The latissimus dorsi, commonly known as the lats, are the long flat muscles that run down each side of the back. One of the most popular exercises to workout these muscles is the lat pulldown. It isn't unusual to see some people at the gym performing lat pulldowns by pulling the bar down in front of the chest, while others pull the bar down behind the neck. This may leave you wondering which form is best.
According to the National Council on Strength & Fitness, the lat pulldown performed behind the head increases risk for cervical spine injury. It also places undue stress on the glenohumeral, or shoulder joint. A 2009 study published in the "Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research" indicated that, when the lat pulldown was performed to the front, the lats were more activated than when the pulldown was performed behind the head. The research concluded that, in addition to posing an injury risk, pulldowns performed behind the head are less efficient at targeting the lats.
The National Council on Strength & Fitness cites the safe and correct form for the lat pulldown. Sit with your feet flat on the floor and your knees anchored under the pad. Grab the bar with your palms facing forward, placing your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lean back slightly. Exhale as you pull the bar down to the top of your chest and think about squeezing your shoulder blades together and downward during the movement. Once the bar touches or nearly touches your chest, slowly straighten your arms to lower the weight down and resume the starting position.
You can vary your hand placement on the lat pulldown by assuming a wider grip. This will focus the workload on the upper part of the lats. Do not take a grip that is shoulder-width or narrower because this will overstress your shoulder joint. You may also perform this exercise in a standing position with your feet staggered. Be sure to maintain a slight bend in your knees and a gentle arch in your back throughout the movement.
Some people may have trouble maintaining a strong grip on the bar during the lat pulldown. If you feel the bar slipping, gently set the weight down immediately. If the grip issue is related to sweat or a slick bar, a pair of weightlifting gloves will solve the problem. However, if you have trouble holding the bar because your grip isn't strong enough, you will need to strengthen your forearms to be able to perform the exercise properly.
- AceFitness.org: Seated Lat Pulldown
- NCSF.org: Contraindicated Exercises
- NCSF.org: Investigating the Lat Pulldown
- Strength and Conditioning Journal; Analysis of the Lat Pulldown; Tiffany Crate
- The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research; Electromyographic Analysis of Three Different Types of Lat Pull-Down; Sandro Sperandei, Marcos Barros, Paulo Silveira-Júnior & Carlos Oliveira
- Principles and Practice of Resistance Training; Michael H Stone, MD, Meg Stone & Bill Sands
- Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning; Thomas R Baechle, Ed.D. & Roger W. Earle
Jessica Bell has been working in the health and fitness industry since 2002. She has served as a personal trainer and group fitness instructor. Bell holds an M.A. in communications and a B.A. in English.