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How to Do a Lat Pulldown: Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

The pulldown exercise works the back muscles and is performed at a workstation with adjustable resistance, usually plates.

While seated, you pull a hanging bar toward you to reach chin level, then release it back up with control for one repetition. This exercise can be done as part of an upper-body strength workout.

How to Do a Lat Pulldown

Sit comfortably on the pulldown seat, with your feet flat on the floor. 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 stand up entirely, but you should also be able to still extend your arms to achieve a full range of motion. If the station has a thigh pad, adjust it so that the upper thighs are tucked firmly under the pad. This will assist you when you apply effort to the bar.

  1. 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.
  2. Pull the bar down until it’s approximately level with the chin. Exhale on the downward motion. While shifting slightly backward is OK, aim to keep your upper torso stationary. Keep your feet flat on the floor and engage your abs as you pull. The bottom of the motion should be where your elbows can’t move downward anymore without moving backward. Be sure to stop at that point and do not go lower.
  3. Squeeze the shoulder blades together while maintaining square shoulders.
  4. 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.
  5. Continue until you complete eight to 12 repetitions in a set. Rest, then continue to complete your program of sets.

Benefits of Lat Pulldowns

It’s essential to target your back muscles to help with proper posture and to ease pulling movements, like opening a door, starting a lawnmower, swimming, or even performing a pull-up. Having strong lats may even help relieve some kinds of back pain.1

Muscles Worked During Lat Pulldowns

The latissimus dorsi, or “lats,” is the name given to the muscle located just under the armpits that extends across and down the back. This exercise primarily targets this muscle. The teres major, a muscle close to the base of the shoulder blade, is also worked during lat pulldowns.

By isolating the back muscles with this exercise, you can focus specifically on them without tiring out the biceps or triceps.

Other Variations of Lat Pulldowns

You can perform this exercise in different ways to meet your skill level and goals.

Light Weights or Bands for Beginners

Beginners may want to start with light weights or a band to ensure they use the correct form. You can also try performing the exercise standing, with one leg forward as if walking.

Alternative Grips

Try wider, narrow, under- or overhand grips to target specific muscle groups. Using a middle-distance grip, with forearms upright and hands about shoulder-width apart, work the biceps and middle back. A wider grip recruits more back muscles, and a close grip pulldown emphasizes the forearm muscles.2

Straight Arm Pulldown

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.

Reversing Your Grip

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.

Common Mistakes

Avoid these errors so you can get the most from this exercise and prevent strain or injury.

Arching Your Back

Sit upright and keep your chest lifted as you pull the bar down. Maintaining a neutral spine can help protect your lower back from injury.

Using Your Forearms

Be sure your forearms are not doing the work of pulling the bar down—you want it to come from your back. Activate your lats by pulling down from your armpits.

Holding the Bar Too Wide

Grab the bar just outside your shoulders, but not too wide, especially if you’re a beginner. Keep your elbows pointed down as you lower the bar and not out to the sides.

Pulling Down Too Far

Stop at the point where your elbows would need to go backward to continue pulling the cable down. If the elbows go backward, it will put excessive stress on the shoulder joint. You should only lower the bar to your chin or just below.

Using Momentum

As with most weighted exercises, perform the pulldown slowly and with control. Doing it fast uses momentum and reduces the use of the targeted muscles.

Safety and Precautions

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.

If you have any wrist, elbow, or shoulder problems, talk to your doctor or physical therapist to see if this exercise is appropriate. Stop this exercise if you feel any pain or too much stress on your shoulder joints.

The number of reps you do in one workout will depend on the weight used, your experience level, and strength.

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