It’s one of those hotly-debated topics, should I lean or should I not lean?
And if I lean, how far back should I lean?
I am of course talking about the lat pulldown.
You should have a slight lean on lat pulldowns of 10-30 degrees. How much will depend on your body type and what feels comfortable. If you are too upright your shoulders can roll forward, which takes the stress off the back and places it onto the shoulders. If you lean too far back you have effectively turned the movement into a seated row.
Overhand Lat Pulldowns Should Have a Slight Lean
So, as you can see, it is actually advisable to have a slight lean when performing lat pulldowns.
However, the actual degree of lean back is a matter of personal perspective.
Therefore, you should do what feels comfortable and suits your body type.
That being said, this will typically be somewhere between 10-30 degrees for the vast majority of people.
Now, if you perform overhand lat pulldowns with a vertical torso it’s likely that your chest will fall and your shoulder will roll forwards.
This immediately takes the stress off the upper back and lats, while placing it firmly on the shoulders.
Additionally, you may even find that this vertical position places more stress on your abs, as you’re essentially putting your torso into a crunch position.
One form cue for lat pulldowns, and many other exercises, is to perform scapula retraction and depression.
This simply means that you want to pull your shoulder blades back and then down, while really squeezing your shoulder blades together.
Plus, this will also help to keep your chest puffed out and high.
You’ll actually find it extremely difficult to maintain this position with a vertical torso, which is why it makes sense to have a slight lean.
That being said, you definitely don’t want to lean excessively backwards.
Now, I’ve actually seen many trainees, and even fitness professionals, talk about leaning back much further when performing the movement.
The aim here is to ensure correct shoulder adduction, whereby you bring your arms and elbows towards your body.
This is actually great advice, as you don’t want your elbows to flare out to the sides when doing lat pulldowns.
However, personally I’m not a fan of excessive lean, as you are in effect performing a seated row.
Therefore, you have completely changed the angle of the exercise and will be working slightly different muscles.
For me and my body type I prefer to lean back between 10-15 degrees.
But, as I say, you need to find what angle works best for you, and one that engages your lats effectively.
Overhand Lat Pulldowns Aren’t a Primary Lat Exercise
Now, this is going to sound like a complete contradiction, but the overhand lat pulldown isn’t actually a primary lat exercise.
Sounds strange, right?
I mean, after all the exercise is called the “lat pulldown”, so surely it’s working your lats?
Granted, there will always be some lat involvement irrespective of how you perform the movement.
However, when you use a wider overhand grip, and then lean back into thoracic extension, it’s the muscles of your upper back that become the primary movers during the exercise.
So, if you really want to use the lat pulldown machine to target your lats your form needs to completely change.
Firstly, you will need to sit more upright, keep a flat back, and use a narrower grip, but not an overhand grip.
The best method is to use the neutral-grip extension which allows you to maintain this body position, while your elbows will remain in front of you at all times.
This neutral/hammer grip will emphasise shoulder extension and brings your lats far more into play.
If your gym doesn’t have a neutral-grip extension then perform the movement with an underhand grip, while maintaining a vertical torso and using shoulder extension.
You should immediately feel your lats working much harder.
Your Lat Pulldown Form Check
Okay, I’ve covered some of the form cue checks required, and the fact that you should have a slight lean when performing overhand lat pulldowns.
However, there are a couple of more points you should be aware of.
Firstly, you must have your feet flat on the floor, while ensuring that the knee pad is as tight to the top of your thighs as is comfortable.
I often see people up on their toes, as well as leaving far too much room between the top of their legs and knee pad.
Unfortunately, this immediately creates instability, so you’ll lose leverage against the resistance.
The weight stack will pull your body up with each rep and your butt will come off the seat.
This actually limits your potential to pull the weight down with your back, and therefore you won’t gain as much muscle-building stimulus.
If you’re too short to have your feet flat on the floor, place weight plates or blocks under your feet.
I would hazard a guess that excessive use of momentum is the biggest lat pulldown faux pas.
Now, I’m not completely against using momentum, especially when you’re pulling very heavy weights.
However, you’ll often see people jerking their torso all over the place while performing pulldowns.
Essentially, they start off with a completely vertical torso, lean back in excess of 60 degrees, and there’s very little upper back or lat involvement during the exercise.
Look, I understand the importance of using heavier weights and looking to progress, but this should never impede your form.
Realistically, excessive use of momentum is sloppy technique, it won’t hit the target muscles as well, and you’ll place much more pressure on the joints.
Basically, you’re an injury waiting to happen.
Finally, I know that many trainees complain that they can never really feel their upper back or lats working.
Firstly, this is often because they are using more weight than they can handle, and therefore they’re never really fully activating the target muscles.
That being said, a lot of people tend to pull with their hands, which places more stress on the shoulders and biceps.
Plus, when pulling with your hands you’re more likely to feel lat pulldowns in your forearms.
Your aim is to simply use your hands as hooks around the bar and nothing else.
The best way to achieve this is to place your thumbs over the bar rather than wrapped around it.
Plus, you should always lead the movement with your elbows and not your hands.
This thumb over position also works really well for pull ups too.
And it will help to increase the mind-muscle connection while performing lat pulldowns.
8 Lat Pulldown Mistakes
Key Learning Points
- You should lean back approximately 10-30 degrees during lat pulldowns.
- The amount of “lean” will depend on your body type and what you find comfortable.
- A vertical torso when performing overhand lat pulldowns will typically see your shoulders roll forwards, which places the stress on the shoulders, and removes it from the lats.
- The overhand lat pulldown is actually better for activating the upper back and isn’t seen as a primary lat exercise.
- You can work your lats better with a more upright torso, while a narrower grip with either a neutral-grip extension or underhand grip.
- Ensure that your feet remain flat on the ground, your thumbs are over the bar, and don’t use excessive momentum when performing lat pulldowns.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.