Accessory Review: Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns are popular for a reason

Once you’re doing them right, there’s no better way to build wider lats.

The lat pulldown is an absolute staple back accessory, and it's easy to see why. A lot of lifters who have trouble targeting their lats have a much easier time with the pulldown, thanks in part to all the different variations that come with it. 

This exercise’s flexibility makes it one of my personal favorites, and if you’re one of my clients, you’re almost guaranteed to see it in your program.

Still, many athletes say they can’t get their lats to grow no matter what they try. So before we get into the variations, let’s make sure you’re not falling prey to any of these common mistakes:

Common mistakes

Arching your back

Great for bench, bad for lats. Arching your back can pull emphasis off your lats and turn the lat pulldown into a misshapen face pull. Ideally, you want to stay as upright and neutral as possible.

Pulling with your forearms and biceps, not your lats

This one sounds kinda counterintuitive, but think of it like this: you want to mainly focus on using your lats to pull your elbows down and using your hands simply as hooks to hold onto the bar. 

Too much momentum

As with most weighted exercises, try to perform the pulldown slowly and with control. Doing it too fast uses momentum and reduces the use of the targeted muscles.

Now, let’s talk about the first major variations: grip width.

When I assign the lat pulldown, I label it as either “wide” grip or “narrow” grip. 

Wide grip

Your grip is considered wide whenever you hook the bar just outside of shoulder width.  

Benefits include targeting the outer portion of the lats more than the traditional lat pulldown. This wide grip variation also reduces tension on your biceps and forearms, which makes your lats work even harder to bring the weight down. 

Narrow grip

On the other hand, we have the narrow grip lat pulldown. This one has your hands approximately shoulder width apart. This position activates the forearms more than wide grip, though the lat is still considered the prime mover.

Less common variations

Supinated grip

The supinated lat pulldown is very similar to your narrow grip lat pulldown but your palms are faced towards you. Doing the pulldown in this position, still engages your lats but also incorporates your biceps a little due to the underhand hooked position you're in.

Neutral grip

Neutral grip involves using a neutral grip bar, where the palms face towards each other. 

This position makes it harder to “cheat” by forcing your lats to engage more than they would with pronated or supinated grip. In fact, I've found that I've been able to push my neutral grip pulldowns a little more towards the point of my lats failing, whereas when using a standard lat pulldown, I find that my biceps, forearms or sometimes even grip is the first to go compared to my actual lats. 

Man using a neutral grip bar on lat pulldown machine.
Don't @ me, but neutral grip is best grip

Chest-supported (my personal favorite)

First, find an empty cable machine and attach any bar. I always go with either a narrow grip Mag Grip or a single arm cable to really isolate each individual lat. 

Next, set up an incline bench at a 30 to 60 degree angle with the head pointing towards the cable you’re using. Then, simply lie chest-down on the bench and pull.

A big focus on keeping your chest on the bench and driving yourself onto the bench to stay put should be kept. This will keep any potential momentum at near none and really allow you to focus on engaging your lats. Use this the same way you do a normal lat pulldown, focus on your elbows pulling down and try to bring the bar under you, instead of to you. 

In my opinion this has been and still is a top lat exercise to utilize for muscle development. In the rep range of 10-20 even, this is a great tool to use to help build that bigger and wider back. As far as strength, I would say there are better exercises to do, I don't see a benefit in doing this exercise in under an 8 or even 10 rep range. 

A man holding his dog and smiling.

Author

Alex Gaynor

Author

Alex Bustamante

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