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Best Technique for Lat Pulldowns

Quick Hit Summary

The lat pulldown is a popular exercise for many individuals because it works large muscle groups. Furthermore, it’s easy to keep “fresh” as many variations of the exercise exist. One variation is pulling the bar in front vs. behind the neck. Of the two, the front of the neck variation is much safer as it puts less stress on your shoulder ligaments and equally works your latissimus dorsi muscles (main pulling muscle in back). Additionally, one gets a better chest workout when pulling the bar in front of the neck. If you’re looking for a variation on your lat pulldown routine, try using a V-bar.

Lat Pulldowns

A common exercise included in most resistance training programs is the lat pulldown. Not only does it work large muscle groups(latissimus dorsi, trapezius, etc), but multiple variations of the exercise exist such that one can always change it up to keep the exercise “fresh.” Using hand grip alone, individuals can have wide grip, narrow grip, supinated grip (palms toward you), pronated grip (palms away from you) or neutral grip (palms toward each other). Other variations I’ve seen involve altering the pulling angles. These variations include front of the neck lat pulls (FNL) or behind the neck lat pulls (BNL).

Figure 1 The large muscles of the back worked during the Lat Pulldown. The highlighted muscle is the Latissimus dorsi which is the primary muscle worked during exercise. However, other key muscles, such as the trapezius (which is just north of the lat’s, extending off the spine into the shoulder blade) also work as stabilizing muscles.

Unfortunately, BNL pose several dangers to the shoulder joint. Due to the angle of the pull, the rotator cuff is unable to properly stabilize the joint, leading to added stress on the shoulder ligaments responsible for connect the upper arm bone to the rest of the body. However, when performing FNL, the angle of the pull allows the rotator cuff to properly function, decreasing stress on the ligaments of the shoulder. Despite the safety of the FNL, I still see many individuals using the BNL technique. In conversation with them, I often find out that either:

  • A) They are unaware that BNL may hurt their shoulder, or;
  • B) They feel like the BNL works their back muscles better, or;
  • C) They are tired of using FNL variations and want to use BNL to change up their program.

For individuals that fall into these groups, I try to simply explain the risk/benefits associated with the exercise. For those seeking a variation different from FNL ones, I recommend to try using a V-bar (VNL). The v-bar is similar in size to the standard straight bar used for lat pulldowns. However, since it’s an upside down V, one can pull it straight down (upper arms parallel with sides of body at bottom position) without worrying about hitting themselves on the head. Since one doesn’t have to lean forward (to allow the bar to clear their head), less stress is put on the shoulder joint in comparison to BNL.

Recent Research Regarding Lat Pulldown Variations

In a recently published study by Sperandei et al., researchers measured the activity of various muscle groups while participants completed the BNL, FNL and VNL variations of the lat pulldown1. The study included 24 men (mean age- 26) with resistance training experience. Muscle activities were recorded during both the concentric and eccentric phases of the lift while the weight was set at 80% of 1 rep max (1RM). Muscle activity was obtained via surface EMG recordings. No significant difference in latissimus dorsi (lats) muscle activity was found between all three variations. If individuals are using proper lifting form, this contradicts the feelings of those falling into the group B category that I mentioned above. Additionally, the pectoralis (chest) was most effectively worked in the FNL version compared to the other 2 variations. The only muscles that produced greater muscle activity while doing the BNL vs. other variations were the deltoids and biceps.

Bottom Line

This research demonstrates that the FNL and VNL can work the back as hard as the BNL. Furthermore, it appears that the FNL is superior at working the chest muscles. Although the BNL was better at working the deltoids and biceps, these are not the primary muscles targeted with the lat pulldown exercise. Additionally, as pointed out by the researchers, there are no athletic or everyday movements that require someone to pull at the same angle as seen in the BNL. On the other hand, many movements replicate the movement pattern seen with FNL (stroke with arm during freestyle swimming, serving a tennis ball, etc). Considering these results and the risks/benefits associated with the BNL, there is no reason why this exercise should be included in a training program. For individuals looking to change the vertical pulling angle during lat pulldowns, a V-bar can be used.


1 Sperandei S, Barros MA, Silveira-Júnior PC, Oliveira CG. Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct;23(7):2033-8.

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Written on May 09, 2010 by Sean Casey
Last Updated: June 19, 2010

This information is not intended to take the place of medical advice.Please check with your health care providers prior to starting any new dietary or exercise program. CasePerformance is not responsible for the outcome of any decision made based off the information presented in this article.

About the Author: Sean Casey is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin-Madison with degrees in both Nutritional Science-Dietetics and Kinesiology-Exercise Physiology. Sean graduated academically as one of the top students in both the Nutritional Science and Kinesiology departments.
Field Experience: During college, Sean was active with the UW-Badgers Strength and Conditioning Department. He has also spent time as an intern physical preparation coach at the International Performance Institute in Bradenton, FL. He also spent time as an intern and later worked at Athletes Performance in Tempe, AZ. While at these locations he had the opportunity to train football, soccer, baseball, golf and tennis athletes. Sean is also active in the field of sports nutrition where he has consulted with a wide variety of organizations including both elite (NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars) and amateur athletic teams. His nutrition consultation services are avalable by clicking on the Nutrition Consultation tab.