How to Do Lat Pulldowns the RIGHT Way

Shoulder pull down machine. Fitness man working out lat pulldown training at gym

When it comes to building your back muscles, there’s perhaps no better accessory exercise than the lat pulldown. This compound exercise is accessible to athletes from all fitness backgrounds and levels. It not only targets the larger muscles in the back and core but the small secondary movers and stabilizers as well.

That is, if you do it the RIGHT way.

Here’s a full guide to doing lat pulldowns properly and how to avoid the most common mistakes.

What is a Lat Pulldown?

The lat pulldown exercise is a compound back exercise often used in bodybuilding and powerlifting training. This accessory exercise is completed on a lat pulldown machine— a specialized cable pulley machine with a bench to sit on. The user sits on the bench facing the machine, grabs the handle overhead, and pulls it down using their back muscles.

This versatile exercise offers several variations for targeted muscle activation in the upper body. As an accessory exercise, you’ll typically complete higher reps with a moderate rate rather than trying to build power through a low rep approach. 

What Muscles do Lat Pulldowns Work?

As a compound exercise, the lat pulldown targets several back muscles as well as a few in the arms and core. There’s a common misconception among beginners that lat pulldowns must be related to lateral raises, but that’s a misnomer. This “lat” refers to the latissimus dorsi, the large muscle in your upper back. Colloquially known as the lats, your latissimus dorsi muscle spans across your middle and lower back and connects to your upper arm. 

The other primary mover in lat pulldowns is your Teres Major. This small muscle also connects the arm to the back and has a synergistic relationship with your lats. In layman’s terms, it helps your lats move your arms.

Lat pulldowns also engage various secondary movers, including the rear delts, trapezius, rhomboid, levator scapulae, biceps, and forearms. Finally, the triceps and rotator cuff muscles kick in as stabilizers. As it hits so many muscle groups, it’s no wonder that this exercise is a strength training favorite.

Benefits of Doing Lat Pulldowns

When looking at how many muscle groups this cable machine workout targets, it should come as no surprise that lat pulldowns offer several benefits. Here are some of the top advantages of adding this back exercise to your training plan.

Aid in Pull-Up Progression

If you dream of doing your first pull-up, there’s no better accessory exercise than the lat pulldown. The pulling motion engages the same muscles as a pull-up and follows the same movement pattern. Adding lat pulldowns to your training regimen will provide the muscle growth and grip strength you need to complete an unassisted pull-up— especially when paired with other progressions. This exercise can also help improve your chin-ups!

Aid in Competitive Lifts

Pulldowns also contribute to the development of other big lifts beyond pull-ups. Building your upper-body strength will contribute to both a bigger bench and a stronger deadlift. The deadlift is another powerful pull exercise that requires these muscles, especially at the top of the pull. Your upper-back muscles provide shoulder stability and protect your joints at the bottom of the movement. Consider these benefits the next time you grab a barbell.

Improves Posture and Spinal Stability

Our modern, sedentary lifestyles are murderous on the neck and back. We tend to be hunched over at a computer all day, which can cause the upper chest muscles to tighten, which can lead to kyphosis in extreme cases. Additionally, as you build muscle on your chest, it’s important to balance your efforts with back strengthening exercises for the same reason. 

As your lats wrap around your back and play a role in shoulder health, adding this movement to your strength training routine can improve your posture and spinal stability. As your chest muscles pull forward, your back muscles will pull back.

Build a Wider Back

There’s no shame in focusing on bodybuilding with the goal of building a great physique. In addition to supplementing your other lifts and playing a functional role, lat pulldowns will help you get a wider back. These are the muscles responsible for width, and lat pulldowns are the way to build them.

How to Do a Lat Pulldown Properly

The key to getting the most out of the lat pulldown is to do them properly. Doing them improperly will limit your results and could lead to an injury. Here’s how to do lat pulldowns the right way.

  1. Grab the pulldown bar with an overhand grip and sit on the bench facing the cable machine. Adjust the thigh pad to rest atop your legs and plant your feet on the floor.
  2. Adjust your hands, so they’re just outside of shoulder-width with a slight bend in your elbows.
  3. Lean back slightly, brace your core, tuck your chin, and roll your shoulder blades back and down. This is your starting position.
  4. Pull your shoulder blades down as you pull the bar toward you, squeezing your upper back muscles and tucking your elbows close to your sides.
  5. Pause when the bar reaches your upper chest, then slowly reverse the motion back to the starting position. That’s one rep.

Before you start your repetitions, test the weight. If you can pull the bar through the entire range of motion to your lap, it’s too light. If you struggle to reach your chest, it’s too heavy.

Common Lat Pulldown Mistakes

While this exercise is simple and intuitive, there are subtle positioning differences that impact your success. Here are some of the most common mistakes people make on the pulldown machine.

Leaning Too Far Back

The most common mistake when doing pulldowns is leaning too far back. You should only be leaning back at a 95-100 degree angle rather than sitting straight up at a 90-degree angle. If you’re fixated on the word “lean,” cue yourself to present your chest instead.

Pulling Down Straight

The bar isn’t meant to go straight down past your chest all the way to your lap; it’s meant to aim for your chest. That means you might have the slightest pull back toward your chest at the bottom— likely an angle that’s undetectable by the human eye. Limit your range of motion and stop when the bar is level with your collar bone.

Relying on Momentum

If you really yank on the bar and let it slam back up, you’re going to be able to complete a lot of repetitions. It’s also going to do nothing for your upper back. Don’t rely on momentum to power the pull; you’re just cheating yourself. Pause at the top and the bottom, resetting your shoulders as needed.

Behind the Neck

Doing pulldowns behind the neck is a controversial topic. However, most physio experts agree that it’s a bad idea. Putting your neck in a prone position takes your spine out of neutrality, making it too easy to hurt your neck and shoulders. While this positioning can better target the latissimus dorsi muscle, it’s not worth the risk.

If you don’t have the luxury of working with a personal trainer while learning this effective back workout, consider recording yourself and reviewing to see if you’re making any of these mistakes. 

When to Add Lat Pulldowns in Your Training

As mentioned previously, lat pulldowns are an accessory exercise. Group them with your back day workouts, opting for 4-6 reps for muscle strength and 8-15 reps for muscle definition. Your last rep should feel challenging like you can’t do anymore. 

Lat Pulldown Alternatives and Variations

There are a few lat pulldown variations and alternatives to try to keep things interesting or improve your focus during strength training. The simplest variation is adjusting your grip for either a close grip or wide grip lat pulldown. Studies show that a close grip improves bicep activation, while a wider grip better targets the lats. 

If you’re a beginner or working out at home, you can also replicate lat pulldowns with a resistance band and PVC pipe. 

The straight arm pulldown is another variation that’s done from a standing position. Some athletes find better muscle activation with this variation.

Did You Know?

The lat pulldown machine is a relatively new invention in the world of exercise, with inventor Roy Simonson submitting the patent in 1995. This equipment was designed to complement chin-up training and support back rehabilitation in athletes.

Final Thoughts

Adding lat pulldowns to your strength training program is an effective way to build your back muscles and support other exercises, like the bench press and pull-ups. Modify this workout by adjusting your grip width and seeing what works best for you. Maintain proper form with a slow and controlled motion to build a beastly back with this amazing accessory exercise.