The Ultimate Guide to Lat Pulldowns - How to Maximize Your Lat Training & Mechanics

Dec 06, 2021
lat pulldown

Lat Pulldowns are a popular exercise, but also commonly not executed properly nor efficiently.

We can use a biomechanical lens to appreciate how the lats work and therefore what type of set-up, arm path, and intentions will be most effective.

In this article I will discuss:

  • The anatomy and biomechanics of lats and lat pulldowns
  • The biomechanics of lat pulldowns
  • Common mistakes in lat training and effective alternatives

Functional Anatomy of the Lats

The lats actually have three main divisions that all have separate roles depending on different positions of the arm and path at which it travels during an exercise:

Thoracic Fibers

These fibers constitute the uppermost part of your lat and are more horizontal in nature. They are primarily responsible for creating extension of the humerus (arm bone) meaning it pulls the arm into a position in-line or behind the trunk, espiacally in more horizontal pulling variations.

Because of their attachment on the humerus, they also can internally rotate it. These fibers, if excessively tight and not effectively trained, are big players in issues like shoulder impingement. Learn more about that in my article here.

These fibers have maximum leverage once the arm is in less than around 45 degrees away from the body. As we pass the mid-line of the trunk (extend the humerus), they also have leverage to adduct the humerus, meaning it will pull the arm closer (inward) to the spine:

Lumbar Fibers

These lie beneath the thoracic lat fibers, but above the lowest fibers. The fiber orientation is more diagonal, or oblique, in nature. The lumbar fibers help create extension of the arm when it is around 60-45 degrees away from the body:

Because of their diagonal nature, they can also create a side-bend of the trunk on the same side.

Iliac Fibers

The Iliac Lat Fibers are the lowest fibers that attach on the top of the Iliac Crest, or the top of the pelvis. They are also more diagonal in terms of how they are oriented, but because they attach lower than the lumbar fibers, they have a slightly different function.

These fibers have the most leverage to pull the arm down when the line of pull is more vertical in nature, as in a traditional lat pulldown.

They are most effective when the arm is below 90 degrees of shoulder flexion, or when the elbow is in-line with the shoulder.

Common Mistakes in Lat Pulldowns

1. Focusing on scapular movement rather than elbows

The most common mistake in lat pulldowns is that people will often focus on the shoulder blade (scapula) being pulled down rather than the humerus into extension.

If this happens, we limit a primary function of the lats: humeral extension. This means we won't be able to fully shorten the lats.

2. Excessive vertical arm path and/or wide grip

The other mistake is that people will focus on a completely vertical arm path with the arms very wide outside of the shoulders. When this happens, the lats cannot fully pull the humerus inward and behind the trunk, which is extension and adduction.

In this case, smaller muscles such as the Teres Minor and the Rear Delts (which do have a shoulder extension component to them) will take over and the lat will work less.

3. Over-extending the low back

This is quite common in lat pulldowns, as they require a higher degree of shoulder flexion (overhead mobility). The problem is, most people, espiacally the average lifter, don't have genuine shoulder flexion range of motion above around 90-100 degrees. You can learn more about that in my post here.

If we overly extend the back, we are compressing the scapula against the ribcage and preventing proper coupling of scapula and humerus movement, therefore also limiting the lats' ability to move and rotate these structures.

On the other hand, we also don't want to overly-flex (round) the back as that is actually going to change the leverage of the lats as they will gain leverage to create more flexion of the back which will prevent full extension of the humerus.

How to do a Lat Pulldown

Because lat pulldowns are a vertical pull, they are going to most effectively recruit the lumbar and iliac fibers because they are more diagonal/vertical in nature, meaning they are going to have more leverage to create a contraction where they pull the arm and shoulder down.

And we want the shoulders freedom to move and rotate. In order for muscles to optimally contract, they need to stretch a bit to work them through a full range of motion. If the scapula are constantly depressed and retracted (back & down), we aren't getting an effective stretch of the lats.

Therefore, using a variation like this where we can get elevation of the scapula and slight amounts of protraction of the scapula, we can target the lats (specifically the lumbar and iliac fibers) without excessive low back extension:

Lat Pulldown Variations

There are a few other variations of lat pulldowns we can use to efficiently target the recruitment of this muscle:

Chest-Supported Lat Pulldown

Single Arm Lat Row

Bonus: How to Target the Lats in Horizontal Pulling

If we want maximal development of the lats, pulldowns are not enough. To effectively target the most surface area of the lats (thoracic fibers), horizontal pulls are more efficient.

A standard dumbbell row with a focus on humeral extension will really fire up those fibers:

Also remember that the lats do have an ability to work well in slight degrees of rotation. To work the lats through a full range of motion, using a little ribcage rotation can help maximize the ability for the thoracic fibers to extend and adduct the arm. Also, adding a reach will create a nice stretch on the lat to allow it leverage to move in and out of a stretched-to-contracted position:

Summary

The lats are actually three divisions of muscles rather than one. Not all muscle fibers will be optimally recruited in a single exercise.

Understanding and appreciating the anatomy of the lats is very important for efficient recruitment and also shoulder health to ensure we aren't forcing other muscles to take over for an exercise they aren't the prime movers of.

I would like to give a significant amount of credit to influences on my thinking for this article, primarily N1 Education, Kasseem Hanson, and also Ben Yanes.

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