The lat pulldown is a popular, effective exercise for the muscles in the upper back, especially the broad back muscle (the ‘lats’). Many prefer these exercises over pull-ups. Fine, but make sure your technique is in order. Below are nine pulldown mistakes that are made very often.
1. NO GOOD SET UP
A good performance starts with a good set-up. The lat pulldown means that you place your feet flat on the floor. If your legs are too short for that, put your feet on a weight plate or so. Furthermore, you should place the knee pad as tight as possible against your legs.
So avoid only your toes touching the floor and that there is space between your legs and the knee cushion. This creates an unstable starting position, where the weight pulls your body up slightly, with the result that you cannot optimally pull the weight down with your back.
2. NOT USING FULL RANGE OF MOTION
As you know, for optimal muscle growth, in the vast majority of exercises, you must use the maximum range of motion (ROM). With the lat pulldown, that means on the one hand that you pull the bar down as far as possible. For most people, that is until the bar touches the top of the chest.
On the other hand, you also have to bring the bar all the way up to the lock-out of your arms (a dead hang if desired, more about that in a moment). This is the only way to achieve optimal stretch under tension, which is necessary for optimal muscle growth. In addition, the lats and lower traps will have to make maximum effort to pull the weight back down.
A full range of motion at the pulldown looks like this:
At the top you can apply a so-called dead hang, but that is not necessary. If you stop a little earlier than a full lockout, there will still be some tension on your muscles. As a result, you apply constant tension, a way of training that allows you to get rid of just a little less weight and/or repetitions.
Whether you’re applying constant tension with less weight or taking minute breaks between reps with more weight doesn’t really matter — a matter of preference.
Below you can see the subtle, but relevant difference between a just-not-complete lockout and a dead hang respectively:
3. THINKING THERE’S A MAGIC GRIP
Entire epistles are written on the internet about which grip you should use for the lat pulldown. Yet there is no magic handle for the lat pulldown. As long as you can feel your lats and other upper back muscles burning well, you’ll be fine.
For most people, an overhand, wide grip (about 10 cm wider than shoulder width) is sufficient.
A completely wide grip, where you grab the rod at the ends, is not recommended, because it comes at the expense of the ROM.
4. USING TOO MUCH MOMENTUM
You don’t have to sit completely still during a pulldown, but don’t do it like this:
If you rock your body like that, you completely miss the point of the exercise, training your back and especially your lats.
So put your ego aside and use a weight that allows you to do decent, controlled reps. Leaning back a little during the repetition is of course no problem:
5. SITTING TOO VERTICAL
Some pulldowners like to perform the exercise too strictly and remain upright throughout the set. That is not the intention again: it only leads to an uncomfortable shoulder maneuver.
Ideally, do the exercise with your head turned slightly upwards, chest out and leaning back slightly:
6. NO CONTROLLED ECCENTRIC PHASE
For optimal muscle growth and joint safety, it is important to control the eccentric phase of the exercise, which involves lifting the weight. It doesn’t have to be overly slow: 1.5 to 2 seconds is enough.
7. MOVING THE ELBOWS TOO FAR BACK
Another common mistake with the lat pulldown is that when pulling the elbows too much backwards. By sitting a little further away from the leg cushion, you can keep the elbows slightly in front of you and pull down more, in line with your hips. This way you can put more power and it is better for your shoulders.
Also really try to pull from your elbows and not from your forearms. That way you can also put more power.
8. LOWERING THE WEIGHT BEHIND THE NECK
Every now and then we see this variant performed in our gym: the behind-the-neck pulldown. This exercise puts your shoulders in an awkward, externally rotated position, while providing no added value in terms of muscle growth. Do your shoulders a favor and don’t do exercises where you let the bar go behind the head.
9. USING TOO MUCH WEIGHT
Can you go too heavy with lat pulldowns? Yes, namely when you can no longer make a good mind-muscle connection with the target muscles — the lats and the other upper back muscles. This is usually the case when you have to pull out all the stops just to pull the weight down, probably resulting in lousy technique (see mistake 4).
Lat pulldowns are therefore best done in a slightly higher rep range, let’s say 10-20 repetitions. A lower rep range, 5-10 reps, is more suitable for (assisted) pull-ups.
This article was originally published on March 12, 2021, and revised and expanded on October 29, 2021.