The Lat Pull Down Machine exercise works the back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi or the “lats.”1 It is performed at a workstation with adjustable resistance, usually plates. While sitting with your upper thighs restrained under a thigh pad, you pull a hanging bar down toward you, to reach chin level, and then release it back up with control for one repetition. This exercise can be done as part of an upper body strength workout.
This exercise targets the latissimus dorsi, which is the muscle just under the armpits and spreading across and down the back. By isolating the back muscles with this exercise, you can focus specifically on them without tiring out the biceps or triceps. It’s important to target your back muscles to help with proper posture and to ease pulling movements, like opening a door, starting a lawnmower, or even performing a pull-up.
Sit comfortably on the pulldown seat, feet flat on the floor. Check the height of the bar. You may need to adjust the bar height by shortening or lengthening the chain or cable that supports the bar, or your seat height. Get a gym trainer to help with this if necessary. The bar should be at a height that your outstretched arms can comfortably grasp the bar without having to fully stand up, but you should also be able to still extend your arms to achieve full range of motion. Adjust the knee pad so that the upper thighs are tucked firmly under the pad. This will assist you when you apply effort to the bar.
Grasp the bar with a wide grip with an overhand, knuckles up grip. Other positions and grips are possible but start with this standard position.
Pull the bar down until it’s approximately level with the chin. Exhale on down motion. While shifting just slightly backward is OK, aim to keep your upper torso stationary. Keep your feet flat on the floor and engage your abs as you pull. The bottom of the motion should be where your elbows can’t move downward any more without moving backward. Be sure to stop at that point and do not go lower.
Squeeze the shoulder blades together while maintaining square shoulders.
From the bottom position with the bar close to your chin, slowly return the bar to the starting position while controlling its gradual ascent. Don’t let it crash into the weight plates.
Continue until you complete eight to 12 repetitions in a set. Rest, then continue to complete your program of sets.
Avoid these errors so you can get the most from this exercise and prevent strain or injury.
Using Your Forearms
Be sure your forearms are not doing the work of pulling the bar down—you want it to come from your back.
Pulling Down Too Far
Stop at the point where your elbows would need to go backward to continue pulling the cable down. If the elbows go backward it will put excessive stress on the shoulder joint.
As with most weighted exercises, perform the pulldown slowly and with control. Doing it fast uses momentum and reduces the use of the targeted muscles.
Modifications and Variations
You can perform this exercise in different ways to meet your skill level and goals.
Need a Modification?
Beginners should start with light weights and ensure they are using correct form. A standing variation with a stance with one leg forward as in walking may also be done.
Up for a Challenge?
Alternative grips can be used: wide, narrow, under- or over-hand in order to target specific muscle groups. Using a middle-distance grip, with forearms upright and hands about shoulder-width apart, works the biceps and middle back. A wide grip recruits more back muscles and a close grip pulldown emphasizes the forearm muscles.
The straight-arm pulldown, which requires keeping your elbows nearly fully extended the entire time (usually done standing), hits the muscles on the back of the upper arm, known as the triceps.
Reversing the grip to underhand with knuckles facing downward and palms up puts more work on the muscles on the front of your upper arm, known as the biceps. This is true of any position on the bar—wide, middle, or close.
Safety and Precautions
The pulldown behind the neck is not recommended for safety reasons, as the rotation of the shoulder joint and possible spine contact with the bar could lead to injuries. If you have any wrist, elbow, or shoulder problems, talk to your doctor or physical therapist to see if this exercise is appropriate for you. Stop this exercise if you feel any pain or too much stress on your shoulder joints.