man on a lat pulldown machine

The Lat Pulldown: The Best Augment to Your Workout

We previously talked about the Power Clean workout and why it’s an essential exercise for any dad looking to stay in tiptop shape. In this article, we talk about the Lat Pulldown, one of the most underrated and often ignored workouts that can build massive strength gains and aid you in your other workouts.

In general, it’s always best to rely on free weights like barbells and dumbbells, and it’s for good reason: they’re superior to machines in terms of building the foundations of strength training. That being said, there are certain, machine-based exercises that are helpful in supplementing your main lifts.

The Lat Pulldown is an isolated exercise that works out your entire back. Performing this exercise allows you to strengthen your back muscles when you’re not doing your squats or shoulder presses without over-exerting them. Plus, it gives you that ‘shredded back’ look that really accentuates pretty much every other part of your body.

Which Muscles Does Lat Pulldown Work?

The Lat Pulldown takes its name from the latissimus dorsi, the large, broad, and flat muscle that encompasses most of your back, from your shoulders and upper torso, beneath your arms, and most of your middle-back area.

Building up your lats isn’t just about looking shredded: strengthening this muscle helps your shoulders stabilize, improves your posture, and provides explosive strength to your arm movements. Working out your lats also helps people with breathing issues, as the strengthened muscles help compress and expand the lungs.

The Lat Pulldown also works out small areas of your shoulders, traps, and even your biceps, triceps, and forearms. It’s a great accessory movement for your entire body, and while it’s not a replacement for a full, upper-body workout routine, it’s a great idea to include it.

The Lat Pulldown: Is it Necessary?

Here’s the thing about the Lat Pulldown: a lot of bodybuilders think it’s unnecessary because a majority of their workout routines –like the clean-and-press, clean-and-jerk, military presses, etc. –already work their latissimus dorsi muscles. However, for people who probably don’t want to go full-on Olympic weightlifting, including the Lat Pulldown in your upper-body workouts, or as an accessory upper-body movement in your non-upper body workouts, helps you build strength and muscle size.

The Lat Pulldown is also a great exercise for beginners, as it’s the perfect starting point (or alternative) to pull-ups and chin-ups. In general, pull-ups are a great accessory exercise for your upper body because it works out pretty much everything above the waist, from your arms and shoulders and chest to your core and, you guessed it, your latissimus dorsi.

That being said, anyone who’s ever attempted a pull-up knows exactly how difficult it is to clear that bar once, let alone a full 15-20 reps. The Lat Pulldown, although requires a machine, is the best way to help beginners progress towards a full pull-up by slowly increasing both muscle size and muscle strength in your back muscles.

As an accessory movement, it’s also a great way to supplement most of your upper-back routines, but it’s also a great way to strengthen your deadlifts. As we all know, deadlifts are the KING of strength-building workouts and is the foundation of the Clean-and-Press. Lat Pulldowns help you build strength in your back, which in turn helps you stabilize the bar close to your shins during a deadlift and helps you keep your back flexed and engaged during the deadlift’s extension.

How to Properly Do the Lat Pulldown

A Lat Pulldown is performed using a Lat Pulldown machine, obviously. If you have access to a gym, they will most likely have one. If you don’t have access to a gym, there are simplified pulley rigs available online that can help you achieve the Lat Pulldown movement.

In any case, once you’ve chosen your machine, take your seat, and let’s begin.

Step 1: Choose Your Grip 

There are two, effective ways to grip the Lat Pulldown bar, the overhand and the underhand, and both have specific benefits for specific muscles:

  • An overhand grip targets more of the upper lats than the underhand. This is a wider grip that helps you stretch out your arms and, thus, engage more of your upper lats. To do the overhand grip, grip the bars with your palms facing away from you and grip them a little over shoulder-width apart.
  • Meanwhile, an underhand grip targets mostly the lower parts of your lats, with your underarm muscles and mid-back muscles exerting the most effort. To do the underhand grip, grip the bars with your palms facing you and grip them just at shoulder-width apart.

Step 2: Take a Comfortable and Proper Seat

Once you’ve sorted out your grip, get situated on the bench. The best and proper way is to make sure that your knees are under the knee pads as this keeps your legs locked down, ensuring proper Lat Pulldown form. Your feet should be flat on the ground, hip-width apart, and your butt should be firmly on the seat and not lifting off whenever the bar goes back up.

 Step 3: Pull Your ELBOWS Down

When doing the Lat Pulldown, the biggest mistake beginners make is using their hands and forearms to initiate the movement. Instead, the best, most effective, and overall safest, way to do the Lat Pulldown is the pull your elbows down.

Having this mindset does two things: first, it primes your body to start securing your elbows to your side and preventing them from flaring out. Secondly, because your elbows are closer to your side, it starts to engage the right muscle (i.e., your lats instead of your arms) for the movement.

As you pull your elbows down, make sure to keep them as close to your ribs as possible, as this engages more of your latissimus dorsi, giving you more power and helping you avoid injuring both your arms and your shoulder joints.

Step 4: Take the Bar Down to Your Chest

Pull down the bar, and as you do, puff up your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades back and down. This movement allows you to engage the most of your lats and helps stabilize the rest of your upper body. As the bar goes down, have it make contact with your upper chest, just above your nipples. Do not make the bar ‘float’ in front of your chest, and NEVER PULL THE BAR BEHIND YOUR NECK. This is a sure-fire way to injure yourself and impede your fitness journey. It’s always important to maintain weightlifting discipline, and it’s a good way to teach your children healthy habits like this.

Step 5: Try To Control Your Lean

While leaning back to lend more power to your pulldown can happen, try not to lean back too much. Leaning back too much will turn the exercise into an inverted row, which in turn, exercises an entirely different set of muscles.

As much as possible, try to keep your back as straight as possible. A little leaning is ok, but the more you approach a 45-degree angle, the less effective your Lat Pulldown is. A good rule-of-thumb to follow is: if the weights are so heavy that you need to rely on leaning to pull down the bar, you need to offload the weight.

Step 6: Try to Control Your Eccentrics

Once you’ve pulled the bar down, it has met your chest, and you’ve kept your back straight, it’s time to take the bar back up so you can complete the rep. However, don’t let the weights bring the bar back to its starting position: instead, try to control the bar in such a way that it goes back to its starting point in a slow and controlled manner.

This eccentric phase of the exercise helps your lats build up tensile strength, which helps you build bigger and ‘beefier’ muscles. This part of the Lat Pulldown is the opposite of your regular movement: where the pulldown is explosive, the eccentric is slow, controlled, and more gentle.

Step 7: Don’t Forget the Stretch

Probably the most important part of the Lat Pulldown that many people tend to forget, stretching as soon as the bar goes back to the starting point is the best way to ensure that your exercise has used up your back’s full range of motion.

Engaging your muscle’s full range of motion means that you’re working out as much of your muscle as possible. It gives you the strength you need to lift heavier weights, and it helps you build muscle mass and tensile strength. Once the bar reaches the top, make sure to give yourself a nice, big stretch as well.

The Lat Pulldown: Easy Does It

As an accessory movement, you don’t need to go all-out in your Lat Pulldowns. It’s not the main event of your upper body workout, it’s only supposed to accentuate it. Try to keep your Lat Pulldown weights somewhere in the 15-20% of your maximum. Yes, you could go lighter, but if you are lighter, you need to do more reps, which honestly, maximizes your Lat Pulldown effectiveness anyway.

Lat Pulldowns lean towards rep volume rather than rep heaviness: try to keep your reps in the 8-15 range. For beginners, try to start at 3 sets of 10 at 10% of your maximum weight. Once this becomes so easy that you’re completing it without even breaking a sweat, increase the reps to 12, up to a max of 15.

Once you hit the 15-rep range, you can start increasing the weights. Once you start approaching the 20% range of your max weight, start bringing the reps back down to 12, then 10, then 8. If you go beyond 20% max weight, stick to 3 sets of 5.

Again, as with any exercise, always listen to your body and find a workout routine that works for you. If you end your workout completely wiped out, you’re probably over-exerting yourself. Every father’s health matters, so slow down! Remember: fitness should be measured in years, not months.

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