How to Do a Safe, Effective Lat Pulldown

The pulldown or 'lat' pulldown is an exercise mainly for the back although the shoulders and arms get some workout as well. The equipment for the cable pulldown is usually a weighted cable pulley station with adjustable weights and seat.

The latissimus dorsi on either side of the middle to upper back is the main target muscle group and is also the muscle from which the exercise gets its casual name. These muscles are called 'the lats' for short. When doing this exercise, you are literally pulling down on a bar. Pulleys make it possible to work against resistance in both directions.

Muscles worked: the latsshoulders, and arms to a lesser extent.

Position Your Body for the Lat Pulldown

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Body Position is important to get the most out of your lat pulldowns. Follow these steps:

  • Sit on the seat and adjust the thigh pads so that the quads above the knees sit comfortably under the support. This is to prevent the knees rising up as you exert effort to pull the bar down.
  • Grasp the cable bar with a wide overhand grip, knuckles up and sit on the seat with thighs under the support. Alternative grips, narrow and underhand, are possible but use the wide grip when starting out.
  • You should just be able to reach the bar when you stretch up. If you can't, adjust the seat or bar hanger cable or chain.
  • A slight stretch upward to grab the bar is not harmful but you don't want the bar so high that you have to drag it down under pressure so that you can sit down.

How to Do the Lat Pulldown

Doing the pulldown
Doing the lat pulldown. (c) Paul Rogers

Be sure to move your body correctly for optimum safety and best strengthening outcomes.

  • Keeping the back straight, pull the bar down to about chin level or a little lower in a smooth movement while squeezing the shoulder blades together.
  • Try not to force the bar any lower than where the shoulders are naturally collapsed and the forearms are more or less upright. You should not push the arms forward out of the vertical plane in order to drag the bar lower.
  • Slowly return the bar to full height and repeat the exercise.
  • When your set is finished, don't suddenly release the bar and crash the weights. Stand up in order to settle the weights without clashing if necessary.

Checkpoints for the Lat Pulldown

Avoid the possibility of injury by double-checking that you're following these important rules.

  • Don't sway too far back when pulling down. A little sway is okay in order to fit the bar under the chin but don't sway back to get it lower. This is an exercise for the back and lats and not the arms.
  • Don't pull down behind the neck. For several reasons, this could be dangerous. The shoulder and neck joints may end up in positions in which they are vulnerable to injury. More experienced trainers may practice this exercise but many don't.