What Are Lat Pulldowns and How to Do Them

What Is a Lat Pulldown and How to Do It?

Lat Pulldowns or Lat Pulls are a straightforward yet effective compound exercise targeting the muscle group known as latissimus dorsi in your mid to lower back. A compound exercise is a critical movement that works out multiple muscle groups through one motion. Your lats make vital contributions to your overall strength, movement, and posture, as they’re commonly known. While the dynamics of the basic exercise are relatively simple, A lat pulldown can significantly increase upper body strength and allow one to build towards goals of implementing more challenging movements, such as pull-ups, chin-ups, or muscle-ups, into their workout. It’s vital to understand both proper technique and common mistakes to avoid before actually embarking on the exercise. girl doing lat pull with pink shirt

Using Proper Technique

Lat Pulldowns use machines, given that it’s a smaller and more isolated movement. There are machines for Lat Pulldowns and machines created for a myriad of additional exercises, with Lat Pulldowns being one of them. The technique is essential to execute the exercise correctly, as a lack of attention to detail can lead to one’s rotator cuff or the latissimus dorsi muscle.

To properly execute a Lat pulldown, set the bar to roughly the height of your outstretched arms. You should be able to grip the handles but should be at about full extension for your starting position. Grab the handles with a pronated or overhand grip (in which your knuckles are facing upward and your palms are facing outward). Your grip should place each of your hands slightly outside the width of your shoulders. Once you’ve mastered this exercise, your grip may change and potentially implement variations to your workout, but you should start with this grip width.

Once you’ve found the proper bar height and grip, pull the bar down to your chin at a controlled pace. The bar should come down in front of your face, as bringing the bar down behind your neck is a common mistake that can lead to irritation and injury. Do your best to keep your torso as still as possible and your feet flat on the ground. It may not seem like much, but that will translate into a firm base and engage your abdomen. As you bring down the weight, make an effort to squeeze your shoulder blades together, almost as if your goal is to make them meet at the center of your back. You’ll need to do a lot of lifting from your forearms, but make a decided effort to pull from your armpit region. It will better isolate the latissimus dorsi muscle and create a cleaner workout.

Additionally, focus on pulling your elbow downwards, keeping them close to your ribcage. It will also isolate your lats and help protect against shoulder injury or discomfort. Many people believe that it’s helpful to exhale as you pull the bar down to establish a rhythm and properly circulate oxygen throughout your body. It may vary case-to-case, but many believe that proper breathing can lead to a more effective workout.

Once you’ve lowered the bar to the height of your upper chest, gradually allow it to return to its starting position, providing some level of resistance and controlling its upward momentum. It is an often overlooked but critical exercise element that enables you to build more muscle with fewer repetitions. As you do so, please make an effort to fully extend each arm, as you did at the beginning, to fully engage your lats by utilizing their full range of motion. It is when you would inhale, as this is the phase of the exercise where you’re exerting slightly less, known as the eccentric phase. If you’re rolling into your next repetition, repeat the same process exactly and make an effort to keep your core engaged for the entirety of your set. Eventually, once you’ve reached your final rep, slowly allow the weight to return to its starting position. Avoid letting the weight crash into the other plates. It may feel like the easy way out after pushing yourself through an entire set, but easing up too quickly can easily lead to harming yourself and your equipment.

Determining the Right Weight

The most common way to get injured while doing Lat Pulldowns, or any compound exercise, is by trying to lift too much weight too quickly. Thankfully, a Lat Pulldown is a relatively simple movement. So once you have the form down and can comfortably rep a certain weight, it’s a feasible evolution to the next weight.

If this is your first time trying Lat Pulldowns, it’s always on the safer side to opt for a lighter weight to focus on proper technique, rhythm, and breathing. Simply repping the lightest weight available once or twice will help with all of these and allow you to understand the ins and outs of the specific machine. Once you feel comfortable pushing the weight a bit to build out your muscles, some basic formulas are for when it comes to selecting a starter weight.

For men that consider themselves beginners over the age of 18, you can start with roughly half of your body weight. The same rule applies to women in that same category (18 or older and relatively inexperienced lifters) with about one-third of your body weight. That varies on a person-to-person basis, as your body weight isn’t always indicative of how much you should be lifting. Always start on the safe side where the exercise feels almost too easy, and build from there. Lifting a lower weight will set you up to gain strength and eventually lift more, but you can hinder that process if you try to lift too much too soon. Everyone is different and will naturally have their fitness journey, which is no exception. back of man doing lat pull

Again, the focus should be on properly executing the exercise rather than trying to lift the heaviest weight that you can. An average set should consist of roughly 6-12 reps, depending on your weight. If you can comfortably lift a weight for that amount of reps, you can go slowly up the weight until you feel like you’re putting a decent amount of effort into finishing each set. More often than not, Lat pulldown machines generally go up in intervals of about five pounds. If you can comfortably get through a starter weight set based on your body weight, set the weight to the next interval and try that weight. You should repeat this process until you’ve found a sweet spot for your workout.

When it comes to setting yourself up for future success, lifting lower weight for more repetitions can build endurance and core strength. Lifting higher weight for lower reps is an excellent way to build raw power in your lats and determine your max. For exercises like a Lat pulldown, your max should consist of multiple reps to risk strains or other bodily harm. Once you better understand the weight that constitutes your max, you can better plan future workouts based on that figure.

Key Mistakes to Avoid

As is true with any exercise, it’s imperative to pay attention to detail to prevent injury. Even with the correct number of repetitions and weight selected, improper form or continued overuse can still lead to some particularly devastating injuries. First and foremost, after targeting specific muscle groups, it’s important to rest them for 24-48 hours before working them out again. While this may be counterintuitive, overuse can lead to muscle strains or the spraining of critical joints, both of which can be nagging long-term impediments to achieving your future fitness goals.

While there are variations of Lat Pulldowns, you should focus on using the proper grip described above as your body gets used to the movements. Grabbing the bar too wide is a common mistake for beginners that can lead to poor form and a potential vulnerability to injuries. Again, pull your elbows downward, do not let them flare out. If that seems impossible, you’re likely pulling the bar too low or lifting too much weight. Once the bar is even with your chest, roughly the location, you would have the bar for a traditional bench press. That’s when you should begin to let the bar travel upwards. Arguably the most common mistake is arching your back. Do your absolute best to keep your back straight, especially at the beginning, not just to engage your core but to protect your lower back from excessive strain. Lastly, avoid using momentum between reps. It may be the easy way out but think of each rep as its controlled motion to get the most out of your workout.

For good measure, just one more time, be sure you’re being very discerning about the beginning weight. Even when you reach a point where you feel that you can comfortably increase the weight, do so slowly and carefully. girl doing lat pull  

Lat Pulldown Variations

There are also slight variations that one can implement into their Lat Pulldowns. These generally come from altering your grip width and grip position, which can lead to different forms of muscle activation. These simple adjustments can help isolate certain underserved muscle groups from other upper body workouts.

The wide grip Lat Pulldown is as simple as it sounds and consists of a widened grip on the overhead bar. It will exclusively work your latissimus dorsi muscle, but the weight will be more difficult to lift as you widen your grip. This exercise suits those interested in pushing weight and building a muscular back by adding more upper-body mass. These can serve as a critical stepping stone toward more intense body-weight-focused exercises like pulldowns, chin-ups, and muscle-ups.

The close grip Lat Pulldown will likely require a slight change in grip. While you could continue to use the traditional pronated grip, many opt for alternatives. One of these alternatives is a supinated or underhanded grip, where your knuckles still face up, but your palms and forearms face your torso. The other commonly used option is a neutral grip, in which your palms face one another. You would likely have to pivot to a V-Bar for better execution for the latter. When executing a close grip Lat Pulldown, you should lean back a bit to allow yourself room for the bar. The muscles worked slightly differently, as leaning back also targets the trapezius and rhomboid muscles in your mid to upper back.

There is also the standing Lat Pulldown, also known as the straight arm Lat Pulldown, which is a helpful exercise that isolates your triceps. Stand under the bar with your arms at roughly 20 degrees to execute these properly. Make sure to stand in an athletic stance with a strong base from a slight bend in the knees. Once you’re comfortable in this stance, slowly pull the weight down to your thighs, and complete the exercise as you would any other variation. This one is a little trickier to master and may require a lighter weight to start.

If you are without a machine or want to exercise the muscles outlined above differently, you can try a resistance band Lat Pulldown. Once you have a resistance band that is strong enough to handle the movement but you can rep without any considerable pain or struggle, attach that band to a door, hook, or any other solid base. Again, the weight is a crucial element in executing the movements correctly, and in this case, the band is serving as your “weight,” so to speak, so make sure you have the proper equipment. You can do this from a seated or kneeling position, but everything in terms of posture and completion from the other forms of the workout still applies.

Other Ways to Maximize Effectiveness

Whether you’re simply a beginner using traditional Lat Pulldowns to strengthen your back or trying more advanced variations like close grip or wide grip Lat Pulldowns to isolate specific muscle groups, pairing them with other exercises will make for a complete upper body workout.

Other critical upper body muscle groups include the biceps, triceps, traps, and shoulders. Building out these muscles in addition to your lats will only help your ability to execute Lat Pulldowns with increasingly higher weight.

Many personal trainers suggest implementing Lat Pulldowns, whichever variation you feel best suits your needs, into what are called supersets. Supersets are essentially longer elements of workouts in which you alternate exercises for a complete workout. If you’re using Lat Pulldowns to eventually implement pull-ups and other more difficult bodyweight movements into your training, these can be incredibly effective.

Other compound workouts like barbell rows, barbell or dumbbell bench press, and shoulder and military press can help build the surrounding muscles to ensure a more muscular and complete upper body. When paired with these movements, Lat Pulldowns can help you achieve the V-shaped torso that so many men and women are in search of at the gym.  

Once you’ve reached a point where you can comfortably rep a significant portion of your body weight, you may be able to make the jump to attempting a pull-up. If that still doesn’t seem feasible, many gyms have assisted pull-up machines that will help you gradually work your way up to properly executing them independently.

This goal of building mass in your upper body, particularly your arm muscles, can also be aided by taking supplements and increasing the amount of protein in your diet. It’s imperative to understand what each of these supplements does and the proper dosage. To determine that, you should consult a personal trainer or fitness professional. Suppose you have either of these resources available. In that case, you should do your best to get their opinion on your form and weight to ensure that you’re going about Lat Pulldowns and all your other exercises as safely as possible.

Was this article helpful?