These lat pulldown variations are the perfect way to build a bigger, stronger back and desirable set of lats without a pull-up in sight. If you plan to target your back in the gym, these exercises are top-tier back builders for beginners and advanced gym-goers.
If you haven’t already tried a lat pulldown, learning how to do lateral pulldowns will help you perfect your form and iron out common mistakes. The exercise strengthens your latissimus dorsi (lats), which are large flat muscles that run down the sides of your back below your shoulders. They assist with upper body movement, like lifting your arms and pulling yourself up, and are also responsible for that powerhouse V-taper found on sinewed and honed gym bods.
Often pushed aside in favor of pull-ups that look impressive in the gym, the lat pulldown is sometimes considered a ‘bridging exercise’ for anyone unable to pull their body weight up on the bar. But that doesn’t mean the exercise is any less effective, and these variations are brilliant ways to diversify your back workout, fatigue your lats, and target more muscles.
How to do lat pulldowns
You might be thinking — what is a lat pulldown? The exercise simply involves pulling a bar or handles downwards while seated to work the muscles in your back and rear shoulders. However, there are different grips and styles to adopt (more on that below). It’s also a compound exercise, so it recruits multiple muscle groups and joints at once for a more efficient workout.
- Start seated with your feet planted on the ground and thighs supported against the pads
- Grip the lat pulldown bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than shoulder-width
- Engage your core and lean back slightly
- Roll your shoulders down and back and set them in place
- Begin to pull the bar down while drawing your shoulder blades together and downwards. Squeeze your back muscles, especially your lats, and draw your elbows toward your sides
- Pause when the bar reaches chest level, then control the bar as you lift back to the starting position. Avoid yanking the bar but pull with power.
Lat pulldown variations
Give these lat pulldown variations a try if you want to build bigger, wider lats and stronger back muscles. Adding variety will help you avoid the dreaded training plateau and challenge your muscles to adapt and grow.
1. Single-arm lat pulldown
Although you’ll lift lighter with the single-sided lat pulldown, it’s an effective way to correct any muscular imbalances and isolate and strengthen your weaker muscles without the dominant ones picking up the slack.
How: Using a single D-handle attachment, perform the lat pulldown using one arm instead of two and keep the movement slow and controlled. Squeeze your shoulder and back as you pull down to maximize muscle engagement. This technique will help build muscle and strength and improve balance and neuromuscular coordination (the mind-body connection). It also demands more from your core.
2. Neutral grip kneeling lat pulldown
The neutral grip kneeling lat pulldown can be performed on a cable machine using two rope pulleys and one D-handle attachment on each. This pulldown variation increases your range of motion, maximizes the stretch in your lats, and builds strength in your lower traps and upper lats. It’s also helpful if you’re tall and struggle to perform the exercise seated.
How: Kneeling between both pulleys, grip a handle in each hand and fully extend your arms. Palms should face each other. Roll your shoulders back and down and set them in place. Engage your core, then pull the handles down as your elbows draw towards your sides. Give your lats and back muscles a good squeeze, pause at the bottom, then control the movement upwards until your elbows fully extend.
3. Reverse grip lat pulldown
If you’re looking for the ultimate back and biceps combo, the reverse grip lat pulldown won’t let you down. The variation mimics a chin-up and will engage more of your biceps, lower lats and midback.
How: Perform a standard lat pulldown, except reverse your grip so that your palms face you. Slightly narrow your grip on the bar to shoulder-width apart. Pull the bar down below your chin towards your chest, pause and squeeze your back and biceps at the bottom, then control the ascent of the bar back up.
The simple transition of overhand to supine grip changes the emphasis on your muscles, bringing your biceps into action.
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Sam Hopes is a level III fitness trainer, level II reiki practitioner, and senior fitness writer at Future PLC, the publisher of Tom's Guide. She is also about to undertake her Yoga For Athletes training course. Having trained to work with mind and body, Sam is a big advocate of using mindfulness techniques in sport and fitness, and their impact on performance. She’s also passionate about the fundamentals of training and building sustainable training methods. When she's not writing up her experiences with the latest fitness tech and workouts, you’ll find her writing about nutrition, sleep, recovery, and wellness.