When it comes to building the upper body, nothing beats a good set of lats. They help stabilize other movements like deadlifts and bench press, they aid in proper posture, and generally make you look more bad ass overall. In my opinion, when it comes to the pecking order of lat exercises, only pull-ups rank higher than lat pulldowns in terms of building size and strength. However, whenever I spend any amount of time near the lat pulldown station, I cringe at the horrific form. Screwing up the execution on a lat pulldown, especially if there is a heavy load, can lead to wasted effort, a torn rotator cuff, or other painful issues that can knock you out of the gym for months. Here’s how to avoid getting injured or wasting your time on the lat pulldown:
There are 2 primary mistakes made on the lat pulldown:
1) Being a complete tool and using way more weight that you can handle to stroke your own ego and impress or intimidate other gym members. This often requires a huge backward lean relying on body weight and momentum to do the work while the targeted muscle is inactive.
2) Pulling the straight bar attachment down in a manner that your elbows are not in line with your wrists placing stress on the shoulder that can lead to injury.
For mistake 1, you are on your own. There isn’t enough bandwidth on the internet to help you with this issue. If you do this, you know you do it. STOP.
Mistake 2 is subtler and most often just needs to be cleaned up. The first order of business is choosing the right attachment. Most often, the straight bar is attached to the lat pulldown simply because this is the most popular of the attachments. Almost every time I ask a gym member why they used the straight bar attachment I get the same answer: “it was already there”. While there is nothing wrong with this bar, it requires the strictest form to maintain alignment of the wrist over the elbow. As soon as you pull the bar down and your elbow moves out of alignment with the wrist, your rotator cuff muscles are at risk due to holding a much heavier load than they are equipped to handle. The same thing occurs when you pull the bar down too far, it becomes almost impossible to maintain proper alignment and when that happens you can wave good bye to your shoulder health.
One way to completely avoid having to worry about these issues is to use the close grip attachment. With this handle, you have a way of effortlessly maintaining proper alignment all while heavily loading the lats. All you need to do is keep your chest up, depress the shoulder blades and pull hard! Not only is it simple to maintain alignment, if you pull the attachment to meet your sternum it’s also very difficult to pull the bar down too far. Switching the attachment literally makes this exercise almost fail safe. (except for the tool who is still making mistake number 1).
Another option, if your gym has a machine like this, is to use a machine for lat pulldowns. Form is also easy to keep here as you can pull the handles down and not have to change torso position to allow for the bar to travel to the sternum.
Hope this was helpful, now get to pulling!