Lat Pulldowns: How To

20 Jun

Possibly the most incorrectly used machine in the gym is the Lat Pulldown machine.  On any given day, I could pick out at least 5 people ranging from beginner level women, to big buff men, to seniors, who are doing it wrong.

A few basics:

-“Lat” is short for latissimus dorsi, the widest muscle in your back which, in short, moves the upper arm down and back.  “Pulldowns” refer to the motion of pulling in a downward motion.

The latissiums dorsi muscle

-The lat pulldown machine is meant to exercise the back, specifically the lats, back of the shoulders (rear deltoids), and the small muscles underneath the shoulders (rhomboids).  Because most pulling movements also involve the use of your biceps, you will also be working them a little bit too.

-By exercising the lats you will increase your overall power in many activities; your rear deltoids help you help to stabilize your shoulder blade, and rhomboid development is important for good posture.

-Aesthetically, having well developed lats will give you a broader back.  Now before you say “I’m a girl, I don’t want a bigger back!” think of how TEENY TINY your waist will look in comparison to a big(ger) back; you create the illusion of being slimmer than you already are!  Also, when you create a V-taper (going from wide at the back to narrow at the waist) you are giving yourself another dimension of curves in your body.  And what woman doesn’t want more curves? 😉

Latissimus dorsi. Isn’t that SEXY?!  Grrr, baby!

What to do:


-To set up, find the lat pulldown machine at your gym and make sure it has a long bar attached to the cable.  Adjust the leg pad so that when you sit down, your legs are sitting snugly in place.  This prevents you from “cheating” by using your legs and butt to move the weight.

-Select your weight.  If you’ve never tried these before, start with 30-40lbs, or maybe half of your body weight.  After doing a few repetitions, you’ll have a better idea of whether you should increase or decrease the weight.

-Grab the bar with an overhand grip.  Your thumb can be wrapped around the bar, or kept with your fingers – whichever you find more comfortable.  Your grip should be wide, meaning it’s a wider than shoulder width.  The wider you go, the harder it will be, but the more it will isolate your lats.  For men, try holding where the bar curves down, or slightly further than that.  For women, try grabbing just inside the curve.

Star with a wide grip

-Holding the bar, sit down and get your legs in place.  Lean back about 30 degrees.  Arch your lower back slightly and puff out your chest so it’s aimed towards the bar.  Keep your chin up.

-Roll your shoulders down and back, away from your ears.  Keep them there!  This will isolate your back muscles and prevent you from “cheating” by using other muscles such as your shoulders to do the work.  Your arms should be extended above and slightly ahead of you.  You can keep a very slight bend in your elbows.

-Inhale here.

Legs are snug, leaning slightly back, chest puffed out, chin up, and shoulders rolled away from the ears.


-Now, holding this very strict position, pull the bar down towards the top part of your chest.  Stop when the bar is either touching your chest, or hovering just centimeters over it. Your shoulders should still be rolled down and back; your elbows should be pointing downward (rather than pointing behind you to the back wall!).

-Exhale as you pull down.

Bar comes down to chest. Chin and chest are still lifted, shoulders are rolled down and out, and elbows are pointing down.

-SQUEEZE your back, especially your lats!  Now, mentally “relax” any other muscles that might be doing too much work, such as your biceps, forearms, and shoulders.  Remember, this is a BACK exercise after all 😉  Hold this position for a count of 2 seconds.

-Having said that, do keep your core engaged throughout the movement.

Squeezing the entire back, while trying to mentally “relax” any other upper body muscles.

-Slowly, still keeping your shoulders locked in place, return the bar to the starting position with arms extended overhead.  Inhale on the way back up.  Repeat.

-NOTE: If after a couple repetitions you find that you aren’t able to bring the bar all the way down to your chest, or if you have to swing yourself backwards and use momentum to bring it down, then decrease your weight.  If you find that you could probably bring the bar all the way down to your legs with no problem, then increase the weight.

What NOT to do:

-DO NOT lean so far backward that your torso is nearly horizontal.  This is dangerous to your back.

-DO NOT bring the bar all the way down to the seat.  All the work that needs to be done will occur by the time the bar reaches your chest.  Any more than that is wasting your energy, and is potentially dangerous.

-DO NOT yank the bar .  This is specifically aimed at all you tough guys who want to look impressive by “lifting” 250lbs.  It’s not impressive, it’s cheating by using momentum to move the weight.  Not to mention you could easily pull something doing that!

-DO NOT use any and all muscles except your back to do the lifting.  Although it is a compound exercise (meaning it’s a multi-joint movement), you should be trying to isolate your back as much as possible.  Don’t rely on your forearms, biceps, or shoulders to do the work.

*Special thanks to my model, Lindsay Blue.  Months of me being strict and nagging at her form have CLEARLY paid off!

Hope this helped 🙂



4 Responses to “Lat Pulldowns: How To”

  1. Outside the 140 June 20, 2012 at 8:19 pm #

    Awesome post, Tess! You explained the exercise incredibly clearly (and I love the hints of sarcasm!) 🙂

  2. Outside the 140 June 20, 2012 at 8:21 pm #

    Awesome post, Tess! You explained the exercise so clearly (and I love the hints of sarcasm).

    p.s. I signed up at your gym!

    • Tess and Jess June 20, 2012 at 8:41 pm #

      Really? Yaaaaay! I hope to run into you soon 🙂 Or, how about a gym date?

  3. getfitwithles June 23, 2012 at 4:34 pm #

    Reblogged this on Get Fit With Les and commented:
    Thanks to Tess for writing about this. It was full of so much useful info I thought I would share it with my readers 🙂
    For those of you who do or have done Lat Pulldowns please read and take notes!! This is one of my FAVOURITE back exercises and definitely one that most people do wrong.

    Now I’m off to Rib Fest to enjoy my cheat meal….

    Enjoy the rest of the weekend!
    Les 🙂

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