The lat pulldown is among the best upper body exercises for building bigger latissimus dorsi muscles. In this article, we’ll cover how lat pulldowns activate the movement’s primary muscle groups and outline some of the significant benefits of this upper-body pulling exercise.
Lat Pulldown Benefits
- Improves posture
- Builds a broader back
- Protects spinal stability
- Prepares the body for pull-ups
- Engages multiple muscle groups
- Progressive overload potential
Lat pulldowns strengthen several important muscle groups in the upper body. When these muscles are strong, they can help to pull the shoulders back and down, improving overall posture. A strong upper body reduces the likelihood of developing rounded shoulders and counteracts the slouching and forward head posture that can develop from prolonged sitting or computer work.
Builds a broader back
The lat pulldown is renowned for helping to build broader ‘wings.’ The lats are the widest muscle in the back, so strengthening and growing the latissimus dorsi muscles creates the appearance of a broad tapered upper body. Many women also enjoy this exercise for creating an exaggerated hourglass shape that creates the illusion of a smaller waist. To build wider lats, prioritize the wide grip lat pulldown over narrow or neutral grip lat pulldown variations.
Protects spinal stability
Stronger latissimus dorsi muscles support the spine to stay upright, improving your stability in other compound lifts like deadlifts and rack pulls. Well-developed lower lats are especially effective at alleviating pressure from the lower back and reducing back pain. Check out our list of the best lower lat dumbbell exercises to support better posture.
Prepares the body for pull-ups
Doing an unassisted pull-up for the first time is an exciting and impressive fitness feat. Doing lat pulldowns with proper form is a great way to build back, bicep, and lat strength required for pull-ups. If you can do one or two pull-ups, lat pulldowns help to squeeze in more volume. Slow down the eccentric phase of the lat pulldown to increase tension on the target muscle groups and build your way to more full pull-ups.
Engages multiple muscle groups
The lat pulldown targets the back and lat muscles and multiple muscle groups through the upper body and even some in the lower body. Lat pulldowns target your lower and middle trapezius, brachialis and brachioradialis, teres major, rhomboids, biceps brachii, rotator cuff, infraspinatus, wrist and hand flexors, and abdominals. If you only had time for one upper body exercise, the lat pulldown provides a great return on time investment.
Progressive overload potential
Progressive overload is crucial to building strength and muscle mass, making lat pulldowns an effective exercise for improving upper body strength and posture. Progressively overloading a lat pulldown can occur by adding more weight, reps, or sets or slowing down the reps for a greater time under tension.
Compared to more challenging compound exercises like pull-ups, lat pulldowns are a safe and effective way to continue to build stronger, thicker latissimus dorsi muscles.
You can do a lat pull on a lat pull machine, cable machine, or at home with a long resistance band attached to a high point like a door anchor. You can also vary your grip and attachment to target the muscles from different angles. A wide, medium, and narrow-grip lat pulldown hits the back muscles differently and can help you reach your specific hypertrophy and strength goals.
Lat Pulldown Muscles Worked
- Latissimus dorsi (lats)
- Teres major
- Posterior deltoids
- Levator scapulae
- Rotator cuff
- Biceps brachii
- Brachialis and brachioradialis
- Hip flexors
Latissimus dorsi (lats)
Lat pulldowns target the lats by forcing them to contract when you pull the bar toward your upper chest. Lat pulldowns use a combination of shoulder extension, scapular retraction, and elbow flexion to engage the latissimus dorsi and other upper back muscles. The primary function of the lats is to extend, adduct, and medially rotate the humerus bone.
Lat pulldowns engage the teres major by adducting and extending the shoulder joint while pulling the upper arms downward. The teres major runs along the outer border of the scapula and acts as a synergist (helper) to the latissimus dorsi muscle.
Lat pulldowns engage the posterior deltoids to repress and retract the shoulder blades and stabilize the scapula. The rear delts also work in a lat pulldown to pull the upper arms downward in adduction and extension of the shoulder joint. Well-developed rear delts are essential to do the lat pulldown with proper form. To strengthen weak posterior deltoids, check out our best rear delt exercises list.
Lat pulldowns recruit the trapezius muscle fibers to elevate and retract the shoulder blades while the arms move downward and the shoulder joint moves through adduction and upward rotation. Many lifters overuse their upper traps while neglecting the middle and lower trapezius, posing a risk for muscular imbalances and postural issues. Check our list of the best middle trap and lower trap exercises to build a robust and resilient trapezius.
Rhomboids and levator scapulae
The rhomboids and levator scapulae work during a lat pulldown to keep the shoulder blades pulled back and down away from the ears. These small stabilizer muscles support the scapula during lat pulldowns to engage the correct muscle groups.
Lat pulldowns engage the rotator cuff, including the infraspinatus muscle, by helping to externally rotate the shoulder and stabilize the joint during the exercise to prevent injury.
Lat pulldowns engage the biceps brachii muscle as a synergist, assisting elbow flexion during the exercise, which helps pull the upper arms downward. Keep your thumbs on top of the lat pulldown bar to shift focus onto the lats and back muscles. If your bicep strength limits your lat pulldowns, check out our list of the best ways to grow underdeveloped biceps.
Brachialis and brachioradialis
Lat pulldowns engage the brachialis and brachioradialis muscles as secondary synergists, which assist the biceps brachii in elbow flexion during the exercise.
Abdominals and hip flexors
The lat pulldown indirectly engages the abs and hip flexors to stabilize the torso and maintain an upright posture. The lat pulldown knee pad braces the upper body in position, providing resistance for the hip flexors and core muscles. To build a stronger core to stabilize the trunk during a lat pulldown, check out our list of the best ways to grow underdeveloped abdominal muscles.
Lat Pulldown Muscles Worked and Benefits FAQs
No. Pull-ups are more challenging because they involve lifting the body’s weight off the ground. Pull-ups typically have a more extended upward range and require more core stability and scapula depression. Lat pulldowns are a great exercise to supplement or improve your pull-ups or to build the strength to get your first unassisted pull-up.
Every lat pulldown variation serves a slightly different purpose. A wide-grip, lat pulldown is better for building a wider back and hitting the latissimus dorsi. Narrow grip lat pulldowns are better for targeting the biceps.
Neutral grip pulldowns are better for people prone to wrist injuries. The straight-arm, lat pulldown is excellent for isolating the lats without engaging the biceps as much. The V-bar, lat pulldown allows for a closer grip and a more neutral wrist position, which can be easier on the wrists and elbows than other grip variations.
Experimenting with different lat pulldown variations is the best way to find what works for you. Your biomechanics may determine the optimal lat pulldown grip width for you. You can also check out our list of the best lat pulldown alternatives if you can’t access a lat pulldown machine or want to target the lats differently.
EMG studies have found that latissimus dorsi activation is equal regardless of whether you pull a lat pulldown bar in front of or behind the neck. Pulling behind the head increases the risk of rotator cuff strain and hitting your upper spine with the cable attachment. Therefore, performing the lat pulldown in front of your head, where the bar grazes your upper chest, provides the best risk-to-benefit ratio.