How often have you performed lat pulldowns and felt a burning sensation in your forearms?
Then again, how often have you ended your set early because your forearms are fatigued, and yet you don’t even feel as though you’ve hit your lats?
Funnily enough, I had the same issue, which I resolved by changing my elbow positioning.
However, that is just one of the reasons/fixes for feeling lat pulldowns in your forearms.
So, in this article I’ll explain why this happens and what you can do about it.
This typically comes down to an incorrect setup, poor technique, or using too much weight. Some great form cues to ensure you hit the lats rather than your forearms include retracting your shoulder blades, using a “thumb over” grip, leading the movement with your elbows as opposed to your hands, not allowing your elbows to flare out to the sides, and ensuring that your torso isn’t leaning back too far.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next, here’s an unusual yet fairly common issue, namely why you’re feeling lat pulldowns in your triceps.
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.