How to do Lat Pulldowns Correctly & Safely [Video & FAQs]

The lat pulldown is one of the only useful machines in the weight room. It allows you to train a large group of muscles at once, making it one of the most efficient exercises you can do.

If you cannot perform a pull-up, the lat pulldown is a great alternative to get a similar training effect.

In this article, you will learn how to do the lat pulldown exercise with proper form.

Let’s get started.

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Okay, let’s get started.



LAT PULLDOWN FORM VIDEO TUTORIAL

BENEFITS OF THE LAT PULLDOWN

  • Strengthens the upper back muscles, the biceps, the forearms, and the latissimus dorsi muscle
  • Provides versatility by allowing you to change the width of your grip
  • Trains the same muscles as a pull-up, which makes it a perfect substitute for those who cannot do full range of motion pull-ups

WHAT MUSCLES DOES THE LAT PULLDOWN WORK?

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Rhomboids
  • Posterior Deltoids
  • Middle and Lower Trapezius
  • Biceps
  • Forearm Muscles / Grip Strength

HOT TO PERFORM THE LAT PULLDOWN WITH PROPER FORM

  • Approach a lat pulldown machine with a bar that allows you to maintain a grip outside of shoulder width
  • Adjust the thigh pad to a height where you can keep your shins relatively perpendicular to the floor
  • Grab the pulldown bar with your palms facing forward at a grip outside of shoulder width
  • Place your knees under the knee pad and sit down
alex at the top of a lat pulldown with his arms extended overhead grabbing the bar and knees anchored under the pads
  • From this position, arch slightly at the upper back so that your chest is sticking out some
  • Next, depress and retract your scapula to lock your shoulder blades in place
alex at the top of a lat pulldown but actively retracting and depressing his shoulder blades
  • Maintain this position and do not let your shoulder blades protract
  • Maintain a flat neutral back throughout the rest of your spine
  • Take a big breath and begin pulling the bar down by pulling your elbows down towards your pockets
  • Bring the bar down to touch your clavicles while keeping your upper back arched
alex at the bottom of a lat pulldown with the bar at his clavicles, upper back arched, and elbows in close to his body
  • Concentrate on squeezing your upper back muscles at the end position
  • Slowly return the bar back to the starting position
  • Do not change your back position in an effort to artificially make it seem like you are bringing the weight lower

COMMON LAT PULLDOWN MISTAKES

NOT BRINGING THE WEIGHT DOWN FAR ENOUGH

If you do not perform a full range of motion, you are only cheating yourself and not working the muscles to their full potential. Although it isn’t necessary to touch your clavicles on every repetition, you should focus on bringing the bar to the level of your neck.

ALLOWING YOUR SHOULDERS TO INTERNALLY ROTATE AT THE BOTTOM

A common mistake many trainees make is not keeping their shoulders externally rotated.

Your shoulders internally rotate in a lat pulldown when the weight is either too heavy, or you are performing too many reps. Keep your upper back arched and your shoulder blades back.

If you cannot finish the final rep of the set, don’t try and force the bar to touch your clavicles. This will cause wear and tear injury to your shoulder joint and lead to anterior shoulder discomfort.

alex doing the lat pulldown incorrectly by letting his shoulders round at the bottom of the exercise

USING EXCESSIVE MOTION OF THE SPINE TO LIFT THE WEIGHT

You should not use momentum to bring the weight down. If your spine is moving excessively, you are using too much weight. Do not allow your back angle to change much during the lift.

FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

Should You Touch Your Chest on Lat Pulldowns?

The bar does not need to touch your chest on lat pulldowns, but you should bring it below the level of your chin. When doing this exercise, focus on retracting your shoulder blades and driving your elbows down towards your back pockets.

Should You Lean Back on The Lat Pulldown?

You should lean back slightly when doing lat pulldowns so that you can arch your upper back, however, you should keep the rest of your spine neutral.

Is the Lat Pulldown a Compound Exercise?

The lat pulldown is a compound exercise because it trains several muscle groups in the back as well as in the upper arm.

Can Lat Pulldowns Help With Pull-ups?

The lat pulldown trains all the same muscles as the pull-up so in theory, it should help. The problem is, you actually have to practice pull-ups to get better at them.

If you are an absolute beginner, you can start off with lat pulldowns, but if your goal is to get better at the pull-up, be sure to practice them as well. In our pull-up tutorial, we go over an easy way to begin training this exercise.

brittany showing a pull-up with a slightly arched upper back

Are Pull-ups Better Than Lat Pulldowns?

Free weight and bodyweight exercises are generally better than machine exercises. If you could only pick one, I recommend doing pull-ups.

With that said, pull-ups are more challenging as the require you to engage your entire body and core. If you prefer to isolate the back and not get the rest of your body involved, you can do lat pulldowns instead.

Should I Do Lat Pulldowns with an Overhand or Underhand Grip?

I recommend that you stick to an overhand grip. This grip will target your back muscles more than an underhand grip, which heavily involves the biceps. There are other exercises you can do to target the biceps. Let the lat pulldown work your lats.

Can I Do Lat Pulldowns Behind The Head?

Lat pulldowns should not be performed behind your head. The behind the neck lat pulldown can place excessive strain on your shoulder and rotator cuff. You will get all of the benefits that you need from doing this exercise in front of your body.


By the way… if you want to see a complete list of all the best exercises for every body part, check out our E-book: The Best Compound Exercises For Your Entire Body!

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In it, you will find complete written descriptions on how to do each movement with proper form plus a video tutorial for each exercise!


What’s The Best Lat Pulldown Grip? What Are The Different Variations?

The different lat pulldown grips and variations include:

  • Medium Grip: Hands are just slightly outside of shoulder width
  • Wide Grip: Hands are wider than shoulder width
  • Close Grip: Hands are more narrow than shoulder width
  • Underhand Grip: Palms are facing towards you
  • Neutral Grip: Palms are facing eachother – requires a V-grip attachement

When starting out, set your grip just slightly outside of shoulder width. If you want to target your lats more, you can use a wide grip lat pulldown. If you want to target your arms and upper back more, use a close grip lat pulldown. If you have any shoulder or wrist discomfort, you can use a neutral grip.

I recommend you vary your grip width every 8-12 weeks to get a slightly different stimulus.

What Muscles do Underhand Lat Pulldowns Work?

The underhand lat pulldown will still primarily target your lats and upper back, but it will also train your biceps and brachialis more than an overhand lat pulldown.

Lat Pulldowns Hurt My Shoulder. Why?

This is likely due to the fact that you are letting your shoulders internally rotate at the bottom of the exercise. Retract your scapula and keep your shoulders back in their shoulder sockets. See above in the common mistakes section.

If this still doesn’t help you, perform a neutral grip lat pulldown. (Use an attachment that allows you to grasp the handle with your palms facing each other.)

I Don’t Have The Lat Pulldown Machine. What Exercise Can Replace The Lat Pulldown?

It is very difficult to replicate this exercise without a machine.

If you have access to a cable machine, you can do the straight-arm pulldown from a standing position.

If you have a closed-loop resistance band, you can attach it onto sturdy support, crouch, and pull the resistance bands down towards you in a similar fashion.

band-lat-pulldown: brittany kneeling and pulling a band straight down that is anchored to a bar above her head

Ultimately, you will be limited by the amount of resistance you can use with this technique.

You can also do a dumbbell pullover, see below.

Can I Do Lat Pulldowns with Dumbbells?

The closest dumbbell exercise to the lat pulldown is the dumbbell pullovers as an alternative.

How Can I Do Lat Pulldowns At Home?

The closest at-home variation you can do of the lat pulldown is the slider lat pulldown. Here is what it looks like:

Otherwise, you can get a pull-up bar and do pull-ups.

Does The Lat Pulldown Work Arms?

Yes, lat pulldowns will work your biceps as the exercise requires elbow flexion.

Does The Lat Pulldown Work Chest?

The lat pulldown will activate the pectoralis minor to a degree, but for all intents and purposes, the lat pulldown should not be thought of or used as a chest exercise.

HOW CAN I INTEGRATE THE LAT PULLDOWN INTO MY ROUTINE?

Want to know how to use this exercise in your workout? Check out The Best Workout Template For Busy Individuals to learn how to integrate it into your training!

LAT PULLDOWN ALTERNATIVES

Here are some other alternatives you can do to train similar muscle groups.





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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM Certified Personal Trainers, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a resource dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals using time-efficient strategies. Their advice has been featured in My Fitness Pal, Prevention, Livestrong, Reader’s Digest, Bustle, The Active Times, and more. Learn more about them here.