The lat pulldown is an exercise that can sometimes be overlooked when it comes to back training. That’s because pull ups are considered the more effective version as well as the more “hardcore” movement.
The lat pulldown is also sometimes frowned upon because it’s the movement that is substituted for pull ups by those who can’t do them.
You shouldn’t simply overlook this classic machine movement, though. What makes the lat pulldown a great choice is that there are several ways to work it into your routine. As a matter of fact, there are seven versions here that you can try for yourself.
While it might be “easier” than the bodyweight counterpart, it’s still a very effective movement that will help you warm up the back before serious training. You can also work it in as a finisher for when you want to really fatigue the lats, and yes, even utilize it as one of the main moves of your day.
Find ways to plug them in to your plan because doing so will lead to gains in the back you might have missed out on otherwise.
1. Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
This is the one that everyone thinks of when it comes to the lat pulldown. Unfortunately, the other thought associated with the wide grip lat pulldown is the image of someone jerking the weight down and rocking their body for the sole purpose of moving the pinned weight on the stack.
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If you actually maintain the proper form and avoid the jerking motion, you can train the lats, rear delts, and all of the muscles in the middle of the upper back. Make sure your grip is a little wider than shoulder width and you can maintain a solid grip of the handle. The angled handle is easier on the wrists but if a straight bar is all you have, go ahead and use it.
Make sure when you perform the pull, you pull your shoulder blades together first. This cue can help you activate the lats better. As a matter of fact, do that with every version offered here. Also, keep a slight bend in the elbow throughout the entire movement. There’s no need to lock out the elbows here.
2. Close Grip Pulldown
The close grip pulldown is one that you should choose if you want to focus more on isolating the lats. The closer grip will keep the arms more vertical which puts them in the best position when it comes to pulling with the lats only.
You should try to stay as vertical as you can when doing this one. Make sure you feel a deep stretch at the top but don’t try to stretch too much and risk injury. Also, think of your hands as hooks. Don’t try to pull with the arms. Think of pulling with the lats only. Your elbows should come straight down as far as you can.
Now you’re probably thinking about doing these with that “v” handle, right? That’s a good one but here’s an advanced trick. Use a tricep rope. Pulling with the ends allows you to separate the hands at the bottom and get that extra inch or two which can really enhance the contraction.
3. Neutral Grip Lat Pulldown
This one will hit the entire back but it will hit more of the upper portion of the lats when performed correctly. The handle has grips that are about shoulder-width apart and will have your hands in a hammer-type grip so the palms face each other.
You can slightly lean back on this if you want to get more of the muscles in the middle of the upper back like the mid-traps and teres major. Don’t let that be an excuse for the jerking motion. That won’t help you develop the back; just the ego which you shouldn’t be working at all.
4. Reverse Grip Lat Pulldown
The reverse grip lat pulldown does work the biceps and there is no real way to avoid that. You can minimize it by using straps if you like. The great benefit to this one is how it will blast the lower portion of your lats.
The grip doesn’t need to be too wide. If you can comfortably go an inch or so wider than shoulder-width, that is ok. When you pull down, make sure you try to stick your chest out as high as you can. Also, hold that contraction at the bottom for a second or two because that is what will really max out that benefit for that area. This is key to making the lats overall appear larger.
5. Kneeling Lat Pulldown
So all of these movements call for you to be seated. So what is the kneeling lat pulldown? It would be any version of the above exercises you want to do – except that you would be kneeling behind the seat or kneeling in front of an independent cable pulley.
Doing this will increase the range of motion so it makes these already effective movements even more effective. You also have to control your body more and stabilize yourself which provides a greater challenge. Taller guys can also benefit from doing these pulldowns kneeling when they are too large for the standard station.
6. Single Arm Lat Pulldown
Single arm cable or machine work provides similar benefits to working with dumbbells because the side you’re working gets no help from the other side of your body. It is actually better to work one side at a time with cables than with dumbbells because the cables provide constant tension from start to finish. That means they get no break which increases your chances of results.
Related: 5 Exercises to Make Your Lats Flare (Plus Workout!)
Using a single pulley and handle, position your body so the working side is lined up with the cable. When you pull down, make sure you get that handle back as far as possible. When you let the handle back up, take an extra second or two to feel that stretch. That opens up the fascia which is the thin layer of skin around the muscle fibers. Doing this will help you enhance the pump you get with each set.
When you finish with the first side, switch to the other and repeat for the same reps. You should start with the weaker side of your back first so you can commit the most energy to it.
7. Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
Not all pulldowns have to be in a seated or kneeling position. The standing lat pulldown can make a great substitute for the dumbbell pullover or pullover machine. The movement has a similar effect on the lats.
Using a straight handle will help you move more weight and incorporate more of the traps. However, the range of motion can be limited because once you reach your body with the handle, that’s as far as you can go.
Using a rope can alleviate that issue. Pulling down and separating the ends of the rope can help increase the range of motion and get a greater contraction. Better yet, you can place two ropes on one pulley and pull both ropes so they are at their greatest length.
One more way to make this one more effective. When you pull the weight down, bring your hips in slowly. Doing this will help you activate the lower lats a little more. Pull the hips back as the handle goes up so you feel that stretch from top to bottom.
Finally, you can opt for the single arm version of this exercise. Hold on to the cable itself and position yourself so you can pull in a straight line. Make sure you stand far enough back that you don’t touch the stack with the pinned weight.
I majored in health and exercise science and consider myself a slightly above-average lifter. I have to say this is one of the best articles I've read for different variations and what they work differently. Thank you!
Thank you, Anthony! I really appreciate that!