The Lat Pulldown: Benefits, Muscles Worked, Etc.

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 31, 2022

The lat pulldown is one of the most common exercises for strengthening the back and shoulders. It's a staple for strength training, as well as an effective way to build muscle mass in the upper body. It primarily targets the latissimus dorsi muscle; however, its benefits go beyond just activating the latissimus dorsi.

The lat pulldown can be a useful addition to a person's exercise program for a number of reasons. This includes an increase in latissimus dorsi activity, an increase in biceps muscle activity, improvement in mid and upper back strength and stability, and enhancement of grip strength. 

Although there are abundant reading resources regarding lat pulldowns, it is still often performed erroneously. Thus it is imperative to learn the mechanics and benefits of this exercise to optimize gains from the activity.

What is a Lat Pulldown?

As the name suggests, the lat pulldown is a compound exercise that primarily targets the latissimus dorsi muscle. It also involves the use of multiple back muscles to extend and adduct the upper extremities. The lat pulldown is an open kinematic activity that utilizes a machine with an overhead bar to provide resistance to the back muscles.

lat pulldown

Variations of the Lat Pulldown

There are several varieties of the lat pulldown, which places the body in different positions. The 2 main variations of the lat pulldown are identified as the wide grip pulldown and narrow-grip/close-grip pulldown. These variations influence the growth of specific working muscle groups.

The wide grip pulldown is done by using a straight bar and assuming a wide arm width. This position allows for lesser movement at the shoulder and elbow joint as compared to a narrower grip, and reduces tension in the biceps. As a result, contraction of the latissimus dorsi is maximized to be able to bring the bar down.

wide grip lat pulldown

On the other hand, the narrow grip pulldown positions the hands shoulder-width apart. It's important to note that most people find this type of movement easier than others because it allows them to recruit more muscle groups. It works the biceps muscle more than when assuming a wider grip due to the position of the hands as it allows for more elbow flexion. 

close grip lat pulldown

How to Perform Lat Pulldowns

Lat pulldowns are a great way to strengthen the back muscles. They are also great for beginners because it allows the individual to focus on pulling down the bar rather than having to lift their bodyweight, as in performing pull-ups.

To perform lat pulldowns, the individual stands behind the pulldown machine and grabs the bar with the palms facing forward using the prescribed grip width. The individual sits on the machine and places their knees under the pad provided.

wide grip lat pulldown musculature

Before starting the movement, the abdomen must be drawn in and braced while keeping the spine in a neutral position. Using the lats, the bar is pulled downward until it touches the upper chest by drawing the shoulders and the upper arms down and back, exhaling as it is performed.

The back muscles must be squeezed once the full contracted position is reached. The upper torso must remain stationary and only the arms should move. Upon finishing the movement, an eccentric contraction occurs to slowly return to the starting position. 

Benefits of Lat Pulldowns

Aside from developing bigger lats, lat pulldowns may also benefit athletes that need a comparable pulling motion as in swimming, and vaulting among others. There is also a lot of room for progression as weights can be adjusted and may also be used as a precursor to doing pull-ups.

It helps with improving the function of upper back muscles which play a huge role in an individual’s posture. As a result, pre-existing back pain may also be relieved.

Back Pain Relief

The back is a complex and fragile structure, made up of multiple muscles and ligaments. When any kind of exercise that puts the spine in an unnatural position is done, it can cause damage to the vertebrae. This can result in chronic pain or even more serious injuries like bulging discs or herniated disks.

Back pain is commonly caused by weak spinal extensors or an unstable lower back. Strengthening the lats through lat pulldowns helps stabilize the lower back and may decrease back pain.

Pulling down on weights helps strengthen the back muscles so they function better than they did before. The condition in which lat pulldowns are performed does not put any load or additional stress on the vertebrae, which makes it a great strengthening exercise for people with chronic back pain. 

Better Posture

Good posture is important for health and appearance. Maintaining a good posture helps prevent injuries and damage to the vertebral structures through wear and tear. Assuming poor postures can lead to back pain, fatigue, and other serious health issues.

Lat pulldowns help improve posture by training the postural muscles to depress and adduct the scapula. The movements performed while doing lat pulldowns activate scapular depressors and retractors, which help give a more confident and energizing posture.

Hypertrophy

It is no secret that a V-shaped back is coveted among bodybuilders. This is achieved by developing the latissimus dorsi muscle. Hypertrophy of the lats can be attained by doing lat pulldowns through progressive overload.

Muscles Worked by the Lat Pulldown

While there is less research on the lat pulldown than on more popular exercises, there is a plethora of research indicating its usefulness in targeting numerous back and arm muscles. Hence, performing lat pulldowns is beneficial not only for latissimus dorsi activation but for almost the entire upper body.

close grip lat pulldown musculature

Latissimus Dorsi

As its name suggests, lat pulldowns mainly target the latissimus dorsi muscle, the flat, broad muscle that spans the middle and lower back. Its main function is to adduct, extend, and internally rotate the arm at the shoulder joint, but it assists in respiration as well. It is the primary mover in lat pulldowns and does much of the work.

Teres Major

The teres major synergistically acts with the latissimus dorsi to extend, medially rotate, and adduct the arm at the glenohumeral joint.

Posterior Deltoids

The posterior deltoid, also known as the rear delt, is important in pulling motions. This muscle extends, externally rotates, and horizontally abducts the arm at the shoulder joint. It is responsible for pulling the arms backward during the lat pulldowns and contributes to the appearance of a V-shaped back.

Trapezius

The trapezius muscle is a large superficial back muscle that resembles a trapezoid. Often referred to as the traps, its role is to stabilize and move the scapula. It is important in lat pulldowns as the scapula is retracted by the middle fibers, and depressed by the lower fibers.

Rhomboids

Made up of the rhomboid major and the rhomboid minor, these muscles span from the medial border of the scapula to the spine. Situated beneath the trapezius muscle, both the rhomboids major and minor function to assist in scapular retraction.

Levator Scapulae

The levator scapulae originate from the cervical transverse processes and inserts into the medial border of the scapula. During lat pulldowns, the levator scapula stabilizes the back and sides of the neck as the bar is pulled down.

Rotator Cuff Muscles

The rotator cuff is composed of four (4) muscles, namely the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and the subscapularis. This group of muscles surrounds the shoulder joint and works to stabilize the joint by keeping the head of the humerus firmly within the shallow glenoid fossa.

Biceps Brachi

Comprised of a short and long head, the biceps brachii is a large muscle on the anterior part of the upper arm that is responsible for shoulder and elbow flexion, as well as forearm supination. Although concentration curls are still the best strengthening exercise for the biceps, pulldowns also recruit the biceps brachii to flex the elbow.

Brachialis

The brachialis muscle is situated deeper than the biceps and provides pure flexion of the elbow. Being the primary flexor of the elbow, the brachialis provides more power than the biceps brachii to flex the joint.

Brachioradialis

This muscle, together with the biceps brachii and brachioradialis muscles work in pulling the bar to elicit elbow flexion. Found on the anterior forearm,  the brachioradialis muscle also aids in grasping the bar when doing lat pulldowns.

Hip Flexors and Abdominals

Hip flexors and abdominals assist to support the body during the lat pulldown. In the seated position and with the knees braced under the pad, this creates resistance for the hip flexors and the abdominals to work against. In addition, it was revealed in a prior study that the pulldown recruited more abdominals than the pull-up.

Final Thoughts

The lat pulldown is an excellent back isolation workout for broader lats, but it also engages a number of other muscles that work together to extend and adduct the upper extremities. It is an exceptional substitute for a pull-up and may be performed by beginners and advanced lifters.

References

1. Andersen, V., Fimland, S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., Saeterbakken, 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. DOI: 10.1097/JSC.000000000000023

2. Snyder BJ, Leech JR. Voluntary increase in latissimus dorsi muscle activity during the lat pull-down following expert instruction. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(8):2204-9. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181bb7213

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;28(4):1135-1142. doi:10.1097/JSC.0000000000000232

4. 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.

5. 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.

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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