Apart from the bench press, the lat pulldown is one of the most recognized exercises in the gym.

It’s a staple for those wanting to increase the mass of their back muscles and work on achieving the V-shaped back that is desired by bodybuilders, weightlifters, and fitness enthusiasts alike.

The exercise offers multiple variations that you can perform with very little adjustment other than changing the handle you’re using.

In addition, you can vary the exercise to target your back in a variety of ways and adjust it to your comfort level.

However, given its popularity and adaptability, it’s often performed incorrectly or in a way that may cause more injury than benefit. Remember: Good form is critical, especially when increasing the weight you’re lifting.

Here’s all you need to know to perform the lat pulldown safely and effectively the next time you’re in the gym.

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This exercise is an excellent substitute for pullups or chinups if you have difficulty performing these exercises or if you’re training to get there.

The lat pulldown activates some of the same muscles as doing a pullup, although to a lesser extent (1).

Also, because you’re seated during the lat pulldown, you can use your hip flexors and abdominals to stabilize your body as you perform it. In fact, one older study found that the pulldown recruited the abdominals more than the pullup did (2).

The lat pulldown also benefits athletes in many sports that require a similar pulling motion, such as swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, and cross-country skiing (3).

Summary

The lat pulldown is a good substitute if you have difficulty performing pullups. It also works the muscles involved in many sports, such as swimming.

One reason the lat pulldown is such a prominent and important exercise is that the overhead pulling motion recruits several important muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms.

The latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats, are the wing muscles you see on someone with a defined back. They’re the prime movers of this multi-joint exercise, and they’re the largest muscles in your back.

The lats are expansive — they originate from the mid and lower spine, the top of the pelvis, the lower ribs, and the lower scapula and insert on the front of the humerus (upper arm bone).

The lats are responsible for extension, adduction, horizontal abduction, and internal rotation of the arm. When the arm is fixed overhead, the lats pull the body toward the arm in a climbing motion.

What’s more, the lats assist with respiration and may even contribute to lateral flexion and extension of the lumbar spine (4).

Many other muscles work synergistically or simultaneously with the lats in this exercise, including the (3):

Changing the way you grip the bar as you perform this complex exercise will emphasize different muscle groups (5).

Summary

The lat pulldown works many muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, rotator cuff, and biceps brachii.

  1. Start by sitting at a lat pull machine, facing the bar. Adjust the knee pad so your knees are bent at 90 degrees and firmly under the pad and your feet are flat on the floor.
  2. Reach up and grasp the bar a little wider than shoulder width. Extend your arms as much as you can without shrugging your shoulders or lifting off the seat.
  3. Pull the bar down toward your upper chest, aiming for just below your collarbone. Think of pulling your elbows and shoulder blades down and back as you bring the bar down. Keep your body tall and in a slight backward lean, just past vertical at 70–80 degrees.
  4. Hold the bar at your mid to upper chest for 1–2 seconds while squeezing your shoulder blades back and down.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position. Remember not to shrug your shoulders at the top of the movement.
  6. Complete 2–3 sets of 8–10 reps.

Pro tips:

  • Maintain good control and try not to lean back too far as you pull down.
  • Keep your back straight, but try not to arch or round as you pull down. This can increase the risk of injury.
  • Lower the weight if you cannot maintain a neutral spine or good form.
Summary

Grasp the bar a little wider than shoulder width. Pull the bar down toward your upper chest. Keep your back straight and try not to lean back. Slowly return the bar to overhead.

Close-grip hand position

Close grip is considered any hand position narrower than shoulder width. You can do this with a standard lat pulldown bar or with the handles you’d use to perform a row. The version described below involves greater usage of the biceps brachii muscle (5).

This version is good if you experience forearm pain when pulling down or if you’re pressed for time and want a compound exercise to work those biceps.

  1. Start by sitting as you would for the standard lat pulldown.
  2. Place your hands close to the center, where the cable attaches. Grasp the bar with a supinated grip (palms facing you).
  3. Pull the bar down toward your collarbone, focusing on pulling your elbows and shoulder blades down. You should notice that your biceps are more active during this version.

If you use a rowing bar, perform the exercise as above. The advantage of using this bar is that it allows you to pull the weight through a greater range of motion.

Wide-grip hand position

Wide grip is considered any position with the hands placed as far out on a standard bar as possible (wider than shoulder width).

This version targets the lats and triceps more than the biceps because the primary movement is adduction, rather than adduction plus extension, of the arm (6).

  1. Perform this version as you would the standard-grip lat pulldown. You may prefer pulling to mid chest.
  2. In addition, you’ll want to decrease the weight to allow for a greater range of motion. Because there is a slight mechanical disadvantage to this variation, it’s important to be mindful of your posture.

Straight-arm lat pulldown

This version isolates the lats much more than the other versions. It also changes the movement from a multi-joint exercise to a single-joint movement at the shoulders.

  1. Stand facing the cable pulley, with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder width and knees slightly bent.
  2. Keep your elbows straight and focus on pulling the bar to your hips. Your trunk should stay tall and your head up.
  3. Hold for 1–2 seconds, keeping your shoulder blades back and down. Slowly return to the starting position overhead.

Resistance band lat pulldown

This version is excellent when working out at home because it requires nothing more than a resistance band and a way to anchor it overhead. You can kneel or stand, depending on where your anchor point may be.

You can also perform this variation while lying on your back, with the band anchored to a solid and stationary point above and behind the crown of your head.

You can perform this exercise as you would the straight-arm version above or by bending your elbows and pulling them to the sides of your body.

Summary

You can perform the lat pulldown with a wide grip to work your lats and triceps more, with a close grip to work your biceps more, or with straight arms. You can also use a resistance band.

The lat pulldown is a great exercise to target your lats, but it also works a variety of other muscles that work together to extend and adduct your arms.

It provides an alternative to the pullup when you’re not yet strong enough to perform one without assistance. It’s also a good adjunct to the pullup.

There are multiple variations to this exercise that will keep it interesting and emphasize different muscles. If you’ve been performing the exercise the same way for a while, try changing your grip and feel the difference it makes.