The lat pulldown has been one of the most persecuted exercises for the past four decades. First by bodybuilders, then sports scientists and strength coaches, and most recently, the hardcore fitness community. Such criticism is undeserved.
From an athletic performance perspective, consider that the latissimus dorsi muscle is the only muscle that connects the arms to the lower body. As such, a relative weakness in this muscle can adversely affect posture and human movement. Also, consider that the lats help produce internal rotation of the shoulder, so if you want to throw a ball harder or swim faster, lat training should be a priority in your workouts.
In the 70s, Nautilus founder Arthur Jones said the development of the lats was limited by the strength of the upper arms and the grip. When performing exercises such as the lat pulldown, he said these relatively smaller and weaker muscles “…fail long before the much larger latissimus muscles have been worked hard enough to induce much in the way of growth stimulation.”
Jones’s solution was to develop a pullover machine that would stress the lats without using the arms or taxing the grip, an effect he called “direct muscle stimulation.” Rather then gripping a bar, with this machine the user would push down on a padded bar with their elbows. Jones sold a lot of pullover machines and designed several other machines for different muscles using this same idea, but there were a few holes in his logic.
First, there are numerous professional bodybuilders who have achieved phenomenal lat development who do not use pullovers machines, or at least use pullover machines on a consistent basis. Also, those who have an especially weak grip can use straps to enable them to use more resistance on pulldown exercises. Further, consider that Jones saw the value in supersetting pullovers with lat pulldowns, and even designed machines that would combine these two exercises so that the user could move from one exercise to the next with minimal rest.
Another objection to Jones’s approach to lat development is that using only one exercise quickly creates stagnation in any workout. Variety is a key aspect of any strength training or bodybuilding program, and working the muscles from a variety of angles with various resistance curves has proven to be the best way to make continual gains. Variety will also help prevent what’s called a “movement pattern overload” that could cause overuse injuries. That said, there are some pulldowns that are better than others.
One type of lat pulldown that has been criticized by the sports medicine community is the pulldown performed with the bar pulled behind the neck. The issue is that this pulldown variation places the shoulders in a position of extreme external rotation, which may eventually cause joint instability. Further, because of faulty design, many lat pulldown machines force you to poke your head forward and down to avoid hitting the bar during this exercise. Performing the exercise in this manner places unnatural stress on the cervical spine that may cause neck pain.
The counterargument of the behind-the-neck pulldown is that those who are probably most susceptible to injuring the shoulder may be predisposed to such injury because of round shoulders/forward head posture. But the bottom line is that if this type of lat pulldown causes pain or discomfort, you can substitute it with another variation that does not.
The hard-core strength coaching and fitness community argue that chin-ups are superior to lat pulldowns. One reason is that with a chin-up, the core muscles are more activated because you have to pull the body around the bar, rather than pulling a bar around the body. Chin-ups are also closer to movements that occur in real life, and thus will transfer better to sports performance. This is true, but the advantage of the lat pulldown over chin-ups is that some individuals have extreme difficulty performing any type of chin-up, or have restriction in posture that could cause injury when the body is forced into the extreme stretch position.
What type of pulldown is best for lat development? Research that looked at three different grip widths and rotation of the hand suggest that a pronated grip is superior to the supinated grip for lat activation, and a wider grip offers more lat activation. Wide-grip pulldowns are among the most popular types of pulldowns, but consider that the movement is shorter than a closer grip so the muscle is not worked throughout its full range of motion (again, promoting the value of variation).
The lat pulldown has survived its critics and remains as one of the most popular exercises performed in the weightroom, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a commercial gym that does not have at least one lat pulldown machine. There are certainly other exercises for the upper back that can help you achieve your goals, but one thing is certain – the lat pulldown is here to stay!