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Lat Pulldowns: How to Make Them More Effective

Lat Pulldowns: How to Make Them More Effective

In this post you will learn…

1. Eight “mistakes” of the lat pulldown.
2. How to make this exercise more effective.
3. What a “good” lat pull-down looks like.

The lat pull-down is an extremely common exercise I see butchered daily. Below you will learn how to make this exercise more effective by generating more tension on the musculature you are aiming too (the latissimus dorsi or the “lats”). Let’s get started.


1.)  The elbows go behind back behind your torso, not towards your back pockets. 

When you pull your elbows back, the humerus (upper arm) glides forward and causes and excessive amount of stress on the anterior capsule (front) of the shoulder. It also causes an anterior tilt of the scapulae leading to less tension on the musculature we want. The latissimus dorsi or the lats.

2.) The Chest Caves, The Shoulders Shrug, & Or Your Using Too Heavy Of Weight

Chest Cav

This usually happens when you get tired, or the weight is too heavy for you. This can also reinforce problem number one.

3.) Pulling The Bar Too Low

Most people don’t even have enough mobility to pull the bar to the chest, forget going any further. By pulling the bar down this far you disengage the lats (the muscles you want to be “working”) and almost automatically make mistake number one mentioned above.

 4.) Excessively Arching The Back & Extending The Ribs

This isn’t “wrong” but by excessively arching your upper back you switch from primarily using your latissimus dorsi (lats) to using your middle trapezius and rhomboids. Since this exercise is called a lat pulldown, I am guessing most of you would like to know how to maximize the activation of your lats. Over extending your thoracic spine isn’t how you do this.

5.) Leaning Back (different than arching)

Again not “incorrect” however, here you are using your HIPS in place of the slight upper back arching (thoracic spine extension) you need to engage the lats. People with poor upper back (t-spine) mobility tend to do this.  By leaning back you also switch from primarily using your lats to using your middle traps and rhomboids.

6.) Pulling The Bar Behind The Head Without Enough Mobility & Excessive Forward Head Forward

I disagree that the behind the neck lat pulldown is inherently bad, but it’s the application of it that makes it a poor movement.

You can pull the bar behind your head, but most people lack the required amount of mobility and flexibility to do so. This in turn can be damaging to the shoulder (increase your risk for shoulder impingement and cause damage to the anterior capsule). This exercise also usually reinforces more forward head posture because as you pull down the bar, most people protrude the head forward (see the picture above) to prevent slamming their head during the movement.

7.) Calling It A Lateral Pulldown!

Like I have said multiple times already, the primary muscle being used in this movement is the latissimus dorsi. Your not executing anything “lateral” here.

8.) Not Feeling It In The Right Place

greeny site 2

People who perform this exercise can end up feeling it too much in the…

1. Biceps: There arms take over the movement. This is actually okay if it’s your goal.
2. Forearms: They curl the wrists. Again, it’s okay if it’s your objective.
3. Front of the shoulders: They make mistake number one.

Using less range of motion, changing your grip, holding the correct bottom position, or going lighter can help with this problem. With that said using the cues and techniques I am about to show you usually help you feel this movement where you should be. In your lats.


The grip doesn’t matter (underhand, overhand, neutral, wide, narrow, different bars etc.) as the form basically follows the same rules for each.

Note: If you do notice you cant get into the correct positions below (for example you cant stop your shoulders from rounding forward) you may need some more specific exercise regressions, extra mobility work etc. first.

For The Visual leaner: Here is a picture of a correct lat pulldown.


For The Auditory Learner

Internal cues:

  • Keep your shoulder blades (scapulae) and elbows down.
  • Pull through the outside of your hand (your pinkies).
  • Squeeze your glutes
  • Keep your back straight

External cues:

  • Stick your elbows and or the top of your shoulders in your back pockets.
  • The top of your head is reaching towards the ceiling.
  • Pinch a penny between your butt cheeks.

For The Kinesthetic Learner

I can’t touch you through the computer, Instagram or even Facetime etc., but if I could or if you want a partner to help you, have them…

1.) Put you in a correct position. For one example, if you were shrugging your shoulders (getting no scapular depression) I would push your shoulders down.

Greeny site

2.) Exaggerate your poor positioning to an extreme. This way you could feel what is wrong. Then I would have you perform the correct movement by yourself, or with some ” hands on” assistance if necessary.

HOELbow  bad green

3.) Hit, touch, or tap on the primary musculature that should be doing the work.  In this case it is the lats (short for latissimus dorsi).

greeny site 2

If you’re still not feeling it in your lats you may need to go lighter and hold a fully contracted position for 10-20 seconds. You can do this multiple times a week. Note that this may take a week or two, and even more until you really “get” it.

One of my Favorite Versions of the Lat Pulldown to Reinforce Good Technique

Try wrapping handles, two sets of straps, etc. around the lat pulldown bar that won’t slide. This allows you to pull the bar straight down, not in front or behind you to minimize things that can go wrong.

Good position alone

But be careful, and don’t do this! In the picture below the handles are too short and you can cause some damage to the top of your skull because of this. Note how my elbows can’t come down any further or my head would get crushed.

To high hit in head alone site

Instead get some longer handles or tie two sets of straps together etc. and do this. Now the bar won’t bash your head.

Log Ebough site

Setting up the exercise like this will ensure the lats are working over other muscle groups like the mid traps.  Now you can pull straight down to your head without going behind the neck, or worrying about all the other mistakes I mentioned that come with keeping the bar in front of you.

Just get creative. If you have two pulleys at your lat pulldown machine just simply attach two handles and pull straight down. If you have a machine that you can pull to the side like this, do that.

Lat pull machine sitey


This ended up being a lot longer than I expected. Showing you mistakes of the lat pulldown, how to correct them, and demonstrating what good form looks like was my goal. I did this because I just haven’t seen a fully in depth explanation of the lat pulldown presented on one page, in a logical manner in a book or online. Yet. Hopefully I did my job. Feel free to share this post  if it helped you or with someone you think may benefit.

About Justin Rivelli

Justin Rivelli has been training clients online and in-person at his private gym in Berkshire County, Massachusetts for over 15 years. He specializes in helping 35 to 65 year old adults improve their body composition with well-rounded fitness plans that suit their needs, wants, and lifestyle. You can find out more about him at


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