Seems like a strange question, right?
I mean, you’d expect to fell lat pulldowns in your lats, biceps, forearms, rear delts, and even your traps but definitely not the triceps.
But as it turns out this is actually a “thing”.
So, if you are feeling this famtastic upper back exercise in the back of your arms, here’s the reasons why, and what you can do about it.
If you feel lat pulldowns in your triceps this is typically caused by having too much weight on the bar, and not maintaining proper form. In order to pull the heavier weight down you may no longer be using your lats, but a wide variety of other muscles, including the triceps.
Table of Contents
You’re Using Too Much Weight
A very common reason for feeling lat pulldowns in your triceps is because you’re trying to pull too much weight.
There is a tendency to load the lat pulldown with a weight equivalent to your own body weight and above.
The assumption here is that if you can perform pull ups, then it makes sense to use a similar weight for lat pulldowns.
However, I generally view the lat pulldown as a great way to activate the lats with a lighter weight and higher number of reps.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve performed lat pulldowns for sets of 3-5 reps, but I’ll ensure that my form remains on-point.
That being said, I much prefer to use lat pulldowns in the 15-25 rep range.
So, reduce the weight, concentrate on correct form, and you should find that you are working the lats far more, rather than your triceps.
Change Your Hand Position
The triceps are likely to get activated more during lat pulldowns with a narrower grip.
In effect, if your hands are narrower than shoulder-width apart you’re in much the same position as a tricep pushdown.
Try starting off with at least a shoulder-width grip on the bar and see how that feels.
Once you get to the stage of having your hands further than shoulder-width apart this should no longer be an issue.
However, as I’ve mentioned above, this is easier achieved by having less weight to pull.
I would suggest that you play around with hand positions on the bar.
Find something that feels comfortable for you, which helps you to feel the lats working.
Try Different Lat Pulldown Attachments
I’m constantly changing attachements with the lat pulldown machine.
I like to hit the muscles from a variety of angles.
Plus, as the lats are the largest muscle in the upper body, I feel it’s important to hit them with as much variation as possible.
I’ll often use the V-bar attachment or even a rope when performing lat pulldowns.
Now, it’s important to realise that these 2 attachments change the position of your hands, thus meaning you’re going to bring other muscles more into play.
With both of these attachements you’ll have a “hammer grip” (palms facing each other), which automatically brings the brachioradialis into the equation.
Therefore, you’r likely to feel the movment more in your biceps and forearms.
That being said, with both the V-bar or rope there is a tendency to bring the attachment down too far (I have spoken about this further down), which will automatically activate the triceps.
Essentially, you have gone from a lat pulldown into a tricep pushdown, so be wary.
However, the change in handle could help you to concentrate on using the lats more.
Once again, this is a case of playing around with different equipment and finding what works for you.
Then again you could try one of the following lat pulldown alternatives if you’re still struggling with feeling your triceps.
Maintain Proper Lat Pulldown Form
Okay, I’ve left “proper form” till now, but in reality this is probably the main reason that you feel lat pulldowns in your triceps.
In fact, let’s be honest, the main reason we don’t feel any exercise in the target muscle is due to poor form.
With that being said, I will admit that there are various exercises when you won’t feel the muscles working at the time, but they feel sore as hell the following day.
However, when it comes to lat pulldowns you shouldn’t be feeling them in your tris unless you’re doing something wrong.
Where’s the Bar?
No, this isn’t a call to totally give up on exercise and drown your sorrows.
But, one of the biggest mistakes I see with lat pulldowns is the positioning of the bar.
This is especially true when it comes to pulling the bar down too far or having it too far in front of you.
With lat pulldowns you’ll want to pull the bar to your upper chest and not further down the body.
A common trait is to turn the exercise into some type of hybrid movement.
This typically involves a lat pulldown, which then somehow converts into a tricep pushdown.
In fact, I have often seen some people pull (or in reality, push) the bar down to mid-torso or the naval.
You will immediately involve the triceps a lot more once you start to “push” the bar below chest level.
So, ensure that you only ever “pull” the bar past the chin and to the top of the chest.
Another issue is the bar being too far out in front of you.
If you watch the cable part of the lat pulldown machine it should be at a slight angle at the bottom of the movement.
So, in effect you are drawing the bar towards the body.
However, if the cable comes down in a straight line the handle will end up some way in front of you.
This will typically mean that you have once again turned this into a pull/push hybrid exercise.
Basically, ensure that the handle is close to the body, if not touching the upper chest, at the bottom of the pull.
Squeeze the “Imaginary Walnut”
A technique I use whenever I perform lat pulldowns, and pull ups for that matter, is to imagine that I have a walnut sitting in the middle of my back.
My aim here is to squeeze my lats together and hold this imaginary walnut in place.
By doing so, I’ll ensure that my elbows end up close to my body at the bottom (or at the top in the case of pull ups) of the movement.
This also means that I’ll be contracting my lats to a far greater degree, thus working the target muscle during the exercise.
Don’t Lean Back Too Far
The torso should be at a slight angle during the lat pulldown.
This way you can miss hitting yourself in the face with the handle as you pull the bar past your chin.
However, there is a tendency to either be too upright, or more commonly, to lean back too far with lat pulldowns.
In fact, I’ve often seen a lot of movement going on with the upper body when some people perform lat pulldowns.
This is generally because once again there’s too much weight being used.
The upper body should be angled back ever so slightly, but remain stationary throughout the movement.
If you find that you’re leaning back too far, or that you move further backwards as you pull the bar down, you’re probably using many other muscles to get the bar down.
The concentration goes away from the lats, and this has once more turned into a hybrid pull/push movement.
Contract The Lats Beforehand – Mind-Muscle Connection
Something that I speak of frequently is the mind-muscle connection.
However, I think it’s extremely important when it comes to performing an exercise correctly, as well as a great way to build muscle.
I’ve even spoken of contracting the target muscle and closing my eyes prior to starting the exercise.
This works a treat for me.
So, I would suggest that you contract the lats prior to doing the lat pulldown.
Place your hands in the correct position on the bar, then really squeeze your lats, and finally pull the bar down.
If you concentrate on all the other techniques I’ve mentioned here, you should find that you’re really working the desired muscles.
I would also suggest that you use a much lighter weight and slow the tempo of the exercise right down.
Take two seconds to pull the bar down.
Pause at the bottom of the movement and really squeeze your lats again.
And then slowly allow the bar to go up, under full control, taking approximately 3-4 seconds.
I can guarantee that if you contract the lats, and work on this slow tempo, you’ll really feel the lats working hard.
Plus, there won’t be sight nor sound of tricep involvement whatsoever.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Lat Pulldowns a Compound Exercise?
I think I may view the lat pulldown exercise slightly differently from most.
Firstly, a compound exercise is a movement that uses several muscle groups, whereas an isolation exercise specifically focuses on one muscle group.
So, viewing it this way, lat pulldowns are a compound exercise.
Lat pulldowns train the upper back, most notably the lats.
However, you will also work your biceps, forearms, traps, and core to some extent.
These are clearly multiple muscle groups, which is why most people state that lat pulldowns are a compound exercise.
That being said, when you compare lat pulldowns to pull ups it’s clear to see that there are far more major and minor muscle groups at work with pull ups (this also explains why pull ups are so much harder than lat pulldowns).
However, for me, I have always trained lat pulldowns in the higher rep ranges, especially as a way to get a “burn” and great “pump” of the specific muscle I’m focusing on.
Furthermore, due to the different attachments and grips you can use lat pulldowns to focus more on specific muscles, while hitting them from various angles.
As an example, you have the standard bar with standard grip, which you can also use for a wide, narrow, or underhand grip.
Then again, you can use the V-bar attachment, ropes, single-arm, or even the cable machine to perform lat pulldowns.
And let’s not forget the straight-arm lat pulldown, specifically focused on giving you a much better stretch in your lats.
So realistically, every single attachment or grip is primarily focused on working the lats.
Sure, you will work other muscle groups at the same time, so this makes lat pulldowns a compound movement.
But, in reality, your secondary muscles during a pull-based exercise will be working much harder during pull ups and rows.
Therefore, in my mind, for a true pulling compound movement I would rather focus on a row variation or some type of pull up or chin up.
Where Should You Feel Lat Pulldowns?
So, I have mentioned many of the working muscles just above, but here’s a list of all the muscles worked during lat pulldowns.
- Rear Delts
- Rotator Cuff
The lats are the primary muscle worked, whereas the remainder are the “major” secondary muscles worked.
Therefore, these are the specific muscles where you should feel lat pulldowns.
That being said, there are certainly many other muscle groups activated during lat pulldowns, which include:
- Middle and Lower Traps
- Wrist and Hand Flexors
- Pectoralis Major (the main chest muscle)
- Teres Major
So, I guess once more, returning to what I’ve previously said, lat pulldowns can be classed as a compound movement.
However, if you’re overly feeling the exercise in this second list of muscle groups, this may point to a potential muscle weakness, even though these muscles are activated to some extent.
But, you will always mainly feel lat pulldowns in your lats, biceps, forearms, and rear delts.
Can You Grow Lats Without Lat Pulldowns?
You can 100% grow your lats without ever hitting the lat pulldown machine.
I think that there is an assumption that lat pulldowns are the best exercise for your lats simply because the movement and the machine contains the word “lat”.
Although I would never try to compare pull ups and lat pulldowns, as there’s much more core involvement in pull ups, it is pull ups that should be your eventual goal for lat strength and muscular development.
However, I appreciate that pull ups are a much tougher exercise and that most people have to build up strength first to perform them correctly.
Additionally, there are so many row variations, all of which work your upper back.
That being said, if ever I want a real lat builder I tend to focus on single-arm dumbbell rows.
For me, even though dumbbell rows can be considered a compound movement, they tend to isolate the lats really well too.
So, don’t feel that you have to perform lat pulldowns, as there are definitely better exercises for lat development.
How Many Reps of Lat Pulldowns Should I Do?
How many reps you should perform of any exercise will largely depend on your body composition goals.
Therefore, you could realistically perform any exercise in the lower, mid, or upper rep ranges.
Then again, you could look at the type of muscle fibres a muscle has, which can help you to determine the best rep range.
That being said, the lats are equally made up of fast twitch and slow twitch muscle fibres, which means that they are best trained in the medium rep ranges.
So, for optimum results you would typically train lat pulldowns in the 6-15 rep range.
However, as I’ve already mentioned, I much prefer training lat pulldowns in the higher rep ranges.
So, I quite often perform sets of 15-25 reps with much lighter weights.
Furthermore, I also love performing drop sets with lat pulldowns, often hitting 2-3 additional drop sets.
Plus, I sometimes pick certain exercises, especially those more focused on hypertrophy and muscular endurance, to perform 100 reps, and lat pulldowns are definitely one of these exercises.
This involves loading lat pulldowns with a weight that I know is somewhere in my 12-15 rep max range, and then I just keep going, resting as required, until I hit my full 100 reps.
As I say, how many reps you use will depend on your goals, but this is how I prefer to train lat pulldowns.
Why Are My Triceps Sore After Back Day?
So, the focus of this article has been around feeling your triceps when doing lat pulldowns.
However, I know for a fact that this can also occur when simply training back.
Essentially, many trainees end up with sore and fatigued triceps after their back day workout.
Similar principles to lat pulldowns are the most obvious answer, e.g. too much weight, poor form, etc.
That being said, it’s important to realise that the triceps are the antagonistic (opposite) muscle group to biceps.
And typically when you’re training a specific muscle group the opposing muscle still has a part to play.
So, with the vast majority of back exercises you will feel activation in the biceps, which will differ in intensity depending on the exercise.
As an example, your biceps are definitely activated in both lat pulldowns and chin ups, but you’re more likely to feel your biceps more during chin ups.
And as I’ve just mentioned, if your biceps are working then your triceps are also playing a role.
Now, this being the case, it could well be that your triceps are the stronger muscle of the upper arms, and therefore “take up the slack” when the biceps fatigue early.
This will of course lead to triceps feeling as though they’ve been thoroughly worked out at the end of back day.
In keeping with the theme of the triceps working hard it could simply be that you’re overtraining your triceps.
This is especially true if you typically have a chest day, shoulder day, and an arm day in your weekly workout routine.
Essentially, you’re hitting your triceps 3 times per week and they are also taking up some of the slack on your back day too.
Furthermore, it’s important to note what you trained the day before.
Let’s say that you trained chest and triceps yesterday and today is your back day.
It’s likely that your triceps will still be sore from the previous day’s workout, hence you still feel them when training the following day.
So, these are all factors you need to take into consideration.
So, there you have it, my guidelines to follow if you find that you feel lat pulldowns in your triceps.
As you can see this pretty much comes down to poor technique, and also trying to pull too much weight.
I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that you should always look to perfect your form first, and worry about weight later.
With that being said, I never see the need to pack the lat pulldown with a huge amount of weight.
I much prefer to perform higher reps with a slow tempo and lighter weight.
You’ll automatically get stronger and more muscular by doing the exercise correctly.
Plus, you can progress by adding a little extra weight every couple of weeks.
Make sure to check out what I have to say about the dangers of behind the neck 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.