How & Why To Do More Lat Pulldowns

Mar 10, 2023 | Strength & Conditioning

Strong man in gym facing backward on lat pulldown machine doing lat workout

Most people are at least somewhat familiar with the lat pulldown machine. Maybe you used it before, or maybe you hit your head on it a couple of times (yes I’m looking at everyone over 6ft tall, myself included). So what makes this machine so popular, and how can it help you develop strength and/or physique?

Dr. Matthew Styf, PT, DPT is a certified clinical orthopedic specialist and S&C coach based out of Massachusetts. He brings a unique viewpoint to the strength training community as both a coach and physical therapist with extensive experience helping athletes/patients return to their desired activities. In this blog, he explains the importance of strengthening lats and how to use the lat pulldown to crush your fitness goals.

Matthew Styf
Dr. Matthew Styf

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Know Your Lats: Anatomy, Function, & Strength Benefits

The latissimus dorsi (lats) are big muscles that connect your upper body to your lower back. They’re located right under your shoulder blades and run across the back of your rib cage.

The lats originate along the lower thoracic spine. A huge mass of fascia (tissue that holds your muscles in place) attaches it to your lower back and pelvis.

Because your lats run from these origin points and attach to the upper humerus (your upper arm bone), they’re responsible for a lot of arm movements. It primarily pulls the arm closer to the body, rotates the palms to the floor, and pulls the arms behind the body.

Basically, every time you use your arms to pull your body weight, you’re engaging your lats. Think pull-ups, swimming, deadlifts, or any rowing exercises. You get the gist.

Latissimus dorsi as body side muscle behind human ribcage outline diagram. Labeled educational medical scheme with spinous process, iliac crest or thoracolumbar aponeurosis anatomy vector illustration
Now that you understand where lats are located and what they do, you can see why strengthening them is important. If your lats take up so much superficial space on your back and are responsible for connecting your upper body to your trunk, why would you neglect them?

There’s no other exercise that isolates and strengthens your lats like the lat pulldown. It’s not just bodybuilder and gym bro work – overhead athletes, such as baseball pitchers, need lat strength and flexibility and benefit from including more lat pulldowns in their training.

Lat Pulldown 101: Get Your Grip Right

Different grips target different fibers of the muscle and different accessory muscles. Personally, I think the pronated (overhand) grip places your lat in the most advantageous position for this exercise.

A supinated grip (palms up) is the most disadvantageous because the rotation is the wrong way. This inhibits the lat from actually maximizing its contraction and force production.

In general, the wider the grip, the more the part of the lat that brings the arm back to the body works. The more narrow the grip, the more the part that extends the arm backward works.

Lat Pulldowns For Every Fitness Goal

The seated lat pulldown is the most common way to perform this exercise. Simply grab the bar overhead with a pronated grip, lean back slightly, and pull.

But before you commit to the most common way to perform a lat pulldown, think about your training goals. There might be a better outcome to work on in your current training cycle to help reach your goals.

For example, here are a few variations targeting different goals:

  • For bigger deadlifts: Add a straight arm (banded or cable) pulldown in a slightly hip hinged or forward-flexed (at the hips) position.
  • For fewer lat strains for overhead athletes: Add a single-arm neutral grip lat pulldown with a tempo component on the way back up.
  • For less neck and shoulder pain: Don’t pull the bar behind your neck when sitting.

Your lats look great when developed, but don’t forget their functional components in everyday life. From sports performance to lifting heavy boxes, there are few things stronger lats won’t benefit. Heck, they even help protect against lower back pain!

Whatever your goal, strong lats help get you there. Try adding more lat pulldowns to your current training and crush your goals in less time!

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