The Lat Pulldown – How to Maximize Latissimus Activity

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?

14 replies
  1. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    The whole idea of the lat pull down machine is a vertical pull, in my opinion, similar to the pull up. It doesn’t seem to make sense when people use momentum to swing back and create what is, essentially, a horizontal pull like any other rowing variation. Nice to see the data on this. Thanks!

  2. 10in30muscle BUM
    10in30muscle BUM says:

    So, if you lean back, are you working out more of the mid-back muscles instead of the side Lats as you will when sitting straight up? I follow the Lat Pulldown (leaning back w a straight bar) with seated Rows. What specifically am I working out with each? Thanks for the tips and article!

  3. Greg
    Greg says:

    Hi Mike,

    We did a similar study in 2004 but found slightly different conclusions with no change in the lat activity (statistically of course). With supination we found a trend toward increasing biceps activity. But when we calculated the latissimus dorsi to biceps activity you can certainly see a difference in the ratios. Suggesting that supination may really influence the activity of both muscles.

    A neat little thing about our study was we also looked at the influence of actively retracting the scapula during the seated row on middle trapezius muscle activity. We didn’t see any difference but I think our weights studied may have been a bit low. We should really repeat it with higher weights.

    Here is the link:

    All the best, love the site.

    Greg Lehman

  4. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    This is curious. I used to base things on the principle that a muscle works hardest when contracting from its most stretched position.
    John Mc

  5. Niel K. Patel
    Niel K. Patel says:

    In a pull-up, the bar is positioned in front of the body. Is it necessary to pull "through the head" to achieve more lat recruitment and minimize middle trap work?

  6. Anonymous
    Anonymous says:

    For those without a way to perform this using two pulleys (and want another variation in adition to the method you showed with the two handles attached to the straight bar), try lying sideways on an incline bench and performing a 1-arm pulldown from a single cable stack or 1 side of a cable cross-over machine.

    You get a great prestretch for the lats, and the nature of the movement forces you to focus on quality over absolute load.

    -Greg Dansby

    p.s. Mike and others,

    Any thoughts on the relative value of crossing the canles in an X pattern when able to perform the 2-pulley version? I've seen this variant before, but it felt a bit unwieldy, had an somewhat unusual line/angle of pull, and didn't seem to confer any added benefit (possibly even detracting from the movement a bit). And yet a number of people contend that is the way it should be performed. I've always stuck to the 2-pulley version shown in the video.

  7. Kevin
    Kevin says:

    Excellent post…this is why I keep coming back to the web site and probably why I ordered the shoulder dvds recently.

    I modify the pull-up exercise in a very similar fashion to also engage more forearm/grip strength. Using two towels wrapped around the straight bar as handles, you can pull up straight "through your head" until the top, or slightly anterior, part of your head touches the straight bar. This also requires proper speed of the exercise–go too fast and you may require medical attention. Placing the towels wider allows you to maintain a pronated grip position.

  8. John DeLucchi, SPT, CSCS
    John DeLucchi, SPT, CSCS says:

    Besides a good ol' pull-up I use 2 exercises for Lats. One is with a free motion machine on the highest widest setting (with bilat ropes) and almost do a D2 pattern. I start ABD, flexed, and ext rot. then go into ADD, extension and int rotation without crossing my body. I have messed around with this in standing, kneeling and half kneeling both forward and at the side. The other exercise is while I am on a double weight stack machine I will again put the handles at the highest and widest setting and pull down and in. The end position is that of a W and gives me good scapular retraction and depression. I usually will perform this in kneeling or half kneeling.

  9. Clement
    Clement says:

    Ah, this is really controversial! But then again, the lat pulldown has been for years. I ply around with it sometimes as I do like working in the machines for a change, but mostly I just do pullups and chinups, as Anonymous said.

    Bret Contrares did a really good article onT-nation when he compared lat activity and such on different exercises. I was pleased to see that the chinup actually works more muscles than the pullup and that shoulder width was just as effective as wide grip. I really prefer chinups to pullups, mainly because I find them easier!

    Great website you have here. I've just found this out thanks to a tweet by Mike Robertson!

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