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The Lat Pulldown – How to Maximize Latissimus Activity

Posted Sep 06 2010 3:00am

The lat pulldown exercise is such a common exercise that I bet you’d be surprised if I told you that I think you are performing it wrong.  OK, so maybe you aren’t doing it “wrong” but I bet there is a better technique you can perform to maximize our training of the latissimus dorsi muscle.  

image I think at this point in time, it’s pretty much common knowledge that performing the lat pulldown in front of your head is the safest and most appropriate use of the exercise.  Dr. Axe in Delaware showed this many years ago. But I’m sure that you’ve seen many people at the gym perform the exercise behind their head.  Are they nuts?  Well, no, their probably putting their shoulder in a disadvantageous position but I bet they are actually getting a better lat workout than someone performing the exercise in front of their head.  I’ll explain more in a video below.   Furthermore, a new study recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research by Lusk et al sheds some light on the debate about grip width and forearm position (pronation vs. supination).  Let’s look at all these factors.

Grip Width

Comparing a wide and narrow grip, Lusk et al showed that there were no significant differences in latissimus dorsi, middle trapezius, or biceps brachii EMG activity between grip positions.

Forearm Position

Comparing a forearm pronated position versus supinated position, Lusk et al noted that having the forearm pronated (palms out) during the lat pulldown exercise resulted in a statistically significant increase in latissimus EMG activity.  Also of note, the supinated position did not increase biceps EMG activity

Body Position – “Through Your Head”

While performing the lat pulldown behind the head is not great for your shoulders, performing in front of your head really ruins the exercise for me.  We’ve all seen it before, the common technique of extended your spine and leaning backward, effectively making the exercise more of a middle trapezius workout than a latissimus workout.

There is a solution, though. There are a bunch of new machines that allow you to perform the lat pulldown “through your head” rather than in front or behind by eliminating the traditional straight bar.

Watch this video below, note these from the clips below:

  • The first clip is what I would call the most common technique for the lat pulldown.  Note the lumbar extension and the angle that the exercise creates.  Again, changing this from a lat to a trap exercise.
  • The next set, I instruct the model to try to perform the exercise with good posture, as upright as possible.  As you can see, better, but still not perfect.
  • Next, let’s look at using a machine that has two separate arms to pulldown rather than a straight bar.  See the difference?  The back does not extend at all and the line of pull is “through the head,” maximizing the lat.
  • This can be done on many different machines, such as a Keiser, Free Motion, Cable Pulleys, etc.
  • Here is an example of how to modify a straight bar if that is all you have.  I don’t like to just use two handles on one pulley.  The grip is too narrow for me and you end up having to perform in front of your head.  If you don't have two separate pulleys, try putting two hand grip straps on the straight bar as shown.  Again, note the proper spine posture and pulldown “through the head.”  Not a bad modification if that is all you have.

 

Clinical Implications

To summarize:

  • Grip width doesn’t change latissimus activity, so I would recommend a width that is comfortable for your shoulders.
  • Forearm position does make a difference.  You can maximize lat contribution by using a pronated position.
  • Pulling down behind the head is bad for your shoulder and in front of your head takes away from lat activity.  Try pulling “through your head” to maximize latissimus.

What do you think?  Have you had better results with the “through your head” technique?  Do you have any other suggestions of modifications for those out there that don’t have a method of performing lat pulldowns with two pulleys?

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