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Columns: Do It Right

The Lat Pulldown

Ronai, Peter M.S., FACSM, ACSM-CEP, ACSM-EP, EIM Level III, CSCS

Author Information
ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal: March/April 2019 - Volume 23 - Issue 2 - p 24-30
doi: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000469
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EXERCISE TYPE

The lat pulldown is a multijoint upper body exercise that activates and strengthens the upper back, shoulder girdle, arm, and forearm muscles.

BENEFITS OF THE EXERCISE

The lat pulldown is an open kinetic chain exercise (1) intended to improve strength, endurance, and hypertrophy in muscles of the back, shoulder girdle, shoulder, and elbow joints (2–9). They can be performed with many types of equipment including selectorized, plate-loaded, pneumatic (compressed fluid/air) resistance machines, adjustable cable columns, and a number of types of elastic resistance equipment (bands and tubing). Although lat pulldowns also can be performed with either neutral or a supinated forearm position grips (2,4,6–9), this Do It Right column will primarily address the wide width, pronated forearm handgrip, front lat pulldown.

INTRODUCTION

Exercises to improve upper body muscular hypertrophy and pulling strength are integral parts of conditioning programs for athletes and clients interested in improving their musculoskeletal fitness and physical performance (2,4,6–9). Lat pulldowns have been routinely implemented as a means of improving upper body strength as well as sports performance in swimmers, gymnasts, wrestlers, rugby players, cross-country skiers, and bodybuilders (6–10). They have been used in testing situations as a means of predicting sprint performance in competitive swimmers (11). Lat pulldowns are an appropriate exercise within a comprehensive musculoskeletal fitness and conditioning program for novice, intermediate, and advanced level clients. Clients should be free of neck, shoulder, or upper extremity injuries, and related pain before performing this exercise. The onset of injury-related pain warrants termination of exercise and immediate client consultation with a physician, physical therapist, or other health care provider. Figure 1 depicts front and back views of the front lat pulldown exercise with a pronated hand grip. Please refer to Supplemental Digital Content 1, video, http://links.lww.com/FIT/A110 for a demonstration of the front lat pulldown exercise with a pronated hand grip.

Figure 1
Figure 1:
A–B, Front and back views of the lat pulldown exercise.Figure photos courtesy of Peter Ronai.

PRIMARY MUSCLES ACTIVATED

Similar to pull-ups, lat pulldowns have been identified as primary exercises for activating the latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, infraspinatus, subscapularis (in the glenohumeral shoulder joint), rhomboids, middle trapezius, lower trapezius, pectoralis minor in the scapulothoracic (the shoulder girdle region), biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis (in the elbow joint) and flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor pollicis longus (in the wrist and hand) muscles concentrically and eccentrically during the pulling down (downward) and return phases, respectively (1–3,5–7,9,12). Figure 2A–B depicts primary and secondary muscles activated during the lat pulldown.

Figure 2
Figure 2:
A–B, Primary and secondary muscles activated during the lat pulldown.

TEACHING AND SAFETY POINTS

Lat pulldowns can be performed with either a designated lat pulldown machine, with adjustable-height pulleys, or with elastic resistance tubing or bands. Machine and pulley resistance can be provided by selectorized weight stacks, loaded plates, or compressed hydraulic fluid or air. Clients should grasp the bar or (if applicable) handles with an overhand, pronated hand grip so that their hands are equally spread apart from the center of the bar at a width that is equivalent to approximately 1.5 to 2 times the bi-acromial width. (The bi-acromial width is the horizontal distance measured between the lateral most boney tips of the shoulders (distance between both acromion processes)) (2). The elbows are positioned just anterior to the torso and frontal plane in the plane of the scapula (13). (Please refer to Supplemental Digital Content 2, video, http://links.lww.com/FIT/A111, Supplemental Digital Content 3, video, http://links.lww.com/FIT/A112, and Supplemental Digital Content 4, video, http://links.lww.com/FIT/A113 for demonstrations of the front lat pulldown exercise performed with handles, with a plate-loaded machine and with a selectorized machine, respectively). Figure 3 depicts the lat pulldown performed with separate handles, and Figure 4 depicts the lat pulldown performed with both a plate-loaded machine and with a selectorized machine.

Figure 3
Figure 3:
The lat pulldown performed with separate handles.
Figure 4
Figure 4:
The lat pulldown performed with both a plate-loaded and selectorized machine.

PROPER PERFORMANCE OF WIDE WIDTH PRONATED HAND GRIP FRONT LAT PULLDOWNS

During the starting position of the front lat pulldown exercise, the bar should be positioned overhead and just beyond arms' reach distance (while the elbows are fully extended) when seated in an upright position on the padded lat pulldown machine seat. The hands are placed 1.5 to 2 times the bi-acromial width apart (2). The trunk, which is extended slightly from the hips at an angle that is approximately 70 to 80 degrees with the vertical, is maintained in a rigid neutral position (3,8,13). The head, ears, shoulders (acromion processes), thoracic and lumbar spines, and hips are aligned with each other. The knees rest firmly beneath the adjustable stabilization pads. The pads prevent the buttocks and hips from lifting off of or sliding along the seat. Static contractions of all muscles described in the primary muscles activated section provide the shoulder girdle, shoulder joint, and elbow joint stability and prevent excessive shoulder elevation (13) while the scapulae are in relative, abduction, and upward rotation and the glenohumeral (shoulder) joint is in relative abduction (3). The elbows are extended, and the hands and wrists are flexed (3). Figure 5 depicts the starting position of the lat pulldown.

Figure 5
Figure 5:
The starting position of the front lat pulldown.

PULLING DOWN (DOWNWARD) PHASE

The trunk is extended slightly at the hips (torso is maintained at a 70- to 90-degree angle with the vertical) and remains motionless throughout the entire lat pulldown exercise. The elbows are positioned slightly in front of the body in the plane of the scapula (approximately 20 to 30 degrees anterior with the frontal plane). It has been suggested that performing overhead exercises when the shoulder is in the “high five” position (the shoulders in 90 degrees of abduction and 90 degrees of external rotation) is associated with and can precipitate and/or worsen discomfort and symptoms related to anterior shoulder instability and impingement (13–17). The “high five” position occurs when the bar is pulled down behind the head or if the arms and elbows are kept in the frontal plane when pulling the bar down in the front of the head. Motion occurs only in the shoulder girdle, shoulder joints, and elbows, and the bar is pulled downward in a linear or vertical path until the top of the bar achieves a position approximately level with the top of the sternum (breastbone), while the underside of the jaw and chin maintain a position parallel with the ground. It has been stated that performing overhead exercises with a forward head or hyperextended cervical spine (neck) can exacerbate symptoms of discomfort in clients with discogenic-related neck pain (18). Clients should exhale while pulling the bar down and pause briefly at the bottom position. They should be cued to complete the entire range of movement of each repetition in a controlled manner. Verbal teaching cues can include “tuck the chin in slightly,” “look straight ahead not up or down,” “keep the head and trunk motionless throughout each repetition,” “keep the elbows slightly in front of the torso,” “pull and keep the shoulders down, away from the ears throughout the whole set,” “pull the bar down smoothly to the top of the chest,” “drive the elbows down toward the floor,” “keep the bar level,” and to “return the bar to the starting position in a smooth, controlled manner so the elbows straighten at the end of each repetition” (8,13,18). During the downward pulling phase, the scapulae are forcibly depressed, retracted, and rotated downward by concentric actions of the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboid, and pectoralis minor muscles. The glenohumeral or shoulder joints are adducted by concentric actions of the latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, subscapularis, infraspinatus, and posterior deltoid muscles (1–4,6–8). The elbows, wrists, and hands are flexed by the biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor pollicis longus muscles (3). The lat pulldown exercise is considered a descending strength curve movement. Mechanical advantage occurs at the beginning of and dissipates throughout the last half of the movement (19,20). Repetitions are more difficult to complete than they are to initiate so emphasis should be placed on pulling the bar down in a controlled manner throughout the entire range of motion. Proper exercise technique should not be sacrificed for the amount of weight lifted or the number of repetitions completed and a cadence of 1 to 2 seconds is appropriate. The bar should remain level throughout the lat pulldown exercise. Common errors include jerking the weight downward with momentum, swinging the torso back and forth, not pulling the bar all the way down through the entire range of motion, allowing the shoulders to move upward or elevate (shrug) toward the ears during either phase of the exercise, jutting the head, chin, and jaw forward and upward, and allowing the hips and buttocks to rise vertically off the seat. Figure 6 depicts the bottom or end position of the pulling down or downward phase of the lat pulldown exercise.

Figure 6
Figure 6:
The bottom or end position of the pulling down or the downward phase of the lat pulldown exercise.

RETURN PHASE

While maintaining shoulder girdle and shoulder joint fixation and stability, the bar is returned to the starting position in a smooth, controlled manner. Eccentric actions of the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis minor, latissimus dorsi, teres major, pectoralis major, subscapularis, infraspinatus posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, flexor carpi ulnaris, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum profundus, flexor digitorum superficialis, and flexor pollicis longus muscles help the bar move through controlled upward path and help prevent excessive stress in the shoulder and elbow. Clients should be cued to “keep the shoulders down,” “keep the elbows slightly in front of the torso,” “stay still in the seat,” “keep the bar straight,” “look straight ahead, not up or down,” and “return the bar to the starting position in a smooth, controlled manner so the elbows straighten at the end of each repetition” (8,13,18). Common errors include rocking forward and backward in the seat, allowing the hips to raise up off the seat, failing to fixate the shoulders and allowing them to elevate towards the ears, failing to keep the bar level, failing to return the bar to full arms' length, failing to return the bar overhead in a slow and controlled manner, holding the breath, and failing to keep the head and neck in a neutral position. Figure 7 depicts the end position during the return phase of the lat pulldown exercise.

Figure 7
Figure 7:
The end position during the return phase.

PROPER SPOTTING TECHNIQUES

While seated, clients' torsos should remain motionless and they should complete the full range of movement during each repetition in a controlled manner. They should exhale during the pulling down (downward) phase and inhale during the return phase. Optimum observation and coaching of exercise technique can occur by viewing the exercise from the front (anterior), back (posterior), and the side (lateral). If coaching space is limited, a position that is approximately 45 degrees in front of or in back of the client's side is appropriate. Spotting should occur from behind the client by placing the hands just above the bar in an evenly spaced, pronated forearm position. The spotter's hands should follow the bar closely without interference throughout the downward and upward phases. When needed, actual spotting is provided by applying just enough gentle, steady, downward pressure to facilitate the proper completion of the downward phase and the safe return of the bar. Clients should, however, complete the majority of the prescribed number of repetitions without assistance. Alternatively, spotters can place a stability ball firmly against the lower back and torso to prevent swinging and jerking of the bar and weight pulley and to ensure that the client maintains an upright position throughout the exercise. Figure 8 depicts proper spotting techniques with and without a stability ball during the lat pulldown exercise.

Figure 8
Figure 8:
Proper spotting techniques with and without a stability ball during the lat pulldown exercise.

ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

Lat pulldowns can be performed with a neutral/midprone or supinated forearm position and are then typically done in either a narrow (the hands spread at slightly less than the bi-acromial width) or a medium (the hands spread at or slightly wider than the bi-acromial width) grip and will be addressed specifically in a future Do It Right column. Lat pulldowns also can be performed with elastic resistance tubing or bands. In the absence of an overhead bar or pole, elastic resistance tubing can be anchored over the top of a closed door with a special anchoring web strap and lat pulldowns can then be performed with an elastic resistance band from a chair, on a stability ball, at a computer work station, or when sitting directly on the floor. Figures 9, 10, and 11 depict the lat pulldown performed with a neutral/midprone grip, supinated grip, and with elastic resistance bands, tubing, and a door anchor, respectively. The lat pulldown with resistance tubing in this Do It Right column is depicted as being performed from a seated position on the floor. Client safety, balance, stability, medical status, and fall risk should dictate client exercise position during the lat pulldown with resistance tubing. The manipulation and prescription of acute resistance training variables that include intensity loads (percentage of the one repetition maximum or of a multiple repetition maximum), number of repetitions and sets as well as recovery and progression should be commensurate with clients' age, fitness levels, and resistance training experience. Proper technique and control should not be sacrificed to perform more weight, resistance, or repetitions.

Figure 9
Figure 9:
The lat pulldown with a neutral grip.
Figure 10
Figure 10:
The lat pulldown with a supinated forearm grip.
Figure 11
Figure 11:
The lat pulldown performed with elastic resistance tubing and a door anchor.

SUMMARY

The lat pulldown is an open kinetic chain, multijoint exercise that is appropriate for novice, intermediate, and advanced level exercisers and can be performed with a number of types of equipment and requires minimal equipment to perform. It can be progressed or regressed to increase and improve upper body muscular strength, endurance, hypertrophy, and performance of tasks that require upper body pulling strength. Its utility as a safe and effective strength development tool is predicated on sound instruction, effective supervision, and proper execution.

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Suggested Reading

  • Durall CJ, Manske RC, Davies GJ. Avoiding shoulder injury from resistance training. Strength Cond J. 2001;23(5):10–8.

Supplemental Digital Content

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