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Welcome back to Bro Basics, a series which covers exercises that are popular and can be useful but are often done inadequately and solely for aesthetics, and shows the exercises’ broader function and how to perform them correctly.

While we’ve previously covered two free weight exercises — the bicep curl and the tricep extension — today we tackle an exercise performed on one of the most popular machines at the gym: the lat pulldown. 

While barbells are superior to machines when it comes to the foundations of strength training, there are some mechanized movements that can be helpful for doing accessory work — “smaller,” more isolated exercises that improve your ability to perform the main lifts (deadlift, squat, shoulder press). The lat pulldown is counted among these. Plus, the exercise is effective in the aesthetics-enhancing department, and doing it just feels dang good to boot. 

For insights on how best to perform the lat pulldown, I talked with my strength coach and head of Barbell Logic Online Coaching, Matt Reynolds. 

What Muscles Does the Lat Pulldown Work?

The primary muscle that the lat pulldown works is the latissimus dorsi. This is the broad, flat muscle that stretches across the back of your torso and goes under your arms. Your lats stabilize your shoulders, help with posture, allow you to swim and rock climb, and even assist in breathing. 

Besides your lats, the exercise also works smaller muscles in your shoulders, traps, triceps, biceps, and forearms. 

In short: the lat pulldown is a great accessory movement for strengthening your upper body.

Why Do Lat Pulldowns?

Great alternative accessory exercise if you can’t do a pull-up or chin-up. Pull-ups and chin-ups make for great accessory exercises. But if you’re still progressing towards being able to do those bodyweight exercises, the lat pulldown is an accessible way to work pretty much the same muscles. In fact, it can help you get to the point where you can do a pull-up or chin-up on your own. 

Start at a weight that you can pull 10-15 times. Add weight each week. Once you can do a lat pulldown with the amount of weight that’s close to your bodyweight, you should be able to do a pull-up/chin-up. 

Contributes directly to the main barbell lifts, particularly the deadlift. Whenever you deadlift, your lats play an important role in keeping your back in extension and the bar close to your shins throughout the lift. If your upper back rounds significantly or you notice that the bar is drifting away from your shins, your lats aren’t doing their job and they need to get stronger. Lat pulldowns can help with that. 

Helps give you that masculine v-shaped torso. This is probably the main reason dudes do lat pulldowns. Amongst the physical traits that make men sexually attractive, the v-shaped torso — large chest, shoulder, and back muscles that taper down to a narrower waist — arguably resides supreme. To increase the size of the top part of the v, you need to work your shoulders, your chest, and your back. And since your lats make up a large part of your back, increasing their size will provide a lot of bang for your v-shaped torso buck. 

How to Do a Lat Pulldown

Matt’s garage gym lat pulldown