How to Do Lat Pulldown: Muscles Worked & Proper Form

Lat pulldown pronated grip

Muscles Worked in Lat Pulldowns

Muscles worked in lat pulldown with pronated grip

Primary muscles worked:

Secondary muscles worked:

How to Do Lat Pulldowns Correctly

  1. Begin by adjusting the thigh pad to fit snugly against your thighs to prevent your body from lifting off the seat.
  2. Grasp the bar with an overhand (pronated) grip, with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Sit with your thighs under the thigh pad, keep your chest up, and look at the bar.
  4. Pull the bar down towards your chest, leading with your elbows. Pull until the bar is below your chin or touches your upper chest.
  5. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the bottom of the movement.
  6. Exhale and slowly release the bar back up to the starting position.

Introduction to the Lat Pulldown

The lat pulldown is a classic back exercise that mainly works your lats, biceps, and rear deltoids. It is the fourth most popular exercise of all, according to statistics from our workout log app.

The lat pulldown is a compound exercise performed using a lat pulldown machine. It involves pulling a bar down towards your chest while seated and keeping your thighs under a pad for support.

Because you can easily adjust the load and handle, it is a versatile exercise that can be modified to suit different fitness levels and goals.

Benefits of the Lat Pulldown

What is the lat pulldown good for?

  • Increased upper body strength. The lat pulldown is an excellent exercise for increasing your upper body pulling strength. This is especially useful if you want to increase your strength for exercises like pull-ups and chin-ups.
  • Build back and arms. The lat pulldown is one of the best lat exercises you can do, and it simultaneously works your upper arms, grip muscles, posterior deltoids, rotator cuffs, and even your lower trapezius. Couple the lat pulldown with an upper body pressing exercise like the bench press, and you’ve worked most of the major muscle groups in your upper body in only two exercises.
  • Balances muscle and strength. If you’re doing a lot of pressing exercises, the lat pulldown can help to even out your upper body strength and muscle. It is probably a good idea to keep your pressing and pulling training somewhat balanced.
  • Lots of versatility. There are many different ways to perform a lat pulldown: you can usually switch between different handles and bars and also between different grips. We’ll get into the effects of this later in this guide.
  • Safe and easy to learn. The lat pulldown is a relatively safe exercise that is easy to learn. Combine this with the possibility of starting with light weight, and you have an easy exercise for the beginner or senior to start with.

How to Do a Lat Pulldown Correctly

Let’s take a closer look at how to do the lat pulldown exercise with proper form.

Lat pulldown starting position
Starting position of the lat pulldown.
Lat pulldown bottom position
Bottom position.

1. Adjusting the seat. Make sure to set the seat and thigh pad so that you can sit comfortably but snugly. You don’t want to be lifted up from the seat by the weight, but also not sit too cramped.

2. Pick weight and handle. Select your training weight on the machine, and set a handle on the wire if there isn’t one already. The two most common handles are straight bars or slightly curved or angled bars. Pick whichever one is available or feels comfortable to you. We’ll get into details regarding grip width later on.

3. Getting into position. Hang onto the bar with straight arms, and sink down onto the seat, tucking your thighs in place under the thigh pads. This obviously only works if your bodyweight is less than your selected training weight. If it’s not, you will need help to get into the starting position.

4. Time to pull. Pull the bar downwards until it is below your chin or touches your upper chest. How far you can pull in lat pulldowns will depend on your anatomy (such as the length of your forearms), strength, and training weight.

Generally, the heavier weight you pick, the shorter your range of motion will be. Studies have found that full range of motion training typically leads to greater strength and muscle gains than training with a short range of motion (even though you have to use lighter weights), so make sure to pick a weight with which you can do nice, long movements.1 2

In the bottom position, make sure to pull your shoulder blades together and down. A common cue is that you should try to put your shoulder blades in your back pockets.

5. The eccentric phase. With control, let the bar travel up again. Don’t just let it fly up without resistance; keep tension in your muscles and let it slowly move up. By controlling the eccentric portion of an exercise, you induce greater muscle growth than if you were to just let it go.3 4

Return the bar all the way up until your arms are straightened again.

Wide vs Close Grip in the Lat Pulldown

How does a wide or close grip affect your strength and muscle gains in the lat pulldown?

Several studies have investigated how different grip widths in the lat pulldown affect muscle activity in the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, trapezius and other muscles. Most studies find that both wide (up to two times shoulder-width) and close grip lat pulldowns (one times shoulder-width or V-handle) lead to similar muscle activation, with a only a small tendency of higher lat activation in the wide grip lat pulldown.5 6 7

This means that it is probably more important to focus on finding a grip that is comfortable for you, and that enables you to get good contact with the muscles you want to work.

There doesn’t seem to be a large difference in strength between grips, although one of the studies found participants were 4% stronger with a close grip (1x shoulder width) or medium grip (1.5x) compared to a wide grip (2x).

Should You Use a Pronated or Supinated Grip in the Lat Pulldown?

Should you use an overhand grip (pronated) or underhand grip (supinated) in the lat pulldown?

In general, it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference, and the muscle activity is roughly the same in both lat pulldown variations.8 This is in line with studies on pull-ups vs chin-ups, which also doesn’t find any meaningful differences in muscle activity.9 10

But that is in general. If you, as an individual, prefer or feel that you can target a muscle more effectively with one type of grip, then go with that one no matter what the studies say. When it comes to exercise technique, the devil is in the details and small changes can have big effects.

Should You Do Lat Pulldowns in Front or Behind Your Neck?

The behind-the-neck lat pulldown was a classic lat exercise in the golden era of Bodybuilding in the 50s to 70s. It still is, but I personally believe most people are better off doing their lat pulldowns in front of the neck, for three reasons:

  1. Front lat pulldowns seem to activate the latissimus dorsi slightly more than behind-the-neck lat pulldowns.6
  2. Doing lat pulldowns in front of your neck eliminates the risk of you slamming the lat bar into the vertebrates of your neck.
  3. The range of motion in front-of-the-neck lat pulldowns is slightly longer, with more elbow flexion and more shoulder extension.

A final point is the issue of mobility: some people might lack the mobility around their shoulder joint to do the behind-the-neck lat pulldown. On one hand, this would make that exercise challenging, but on the other hand, by trying to do lat pulldowns behind the neck and slowly increasing the range of motion, one could probably improve one’s shoulder mobility quickly.

Common Mistakes in the Lat Pulldown

Let’s go over some of the most common mistakes in the lat pulldown.

  • Using too much weight. This can result in poor form and reduce the effectiveness of the exercise. It’s important to choose a weight that allows you to perform the exercise with proper form, so start light and master the technique, and build from there.
  • Using the biceps to pull the weight down. Assuming that you perform lat pulldowns primarily to work your back (there are more effective biceps exercises), you should focus on using your back muscles. One trick to get a better contact with your back muscles is to “pull with your elbows”, and just think of your hands and forearms as hooks on the handle.
  • Relying on momentum. When you use momentum to pull the weight down, you remove the work from the lats and other muscles of the back. If you want to train your back muscles effectively, use a slow and controlled movement, focusing on squeezing your working muscles.
  • Failing to squeeze the shoulder blades. Squeezing the shoulder blades together at the bottom of the movement helps to engage your back muscles and will maximize the benefits of the exercise.
  • Not using a full range of motion. Failing to fully extend the arms at the top of the movement or failing to fully contract the back muscles at the bottom of the movement can reduce the effectiveness of the exercise, as full range of motion training generally leads to better strength and muscle gains.

Should You Do Lat Pulldowns or Pull-ups?

Lat pulldowns and pull-ups have a similar movement pattern and use much of the same muscles, so does it matter which one you do?

First things first: if you cannot yet do pull-ups, the lat pulldown is a great exercise for building the necessary strength in your back and arm muscles.

But if you can do both?

Then it becomes a matter of what your fitness goal is.

  • If your goal is to get really good at pull-ups, then you should mostly do pull-ups because of the specificity principle.
  • If your goal is functional strength and improved control of your body, then pull-ups are still a great choice.
  • If you goal is muscle growth, then suddenly lat pulldowns rise in relevance because of the increased stability and the control you have over the load.

Regarding muscle activity, the pull-up and the lat pulldown activate your latissimus dorsi muscle similarly, but the pull-up activates your biceps slightly more.11

Should You Do Lat Pulldowns or Rows?

Deciding whether to do lat pulldowns or rows largely depends on your personal fitness goals and the type of workout you are looking for. Both exercises target muscles in your upper back, but not exactly the same ones, and the exercises also differ in the equipment required.

  • Lat pulldowns primarily target your lats and works them very effectively in a long range of motion. In addition, lat pulldowns work the lower portion of your trapezius muscle.
  • Rows, such as barbell rows or cable rows, also work your lats but from a different angle, which utilizes slightly different portions of the muscle. Additionally, rows target more of your mid and upper trapezius.

Both exercises work your rear delts, biceps, and grip strength.

Whether you should do lat pulldowns or rows depends on which muscles you want to work. The best choice, however, is to do both, as they cover slightly different muscles. Throw in a third exercise for your lower back (like deadlifts or Romanian deadlifts), and you have a complete back workout put together.

How Many Sets and Reps Should You Do of Lat Pulldowns?

How many reps you should do of an exercise depends on your goal: do you mainly want to increase your strength or build muscle?

Generally, a lower rep range of about 1–5 reps per set (>85% of 1RM) is most effective for strength gains. If you want to increase your pulling strength to be able to do pull-ups, this is a good rep range to work in.

For muscle gains, a slightly higher rep range of about 8–15 reps per set is generally the most effective and practical. You can cycle in periods of working in this rep range even if your goal is to get strong enough for pull-ups.

Of course, you will get a little bit of both muscle and strength no matter what rep range you train in, but you can emphasize one or the other slightly by working in the right number of reps.

Personally, I think the lat pulldown lends itself best on the low side of a medium rep range: somewhere between 6–12 reps per set.

How many sets you do of an exercise depends on your training experience, how many times you work out in a week, and your other training. But around ten sets per week for a given muscle group is a good starting point, and you can go even higher when you are used to training or if you stop your sets short of failure. You can read more about training volume in our article: How Many Sets per Muscle Group per Week?

Lat Pulldown Workout

You can easily do a lat pulldown workout by gradually warming up, and then completing three sets of 6–12 reps at the same weight.

The next workout, you try to do a few more reps at the same weight. Keep increasing your reps every workout until you can do 3 sets x 12 reps, at which point you increase the weight by a small amount (2.5 kg or 5 lb) and start trying to get to 3 sets x 12 reps again. When you do, you increase the weight the next workout again.

Doing a few sets of lat pulldowns is a great back workout on its own, but if you really want to cover all back muscles effectively, you could try out our back workout routine below.

StrengthLog’s Back Workout

  1. Deadlift: 3 sets x 5 reps
  2. Lat Pulldown (or Pull-Up): 3 sets x 8 reps
  3. Dumbbell Row: 3 sets x 10 reps
  4. Back Extension: 3 sets x 12 reps
  5. Reverse Dumbbell Fly: 3 sets x 15 reps

This back workout is available for free in our workout log app.

By tracking your workouts in the app, you keep track of your weights and reps so that you can easily remember (and, more importantly: try to improve on them) in your next workout.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

Download StrengthLog Workout Log on App Store
Download StrengthLog Workout Log on Google Play Store

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  2. Partial vs full range of motion resistance training: A systematic review and meta- analysis. September 2022.
  3. Resistance Training Variables for Optimization of Muscle Hypertrophy: An Umbrella Review. Front Sports Act Living. 2022 Jul 4;4:949021.
  4. The Influence of Movement Tempo During Resistance Training on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy Responses: A Review. Sports Med. 2021 Aug;51(8):1629-1650.
  5. Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):1135-42.
  6. A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Nov;16(4):539-46.
  7. Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct;23(7):2033-8.
  8. A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2002 Nov;16(4):539-46.
  9. Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations. Dickie JA, Faulkner JA, Barnes MJ, Lark SD. J Electromyogr Kinesiol. 2017 Feb;32:30-36. doi: 10.1016/j.jelekin.2016.11.004. Epub 2016 Nov 28.
  10. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullup™ rotational exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Dec;24(12):3404-14.
  11. Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises. Sports Biomech. 2013 Sep;12(3):302-13.