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How you can use lat pulldown variations to strengthen your back

Your fitness won't be complete without a strong back. And for this you will need to master the lat pulldown and all its variations. Here's how you do it

Lat pulldowns are the best way to strengthen your back.
Lat pulldowns are the best way to strengthen your back. (Istockphoto)

The one machine that even the most basic gym will have is the lat pulldown machine. A long bar with angular ends for grips, it has become almost a must-have machine for a gym to be acceptable. The pulldown, which is easy to master with enough help from the machine’s cables, is the first weight most people pull in a gym, even before their own bodyweight. Which makes it the perfect exercise to add variations to, just in case you get too comfortable with the conventional lat pulldown.

Today’s variations are divided into three categories: for beginners, intermediates, and advanced. This list does not include variations with different grips, with gym-goers usually switching from wide grip to neutral and narrow. Instead, the list introduces new exercises to try to make your pulldown better and more challenging for your back muscles.

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The lat pulldown, while an easy enough movement, can be intimidating for first-timers. The bar hanging overhead is heavy, the seating adjustment can be clunky, and managing to pull weight while keeping the back straight might need some training.

For those who are struggling with these issues, try doing a banded lat pulldown first. Using a mini band or a long band will help you practice engaging your back. “The slight pressure from the mini band will make you focus on pulling your arms away from each other as you raise your arms up and down. This will teach you to engage your back rather than yanking with your arms during the pulldown,” states a article titled 11 Lat Pulldown Variations For A Stronger, Wider Back. Disengaging the strength from arms to pull weight is a muscle-memory that will help you master other pull exercises as well.

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Once you have mastered the back engagement part of the exercise, it is time to move on to the more intermediate (but still beginner-friendly) single-arm pulldowns. Once again, this is doable with both long bands and a conventional pulldown machine, and this exercise doubles up as a brilliant core trainer. A article, called 7 Lat Pulldown Variations For Serious Back Development, suggests that the constant tension on one side of the body will help with correcting imbalances as well.

But let’s add another challenge to this: try doing the single arm lat pulldown on a basic cable machine (used for biceps and triceps and chest crossovers) in a kneeling-down position. “Doing this will increase the range of motion so it makes these already effective movements even more effective. You also have to control your body more and stabilize yourself which provides a greater challenge,” states the article. You can also do it in a half-kneeling position as shown in the video below.

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Another popular variation is the straight-arm lat pulldown. This is not a completely overhead pull, because the range of motion is designed to initially pull the cable, before pushing the bar down to isolate your lats. You can read more on lat isolation exercises in this piece I wrote for Lounge a few months ago, but this particular exercise is a must-have as you advance in your back workouts.

You can use a rope attachment and a long resistance band for this as well. The unique advantage of this exercise is that it will make your other compound lifts stronger. “As a lat dominant exercise, pulldowns will strengthen the muscle, which means more power when you deadlift. If you’ve reached a deadlift plateau, shelve them for a few weeks and focus on pulldowns instead,” states an article titled Straight Arm Lat Pulldown for Muscle Domination.

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And finally, here’s a variation that uses both ends of the cable machine: the crossover lat pulldown is a fun variation that adds some rotation to the exercise. It also helps you get into the habit of coordinating both sides of your body. Sometimes, during a conventional lat pulldown, one can feel one side work harder than the other in the end reps. This imbalance can be corrected with the crossover pulldown in which you use the left hand to pull back the cable on the right side and vice-versa.

As the video above shows, it is a standing exercise and you should keep your knees soft, back straight and engaged, and pull in the cables using the right muscles. Add these variations to back day to beat the repetitiveness and add to those gains.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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