When you walk into any gym, you could see a number of people queuing up behind the LAT PULLDOWNS machine. What’s more is that most of the people are using an attachment with different grips and varying widths for the lat pulldowns movement, thinking that hitting it from different angles and styles, may activate the back muscles better, or it may also hit some muscles in the back which is getting missed with the other grips.
So, we have generally the following bars being used:
- Wide grip pronated bar (palms facing up and wide)
- Close grip supinated grip bar (palms facing away and narrow)
- Neutral grip bar (palms facing each other, close grip)
- Wide Neutral grip bar (palms facing each other, wide grip)
On top of this, there are guys doing the behind the neck lat pulldowns as well as the front lat pulldowns.
A 2002 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, by a research team led by J. Signorile, evaluated the effects of different hand positions on the activity of the shoulder muscles during lat pull down. Ten men did 3 reps with their 10RM weight. Four different lat pulldowns variations were tested i.e. close grip, supinated grip, wide grip anterior, and wide grip posterior. The study found that:
- For the latissimus dorsi, the wide anterior grip was better than the rest.
- For the long head of the triceps, the wide anterior grip was better than the rest.
- For posterior deltoid, all grips are similar, and all are better than wide posterior grip.
- For the pectoralis major, all grips are similar, and all are better than the wide posterior grip.
The data suggest that the performance of the lat pulldowns with the bar pulled anteriorly (to the chest) provides some mechanical advantage, allowing greater loads to be moved during these exercises than when the bar is pulled posteriorly (to the back of the neck). The results of this study indicate that the wide-grip hand position with the bar pulled anteriorly to the chest recruits more motor units, and therefore requires more work from the latissimus dorsi than any of the other conditions tested. Therefore, this handgrip position should be used to provide the greatest amount of stimulus and greater development of the latissimus dorsi than other handgrip positions. But if the purpose for the prescription of the pulldown exercise is to develop overall strength during shoulder adduction, or if the athletic movement being trained for involves adduction with the arm located more anteriorly, then the strength professional should also include handgrip positions which elicit more activity from the pectoralis major.
A 2009 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, by a team of Brazilian researchers led by S. Sperandei, studied 24 male subjects, who performed three different types of lat pulldowns i.e. behind the neck, front-wide, and neutral V-bar lat pulldowns, at 80% of the 1RM. For each movement, the activation in pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, and biceps brachii, was checked.
The researchers said that the behind-the-neck lat pulldowns exercise has been criticized because of its potential risk to the shoulder joint. The external rotation combined with abduction places the shoulder joint in a risk position because it minimizes the stabilization capacity of the rotator cuff and places the glenohumeral ligaments under great stress. This situation is worsened by horizontal abduction, which is needed to avoid contact between the exercise bar and the head of the practitioner. On the other hand, when performed in the front- neck, lat pulldowns are executed in the scapular plane where there is more contact within the articular surfaces, lower stress of the glenohumeral ligaments, and a better function of the rotator cuff muscles. This technique has been used to replace the behind the neck lat pulldowns, being safer, more functional, and allowing for a wider range of motion. Another possible variation of this exercise is replacing the common straight bar used by a V-bar. This bar allows pulling down with the elbows at the sides, preventing horizontal abduction of the shoulder.
Here are the observations of the research:
- During the concentric phase (lowering movement), pectoralis major activation was much higher in the front lat pulldowns, than V-bar or behind the neck lat pulldowns.
- During the eccentric phase, pectoralis major activation was more in front lat pulldowns & V-bar, than in behind the neck lat pulldown.
- For the latissimus dorsi activation, all movements and grips were the same.
- For the posterior deltoid, activation was much more in front lat pulldowns than V-bar in the concentric phase, and behind the neck higher than V-bar in the eccentric phase.
- Biceps brachii showed higher activation in behind the neck lat pulldowns than the front or V-bar lat pulldowns. Also, V-bar activated more biceps during both concentric and eccentric phases, than front lat pulldowns.
The researchers concluded that considering the main objectives of lat pulldowns, the front lat pulldowns are the better choice, whereas behind the neck is not a good lat pulldowns technique and should be avoided. V-bar could be used as an alternative.
In a 2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, by Stephen Lusk and other researchers, twelve healthy men performed lat pulldowns with four different grips, using a load of 70% of 1RM. The four grips used were wide pronated grip, wide supinated grip, narrow pronated grip, and narrow supinated grip.
The study found that a pronated grip is optimal for training the lats in anterior lat pull down. This grip is also considered the safest among the rest. However, athletes and others engaged in resistance training can generally expect similar muscle activation which in turn should result in similar hypertrophy gains with a grip width that is consistent with a medium grip pull-down.
A 2014 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, by a team of researchers from Norway led by V. Andersen, suggested that it is a general belief that a wider grip during lat pulldowns, activates the latissimus dorsi more than a narrow one, but without any broad scientific support. The study compared 15 men performing lat pulldowns using 3 different pronated grips i.e. narrow, medium and wide grip, at a load of 6RM.
Then study concluded that there was no major difference in activation for latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, infraspinatus, or trapezius when performing 6RM in the anterior lat pulldowns with narrow, medium, and wide anterior grip widths. However, the 6RM load lifted was lower using a wide compared with a small or medium grip. The biceps received the greatest activity not at the narrow grip, but at the medium grip. The biceps had significantly greater activity in the concentric phase than in the eccentric phase.
So, as a conclusion, there is no one grip that is more effective than the others. Muscle activation is pretty much the same in all the grips, with minor variations. You can choose whatever grip you like, except the behind the neck lat pulldowns variation which is quite an injury-prone variation, and with no better results than the other grips. To wave off boredom, one could try the hands on the different grips, every now and then.