneel down you can mimic a vertical pulling motion. Your question is a very frequent one I get for people completing the BuiltLean Program at home. There are not that many options for vertical pulling. Hope that’s helpful.
Great article! Even though I prefer free weights to machines, I’ve always found the lat pulldown to be the best back exercise. In a full gym, it is much less embarrassing than trying to struggle with a few sets of pull ups 😉
However, now that I only exercise at home, there isn’t much I can do but use the chin up bar. Would setting up some kind of pulley system with parts at the hardware store work as well or as effectively?
I have heard that to be able to do proper pull-ups i.e. pull-ups with perfect form, you must be able to use weight equivalent to or higher (preferably higher) than your own weight on the lat machine?
@Shailesh – I would like to here Steve’s opinion, but I don’t think that’s the case. Cable machines vary a lot in how heavy the weight feels based on a few factors, which include the lever arm at the top of the machine. A pull up is also quite different than a lat pulldown because as you pull yourself up you must stabalize your torso and legs, which is not required on a lat pulldown machine. So in short, I think a lat pulldown and pull up while similar are actually quite different exercises and I think the best way to get good with pull ups is to (1) make sure you are activating your lat muscles and (2) do pull ups. Even if it’s 1 pullup you do 10x, that’s fine.
Really Well Crafted Article, Will surely be a Great help for alot of people struggling with right lat pulldown technique..
I need help i have not worked out in 10 months for working at a shutdown im a welder and i worked out two days ago thinking i could do because i worked out for two years. So i did back and arms and my biceps are killing me what should i do give me advice to get back where i was.
It’s great that you’re getting back into the gym! That being said, any time you take an extended break from working out, you want to make sure to ease back into exercise. The reality is, our strength and endurance decreases pretty quickly when we don’t practice or maintain it. For example, if you don’t workout for two years, you won’t be able to lift as heavy or as much as you used to.
First of all, I recommend performing full body workouts instead of split workouts. This is going to help you build a balanced physique and increase your functional strength. Be sure to include an exercise for each part of your body – for example, squats, push ups, single-arm dumbbell rows, bicycle crunches.
Start with 1-2 sets of each exercise for about 2-3 weeks. When you’re no longer getting sore from 1-2 sets, increase your workout to 2-3 sets.
Err on the side of less weight initially. Lifting too heavy right off the bat can lead to injury, and that’s the last thing you want when you’re just getting back into a routine. Start with a weight that’s doable, but challenges you to complete the last 1-2 reps of each set. Increase the weight when you can easily complete every rep of the workout set.
Since it sounds like you might have over-worked your biceps in your last workout, I would recommend giving your arms a break until the soreness goes away. That means, take a break from any bicep curls or back exercises. In the meantime, focus on leg, chest, and core exercises.
Hope that helps! If you have more questions, feel free to reach out to us at [email protected].
-Kristin, BuiltLean Coach & Managing Editor