Do Lat Pulldowns Target the Biceps? YES, Here's How

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 8, 2022

Most of the time, fitness gyms have a pulldown machine or a pulley system with adjustable resistance usually plates, where lat pulldowns are done. It is usually performed to isolate the latissimus dorsi muscle, but others consider it to strengthen the biceps brachii muscle as well.  

The pulldown typically works the back muscles and can be done as a part of any upper-body strength training. Depending on the variation, the position in which the body is placed gives emphasis to other muscle groups aside from the lats, such as the biceps. 

Identifying the benefits of lat pulldowns specifically for the biceps, and discussing its efficiency in biceps strength training will determine whether the lat pulldown is an effective exercise to target the biceps.

Do Lat Pulldowns Work the Biceps?

The lat pulldown is a popular exercise for strengthening the back and shoulders. It's a standard for strength training and an efficient approach to increasing upper-body muscular growth. It is primarily directed towards the latissimus dorsi muscle.

wide grip lat pulldown

Performing a certain exercise does not only target a single muscle. Anatomically speaking, every movement an individual makes consists of multiple groups of muscles being recruited to do that movement precisely and safely. These groups of muscles are called agonists, synergists, and stabilizers.

The prime movers or agonists when doing lat pulldowns are the latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles. This movement is assisted by the synergists such as the posterior deltoid, trapezius, rhomboids, levator scapulae, biceps brachii, brachialis, and the brachioradialis muscles.

The triceps brachii and rotator cuff muscles (supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) work as stabilizers to provide stability throughout all phases of the movement.

As aforementioned, lat pulldowns recruit the biceps brachii as its synergist. These synergists work together to create a movement similar to or in concert with the agonists. In this case, the biceps are synergists to the latissimus dorsi muscle, aiding in its movement. 

The degree to which these specific muscles are activated differs in various aspects such as the amount of weight that is lifted, the form or position when performing the exercise, or whether any muscle weaknesses that need compensation from the other muscle groups are present.

How to do Lat Pulldowns to Target the Biceps

Because a lat pulldown uses a machine, it provides a great opportunity for muscle development. The goal is to master the basic movement, in order to manipulate the bar attachments and body position to target the specific muscle during this specific exercise.

To target the biceps, attach a wide bar to the pulldown cable attachment. The kneepads are adjusted to keep the lower part of the body from moving. As the bar is grasped, hands are kept in a narrow grip or medium grip rather than placing them in a wide grip.

close grip lat pulldown musculature

Bodyweight is utilized to descend into the seat as both feet are firmly planted on the floor. The body is retained in an upright position with a very slight arch in the lower back. The bar is pulled towards the chest, focusing on pulling elbows and shoulder blades down. This is when the biceps are most activated.

At the end of the movement, the position is held for a brief period before slowly raising the bar. An eccentric contraction occurs upon slowly dropping the weight to return to the starting position.

Grip Positioning

Depending on the grip, lat pulldowns can recruit the biceps to their maximum activation. There are five different grip options when doing the lat pulldown exercise. It includes the supinated narrow grip, supinated medium grip, pronated narrow grip, pronated medium grip, and pronated wide grip.

A pronated or overhand grip places the hands facing away from you. A supinated or underhand grip, on the other hand, means the palms of the hands are directed towards the ceiling.

During the concentric phase of the exercise, it has been found that the biceps tend to have a higher activation level using a narrow or medium grip versus a wide grip. Placing the hands closer together recruits the biceps more due to the larger range of motion the elbow joint has to flex the elbow through.

close grip lat pulldown

The biceps, being a strong supinator, gives a greater mechanical advantage during the use of a supinated narrow grip since it activates, develops, and strengthens the biceps more efficiently. The key difference with supinated lat pulldowns is that it trains the biceps more than the standard pulldown. 

Load and Repetitions

Every person will progress at their own ability based on a number of individual factors. There is no set timeline, number of repetitions, or amount of weight to achieve one’s own physical goals. To maximize the development, there is a need to identify and focus on the exercise factors such as the amount of weight and number of repetitions.

The lat pulldown exercise places relatively lesser demand on the body, which means training can vary with a considerable amount of volume by increasing the number of sets and repetitions each week, making the exercise a great way to train and build the targeted biceps muscle.

To maximize muscular hypertrophy, training within close proximity to muscular failure in the 6 to 12 repetitions range for 3 to 4 sets is the most effective way to program this exercise. This will lead to a greater increase in muscle bulk.

The use of the cable machine creates constant tension, increasing the muscle-building stimulus. This can be further exploited at the end of a workout to fully exhaust all muscle fibers. Thus using 12 to 20 repetitions for 2 to 3 sets will serve best. This will lead to an increase in endurance and at the same time increase individual muscle fiber activation. 

Benefits

The benefits of lat pulldown begin with its simplicity in set-up and potential to be progressed (made more challenging) or regressed (made easier) by simply increasing or reducing the amount of weight placed.

This exercise is an excellent substitute for biceps curl-ups or barbell curls as it can also isolate the biceps during the more specific position and grip. Also, because of the seated position, hip flexors and abdominals help in stabilizing and training the core and body while increasing bulk on the biceps muscle.

The lat pulldowns can be helpful in training athletes or individuals when doing a similar pulling or carrying an object. It can help to improve a range of qualities in the upper body such as muscular strength, muscle hypertrophy, muscle endurance, and performance.

Conclusion: Lat Pulldowns also Work for Biceps Training

Lat pulldown does seem to work the biceps well., yielding the same gains as the gold standard barbell curl. Untrained young athletes might be able to maximize their bicep growth by training only with lat pulldowns initially.

This could be a benefit, as it enables the workouts to be short in time initially, as the trainee builds the right form and correct habit of working out. With serious training of the biceps, it is essential to use the narrow or medium grip lat pulldowns.

Applying the right amount of weight and repetitions will lead to fatigue of the biceps, which will help appreciate the support the mid-back provides during the exercise. It is important to know that the lat pulldown exercise trains the biceps as well as the back muscles efficiently.

References

1. Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(4), 1135–1142.

2. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Mar;38(3):341-4. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2012-0176. Epub 2013 Mar 18. Effect of Adding Single-Joint Exercises to a Multi-Joint Exercise Resistance-Training Program on Strength and Hypertrophy in Untrained Subjects

3. 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.

4. Signorile, J., Zink, A., & Szwed, S. (2002). A Comparative Electromyographical Investigation of Muscle Utilization Patterns Using Various Hand Positions During the Lat Pull-down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(4), 539-546.

5. Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun; 6(2): e24057. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy.

6. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: July 01, 2019. Single-Joint Exercise Results in Higher Hypertrophy of Elbow Flexors Than Multijoint Exercise.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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