How To Use The Lat Pulldown Machine and Strengthen Your Back

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It’s safe to say the lat pulldown machine has a solid place in the gym equipment hall of fame. (If that actually existed.) This OG staple has been featured for decades in everything from big gyms to home gyms to hotel fitness rooms.  

That said, simply because it’s a common and popular fitness apparatus doesn’t necessarily mean people are using it correctly. It also doesn’t mean we are appreciating all the very cool things it can do for many more muscles than our lats. And how much more versatile it is than a set of standard plates.

So let’s get better acquainted with this tried and true member of the fitness machine family and make sure you are reaping its bounty of benefits safely and effectively.

Positioning & Practice Reps

Many lat, short for latissimus dorsi, machines, like those in our gyms or home machines like Body-Solid, have both thigh pads and ankle pads. Let’s get those into position first, then we’ll work on the pulldown bar.

Take a comfortable seat facing the machine and place the thigh pads toward the top of your quads, just below your hip flexor crease.

Press the thigh pads down firmly, leaving a little wiggle room as you lock them into place. (Because you’ll need to stand back up.)

Now make sure your shins are snug against the ankle pads, with your feet shoulder-width apart and planted firmly on the ground. This is your personal positioning.

On to the next part of the setup as we work toward mastering the perfect lat pulldown exercise.

Push yourself out from under the thigh pads and slowly come to a standing position.

Check that the weight stack is set at a low or neutral level. We only want to work on the basics at this point.

Grasp the bar with both hands about shoulder-width apart, or where you are comfortable based on how it feels in your shoulders.

With the lat bar in hand(s), slowly sit back down on the bench and inch your body back into position.

Controlling your movement, pull the bar to chest level, squeezing your shoulder blades (and lats muscles) together, keeping your chin and chest out, your neck straight, and your elbows back.

Do a few practice lat pull-downs until you feel confident with the machine. 

Famous Fails

While the lat pulldown machine exercise might look pretty straightforward, you could be surprised by how many ways you can get it wrong…which is really the only downside.

Here are a few common culprits:

Leaning Back

Whether you’re piling up that weight stack too high, or you aren’t clear on the fact that this exercise is meant to be done with your torso stationary, you could be unintentionally leaning back to get some momentum for the pulldown. Not only could this lead to injury in your back, shoulders, or neck, but you are robbing your lats of the important work this piece of equipment is designed for them to do. (NOTE: The same momentum can cause injury doing traditional pull-ups).

If you find yourself swinging the upper portion of your body during this exercise, either drop some weight or mindfully adjust your form until you can slowly, and with control, pull the bar down in the most optimal of positions for a lat pulldown, which is static and upright.

Over-Releasing

You hear often that you should “release with control”, right? Well, there are some really good reasons for that.

Our muscles are stronger on the other side of exertion, (or the release.) That’s why it’s easier to let the lat bar ascend back into the starting position than it is to pull it on the descend against gravity. But, if you loosen your grip and contraction so much that the bar basically floats back up on its own, you are really only doing half the work and only getting half the results.

So at the risk of sounding like a broken record, the fact remains, when you release with control, you get all the gains.

Under-Mobilizing

This is where you might pull the bar down to your forehead or chin, instead of all the way down to your chest, or release the bar halfway back up with bent elbows instead of straightening your arms to complete the rep. If you don’t utilize the full range of motion intended in any exercise, you won’t get the full range of payoff. Reduce that weight stack, if you must, or just pay closer attention to completing each move.

Getting yourself mentally and physically prepared to go to the gym and do a workout is, well, a lot of work. So make sure that once you get there, you give it all you’ve got. That’s how you start seeing results and that’s what motivates you to keep coming back.

Finally, whatever you do, don’t pull the bar behind your back.

Multi-Muscle Machine

So now that you know some of the hows and whys of the lat machine, let’s talk about the whats, as in all the muscles this beauty builds.

Lats

We’ll start with the obvious. Your lat muscles, or latissimus dorsi, is the largest muscle in your back. It’s shaped like a triangle, wide at the top and narrow at the bottom, and reaches all the way down to your lumbar spine. As you can imagine, a muscle this big is responsible for many movements, and we aim to keep it strong.  

Whether you’re pulling something down from a shelf, swinging your arms as you walk, run, or row or bringing your arms in front of you to fold them, push something, or even clap your hands, you are using your lat muscles. Your lats also help stabilize your spine and assist in twisting motions.

And since you now have a good idea how to properly use the lat pull down machine to strengthen your lats muscles, give us 10-15 reps, then we’ll throw other muscles into the mix. It just takes a few tweaks to your positioning.

BONUS: Many lat pulldown cable machines have a cable pulley with a handle about midway down for use in low rows. Low rows also work the lats, in addition to the forearms and upper arms. To do low rows properly, maintain your lat pulldown positioning on the bench, grasp the bar meant for low rows, and do 10-15 reps. To avoid overuse injuries, alternate days of low rows, and lat pulldowns.

Rear Delts

These are the muscles at the top of your shoulders toward your back. They are responsible for raising your arms to the front and side. Device culture and desk jobs can really weaken the rear delts. So if you’d rather not suffer from a lifetime of hunching over and shoulder pain, pay more attention to your posterior deltoids.

To use the lat pulldown machine to work the rear delts, your starting position will begin with you leaning back to a 45-degree angle, then pulling the bar down to your chest, as you would with a lat pulldown, but with this pulldown exercise, flex your rear deltoids to get the most out of the move. Try 10-15 reps with low resistance and see how that feels before increasing the weight.

Biceps

While this muscle is most popular for showing up on beach bods power posing for the camera, it is responsible for some very important, if not unsung things like flexing your elbow joints and rotating your forearm. But no matter why you love your biceps here’s how to work the hero of the hunk stance.

To strengthen your biceps using the lat pulldown machine, first, switch your grip from over the bar to an underhand grip, and from a wide grip to a narrow grip, about shoulder-width apart. When you pull on the bar bring it to your chest or even just below your chest for maximum results. The arm movement will mimic pull-ups, although you’ll be seated. Give it a go with 10-15 reps.

Triceps

“Flip it and reverse it” as the song goes. Because it’s time to work the other side of your upper arm, the triceps. Responsible for straightening your arm, pulling your arm toward your body, and bringing your arm behind your body, the tricep is an oft-ignored muscle, but if you want it to work well, try this next trick.

We’ll keep you standing as a starting position for this exercise. Hold the bar in an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart, and bring the bar to waist level with your forearms parallel to the floor, then push down until your palms are facing back. You guessed it, 10-15 reps.

There are lots of other ways to use a lat pulldown machine, but these exercises are a great foundation for getting the most out of arm day. Let’s go!

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