Is Lat Pulldown a Compound Exercise?

Is Lat Pulldown a Compound Exercise?

Lat pulldowns can be an excellent accessory lift or alternative to pull-ups in specific scenarios.

Most of us link lat pulldowns to pull-ups because they follow a similar movement pattern and activate almost the same muscles.

There are many lat pulldown grip variations and benefits that should be noted about this exercise.

Also, most trainees perform lat pulldowns incorrectly, activating the wrong muscles and risking getting injured.

Stay until the end to learn everything about lat pulldowns and how to incorporate them into your workout routine.

Is Lat Pulldown a Compound Exercise?

Lat pulldown is an upper-body compound exercise. Lat pulldowns follow the vertical pull movement pattern in the upper body and activate the muscles such as lats, traps, and biceps. Lat pulldowns are performed in the seated position pulling the bar towards your chest or clavicle bone.

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Quick Summary

  • Lat pulldown is an upper-body compound exercise that builds strength in the vertical pull pattern.
  • Lat pulldown activates muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, rear deltoid, trapezius, and biceps brachii.
  • Lat pulldowns can be an effective exercise for building a better push-pull ratio in the upper body to improve overall posture.

What Is the Lat Pulldown?

The lat pulldown is an upper-body compound pulling exercise. It is primarily designed to help you develop your latissimus dorsi muscles and its muscle utilization patterns are one of vertical pulling motion.

The lat pulldown belongs to compound exercises and consists of downward rotation and depression or lowering, of the scapula combined with the extension and adduction of the shoulder joint. It is performed in the seated position and can be done with various grips and attachments to emphasize different muscle activation patterns.

What Muscles Does a Lat Pulldown Work?

The lat pulldown works muscles such as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rear deltoids, and biceps brachii.

Latissimus dorsi is a flat, broad muscle located in the lower posterior thorax, and its main function is to adduction of the shoulder, but it is also a respiratory accessory muscle. 

In addition, the trapezius is a large muscle located in the middle and upper back and has different functions, such as protraction of the scapula, shoulder elevation and depression. 

The rear deltoid is located in the back part of your shoulder muscle. Its main function is to extend your shoulder/move your upper arms backward.

Lastly, biceps brachii is a long two-headed muscle located anteriorly on the upper arm(humerus bone) and has two functions: elbow and shoulder flexion.

Rotator cuff muscles also work to produce the internal rotation of the shoulder. Other muscles include the ones moving the shoulder blades during the pulling motion and small muscle groups helping elbow flexion.

What Type of Movement Is a Lat Pulldown?

Lat pulldown is a vertical pull type of movement. The first part of the lat pulldown consists of a concentric phase or shortening of the muscles, and the second part consists of an eccentric phase or lengthening of the muscles.

Traditional lat pulldown belongs to the pull movement pattern. More precisely, the lat pulldown is a vertical pull exercise following the same pattern as pull-ups. It consists of three muscle actions/phases. The first one is concentric, followed by isometric and eccentric. The isometric phase is only present if you pause at the bottom of the straight arm lat pulldown, where the length of the muscle doesn’t change.

How to Do Lat Pull Down Correctly?

To do a lat pull down correctly:

  1. Start in a seated position facing the machine and hold the bar in your hands.
  2. Retract your shoulder blades(scapula).
  3. Pull down the bard towards your clavicle bone.
  4. Slowly bring the bar to the starting position and elevate your shoulder blades.
A woman performs a lat pulldown with the correct technique and brings the bar to her collar bone/upper chest.
Aim to bring the bar to your collar bone or upper chest.

Lat Pulldown Variations and Grip Positions 

There are many straight arm lat pulldown variations and grip positions you should know about.

All variations and wide grip lat pulldown positions offer different benefits, and you should try all to see where your musculature is the weakest.

Always aim to diversify your grips and variations to build base strength in all angles. Here are some lat pulldown variations and grip positions:

  • Pronated Gripv (Narrow) – palms facing the machine, grip shoulder-width apart
  • Pronated Grip (Wide) – palms facing the machine, grip substantially wider than shoulder width
  • Narrow Neutral Grip – palms facing each other, grip shoulder-width apart
  • Wide Neutral Grip – palms facing each other, grip substantially wider than shoulder width
  • Supinated Grip – palms facing toward you, grip a little wider than shoulder width
  • Behind the Neck Lat Pulldown – palms facing the machine, grip a little wider than shoulder width, and pull the bar towards your scapula’s top angle
  • Unilateral Lat Pulldown – a single-hand variation of lat pulldown

Lat Pulldown Benefits

There are numerous lat pulldown benefits, and below you can find the most important ones.

1. Increased Strength

Lat pulldowns will build upper body strength by developing muscles such as latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rear deltoids, and biceps brachii [1].

All these muscles are essential for building a balanced and strong upper body, and lat pulldown activates them by following a vertical pull movement pattern.

2. Better Posture(Push-Pull/Agonist-Antagonist Balance)

Lat pulldowns will build better posture by exercising posterior back muscles that are essential for keeping our body in the upright position without any deviations in the sagittal, frontal, or transverse plane.

The biggest problem in programming workouts boils down to the improper balance between pushing and pulling exercises, which is essential for building a strong and balanced body. Pushing and pulling imbalances lead to the unbalanced development of agonist and antagonist muscles.

“A well-designed upper body program should include a proportional number of sets of horizontal pulling (rows), vertical pulling (chin ups), overhead pressing and supine pressing exercises. In simple terms, there should be a set of pulling exercise for every set of pushing exercise.” – Michael Boyle, Strength and Conditioning and Strength Training Consultant

3. Stronger Upper Back

Lat pulldown activates upper back muscles such as lats, delts, and traps. Those muscles are prime movers for any pulling movement in the vertical and horizontal plane.

4. Better Back Definition

By exercising upper and middle back muscles, you will trigger hypertrophy or muscle growth, which will aid in better defining your back. Keep in mind that diet and nutrition play a significant role in reducing body fat, which is responsible for making your back look more defined.

5. Better Core Stability

A healthy core is a precondition for a healthy back or absence of back pain.

Also, strong core musculature that has the ability to prevent movement in all three planes of motion, sagittal, frontal, and transverse, is essential for reducing the risk of injury in sport-specific scenarios, heavy lifting, and similar.

Lat pulldown will strengthen your back muscles and build balance between your anterior and posterior core musculature.

6. Improved Muscular Balance

Building a balance between your upper body’s agonist and antagonist muscles is essential for preventing injuries.

Today, most of the population emphasizes pushing exercises such as bench presses and overhead presses, which only build anterior upper body muscles.

This imbalance of anterior and posterior musculature can lead to injuries and pain in your back.

Lat pulldown is an excellent exercise that will build strength in your antagonistic muscles(in reference to pushing exercises) and improve the balance of anterior and posterior upper body musculature.

Lat Pulldown Tips and Tricks

Here are some tips and tricks to remember when doing lat pulldowns.

1. Never substitute pull-ups for lat pulldowns

Lat pulldowns are a nice alternative for pull-ups, but you should never entirely remove pull-ups from your workouts.

Pull-ups are more functional than lat pull-downs and are better for building relative body strength. In addition, you should aim to incorporate both exercises into your workout program because variety is the most important thing when developing your base strength.

Using one of these two can be an option if you are working out for a more sport-specific situation. But in other cases, use pull-ups and lat pulldowns in your workouts.

2. Squeeze your shoulder blades

Squeezing your shoulder blades at the end range of motion or when the bar hits your chest/clavicle bone is crucial.

This is because you want to develop strength through the full range of motion. Again, I am referring to the more general fitness and not sport-specific scenarios.

Having strength built through a full range of motion can minimize muscle imbalances and posture problems and build a more functional body. 

3. Use lat pulldowns as a superset

If you are already doing pull-ups during your workouts, then you can start implementing lat pulldowns after pull-ups as a superset.

Supersets are an excellent way to induce hypertrophy or muscle growth because you will prolong time under tension. Try doing a set of pull-ups, followed by negative pull-ups and, in the end, lat pulldowns. You will get the maximum out of your hypertrophy training.

4. Introduce variety

Always vary cable attachments to introduce variety into your workouts. Different attachments require a different amount of work from your muscles.

Also, all attachments will place your joints in a different position, making your pulldowns more challenging, but you will build a more strength-versatile body. Furthermore, try to switch up the grips from time to time to avoid the plateau and monotony of your workouts.

Lat Pulldown Mistakes to Avoid

Here are some common lat pulldown machine mistakes to avoid.

Butchering your range of motion

Sometimes, the problem with going for reps is you sacrifice the form for the goal.

However, doing 8 lat pulldown machine repetitions through the full range of motion and squeezing your shoulder blades at the end is better than doing 20 half reps.

You can get injured, develop muscle imbalances, restrict your joints, and build a dysfunctional posture.

Always aim to do the exercise through the full range of motion, except if you are using the exercise to develop a certain sport-specific skill, which probably won’t be the case initially.

Doing eccentric too fast

The eccentric phase is the one that builds the most tear and does the most significant amount of damage to your muscle fibers.

Also, this means prolonging the eccentric phase is the best way to train for hypertrophy. Incorporation tempo training can be of massive value to your muscle-building journey.

Always aim for a slower and more controlled eccentric phase to build the hypertrophy easier and get the most out of the exercise.

Shoulders internally rotate

When bringing your bar to the chest, there is a slight chance your shoulders will rotate internally.

The main reason your shoulders rotate internally is that the latissimus dorsi is also an internal shoulder rotator.

To avoid internal rotation of your shoulders, depress and protract your scapula/shoulder blades(pull them towards each other/close to the middle line of your spine) while pulling the bar towards your chest.

Excessive motion in your spine

Your spine/back should move backward only as much as to let the bar pass your head level without touching it. There is no need to lean back and use momentum so that you can lift more weight.

Remember, lat pulldowns have a similar pattern to pull-ups, and you should think the same as if you are doing pull-ups.

You don’t want lean back too much because you are starting to use the momentum to pull the weights, and the movement is more of a row than a vertical pull.

Do Lat Pulldowns Work the Same Muscles as Pull-Ups?

Yes, lat pulldowns work the same muscles as pull-ups. Both of these exercises work muscles such as the lats, traps, rear delts, and biceps.

However, you are activating additional core muscles when doing pull-ups to keep your body stable while pulling yourself toward the bar. 

How Many Reps Should You Do for Lat Pulldown?

For lat pulldowns, you should do anywhere from 6 to 12 reps in the single series. However, the number of repetitions will differ based on the type of training, your fitness goals, and external resistance.

For endurance, you can do more than 12 repetitions in a single series to build the most significant amount of endurance in your muscles.

For hypertrophy, doing anywhere between 6-12 repetitions will facilitate the biggest muscle building effects.

For power and strength, 1-6 repetitions will allow you to lift more than 80% of your maximum load so that you can develop maximum amount of strength and later transform it into power.

How Many Sets of Pulldowns Should I Do?

You should do at least 2 sets of pulldowns. Two sets are a great place to start for beginners; you should naturally add additional sets as you progress.

The best number of sets for endurance is as much as you can without significantly dropping initial resistance. You should be careful here to set up the resistance and rest intervals properly so that you avoid burnout, inflammation, and getting injured,

For hypertrophy, I would suggest going for at least 3-4 sets to maximize the growth of your muscles. This number of sets has been tested over time and has shown consistent results when building muscles.

For strength and power, doing less than 4 sets, sometimes even just one or two, will be enough if you work with your 1RM.

How Long Should I Rest Between Lat Pulldown Sets?

You should rest 90 seconds on average between lat pulldown sets. This much time will ensure enough recovery so you can easily perform the next set.

Resting for less than 90 seconds is recommended to induce the maximal endurance effects.

Resting between 90 to 120 seconds for hypertrophy will ensure your muscles remain under tension but still have enough time to recover for the next set. This rest interval ensures maximum muscle-building effects.

For power and strength, resting more than 2 minutes, sometimes even up to 10, has shown to be the most beneficial when trying to increase your maximal strength and power production.

How Do I Make Sure Lats Are Activated?

To make sure lats are activated, squeeze your shoulder blades at the end of the lat pulldown so that your lats go through the full range of motion. In addition, your lats are always going to be activated when doing any form of shoulder adduction or extension. 

However, one thing you should worry about is the moment you start to pull the bar from the highest position. 

Sometimes, if your lats are weak, you will compensate with other shoulder adductors. 

If that happens, decrease the resistance where you feel comfortable pulling the bard towards you without having to compensate with other body parts.

Related Articles:


Should You Go Heavy on Lat Pull Downs?

You should go heavy on lat pull downs if you have built significant strength in your vertical pulling pattern. Otherwise, going heavy can increase the chance of getting injured or compensating for the movement with other body parts which aren’t supposed to be included.

Why Do I Feel My Triceps During Lat Pulldown?

You feel your triceps during lat pulldown because the triceps is also helping extend the shoulder. However, its primary role is elbow extension, while it only plays a small part in shoulder extension.

What Type of Lat Pulldown Is Most Effective?

The most effective type of lat pulldown is close grip pulldown. The close grip lat pulldown muscles will allow the biggest stretch in the starting position, therefore, the bigger stretch in the lats.

Should I Lean Back During Lat Pulldown?

You should lean back during lat pulldown only as much as to let the bar pass the head without touching it. Leaning back extensively can get you injured and change the angle of the exercise which makes it more of a rowing than vertical pulling.

What Should I Superset With Lat Pulldown?

You should superset cable pullovers with lat pulldown. In addition, you can also superset lat pulldowns with cable lateral raises.

Is Lat Pulldown Better Than Pull Ups?

Lat pulldowns can be better than pull-ups. However, that is only in specific situations.

There have been many debates about which exercise is better. It is impossible to determine which exercise is better overall.

Instead, we should aim to address specific scenarios where a single exercise is better.

Which exercise do you like more, lat pulldowns or pull-ups?

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Vanja Vukas

Student at the Faculty of Sport and Physical Education and a hardcore functional training enthusiast. Heavily inspired by Michael Boyle, a strength & conditioning specialist, and by Adam Sinicki, the founder of Bioneer. Vanja believes that transitioning to a movement-based exercise program can drastically improve your fitness, balance out your muscles, and support your current lifestyle.

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