How To Do A Lat Pulldown (With Proper Form)

Man performing a lat pulldown with good form

Most experienced lifters know the advantages of free-weights compared to guided machines.

It’s no secret…

While I certainly agree that utilizing mostly free weights is a better way to workout than using guided machines, there are some machine exercises that I would never dream of leaving out.

One of those exercises is the lat pulldown.

Don’t get me wrong, you can still build a well-developed back without doing lat pulldowns, but there’s a reason why bodybuilders, athletes, personal trainers, and fitness experts of all sorts incorporate them into their back workouts.

They work!

When you do them correctly, lat pulldowns make for an excellent exercise to have in your arsenal for back day.  In my view, no back day is complete without them.

For some reason though, most people have know idea how to perform a lat pulldown correctly.  Well, don’t worry…

By the end of this article, you’ll know how to do a lat pulldown with proper form, guaranteed!

What Muscles Does The Lat Pulldown Work?

Guy flexing his back muscles

Although Lat Pulldowns are technically a compound exercise, most of the emphasis is on the Latissumus Dorsi, or “lats” for short.

The lats are the muscles that make up the sides of the back of the torso.

Diagram of Latissimus Dorsi muscle

Of course, because the lat pulldown is technically a compound movement, other muscles are getting worked as well.

Anytime you do a pulling motion, as is the case with most back exercises, your biceps are doing some of the work.

The goal, of course, is to focus on your lats and try to avoid pulling with your biceps, but no matter what you do, they’re still going to be there.

In fact, one of the keys to well-developed biceps is simply to go heavy on back.  If you’re lifting heavy on back days, your biceps will grow over time as well.

How To Do Lat Pulldowns With Perfect Form

Guy doing a lat pulldown from the side, with proper form.

You can experiment with different grips to focus on different areas of the lat, but generally speaking, this is what a proper lat pulldown looks like:

Diagram of a man doing a lat pulldown with proper form

As you can see, the goal is to bring the bar from an overhead, arms extended position to just above your chest, using your lats (not arms) to do the work.

Here are the steps to performing a perfect lat pulldown:

  1. Sit upright facing the machine.
  2. Grip the bar a little wider than shoulder width, palms facing out.
  3. Bring the bar down to your upper chest.
  4. Squeeze the lats so they contract fully.
  5. Return the bar to the starting position (control the speed).

Like I said earlier, you can experiment with different grips and angles, but the basic execution is the same.

As with most exercises, you should only do as much weight as you can bear with proper form.  Don’t cheat!

Tips For Proper Form And Execution

A man executing a lat pulldown with proper form.

You want to make sure your form is perfect before you start going heavier and heavier.

A lot of people make the mistake of trying to go heavy at the expense of proper form.

Best case, you’re lats don’t grow like they could if you did it right.  Worst case, you get injured.

Either way, it’s better to just use proper form from the beginning.

Here are a few tips:

  • Sit up straight, chest out
  • Keep your elbows pointing straight down
  • Focus on squeezing your lats
  • Don’t pull with your biceps (even if you can)
  • Bring the bar straight down to your upper chest

Now that we’ve established how to do it right, let’s talk about what NOT to do…

The Most Common Lat Pulldown Errors

A women doing a lat pulldown with improper form, leaned back with her palms facing her.

Truth be told, most people have no idea how to do lat pulldowns with proper form.

If you were to stand by the lat pulldown machine at your gym on a busy day and watch 5 people use it, you’d likely see 5 different variations of lat pulldowns.

Some variations actually make sense, and we’ll talk about those in a minute, but most of the time people are just going about it all wrong.

So, let’s go over some of the most common errors people make with lat pulldowns.

Leaning back

Leaning back is probably the single most common way of screwing up the lat pulldown.

Most people begin in the proper upright position, but as soon as the weight becomes too much to handle, they tilt backwards and complete the rest of the movement at a slant.

This turns it from a lat pulldown to more of a mid-row and works a different part of the back entirely.

It forces your arms (biceps) to do more of the work which kind of defeats the purpose of back day in the first place!

Think of the lat pulldown as a pull up, but rather than pulling yourself towards the bar, you’re pulling the bar towards you.

That’s the angle you should be shooting for.

Using momentum (swinging)

Sometimes it’s okay to cheat, but when it comes to lat pulldowns, you’re only cheating yourself by not using proper form.

Using your body weight to produce momentum–rather than forcing your lats to do the work–is just about the worst example of what constitutes “proper form”.

Usually, people do this when they can’t actually do the weight, but don’t want to lower it and admit it to themselves (or their friends).

It’s normal to want to feel like you did more weight than you actually did, but you need to recognize this for what it is…

An ego thing.

Don’t let your ego get in the way of a great workout.  Use proper form.  Even if that means less weight.

If you force your lats to do the work, your lats will grow.  If you cheat, they won’t grow. 

It’s realy that simple.

Not doing the full range of motion

Not completing the full range of motion is usually another indication that the weight is too heavy.

You may feel like you’re getting a great pump with those half-reps, but if you keep it up, you’ll end up with weak, under-developed lats.

You want to go from basically a hanging position, to having the bar basically touching your upper chest.

If you don’t go all the way down, you’re not allowing your lats to fully contract.  If you don’t go all way up, you’re not getting the full stretch.

So do yourself a favor a toss the half-reps out the window.  Complete the full range of motion on your lat pulldowns, even if that means lowering the weight a little.

Your lats will thank you in the long-run!

Doing unnecessary variations

This is something I discussed in my article on shoulder workouts, but it applies equally here.

Sometimes the lat pulldown machine is more like a circus….

People like to experiment, and that’s totally cool, but there comes a point when doing endless variations of the same workout just becomes counter-productive.

Research shows that bringing the bar behind your neck is not a great way to work the lat.  Neither is a supinated (palms facing the body) grip.

This makes sense when you think about the fact that bringing the bar behind your neck severely limits your range of motion and when you grip the bar under-hand–with your palms facing your body–your biceps do more of the work.

Some people are also under the impression that wide grip is superior to a normal grip, but that’s actually not the case.

In terms of total muscle activation (in the lat specifically), grip width doesn’t really matter.

A medium grip may actually be slightly superior because it allows for a wider range of motion.

Do yourself a favor and keep the variations reasonable.  There’s no point in changing your grip every set or even every workout. 

What’s important is how hard you make your lats work.  The harder they work, the more they’ll grow.

The Bottom Line On Lat Pulldowns

Man doing a lat pulldown

If you want to build bigger, wider lats, do lat pulldowns.

They can’t replace exercises like barbell rows or deadlifts, but nothing targets the lats directly quite like lat pulldowns.

This is one exercise that’s an absolute must.

As long as you utilize proper form, and don’t lie to yourself about how much weight you can actually pull, lat pulldowns will definitely help your lats grow, ultimately help sculpt the strong, well-developed back you’ve always wanted!

Whats your take on lat pulldowns?  Do you like them?  Hate them?!  Let me know in the comments below…