The Lat Pulldown for Shoulders and Back

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The pulldown exercise is performed at a workstation with adjustable resistance, usually plates. While sitting with your upper thighs restrained under a thigh pad, you pull a hanging bar down toward you, to reach chin level, and then release it back up with control for one repetition.

The lat pulldown exercise works the back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi or the "lats," the muscle just under the armpits and spreading across and down the back. By isolating the back muscles with this exercise, you can focus specifically on this group of muscles, without tiring out the biceps or triceps. It's important to target your back muscles to help with proper posture and to ease pulling movements, like opening a door, starting a lawnmower, or even performing a pull-up.

Alternative grips can be used: wide, narrow, under- or over-hand in order to target specific muscle groups. Avoid performing a variation where the bar is pulled behind the head, and this can strain and injure the shoulders.

Lat Pulldown Starting Position

Man in starting position for the lat pulldown
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  1. Sit comfortably on the pulldown seat, feet flat on the floor.
  2. Check the height of the bar. You may need to adjust the bar height by shortening or lengthening the chain or cable that supports the bar, or your seat height. Get a gym trainer to help with this if necessary. The bar should be at a height that your outstretched arms can comfortably grasp the bar without having to fully stand up, but you should also be able to still extend your arms to achieve full range of motion.
  3. Adjust the knee pad so that the upper thighs are tucked firmly under the pad. This will assist you when you apply effort to the bar.
  4. To start, grasp the bar with a wide grip with an overhand, knuckles up grip. Other positions and grips are possible but start with this standard position.

The Pulldown Movement

Woman completing the lat pulldown
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  1. From the starting position, pull the bar down until it's approximately level with the chin. While shifting just slightly backward is okay, aim to keep your upper torso stationary although some movement. Be sure your forearms are not doing the work of pulling the bar down—you want it to come from your back. Keep your feet flat on the floor and engage your abs as you pull.
  2. Squeeze the shoulder blades together while maintaining square shoulders.
  3. From the bottom position with the bar close to your chin, slowly return the bar to the starting position while controlling its gradual ascent. Don't let it crash into the weight plates.
  4. Continue until you complete eight to 12 repetitions in a set. Rest, then continue to complete your program of sets.

Important Notes on the Pulldown

Backview of woman doing a lat pulldown
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  1. Using a middle-distance grip, with forearms upright and hands about shoulder-width apart work the biceps and middle back. A wide grip recruits more back muscles and a close-grip pulldown emphasizes the forearm muscles.
  2. The straight-arm pulldown, which requires keeping your elbows nearly fully extended the entire time (usually done standing), hits the muscles on the back of the upper arm, known as the triceps.
  3. Reversing the grip to underhand with knuckles facing downward and palms up puts more work on the muscles on the front of your upper arm, known as the biceps. This is true of any position on the bar—wide, middle, or close.
  4. The pulldown behind the neck is not recommended for safety reasons, as the rotation of the shoulder joint and possible spine contact with the bar could lead to injuries.
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