Pull-ups are phenomenal for upper-body strength and building muscle, but they’re hard. Horribly hard. To the point where many people will crap out after just a couple of pull-ups, if that, which can really kill your motivation during a workout.
Fortunately, this is when the lat pull-down comes into its own. It involves a similar movement to the pull-up, challenging your mid- and upper-back muscles, arms and grip, but you have more control over how much you lift and can slow the tempo right down to help increase muscle size rapidly.
As the name suggests, the move targets the latissimus dorsi – the large, flat muscles across your mid back. Latissimus dorsi translates to “broadest of the back”, underlining the power of this move for giving you a strong back. A strong back is also vital for a strong chest, meaning the more you work on your lat pull-downs, the better equipped you’ll be to go big on the bench press.
However, it’s one of the most badly performed moves in the gym. You’ll typically see someone leaning back and yanking the bar towards their chest, using their bodyweight to initiate the move. Not only does this mean the lats aren’t working properly, they’ll be putting extra stress on their pelvis and lower back. To make the most of this move, your reps should be slow and controlled. Here’s how to do it properly.
How To Do The Lat Pull-Down
Adjust the pad so it sits snugly on your thighs to minimise movement. Grasp the bar with a wide grip, looking forward with your torso upright. Retract your shoulder blades and pull the bar down in front of you to your upper chest. Squeeze your lats at the bottom of the move. Resist the temptation to lean back to aid the movement.
As you’re sure to soon find out, your grip is typically the first thing to give up with most pulling movements – especially with this lift, since gravity is making all the blood drain down your arms. To ensure your back gets a tough enough workout, reduce the weight once your grip goes so that you can continue with the move and aim for a high rep count that will continue to challenge your lat muscles.
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Lat Pull-Down Variations
Underhand lat pull-down
Switch your grip on the bar so you’re holding it with your palms facing you and your hands shoulder-width apart. By changing to an underhand grip you recruit your biceps to help with the movement, which has the added benefit of taking some of the load off your lats if they are tiring towards the end of a back workout. Holding the bar with that underhand grip, pull it down to below chin height, keeping your chest up throughout. Pause at the bottom of the movement, then take the bar back up under control.
Wide-grip lat pull-down
The wider your grip, the more the lats have to work during the exercise. Your grip should be fairly wide even with the standard version of the lat pull-down, but with this variation you take your hands right to the ends of the bar. Other than that, the form is the same as the standard lat pull-down. Pull the bar down to your upper chest, pause for a beat while squeezing your lats, then take the bar back up under control.
Unilateral lat pull-down
This single-arm variation works each side of your body individually, which is a great way to ensure that a stronger side isn’t doing all of the heavy lifting (or in this case, pulling) as with the standard exercise. Replace the bar on the machine with a handle and hold it with your palm facing away from you. Turn your palm to face you as you pull the handle down, before slowly returning to the starting position. Do all the reps on one arm, then switch to the other.
It can be hard to avoid over-using your arm muscles with the standard pull-down, so to make sure you’re really focusing on the lats, try the straight-arm version. Stand up for this exercise and hold the bar over you with your arms straight and angled forwards 15-20°. Pull the bar down to your thighs, keeping your arms straight, then slowly bring it back up.
Close-grip lat pull-down to triceps press-down
You shouldn’t be feeling the burn in your triceps with a standard pull-down – if you are, it means you’re not engaging the lats as you should be. This variation of the move, however, does hit the upper arms hard. Kneel facing the machine with your body upright. Hold a short bar above your head with an overhand grip, palms facing forwards. Pull the bar down by bringing your elbows in to your sides. Then press the bar down, keeping your elbows by your sides. Reverse the movement to return to the starting position.