Forearm Fatigue During Lat Pulldowns? Here’s Why & How to Fix it!

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If you’re feeling lat pulldowns in your forearms this typically comes down to an incorrect setup, poor technique, or using too much weight. Ensure that you retract your shoulder blades, use a “thumb over” grip, lead the movement with your elbows not your hands, don’t allow your elbows to flare out to the sides, and don’t lean back too far.

Do Lat Pulldowns Work Forearms?

Firstly, it’s important to note that there is some forearm involvement during lat pulldowns.

Therefore, it is perfectly normal to “feel” your forearms working during the movement.

That being said, if your forearms hurt, fatigue extremely quickly, or feel as though they’re doing most of the work, this either means that you’re using incorrect form or you have weak forearms.

Don’t worry, I’ll be covering both of these factors in just a moment.

However, the simple fact that you’re taking your arms from completely straight at the top to being bent at the elbow at the bottom of lat pulldowns means that your elbow flexors (and extensors) have some work to do.

And it just so happens that the main elbow flexor involved in lat pulldowns is the brachioradialis.

The brachioradialis is a forearm muscle that flexes at the elbow and is responsible for helping you grip the bar during lat pulldowns.

Nevertheless, as I’ve said, if it feels as though your forearms are doing the brunt of the work this usually means you’re doing something wrong.

Realistically, you’re recruiting the brachioradialis muscle as opposed to focusing on lat activation.

So, let’s look in more detail at lat pulldown form.

Let’s Perfect Your Lat Pulldown Form

You would think that lat pulldowns would be extremely difficult to get wrong.

I mean, you simply grab the bar, pull it down and then reverse the movement.

However, if I’m being honest, the lat pulldown is probably the upper body exercise which is most frequently performed incorrectly in the gym.

And this typically comes down to not setting yourself up correctly.

Shoulders (and Chest)

Your shoulders have a very important role during lat pulldowns, and pretty much any lat, upper back, or pulling exercise.

So, it’s important to get your shoulders “set up” correctly before you start performing reps.

The main cue is to retract your scapula.

This simply means that you should pull your shoulders blades back and down.

I liken this to trying to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets.

Another way to look at it is that you’re trying to bring your shoulder blades together in order to hold an imaginary tennis ball between them.

So, before you go anywhere near the lat pulldown machine practice this movement of pulling your shoulder blades back and down.

You can also try this as a banded exercise known as “shoulder squeezes”.

Now something that can make this harder is your chest position.

Basically, you want to keep your chest high and prominent, which is much easier to do when you retract your shoulder blades.

If you allow your chest to drop or dip then your shoulders will automatically roll forward.

And unfortunately this means that you’ll be using your forearms and biceps more during lat pulldowns.


Next on the list of form fixes is your elbows and exactly what you should be doing with them.

Okay, when it comes to lat pulldowns, or any lat-focused exercises, you should always lead with your elbows.

Essentially, you want to pull with your elbows rather than your hands.

In fact, if you initiate lat pulldowns with your hands, which the vast majority of people do, you’re more likely to feel it in your forearms and biceps.

Now, the process of leading with your elbows is much easier with row variations.

What I like to imagine is that I’m trying to elbow someone standing behind me.

If you concentrate on this you’ll definitely lead with your elbows and activate the lats more.

However, “elbowing someone standing behind you” doesn’t work quite as well with lat pulldowns.

This is because you’re pulling “down and inwards” with your elbows rather than straight back behind you.

That being said, you still want to focus on “moving” the weight by pulling with your elbows and not your hands.

I guess you could say it’s similar to, “trying to touch your hips with elbows”.

Next, is your elbow position, which should always remain in line with your hips.

If your elbows are too far forward you’ll activate your biceps and forearms more, whereas elbows too far back will put undue stress on your shoulder girdle.

Something else to look out for is to ensure that you don’t allow your elbows to flare out to the sides.

Don't Allow Your Elbows to Flare Out to the Sides.

Once more, this puts a great deal of stress on the shoulders and it’s much harder to maintain the retracted shoulder blade position.

A great cue to ensure that you don’t allow your elbows to flare is to try to get your elbows as close to your body as possible at the bottom of the movement (remember above, “elbows to hips”).

Essentially, you are pulling your elbows down and in at the same time.

There are some of you who may have fantastic joint mobility that at the bottom of the lat pulldown your elbows are actually touching your sides.

If you practice the lat pulldown movement freehand without any weight you can actually feel the squeeze in your lats when your elbows are by your side.


Now, there are a few important points about your grip.

Firstly, I’ve mentioned that you should lead with your elbows and not your hands.

So, view your hands as hooks around the bar and nothing more.

Therefore, never pull with your hands, lead with your elbows.

Secondly, the tighter your grip on the bar the more you’ll activate the forearms muscles.

I know many people think that the tighter they squeeze and grip a bar, barbell, dumbbell, etc. the better this is for strength development.

Now, don’t get me wrong, increasing grip strength has a massive knock-on effect on numerous exercises.

However, if you’re struggling with feeling your forearms during lat pulldowns, less is definitely more.

So, there is really no need to apply a death-grip to the bar.

Finally, you can actually “loosen” your grip on the bar and activate your lats to a greater extent by having your thumb over the top of the bar next to your fingers.

So, by not having your thumb wrapped around the bottom of the bar your grip won’t be as tight, so less forearm involvement.

And the “thumb over” technique works really well for a vast array of pull and lat-based exercises.

In fact, there’s a regular debate over whether you should have thumbs over or under when performing pull ups.

To be honest, I’m never 100% sure why thumb over activates the lats more, but I’m sure there’s a perfectly feasible biomechanical explanation.

Activate Your Lats Beforehand

This is a technique that can work for any exercise when you don’t usually feel the movement in the target muscles.

That being said, the lats are probably one of the hardest muscles to feel when working on them.

Go on, admit it, whenever you perform lat pulldowns or pull ups you don’t always feel them in your lats.

However, if your lats are growing then they are definitely involved in both movements.

But, the fact remains, that if you can activate a muscle before performing an exercise you have a better chance of using the mind-muscle connection when you train.

For me there are a couple of great exercises you can perform to activate the lats.

Plus, remember this is not about moving a heavy load, but rather getting your lats fired up so you can really feel the mind-muscle connection before you even hit lat pulldowns.

Okay, so the first exercise is the one-arm cable row, best performed with a D-handle.

Now, as I say, the aim here isn’t to pull a great deal of weight.

Furthermore, I prefer to perform an isometric contraction of the lats as well.

So, pull the cable towards you and then hold for a count of 5-7 seconds at the furthest point back and really squeeze your lats.

Next, is face pulls, which means that you can stay of the cable machine to perform these, although you’ll need to change to the rope attachment.

Now, face pulls activate the rear deltoids, rhomboids, and mid-traps, so you’re not directly activating the lats.

However, these muscles are all involved to some extent during lat pulldowns, although they are worked as secondary muscles.

So, in effect, much the same as the forearms are a secondary muscle activated during lat pulldowns.

That being said, face pulls are a fantastic way to practice pulling your shoulder blades together, which is essential for good lat pulldown form.

So, ensure you perform a few light sets of both exercises prior to doing lat pulldowns, and you then have a much greater chance of actually hitting the lats as opposed to feeling the movement in your forearms.

Be Wary of Your Lat Pulldown “Lean” – Too Much Weight

I would say that one of the major reasons that you feel any exercise more in a secondary muscle group than the primary muscle group is due to using too much weight.

And this is definitely true of lat pulldowns.

In fact, I wouldn’t even class lat pulldowns as a strength exercise, therefore it makes little sense to try to move as much weight as possible.

Not only is it likely that your form will break down, you’re also more inclined to not feel the target muscles working, e.g. can’t feel lats, but definitely feel your forearms.

Realistically, a better exercise for strength-training the lats would be weighted pull ups.

Now, while there are many similarities between lat pulldowns and pull ups they do hit the target muscles slightly differently.

Additionally, there is much more core involvement with pull ups.

So, I always prefer to train lat pulldowns in the hypertrophy and muscular endurance rep range.

In fact, I typically perform 3 sets of lat pulldowns with 20, 15, and 12 reps respectively, while increasing weight slightly with each subsequent set.

Okay, one of the most obvious cues that you’re using too much weight on lat pulldowns will be your torso angle and torso movement.

Realistically, you should lean your torso back ever so slightly for lat pulldowns, although this should be between 10-30 degrees depending on your body type and what feels comfortable for you.

Lean back 10-30 degrees. If you lean back too far the exercise becomes more of a seated row than a lat pulldown.

If you lean back any further you have essentially turned the movement into a seated row and will therefore target the muscles somewhat differently.

Another obvious clue that you’re using too much weight comes down to momentum.

In fact, you’ve probably done this yourself or seen others do it on a regular basis.

Basically, as you pull the bar towards your chest you lean back excessively to help shift the weight.

Plus, as you return the bar to the starting position your torso shoots forward to a more upright position.

If you’re doing this there’s very little lat involvement and you’ll definitely feel it more your forearms.

So, perform lat pulldowns with much less weight and higher reps and you’ll be surprised at just how much progress you make.

And of course, this also means you’re far less likely to have aching forearms afterwards.

Work On Strengthening Your Forearms

Now, while poor form, incorrect setup, and using too much weight are probably the main reasons that you feel lat pulldowns in your forearms, there is also another very obvious reason.

And this is true for any exercise, and feeling it more in a secondary muscle group.

Basically, it could be that you have weak forearms. 

Therefore every time you perform lat pulldowns, another back, bicep, or pull-focused exercise, your forearms have fatigued well before any other muscle.

Essentially, you’re never going to seriously tax your lats in order to produce any growth.

Plus, there is a likelihood that you may avoid lat pulldowns and other pull-based exercises, simply because they’re hurting your forearms.

Now, I will say that your forearms and grip strength are activated any time you hold weight in your hands.

So, you’re definitely getting some forearm training, typically on a daily basis in the gym.

However, weak forearms will always be the limiting factor in lat pulldowns and other back exercises.

Lat Pulldown Alternatives

Now, I understand that if lat pulldowns are hurting your forearms you probably want a suitable alternative.

Basically, something that will activate and work your lats, while taking the pressure off your forearms.

That being said, many of the alternative exercises will also place stress on the forearms, let’s face facts, you have to pull in order to work the lats.

However, I do have three “go-to” exercises that you can certainly use as an alternative to lat pulldowns.

Dumbbell Pullovers

Firstly, we have dumbbell pullovers.

I know that many people view this as a chest exercise, but when performed correctly they are definitely a lat exercise and activate the muscles really well.

A great tip if you’re not feeling pullovers in your lats is to limit the movement at the top-end of the range of motion.

Basically, it’s once you start lowering the dumbbell that you really feel the stretch in the lats.

Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows

Next, is probably my favourite back exercise of all time, I absolutely love single-arm dumbbell rows.

Realistically, even though dumbbell rows target the lats they are seen as much more of an upper and mid-back exercise.

This is generally because the movement allows you to pull more weight, so it’s often used as a strength-based exercise with fewer reps.

That being said, as you’re looking to use the exercise as an alternative to lat pulldowns it makes sense to reduce the weight and increase the reps.

A workout I love doing is 10 sets of 10 reps (both sides) of single-arm dumbbell rows.

I also treat this as a muscular endurance and conditioning exercise.

While maintaining perfect form, and using a much lighter weight than usual, I try to to perform all 200 reps (100 reps with each arm) with as little rest as possible.

In fact, I aim to perform my reps non-stop, as changing hands allows for some light relief on the other side.

Inverted Row

Finally, we have the inverted row, which is a bodyweight exercise.

You can also make the movement harder by elevating your feet or adding weight in the form of a weighted vest, chains, or even a backpack.

However, if your forearms are your weak point it’s best to master the bodyweight version of inverted rows first, as with additional weight you’ll find that your forearms fatigue much quicker.

Frequently Asked Questions

Should I Feel Lat Pulldowns in My Lower Back?

Lat Pulldowns are known as an upper back and lat exercise, so they do hit a lot of muscles in the back.

But, you shouldn’t be feeling them in your lower back, and this typically points to a number of form errors.

Curvature of Lower Spine From “Leaning Back”

I’ve already spoken about leaning back and how it can affect your forearms during lat pulldowns and the same can be said for your lower back.

In fact, I have previously written about how far you should lean on lat pulldowns.

However, the main issue with excessive lean back on lat pulldowns is that you’ll usually end up hyperextending the lower back.

This is where you produce a slight curvature of the lower spine, which unfortunately places a lot of undue pressure on the area.

Realistically, you need to “lean back” without hyperextending the lower back.

This is best achieved by activating your abs and core, while keeping your back straight.

Then when you lean back keep this to about 10-15 degrees and move your spine and pelvis simultaneously.

This will ensure you’re not curving your lower back and will remove any pressure you feel there.

How Far Are You Bringing the Bar Down?

Next, there is a tendency to bring the bar too far down on lat pulldowns.

Effectively, this turns the movement into some form of hybrid exercise.

What happens here is that you end up pushing the bar once past upper chest level, so your triceps tend to take over on lat pulldowns.

Furthermore, you’ll probably feel it in your abs too as you end up performing a crunch-type movement.

Realistically, you should only bring the bar down as far as your upper chest and sternum area.

You will not work the upper back or lats any better by bringing the bar so far down and as you can see it’s likely that you’ll activate various muscle groups that should have little involvement in lat pulldowns.

Are You Bringing the Bar Down Behind Your Neck?

Personally, I’ve never been a fan of the behind the neck lat pulldown.

In truth, it’s not a bad exercise, but it requires a certain amount of joint mobility, especially in the shoulders.

A Man Performing Behind the Neck Lat Pulldowns in the Gym

So, if you lack this mobility the potential for injury is greatly increased.

Furthermore, you’ll generally find that other body parts, such as your lower back, tend to take over.

So, while I would never urge anyone not to do behind the neck lat pulldowns, if you’re experiencing lower back pain they are best avoided.

Is Reverse Grip Better For Lat Pulldowns?

I would never say that a variation of any exercise is better than another, and this includes reverse grip lat pulldowns.

That being said, depending on you, your body, and your injury history, certain variations of different exercises can definitely be better.

However, in terms of a healthy individual performing conventional and reverse grip lat pulldowns there are a few things to take into consideration. 

Firstly, performing reverse grip lat pulldowns adds some variety to your training.

Sure, you’re hitting many of the same muscle groups as the conventional lat pulldown, but in reality you’re hitting them from different angles.

This can help to avoid overuse injuries if you’re always performing lat pulldowns in the traditional manner.

Next, reverse lat pulldowns are far easier on the shoulder joint and also the elbows.

With traditional lat pulldowns your elbows are out to the side and your shoulders are at an unnatural angle by being pulled out to the sides.

However, with reverse grip your elbows will be in front of you and your shoulders will be at a much more natural angle.

Additionally, reverse grip lat pulldowns also place more stress on the biceps, while working your grip and your forearms slightly differently.

In fact, going back to the main purpose of this article, reverse lat pulldowns may stimulate the forearms even more, but they will also help to strengthen them too.

Stronger forearms and grip can definitely improve a wide variety of gym movements, plus you’re less likely to feel muscular pain in your forearms as they will be better developed.

So, there are a lot of benefits to reverse lat pulldowns, but I would suggest that you use them as a variation, as opposed to completely replacing traditional lat pulldowns.

Are Straight Arm Pulldowns Better Than Lat Pulldowns?

Once more, as was the case with reverse grip, straight arm pulldowns will work many of the same muscle groups as traditional lat pulldowns, but it provides variety and the muscles will be hit from a slightly different angle.

That being said, I view straight arm pulldowns as much more of a lat isolation exercise.

Firstly, as your arms are straight you remove the role of the biceps, hence why you are isolating the lats to a greater degree.

Next, you have a far more increased range of motion with straight arm pulldowns.

Traditional lat pulldowns typically stop as the bar comes towards your sternum and upper chest.

However, with the straight arm variety your chest doesn’t get in the way and you can essentially bring the bar all the way down to thigh level.

Now, I’ve previously spoken of feeling lat pulldowns in your triceps, but the triceps are actually stimulated much more during the straight arm variety.

Finally, as there is little bicep involvement, straight arm lat pulldowns will be easier on the elbow joints.

Furthermore, your shoulders remain in a much more natural position, thus removing a lot of the stress placed on your shoulder joint.

However, once more, I would view straight arm pulldowns as a variety to the traditional lat pulldown, so rather than replacing one exercise with the other I’d suggest performing both.

Is a Wider Grip Better For Lat Pulldowns?

A Muscular Man Performig Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns

I’m sure you’re starting to understand that one version of lat pulldown can be better or worse than another depending on your training goals and body composition.

That being said, I often feel that many trainees think that a wider grip on either lat pulldowns or pull ups will help to make their back wider.

I will agree that wide grip is better for lat size and strength, whereas close grip targets the mid and upper back more, and therefore provides better overall back development.

Furthermore, the closer your grip the more your biceps will be involved.

However, the end position of the elbows will differ slightly with each variation.

For wide grip your elbows typically come straight down and end in line with your body.

For close grip you’ll bring your elbows back and down so they end up slightly more behind your body.

Furthermore, due to more involvement from the biceps and more of the overall back being used you should be able to pull slightly more weight with close grip lat pulldowns.

Finally, the wider grip of wide grip lat pulldowns places more stress on the shoulder joint.

So, if you have any particular issues with your shoulders you’d be better off with the close grip version.

But, yet again, performing both exercises will provide additional variety in your training program.

What Are The Benefits of Unilateral (Single-Arm) Lat Pulldowns?

Personally, I feel that single-arm lat pulldowns are a better exercise.

Firstly, I think many trainees use far too much weight on lat pulldowns.

I see it as more of a higher rep range exercise more attuned to hypertrophy and muscular endurance.

Realistically, I would use weighted pull ups and barbell rows in order to build strength.

So, the fact that you’re only using one arm means that you can really work your lats individually.

The main benefits of the single-arm lat pulldown include it allows you to spot muscle imbalances, and therefore you’re also able to fix them.

Furthermore, as you’re only using one side of your body you can focus much more on the mind-muscle connection.

I’m sure many people will say that they don’t really feel lat pulldowns in their lats, hence why this article is mainly focused on feeling the movement in your forearms.

Next, when you use the lat pulldown attachment you’ll find that your range of motion is limited, simply because you can only bring the bar down to your chest.

However, you’ll notice with the unilateral variety that you can pull your elbows much further behind the body.

Finally, you definitely won’t be able to “pull” as much weight as you would with both hands, you’ll find that you probably won’t even get near half of your “normal” lat pulldown weight.

This can actually be quite humbling and it will remove the use of momentum.

As I say, I much prefer to perform lat pulldowns with just one arm.

Key Learning Points

  • You’ll always feel your forearms to some extent during lat pulldowns as they are a secondary working muscle.
  • Perfect lat pulldown form comprises, retracting your shoulder blades and keeping your chest high, leading the movement with your elbows and not your hands, and keeping your elbows close to the body.
  • The harder you grip the bar the more you’ll activate your forearms. Therefore, use a “thumb over” grip rather than wrapping your thumbs around the pulldown bar.
  • Activate your lats beforehand with single-arm cable rows and face pulls. Use isometric contractions for 5-7 seconds and really squeeze your lats during this time.
  • Lat pulldowns are better focused on hypertrophy or muscular endurance. So, don’t load up with too much weight and keep your reps fairly high, e.g. 12-20 reps per set.
  • You can usually tell if you’re using too much weight as you’ll lean back too far. Keep your “torso lean” at 10-30 degrees. Plus, using momentum (torso moving forward and back) is a sign that you’re using too much weight.
  • Your forearms may be your “weak point”, so work on training and strengthening your forearms.
  • You can use lat pulldown alternatives, such as dumbbell pullovers, single-arm dumbbell rows, and inverted rows.

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