Everyone knows that creating the sought after, powerful-looking V-taper includes a lot of lat work. And a nicely developed V-taper is the crown jewel of a truly impressive physique.
How to build it? With lat pull-downs, of course, according to both gym wisdom and scientific research. Yet for many lifters, lat pull-downs are a rarely included afterthought, as rows and deadlifts tend to dominate the gym.
Even when someone decides to do lat pull-downs, there’s a lot of confusion about which grip to use, the direction of pulling the weight and other factors that influence performance. Most trainers will tell you to do pull-downs with a wide grip, probably assuming that the close-grip version activates your biceps more than the lats. Others will swear that the close-grip version is the most essential exercise for building monster lats. Many bodybuilders believe that pulling the weight behind the neck causes injuries, so they always pull to the top of the chest, but there are still others who advocate for pulling behind the neck because they think the latter is superior in terms of muscle activation.
So, where’s the truth? Luckily for us, two groups of scientists found out the answers. Educate yourself so you can train smarter.
1. Which Grip Is Better?
In the first study, the researchers recruited 12 men between the ages of 19 and 30 and attached electrodes to their biceps, lats and traps. Then they had them perform four different types of pull-downs using 70% of their 1RM: hands wide apart using a supinated grip, hands wide apart using a pronated grip, hands shoulder-width apart using a supinated grip and hands shoulder-width apart using a pronated grip. The results showed that the shoulder-width and wide-grip versions activated the lat muscle fibers equally. However, using a pronated grip was found to activate the lats far better than a supinated grip.
2. Behind or in Front
The second group of scientists was interested which one of these three types of lat pull-downs worked the lats the best: behind-the-neck pull-downs, pull-downs to the chest and pull-downs using a V-shaped bar. They recruited 24 men in their mid-twenties, attached electrodes to their muscles and had them perform the three versions of pull-downs using 80% of the weight with which they could only do 1 rep. The results showed that all three variants activated the lats equally. However, the verdict was that the top of the chest version is the best choice because it does a better job of isolating the upper back muscles.
In reality, all pull-down versions come with their own benefits. According to popular belief, the wide-grip variation, which better stimulates the teres major and upper lat fibers, is an excellent choice if you’re looking to increase the width of your back and want to improve overall back strength. On the other hand, the narrow grip is supposed to build the lower lat muscle fibers, giving the appearance of thick, full lats all the way down to the waist. According to these studies, both versions produce similar results, so you can just go with whichever is more comfortable. In addition, remember to use a pronated grip to help you attack the target muscles with adequate tension, and pull to the top of the chest as this seems to be the best and safest option.
- “Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pull-down.” – J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Jul;24(7):1895-900
- “lectromyographic Analysis of Three Different Types of Lat Pull-Down” – Sperandei, Sandro; Barros, Marcos A; Silveira-Jœnior, Paulo C; Oliveira, Carlos G.