The lat pulldown is a classic among resistance training programs, a machine-based pulling exercise that is best known for its effective targeting of the back muscles and the biceps brachii.
However, the lat pulldown is in fact not a single exercise, as simply altering the distance of the exerciser’s hands from each other will alter the muscular activation pattern enough to consider both close and wide grip lat pulldowns as separate exercises.
The main distinction between the close grip and wide grip lat pulldown is in which particular muscle groups are being worked, with the close grip focusing more on the middle back or triceps and the wide grip targeting the latissimus dorsi more.
To say that muscle recruitment is the sole difference between the close grip and wide grip lat pulldown is overly simplifying matters, however, as this distinction is in fact a consequence of multiple factors relating to the grip width of each variation.
Altering the placement and position of the hands in relation to the body will also alter other parts of the exercise, such as the angle of resistance - thereby changing what sort of range of motion is possible with the movement.
This results in a significant difference of mechanics between each variation, producing a less advantageous position in the wide grip lat pulldown and as such reducing the maximal weight that may be moved.
In addition to these factors, the particular attachment used to achieve both variations differs - with the wide grip lat pulldown being the more commonly seen pull-up bar attachment.
Simply put, changing the grip width during the lat pulldown will change how the torso and arms are moved in relation to each other, causing different muscles to be recruited as the angle of resistance enters their range of action.
From an external point of view, this presents as the exerciser’s torso leaning backwards during the close grip lat pulldown, and sitting fully erect during the wide grip lat pulldown.
Yes - though performing a close grip lat pulldown is possible with the attachment normally used for the wide grip, the opposite is not possible.
This difference in lat pulldown machine attachment will alter what sort of grip is possible during either exercise, with the wide grip lat pulldown being solely constrained to underhand or overhand grips while the close grip can be performed with practically any grip technique.
The wide grip lat pulldown uses the more commonly seen pull-up bar attachment, allowing even particularly tall lifters to still achieve a full range of motion.
As the wide grip variation is simply a straight bar that acts as a single handle, the exerciser may use a double overhand or double underhand grip, depending on whether they wish to increase the activation of their biceps brachii muscles or not.
Likewise, the close grip lat pulldown uses a V-grip or neutral double handle attachment, allowing a freer hand positioning to be achieved instead.
A neutral grip will increase activation of the brachioradialis muscle alongside the rhomboids as the elbows are allowed to retain a more advantageous and natural angle, though the biceps brachii will be reduced in terms of activation capacity.
As was previously mentioned, changing the hand position and type of grip will subsequently also alter what sort of biomechanics and exercise mechanics are executed during the lat pulldown exercise.
Not only can this result in different muscle groups being contracted in a dynamic fashion, but so too can it change the risk of injury and exactly what sort of injury may occur, if ever.
This change in exercise mechanics will also differ in terms of leverages and positioning, causing one exercise to be more difficult than the other and therefore reducing the total resistance or volume possible.
During the close grip lat pulldown, the exerciser’s elbows and forearms will be placed closer together due to the positioning of the hands - this will require that the exerciser aid in the movement by retracting their scapula and pulling the handle at an angle that meets the bottom of the ribcage.
In addition to this, if performing the close grip lat pulldown in a neutral hand position, the exerciser will find that tucking the elbows more closely to the sides will greatly aid in terms of stability and back muscle recruitment.
Unlike in the close grip lat pulldown, the wide grip variation of the exercise allows the exerciser to pull the handle entirely vertically. This enables greater latissimus dorsi activation so long as the exerciser manages to maintain a straight torso, avoiding any bend in their waist or upper chest.
If performed correctly, the exerciser should find that the handle touches their upper chest or clavicles instead of the sternum as may be the case in the close grip variation.
This directly leads to the elbows flaring in opposite directions so as to maximize biceps brachii recruitment - as opposed to tucking to the sides of the torso in the wide grip’s counterpart.
There is no doubt that both the wide grip and close grip variations of the lat pulldown exercise activate much of the back and biceps musculature - though, as one can guess, not in an equal capacity.
Due to various differences in mechanics and range of motion such as wrist rotation, elbow positioning and scapular retraction, what particular muscle is activated to the greatest degree can vary between variations of the lat pulldown.
During the close grip exercise, it is the trapezius and rhomboid muscles that are activated to the greatest extent as the elbows are tucked against the sides and retracted as the torso leans backwards, creating an angled opposing force instead of the completely vertical angle of resistance involved in the wide grip lat pulldown.
In the case of the wide grip lat pulldown, it is in fact much the same musculature that is targeted in a pull-up that is activated to the most significant extent; that being the latissimus dorsi and the biceps brachii.
Depending on whether the wide grip variation is performed with a supinated or pronated wrist position, the biceps brachii may be even further focused upon in the vein of a chin-up exercise sort of movement.
This particular focus of muscular activation is due to the entirely vertical angle of resistance and the fact that the exerciser maintains a straight torso immediately beneath the handle, taking full advantage of the biceps and lats’ immediate range of action.
Generally, the size and density of a muscle group will equate to the maximum amount of force that may be produced through the usage of such a muscle group.
As such, when comparing the size and number of the muscle groups targeted to the greatest degree between the close grip and wide grip lat pulldown, one can see that it is in fact the close grip variation that allows for further weight to be moved.
Moreover, apart from raw muscular density and number of muscles recruited, there is also the matter of the exerciser being placed in a more advantageous position during the close grip lat pulldown, with their torso leaning backwards and more of their back musculature’s range of motion being used.
While maximal weight load during an exercise is only one factor that can lead to proper muscular hypertrophy, it is nonetheless an important factor to consider when deciding on which variation to use.
In summary, one can see that neither the close grip nor wide grip lat pulldown is immediately superior over the other - if gross training stimulus is all that is being looked at, the wide grip variation is superior for developing vertical pulling muscles, while the close grip variation trains both vertical and horizontal pulling muscles to a moderate degree.
For novice exercisers or those with a history of injury, it is our suggestion that the wide grip lat pulldown be used due to its lower level of exercise complexity.
Likewise, for athletes and powerlifters already physically developed enough in terms of latissimus dorsi strength, it is the close grip lat pulldown that is our recommendation; solely due to the fact that it has greater carry-over to other exercises involving the back muscles.
In summary, though both wide grip and close grip lat pulldown variations use the same machine and target the same general muscle groups, they have significantly distinct purposes and each are better suited for different types of training programs.
Regardless of what sort of applications the exerciser wishes to derive from their choice of lat pulldown variation, it is important that they follow proper workout programming and keep their total resistance below 90% of their maximal load so as to avoid injury or stunted development.
1. Snarr, Ronald & Eckert, Ryan & Abbott, Patricia. (2015). A Comparative Analysis and Technique of the Lat Pull-down. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 37. 21-25. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000173.
2. Doma, K., Deakin, G., & Ness, K. (2013). Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises. Sports Biomechanics, 12(3), 302-313.
3. Andersen V, Fimland MS, Wiik E, Skoglund A, Saeterbakken AH. Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):1135-42. doi: 10.1097/JSC.0000000000000232. PMID: 24662157.