As gym culture continues to evolve, one notable exercise on the rise is the straight arm lat pushdown. Designed to target the back, it is an excellent pull exercise that works both its deep and aesthetic musculature. While it’s a fairly simple exercise to perform, understanding it in detail could make the difference between you reaching your strength and hypertrophy goals or not. So in this article we’ll delve deeper into the lat pushdown, breaking down how it’s done, what muscles it works, and some great alternatives that will help you build the best back possible.
Muscles Worked During The Lat Pushdown
Before we talk about the exercise itself, it’s just as important to know the muscles it works. Training is all about working out with intention, so if you understand the muscles an exercise targets, you can better assess whether it suits the needs of your program. So without further ado here are a few of the major muscles activated during the pushdown.
The latissimus dorsi (aka the lats) is the largest muscle group of the back, serving multiple purposes. The lats are responsible for the flexion, abduction, extension and internal rotation of the shoulder joint. During the lat pushdown the lat (which connects to the lateral head of the humerus) pulls the humerus back towards the body in shoulder flexion.
The infraspinatus is one of the muscles making up the intricate network of tissue of the upper back. It has its origins on the medial face of the shoulder blades and connects to the distal head of the humerus. During the lat pushdown the infraspinatus helps to stabilize the humeral head in the glenoid fossa, allowing for shoulder flexion. Though considerably smaller than the lats, strengthening this muscle and those that make up the rotator cuff is detrimental to building a a powerful and functional body.
The deltoids (or delts) are a large muscle group that surround and cover the shoulder , forming what is generally called the shoulder cap. The rear delt specifically is a muscle that also finds its origins on the scapula and connects to the upper region of the humerus. During this specific exercise, it extends the humerus as the arms reach to and from the starting position. The rear delts even rotate the humerus laterally, especially when using wider grip attachments during the lat pushdown. Strengthening the rear delts is not only essential for developing a powerful back, but also stabilizing the most mobile joint in the body- the shoulder girdle.
The rhomboids (both major and minor) originate from the spine and help to anchor the scapula to the back. As far as function goes, the rhomboid muscles are responsible for abducting and depressing the shoulder blades. These actions are necessary for pulling movements like the cable lat pulldown. When the arms reach for the bar in the starting position, the shoulder blades tend to separate and drift towards the lateral end of the rib cage. However once the cable is pulled down towards the body, the rhomboids squeeze the shoulder blades together and down, allowing the arms to perform their task. Though not as flashy as other muscles of the back, the rhomboids play an integral role in controlling the shoulder girdle and scapula- a useful ability for any upper body exercise.
Straight-Arm Lat Pushdown Benefits
1) it further stimulates the muscles of the back
There are only so many ways you can switch up the same exercise before the body gets used to the movement. However incorporating new exercises like the cable lat pushdown adds a new dimension of muscle activation to the back. The angle from which the muscles contract are unique, as well as the line of pull- very few back exercises target the posterior chain in this way. Incorporating this exercise will not only serve for a more challenging workout, but will also accelerate the growth of major muscles like the lats, rear delts, and teres major.
2) strengthens the shoulder girdle
The shoulder girdle, with its ability to operate on multiple planes of motion, is one of the body’s most mobile regions. However the advantage of mobility can often increase the possibilities for injuries. With so many small muscles linking to the shoulder cuff and so little room for tendon insertion, tears or strains can be quite common. For this reason one can see why it’s important to strengthen the muscles of the shoulder girdle.
Fortunately exercises like the standing lat pushdown help to do just that. When the exercise is performed correctly, muscles like the subscapularis (which inserts on the proximal head of the humerus) are bolstered. When these muscles are strengthened, they stabilize the rotator cuff, making upper body exercises easier and protecting them from injury.
3) uses a variety of equipment
Often because every body is different, the same muscle groups is sometimes stimulated more or less depending on how you perform an exercise. This would be bad news if there was only one way to perform lat pushdowns, however we have some options. Because the pushdown is done on a cable machine, you have a wide variety of attachments to choose from that may work better for you. If you feel the contraction with a wide bar, use it. If you prefer a close grip bar, that works too. You could even use the rope attachment for greater range of motion.
The ultimate goal is that you still perform the exercise with proper form, but do so using the attachment that gives you the most bang for your buck. Just remember- if you don’t feel the contraction in you back (lats), it may be a matter of adding more weight or reps. However stay open to the idea that you may simply need to try a different attachment. Try it out, experiment, and find what works for you.
How To Do The Lat Pushdown
The key to the lat pushdown is focusing on form and contraction. In my experience depending on how you stand and the angle of your limbs, there is a lot of room for improper execution. This exercise will work several muscles of the back, however your concentration (what you feel) should predominantly be on the lats. Re-assess your form if you don’t feel engagement in your lats.
- in a neutral, upright position stand a few inches in front of a cable machine. The attachment should be at the highest setting- hanging well above your head.
- reach for the straight barbiturates a pronated grip, making sure to keep both arms evenly evenly spaced a few inches wider than shoulder width.
- once your hands are in position take a small step backwards and bend your torso forward. This will create a nice stretch in the lats while creating enough space for your arms to have full range of motion. Make sure your arms remain straight, refraining from bending the elbows throughout the entire set.
- with your back straight and core engaged, pull the bar from the starting position down into your hips. Again, make sure your arms aren’t bent and feel the stretch in your lats at the highest point, and their squeeze as you lower the bar.
- pause at the bottom for a moment. Your arms should be parallel with your torso with your hands just a few inches below the hip.
- slowly control the weight back to the starting position. Let the stretch in your arms and lats continue until the cable returns to its original length.
- repeat this process for as many reps as you deem necessary.
Lat Pushdown Mistakes
Because proper form is important, here are a few mistakes in technique you may run into:
Bending Your Arms
The problem with bending your arms is that it changes the nature of the exercise. The arms are supposed to serve as a lever, helping to create pure shoulder flexion from the starting position all the way to your hips. When you bend the arms, you effectively relieve the tension intended for your lats and transfer it to your triceps and biceps. Keeping your arms un-bent ensures that the muscles in the back remain the prime movers throughout the exercise. A bend in the elbows usually occurs when practitioners are lifting too much weight and try to compensate for lack of control. If this is you, lower the weight enough that you can keep your arms straight but still remains challenging until the very end of the set.
Positioning The Body Wrong
A crucial part of executing the standing lat pushdown is how you arrange your body. Standing up too upright will take take most of the tension off of the lats and transfer it to the front delts while performing shoulder flexion. It’s best to have a slight forward lean with a 60 degree angle in the hips.
Lat Pushdown Alternatives
The pushdown is an excellent exercise in and of itself, but every athlete knows that in order to develop the body, one’s got to have options. Below is a short list of movements that target similar muscles to the lat pushdown:
Standing Lat Pulldown
The standing lat pulldown is an excellent hybrid back exercise to add to any routine. The feature that separates it from exercises in the same category is the angle from which it works the muscles of the back. It isn’t a pure vertical pull exercise like the reverse lat pulldown, and it isn’t quite a horizontal pull exercise like the cable row. The standing lat pulldown is in between the two, requiring practitioners to pull at a 45 degree angle. This works various accessory muscles of the back like the rhomboids, teres major, and the upper traps in addition to the lats.
-stand an inch or two in front of a seated cable machine. With the leg of your choice, place your foot on the thigh pad just above the seat. Your arch should rest at the edge to provide support for your torso as you’ll see later. Engage you’re your core while keeping your hips, torso, and neck aligned at all times.
-with your hands well past shoulder width apart, reach for the wide grip attachment and begin leaning your torso backwards. You’ll want to lean back until the the space between your arms and torso (armpit) creates a 90 degree angle. Remember to keep your arms straight up to this point.
-pull the bar towards your chest like a standard horizontal row. Your hands should be a little further than shoulder width apart as you guide them to the base of your chest.
-pause momentarily at the base of your chest. Allow your arms to slowly guide the weight back to the starting position. Keep your back and torso angled and stationary through every phase of the movement. Repeat this process for as many reps as you see fit.
Seated Lat Pulldown
The seated lat pulldown is one of the most quintessential back exercises of the gym. The pulldown is a true vertical pull exercise that targets the major muscles of the back, many of which are worked during the standing lat Pushdown. The one great aspect of the lat pulldown is the variety of ways it can be performed. There’s the close grip, wide grip, behind-the-neck, front-of-the-neck, V-bar, and several more. These variations in one way or another hit many primary and secondary muscles during working sets including the pectorals major, teres major, rear delts, the lats, and the bicep brachii(1). At the end of the day it’s all about finding the version that stimulates your muscles to the highest degree. Research suggest that the front-of-the-neck seated lat pulldown is a good place to start, triggering significantly more lat activation during both concentric and eccentric phases compared to its counterparts.
-start by adjusting the pads so that your feet are stable and your knees are secure. Keep your spine straight and refrain from over-arching your lower (lumbar) spine.
-draw in your core to activate the abdominal wall (traverse abdominis, multifidus, rectus abdominis, external obliques, etc.) in preparation for the impending set. Lean backwards slightly 20 to 25 degrees to match the like of pull of your lats with the cable machine.
-pull the bar towards your collarbone, bending your elbows while bringing your shoulder blades together. When the bar is just above the upper chest, feel the tension in the pectoral muscle as well as the full contraction of the lats.
-slowly return to the starting position by allowing the elbows to extend as the bar ascends and stretches the lats. Don’t allow the weight to rise too quickly but feel the full contraction of the lats and various muscles like the rear delts and teres major.
Seated Cable Row
While the cable row is a very different type of pull exercise, it has a lot more in common with the lat pushdown than meets the eye. The row utilizes a horizontal pull, and while the pushdown is more of an angled vertical pull- they work similar muscles. Both definitely activate the lats. As they stretch the arms at the starting position, they work the deep stabilizers of the scapula as they work to bring the shoulder blades back together. All in all cable rows are an excellent back exercise to add to your arsenal. As it adds variety to your line of pull, you may be pleasantly surprised by the progress you see in your back development.
-sit at the cable machine with your back straight and your legs bent at about 70 degrees. Engage your core at all times.
-as you reach for the attachment, lean forward slightly and feel the stretch in your lats. Once in hand, pull the weight towards your abdomen. Your elbows should be about parallel with your rib cage, not extending too far past your torso.
-hold the weight at your core briefly and slowly return the weight to the starting position by straightening your arms.