What Muscles Does The Lat Pulldown Work? Lat Pulldown Muscles Worked, Explained

The lat pulldown is one of the most popular back exercises and a great alternative for anyone who is not yet strong enough to do pull-ups.

But, what muscles does the lat pulldown work? Are there different muscles worked in lat pulldown variations? 

For example, are the close grip lat pulldown muscles worked the same as the wide grip lat pulldown muscles worked?

In this guide, we will discuss how to perform lat pull downs and lat pulldown muscles worked, including different variations such as close grip vs wide grip lat pulldown muscles worked to help you get a better understanding of this key back strengthening exercise.

We will look at: 

  • How to Perform Lat Pulldowns
  • Lat Pulldown Muscles Worked
  • Is It Better to Do Close Grip Lat Pulldowns or Wide Grip for Lat Pulldowns?

Let’s get started!

A lat pulldown exercise.

How to Perform Lat Pulldowns 

When performing lat pulldowns, you really want to focus on engaging your lats.

The lats, short for latissimus dorsi muscles, are a pair of large, V-shaped back muscles on either side of your spine that cover the entire upper back and taper down to the lower back as well. 

The lat muscles stabilize the spine while supporting and providing strength to the arms and shoulders and help adduct the arms. 

The lat pulldown machine is generally the best way to perform lat pulldowns and will allow you to lift the most weight safely to maximize your gains in strength and mass for the lat pulldown muscles.

However, if you do not have access to a lat pulldown weight machine or a cable pulley for lat pulldowns, you can use a resistance band anchored to a pull-up bar or the top bar of a squat rack or power rack to perform resistance band lat pulldowns.

A lat pulldown exercise.

Here are the steps for how to perform lat pulldowns with a cable machine or lat pulldown station:

  1. Sit with a good upright posture at the lat pulldown machine with your thighs secured under the pads, knees bent 90 degrees, and your feet on the floor.
  2. Reach up and grip the bar with your desired hand spacing and your palms facing away from your body. For the standard hand spacing for lat pulldowns, your hands should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
  3. Keep your core tight as you pull the bar down towards your collarbones, squeezing your shoulder blades together at the end range of motion to engage your rhomboids and traps as well as your lats. Allow your torso to lean back ever so slightly, hinging from the hips and keeping your core muscles super tight to maintain a straight back.
  4. Pull the bar down to the base of your sternum or just above your abdomen.
  5. Pause briefly, squeezing your upper back muscles, core, and shoulders, remembering to keep your shoulders down and away from your ears and your back neutral rather than allowing your lower back to slip into poor posture.
  6. Slowly return the bar up as you straighten your arms, resisting the momentum of the weight stack so that you maintain tension in your muscles throughout the duration of the movement.

Focus on pulling down from your whole back by retracting your shoulder blades. 

Additionally, vary your grip width to activate different muscle fibers in the lats.

A lat pulldown exercise.

Lat Pulldown Muscles Worked

So, what are the muscles worked in lat pulldowns?

As the name describes, lat pulldowns primarily target the lats, which is a common term for the latissimus dorsi muscles.

The lats are a pair of large, triangular, or V-shaped muscles on either side of your spine. 

The lats span from the very inside of your humerus (upper arm) by your shoulder down to the back of the pelvis at your waist, creating a dramatic taper that spans your entire back.

The lats muscles serve several key functions.

For one, the lats help stabilize the spine while supporting and providing strength to the arms and shoulders. 

As the largest muscles in the back, the lats also allow you to bend to the side (lateral bending) when contracting unilaterally, and when contracting bilaterally or together, the lats help keep the spine straight during rotational movements as well as during more static postures.

A lat pulldown exercise.

The latissimus dorsi muscles also help extend, rotate, and move your arm at the shoulder. 

For example, the lats are one of the primary muscles involved in any pulling exercise or movement.

This includes pulling back on something in front of you (like opening a car door or heavy refrigerator door or doing seated rows) or pulling down on something that is overhead (as is the case when performing lat pulldowns).

The lats also help adduct the arms, which is the motion that involves pulling your arms back down to your sides after they have been abducted or brought out to either side of your body, like the letter “T.” 

Because the latissimus dorsi muscles have so many connection points and thus so many stability and mobility functions, these major back muscles are heavily involved in lat pulldowns, as well as exercises like pull-ups and rows, but are even involved in running, walking, and breathing.

Although the primary muscles for lat pulldowns are indeed the lats (so the lats are called the prime movers for lat pulldowns), the “lat pulldowns muscles worked” list also includes some synergist muscles that assist the latissimus dorsi muscles.

A lat pulldown exercise.

The supplementary muscles worked by lat pulldowns include the:

  • Deltoids in the shoulders
  • Rotator cuff muscles (the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis) in the shoulders
  • Biceps in the upper arms
  • Brachioradialis and other grip strength muscles
  • Traps and rhomboids in the upper back
  • Levator scapulae
  • Serratus anterior.

Additionally, depending on exactly how you sit at the lat pulldown machine, additional lat pulldown muscles include the core muscles like the rectus abdominis, erector spinae muscle group, multifidus, and deep core muscle called the transversus abdominis.

Ultimately, lat pulldowns are a staple exercise in any good back workout and one of the best lats exercises.

You can also use different hand spacing to target different sections of your lats

For example, a wide-grip lat pulldown will target the lateral portions of your lats, whereas a narrow-grip lat pulldown will involve more of your biceps and shoulders alongside your lats.

A lat pulldown exercise.

Is It Better to Do Close Grip Lat Pulldowns or Wide Grip for Lat Pulldowns?

One of the common questions regarding the lat pulldown muscles worked, as well as programming lat pull downs in back workouts in general, is whether it is better to do close grip vs wide grip lat pulldowns.

What are the close grip lat pulldown muscles worked as opposed to wide grip lat pulldowns?

Generally, any hand spacing or hand placement for lat pull-downs will still target the same primary muscles for lat pull-downs; however, each variation will target slightly different muscle fibers

Thus, in terms of programming lat pulldowns into your back-strengthening workouts, there are benefits to using a wide grip, narrow grip, and standard grip on different sets or workouts.  

One study aimed at investigating the effects of different grip positioning found that wide grip lat pulldowns better activated the latissimus doors, while another study found that medium grip is best. 

Varying your grip width will provide you with well-rounded strength in the shoulders and latissimus dorsi. 

A lat pulldown exercise.

Generally, the wide grip lat pulldowns will better activate the lateral and lower fibers of the latissimus dorsi as well as the serratus anterior muscle.

Bodybuilders tend to like the wide-grip lat pulldowns for this reason because they can help sculpt a broader back by adding bulk to the outer portions of the lats and shoulders, giving you a more dramatic taper to the V-shaped lats.

However, if you want lat pulldowns to give you a wider back, you need to perform lat pulldowns with heavy resistance and adequate volume to build muscle (hypertrophy).

Add variety to your lat pull-downs workouts. 

Close grip lat pulldowns place more of the workload on the medial lats, or the portion of the latissimus dorsi muscles that lie closer to the spine, along with the rhomboids and traps.

Although pull-ups also work the lats muscle, the lat pulldown exercise is typically easier for beginners because you can use less weight than hoisting your entire body weight.

At the same time, lat pulldowns are great for advanced lifters because the exercise can be scaled to be more challenging than pull-ups because you can load up the lat pulldown machine with a resistance that exceeds your body weight.

For more back exercises for your lats, check out our guide here.

A lat pulldown exercise.
Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

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