When you walk into any gym, you could see a number of people queuing up behind the LAT PULLDOWN machine. What’s more to the fact is that most of the people are using attachment with different grips and varying widths for the pulldown 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 pulldowns as well as the front pulldowns.
Acc. to a 2015 study in the Strength & Conditioning Journal, by a US research team led by Ronald Snarr , lat pull down is a multi-joint exercise which helps build strength & endurance in the upper body. Strengthening of the latissimus dorsi may enhance an individuals’ ability to transfer power between the upper and lower extremities during movements, such as swinging, throwing, and even sprinting. Athletes who may gain the most benefit from an overhead pulling movement include gymnasts, swimmers, and wrestlers.
During the lat pulldown, the primary muscles involved are posterior deltoid, rhomboids, trapezius & biceps. The secondary muscles which get engaged are teres minor, teres major, pectoralis major, triceps, infraspinatus, brachialis, and brachioradialis.
A 2002 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, by a US research team led by Joseph F. 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 pulldown variations were tested i.e. close grip, supinated grip, wide grip anterior, and wide grip posterior. The study found that:
- For the latissimus dorsi, wide anterior grip was better than the rest.
- For the long head of the triceps, 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 wide posterior grip.
The data suggest that the performance of the lat pull-down 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 a greatest amount stimulus and a 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 pull downs 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 pull-down 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 the contact between the exercise bar and the head of the practitioner. On the other hand, when performed in front- neck, a lat pull-down is 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 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 a 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 pulldown, than V-bar or behind the neck pulldown.
- During the eccentric phase, pectoralis major activation was more in front lat pulldown & V-bar, than in behind the neck pull down.
- For the latissimus dorsi activation, all movements and grips were the same.
- For the posterior deltoid, activation was much more in front lat pulldown 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 pulldown than front or V-bar 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 pull-down, front lat pull down is the better choice, whereas behind the neck is not a good lat pulldown technique and should be avoided. V-bar could be used as an alternative.
Acc. to Snarr & Eckert, pulling the bar behind-the-head puts the glenohumeral joint in a comprised position (i.e., externally rotated, ab- ducted, and horizontally abducted) increasing the risk of shoulder injury. Chronic use of the behind-the- head LP increases the likelihood of developing anterior instability (AI) in the shoulder joint. AI in the shoulder joint is often associated with a variety of other soft tissue injuries such as supporting rotator cuff musculature, ligamentous, and cartilaginous damage. With a transfer to an anterior pull (i.e., in front of the body), the LP be- comes a more functional movement and reduces the prevalence of injury
A close grip LP (CG) typically consists of a pronated grip roughly shoulder width apart. By decreasing the distance between the hands, the arms can no longer primarily adduct to complete the movement and therefore must work in both the frontal and sagittal plane simultaneously (i.e., adduction and extension). This change in joint motion causes a substantial increase in the range of motion through the glenohumeral joint and the elbow.
In a 2010 study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, by Stephen Lusk and other researchers , twelve healthy men performed lat pulldown 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 an 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 pull down, 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 pull-down 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.
A 2004 study in the journal Dynamic Medicine, by a Canadian research team, led by Gregory Lehman, determined the muscle activation level, of the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii and middle trapezius/rhomboids muscle groups during a series of four tasks; wide grip pulldown, reverse grip pull down, seated row with retracted scapula, and seated rows with non-retracted scapulae.
The researchers found that wide grip lat pulldown demonstrated a small but non-significant increase in the activity of the latissimus dorsi compared with the supinated grip pulldown. This same small increase is seen in biceps muscle when using a supinated grip versus the wide grip during the lat pulldown. Due to the small changes in muscle activity there appears to be very little difference in muscle activity between the wide grip lat pulldown and the supinated grip lat pulldown for the biceps and latissimus dorsi muscles.
Additionally, the seated row while recruiting the latissimus dorsi and biceps brachii more or equally effectively as the lat pulldown also recruits the middle trapezius/rhomboid muscle group to a greater extent. Actively retracting the scapula does not appear to increase activation levels of the middle trapezius/rhomboid muscle group.
So, as a conclusion there is no one grip which 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 pulldown 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.