Are you gripping your lat pulldown bar correctly? The answer could be the game-changer in your back-building journey.
While the bench press might be the king of upper body exercises, a well-developed chest needs to be balanced with a muscular upper back. Having all your muscle mass on the front of your body will hurt your aesthetics and won’t do your posture any good, either.
In addition, developing the front of your body more than the back increases your risk of injuries, especially to the shoulders. The shoulders are injury-prone enough without compounding the problem by neglecting other muscle groups.
With that in mind, back training is a must, but what are the best exercises? In actuality, there are lots of great movements to choose from, so your back workouts need never be repetitive or boring. There are horizontal pulling exercises, like single-arm and bent-over rows, and vertical pulling exercises, like pull-ups and chin-ups.
Should you use a wide grip? Or is a close grip better? The answer is often, it depends!
In this article, we examine the pros and cons of both grips so you can choose the best one for your needs and goals.
- The Basics of Lat Pulldown
- Close Grip vs. Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns
- Differences Between Close Grip and Wide Grip
- When to Choose Which Grip
- Lat Pulldown Alternatives for Building a Muscular Back
Close Grip Lat Pulldown vs. Wide Grip – FAQs
- 1. What are the key differences between close and wide grip lat pulldowns?
- 2. Is one grip better than the other for beginners?
- 3. Which grip is easier on the shoulders?
- 4. Can I alternate between close and wide grip in the same workout?
- 5. How do these exercises fit into a comprehensive back training routine?
- 6. How often should I perform these exercises for optimal back development?
- 7. What exercises can I do instead of lat pulldowns for my upper back?
- Closing Thoughts
The Basics of Lat Pulldown
So, you think you know all there is to know about the lat pulldown? That’s hardly surprising given the popularity and widespread use of this exercise machine. However, in case your knowledge needs refreshing, in this section, we’ll cover the basics of the lat pulldown machine.
Firstly, many people think the name lat pulldown comes from the muscles trained by this exercise. That would make sense, but it’s not the case. Instead, the lat pulldown is so-called because the movement mainly occurs in the lateral plane. And pulldown? That part’s pretty obvious, right?
While we don’t know who invented the first lat pulldown machine, it’s a safe bet that it was designed to provide an alternative to body weight pull-ups and chin-ups. In fact, lat pulldowns are a great way to prepare your muscles for these challenging upper back exercises.
Lat pulldown machines vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, but, in general, it’s a machine with a seat, an overhead pulley, and a cable that attaches to a weight stack. Some machines use levers instead of cables, and others use weight plates instead of a weight stack, but the principles are much the same.
Most lat pulldown machines can be used with a range of different handles and grips. In most cases, this does not really change the effect of the exercise, and the best grip is the one you find comfortable and enjoy using.
What Muscles Do Lat Pulldowns Work?
Lat pulldowns are a compound exercise, meaning they involve multiple joints and muscles working together. In contrast, isolation exercises, such as the pec deck, involve movement at one joint and fewer muscles.
Unsurprisingly, the lat pulldown uses your upper body pulling muscles. These include:
Latissimus dorsi – located on the sides of your upper back, the latissimus dorsi or lats give your back its width. The functions of the lats are shoulder adduction, extension, and medial rotation. The lats are the agonist or prime mover during lat pulldowns.
Trapezius – your trapezius or traps are another large upper back muscle. Shaped like a diamond, the traps cover the area above, below, and across your shoulder blades. There are three groups of trapezius fibers: upper, middle, and lower. The upper fibers elevate your shoulder girdle, while the middle fibers are responsible for retraction. The lower fibers depress your shoulder girdle. The middle and lower fibers are most active during lat pulldowns.
Rhomboids – the rhomboids are small muscles located between your shoulder blades. Working with your middle trapezius, these muscles pull your shoulders back and together in a movement called retraction.
Deltoids – the deltoids are your shoulder muscles. Like the trapezius, there are three groups of fibers, usually called heads. These are: anterior (front), medial (middle), and posterior (rear). All three deltoid heads are involved in lat pulldowns, but the posterior head is the most active.
Biceps – you can’t do lat pulldowns without engaging your biceps. After all, these muscles are responsible for flexing your elbows. As such, the biceps have a lot of work to do during lat pulldowns and may even be the muscle that fatigues first, especially when training with heavy loads.
Forearms – your hands are the hooks that connect your arms to the bar or handle you’re holding. Your forearm muscles contract to secure your grip. Subsequently, lat pulldowns provide your forearms with an effective workout. However, if your grip weakens, your hands may fail before your lats. To avoid this, some exercisers use lifting straps to reinforce their grip.
Core – this is the collective term for the muscles of your midsection, including your rectus abdominis, obliques, and transverse abdominis. While you might not feel them working, your core helps stabilize your lumbar spine during lat pulldowns. You’ll also need to use your hip flexors to keep your butt down on the seat, especially when using loads that exceed your body weight.
Now that we’ve explored the anatomy of the lat pulldown, let’s move on to the practical side of things – how to perform this valuable exercise.
How to Do Lat Pulldowns
Regardless of which grip you use, most lat pulldown variations are performed in a similar fashion. We’ll discuss any grip-dependent technique variations later, but for now, this is how you do an average lat pulldown.
- Select an appropriate weight.
- Adjust the leg pads, so they hold you securely in place and your feet are flat on the floor.
- Stand up and grip your chosen handle. Pull your shoulders down and back, and brace your core.
- Sit down on the machine and reset your shoulders and core if necessary. Lift your chest and arch your lower back slightly.
- Without jerking with your arms or leaning backward, bend your arms and pull the bar down your upper chest. Lead with your elbows, and avoid rotating your forearms forward.
- Pause briefly, then extend your arms to return to the starting position. Control the weight as you lower it.
- Stretch your lats for a second or two with your arms overhead, and then repeat.
- Continue for the desired number of reps.
Get even more from lat pulldowns with these handy hints and tips!
- Experiment with a full thumbs-around and a thumbless false grip to see which you prefer.
- Use lifting chalk to stop your hands from slipping.
- No lat pulldown machine? No problem! You can replicate this exercise using a resistance band and a suitable overhead anchor.
- Increase the intensity of your workout with drop sets. Rep out to failure, reduce the load by 10-15%, and then rep out again. Repeat 2-3 times to exhaust your lats in record time.
- You can use lat pulldowns to develop the strength for pull-ups and chin-ups.
Now you’ve got a secure grip on the basics of the lat pulldown, it’s time to get into the difference between close and wide grips.
Close Grip vs. Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns
There are several grip options for lat pulldown. Each one has benefits and drawbacks, fans and detractors. While the focus of this article is close vs. wide grip lat pulldowns, other grip options include:
All of these grips can help you develop a great-looking upper back. Still, the most common discussion among exercisers is whether close or wide grip lat pulldowns are better.
Close Grip Lat Pulldowns
For the purpose of this article, when we’re talking about close grip lat pulldowns, we’re referring to a narrow, parallel grip.
However, you can also do close grip lat pulldowns with a straight bar, either with your hands pronated (palms facing away) or supinated (palms facing you). These three variations are similar enough that they are interchangeable. Try them all and see which you prefer.
Close grip lat pulldowns are a popular exercise because they’re comfortable, easy to learn, and put your arms in a mechanically strong position so your biceps are less likely to fatigue before your lats. In fact, studies suggest you are 5% stronger with a close grip compared to a wide grip (1).
The main joint action of close grip lat pulldowns is the extension of the shoulder joints. In other words, starting with your hands and arms close together, you pull down and back. This allows you to move through a wide range of motion, and you can pull the handle down to the midpoint of your chest without compromising your shoulders.
This movement means close grip lat pulldowns work your lats while increasing mid-trap, rhomboid, and rear deltoid engagement. The mid-point of each rep involves a strong retraction of your shoulder girdle, which emphasizes those mid-upper back muscles.
However, some lifters believe that close grip lat pulldowns are less effective for building upper back width. For this reason, wide grip lat pulldowns are often recommended for this purpose.
Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns
When some lifters do wide grip lat pulldowns, they spread their arms as wide as possible and hold the bar at its very ends. This is a mistake. A very wide grip puts your arms and shoulders in a compromised position that could lead to injuries. So, for the purposes of this discussion, a wide grip refers to your hands being roughly 1.5 shoulder-widths apart.
Wide grip lat pulldowns are performed with a pronated or palms facing away grip. While you could possibly do them with a supinated or underhand grip, this will probably put too much strain on your shoulders and elbows and will be uncomfortable for all but the most flexible lifter.
Starting with your arms in a V-shaped position, wide grip lat pulldowns involve shoulder adduction, which is the action of pulling your limbs in toward the midline of your body. So, while your hands travel vertically, your elbows come down and into your sides during this lat pulldown variation.
This movement emphasizes your lats and takes some work away from your mid traps, rhomboids, and posterior deltoids (1). That’s not to say these muscles aren’t working – they are. However, with less shoulder girdle retraction, they’re not as active.
Wide grip lat pulldowns also put your biceps in a less advantageous position, so you may not be able to use quite as much weight as you can with close grip lat pulldowns (1).
Differences Between Close Grip and Wide Grip
Both close and wide grip lat pulldowns work your back and biceps very effectively. In fact, these exercises are so similar that, for most people, they can be considered interchangeable. However, their differences mean that, on occasion, you may want to choose one over the other.
These are the most significant differences between close and wide grip lat pulldowns. Use this information to help you choose the best exercise for your needs and goals.
Where close grip lat pulldowns involve more shoulder extension than adduction, using a wide grip does the reverse, involving more adduction than extension. While the lats are responsible for both these movements, the different joint actions affect the target muscles slightly differently.
According to studies, adopting a close grip targets the lower fibers of the lats a little more while increasing mid-trap and rhomboid engagement. In contrast, using a wide grip puts more focus on the upper fibers of the lats but recruits the mid-traps and rhomboids a little less (1).
However, it’s important to note that these differences are quite slight and, for most exercises, will be inconsequential. But, if you want to target specific areas of your lats, choosing between these two exercises may be helpful.
The width of your hands determines how much force you can generate with your biceps, which are the primary weak link during lat pulldowns. Compared to your lats, your biceps are smaller and not as strong, so it’s only to be expected that they will fail first during lat pulldowns.
Wide grip lat pulldowns put your biceps in a disadvantageous position, so they are slightly weaker. Studies estimate that you’ll need to use 5% less weight or do fewer reps to accommodate this. The close grip puts your biceps in a stronger position, so you should be able to use a larger load or pump out a couple of extra reps (1).
One way around this problem is to switch from a wide grip to a close grip as your biceps begin to fatigue. That way, you move from a weaker position to a stronger one and should be able to continue your workout with less drop-off in performance.
Range of Motion
Close grip lat pulldowns involve a larger range of motion than the wide grip version. You start each rep with your arms extended above your head and then pull the handle down to the mid-point of your chest. This equates to about 80 degrees of movement.
In contrast, wide grip lat pulldowns start with your arm already out at an angle, and the mid-point of each rep is usually the upper chest. This equals about 60 degrees of movement.
While such differences are not critical to muscle or strength development, if you want to improve your performance through a more extensive range of motion, e.g., for activities such as rock climbing or gymnastics, the close grip variation may be advantageous.
Watch a beginner do wide grip lat pulldowns, and, in many cases, they’ll try and pull the bar too far down, rotating their forearms and shoulders in the process. This action takes stress off the lats and increases the risk of injury.
In contrast, that same beginner is much less likely to make similar errors with the close grip version. It’s much harder to make a similar mistake with this movement as there is less opportunity to rotate the arms and shoulders inward.
As such, most exercisers find close grip lat pulldowns easier to learn and master than the wide grip option. That’s not to say that beginners should not do wide grip lat pulldowns. However, they should be shown how low they need to pull the bar and taught to lead with their elbows.
Still unsure which grip to use? We hear you! Check out the next section, where we provide guidelines for choosing the best grip width for your goal and needs.
When to Choose Which Grip
Close and wide grip lat pulldowns are both great exercises that can help you build the upper back of your dreams. But you probably don’t want to do both of them, especially in the same workout.
In this section, we reveal the best lat pulldown variation for your training goal.
For Muscle Growth
Close Grip: Close grip lat pulldowns work more muscles than the wide grip variation. As well as the lats, this exercise also works the mid-traps and rhomboids, making it a more comprehensive back exercise and providing more bang for your workout buck.
For Strength Gains
Close Grip: Studies suggest you can lift approximately 5% more weight with a close grip compared to a wide grip. This means the close grip may be more effective for building strength. This is because the close grip puts your biceps in a better pulling position so you can lift heavier loads.
Close Grip: Close grip lat pulldowns are usually easier to master and less likely to result in form errors. It’s a more natural movement that most beginners can pick up more easily and are less likely to get wrong. Poor form could cause injury, such as rotating the shoulders and arms forward.
If You’re Inflexible
Close Grip: Despite involving a slightly more extensive range of motion, close grip lat pulldowns require less shoulder flexibility than a wide grip. As such, they’re a better option for lifters with limited shoulder mobility. They’re also easier on the wrists and elbows.
For Joint Health
Close Grip: Using a close grip puts less stress on the shoulder joints compared to a wide grip, reducing the risk of injury. Using a close grip also permits a broader range of motion, which is often good for general joint health.
Now you know which lat pulldown to do when, in the next section, we’ll reveal some equally effective alternatives to try.
Lat Pulldown Alternatives for Building a Muscular Back
Just as man cannot live by bread alone, your back muscles need a variety of exercises to stave off boredom and break through progress plateaus. After all, as great as lat pulldowns are, you can have too much of a good thing. So, here are five proven alternatives to keep those back gains coming.
Muscles targeted: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, forearms.
Pull-ups involve the same joint and muscle actions as lat pulldowns. In fact, the only real difference is, during pull-ups, you raise your body weight up to the bar instead of pulling the bar down to you. Pull-ups are an excellent alternative to lat pulldowns, especially if you are an experienced, stronger exerciser.
- Hang from an overhead bar using a slightly wider than shoulder-width overhand grip. Pull your shoulders back and down and brace your core. Bend your legs and lift your feet off the floor.
- Bend your arms and pull your chin up and over the bar.
- Smoothly extend your arms and repeat.
- Experiment with your grip width to see what works best for you.
- Use a weighted vest to make this exercise more challenging.
- Avoid swinging or kicking with your legs, which takes tension away from the target muscles.
Muscles targeted: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, forearms.
Chin-ups are to close grip lat pulldowns what pull-ups are to wide grip lat pulldowns. Like the exercise they mirror, chin-ups put your arms in a slightly stronger position, so exercisers often find them a little easier than pull-ups. They also provide a great biceps workout. Can’t choose between pull-ups and chin-ups? Then don’t! Alternate between them from one workout to the next.
- Hang from an overhead bar using a slightly narrower than shoulder-width underhand grip. Pull your shoulders back and down and brace your core. Bend your legs and lift your feet off the floor.
- Bend your arms and pull your chin up and over the bar.
- Smoothly extend your arms and repeat.
- Use a resistance band for assistance to make this exercise more manageable.
- Try doing chin-ups with your legs extended in front of you – L-sit chin-ups – to work your core and upper body at the same time.
- Lower yourself slower than you lift it to make this exercise more effective.
3. Straight Arm Pulldowns
Muscles targeted: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, core.
There is another exercise you can use to work your lats on a lat pulldown machine, namely straight arm pulldowns. This is an isolation exercise because movement only occurs at your shoulder joints, and your biceps are not involved. This doesn’t make them any better or worse than lat pulldowns, only different. But, for avoiding boredom and plateaus, different is usually good!
- Attach a straight bar to a lat pulldown machine. Reach up and hold the bar with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip. Brace your core and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Keeping your arms straight, take a small step back and lean forward to tension your lats.
- Push the bar down in an arc to your thighs. Do not bend your elbows.
- Return to the starting position and repeat.
- Try a close, medium, and wide grip to see which you prefer.
- Do this exercise immediately before or after to fully fatigue your lats.
- Use a false or thumbless grip to prevent cheating during this exercise.
4. Seated Rows
Muscles targeted: Latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, forearms, core.
You can train your lats with vertical or horizontal pulling exercises. Including both in your workouts is a good idea so you hit your back from multiple angles. Rows are a horizontal pulling exercise, and there are several variations to choose from, including T-bar, single-arm, bent-over, chest-supported, Pendlay, and Kroc rows. However, seated rows are probably the most accessible and easy to learn.
- Attach a neutral grip V-bar to a low pulley machine. Sit on the machine with your legs slightly bent. Grab the handle with both hands and sit upright. Brace your core, and pull your shoulders back and down.
- Leading with your elbows, bend your arms and pull the handle into your abdomen.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- Do not round your lower back, as doing so could lead to injury.
- Keep your upper arms close to your sides to maximize lat recruitment.
- You can also do this exercise using a straight bar and with your hands supinated or pronated.
Muscles targeted: Hamstrings, quadriceps, gluteus maximus, latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, biceps, forearms.
The deadlift is arguably the most productive exercise you can do with a barbell. Working a large percentage of your muscles at the same time, it delivers a lot of bang for your buck, building strength and size throughout your body. While the deadlift looks like a leg exercise, done correctly, it’s actually a potent lat builder. The deadlift deserves a place in almost everybody’s workouts.
- Place a loaded barbell on the floor and stand behind it so your feet are about hip-width apart and the bar is close to your chins.
- Lean forward and hold the bar with an overhand or mixed grip. Straighten your arms, drop your hips, lift your chest, brace your core, and pull your shoulders down and back.
- Next, drive your feet into the floor and stand up. Keep the bar close to your legs, and do not allow your lower back to round.
- Pause standing upright for a second, but do not lean backward.
- Push your hips to the rear, lean forward, and lower the bar back to the floor. Don’t just drop it.
- Let the weight settle, reset your grip and core, and repeat.
- Wear a weightlifting belt to support and protect your lower back.
- Do deadlifts in flat shoes for increased stability and safety.
- If you use a mixed grip, make sure you switch your hands around set by set to avoid muscle imbalances.
Close Grip Lat Pulldown vs. Wide Grip – FAQs
You’ve now got all the information you need to choose between close and wide grip lat pulldowns. But, just in case you need any extra info or clarifications, here are some FAQs about these exercises and back training in general.
1. What are the key differences between close and wide grip lat pulldowns?
We’ve covered a lot of information in this article – it’s thorough! So, to save you from reading through even more text, here are the key differences between close and wide grip lat pulldowns presented in a simple, easy-to-read table. You’re welcome!
|Criteria||Close Grip Lat Pulldowns||Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns|
|Muscle Activation||Targets lower fibers of the lats, mid-traps, and rhomboids more effectively.||Focuses more on the upper fibers of the lats while recruiting mid-traps and rhomboids a bit less.|
|Strength Gains||Allows for lifting approximately 5% more weight due to a stronger bicep position.||Slightly weaker bicep position may require you to use 5% less weight.|
|Range of Motion||Larger range of motion, around 80 degrees.||Smaller range of motion, around 60 degrees.|
|Ease for Beginners||Easier to master; less likely to result in form errors.||May require more attention to form, especially for beginners.|
|Shoulder Flexibility||Requires less shoulder flexibility.||Requires more shoulder flexibility.|
|Joint Health||Less stress on the shoulder joints; a broader range of motion benefits joint health.||More stress on the shoulder joints; limited range of motion.|
|Loading Potential||Biceps are in a stronger position, allowing for a larger load or extra reps.||Biceps are in a weaker position, may require reducing weight or reps.|
2. Is one grip better than the other for beginners?
Theoretically, beginners can do any version of lat pulldowns as they’re all similarly effective. However, the close grip variation is a little easier to learn and less technically demanding. So, if you want the most beginner-friendly lat pulldown exercise, the close grip version will probably meet your needs.
3. Which grip is easier on the shoulders?
Using a wide grip tends to put your shoulders in a slightly awkward position, which some users may find uncomfortable. So, if you have a history of shoulder pain or just want to play it safe and avoid overstressing your joints, the close grip variation is probably your best option.
4. Can I alternate between close and wide grip in the same workout?
It can be hard to choose between close and wide grip lat pulldowns. After all, they’re both excellent exercises. So, instead of choosing, why not do both? We suggest doing wide followed by narrow grip pulldowns to take advantage of the fact that you’re stronger with a close grip, i.e.,
- Wide grip lat pulldowns – 2 sets 8-12 reps, 90 seconds recovery
- Close grip lat pulldowns – 2 sets 8-12 reps, 90 seconds recovery
This approach saves you from having to pick one exercise or the other. Alternatively, could switch between exercises from workout to workout, i.e., wide grip on Monday and close grip on Thursday. That approach works well, too.
5. How do these exercises fit into a comprehensive back training routine?
As effective as lat pulldowns are, you’ll probably get better results if you incorporate them into a back workout that hits your muscles from a variety of angles. That’s especially true for bodybuilders.
To that end, here’s a comprehensive back routine that uses several great exercises designed to increase upper back hypertrophy.
|2||Wide grip lat pulldown||3||8-10||2 minutes|
|3||Chest supported row||3||8-10||2 minutes|
|4||Close grip lat pulldown||3||10-12||90 seconds|
|5||Single-arm dumbbell row||3||10-12||90 seconds|
|6||Straight arm pulldown||2||12-15||60 seconds|
6. How often should I perform these exercises for optimal back development?
While some bodybuilders get good results by training major muscle groups once a week, the average exerciser probably needs to hit their muscles twice a week for optimal progress. This provides the ideal balance between work and recovery.
However, avoid training the same muscle two days in a row. Instead, have 2-3 days between similar workouts. So, if you train your back on Tuesday, you should probably wait until Friday to hit it again.
7. What exercises can I do instead of lat pulldowns for my upper back?
There are so many great back exercises to choose from that it can be hard to know where to start! Here are just a few of our favorite back builders and strengtheners:
- Inverted rows
- Ring rows
- Front levers
- Single-arm rows
- Kroc rows
- Bent-over rows
- Pendlay rows
- T-bar rows
- Seated rows
- Lever machine rows
- Seal rows
- Straight arm pulldowns
Need more ideas? Check out this guide to discover more great upper back exercises.
The lat pulldown is undoubtedly one of the most popular back exercises. It’s straightforward, safe, and effective, and there are several grip and handle variations to keep your workouts fresh and productive. Most gyms have several lat pulldown machines, and there are machines made for home use, too.
That said, lifters often want to know which grip is best. Will a wide grip give you wider lats? Or is the close grip the ultimate back-builder?
It turns out that while there are differences between close and wide grip lat pulldowns, they aren’t actually all that significant. Any advantages are small and won’t be of much consequence to the average exerciser.
To summarize these differences, a close grip works your mid-back and lower lats a little more, and you can lift marginally heavier weights. In contrast, a wide grip works the upper lats slightly more, but you may not be able to use as big a load.
Remember, these differences are fractional at best and probably won’t have much of an impact on the shape or size of your muscles. Those are the details only a professional bodybuilder needs to worry about. For the rest of us, they’re all but irrelevant.
With that in mind, most people should choose the exercise they prefer or that most closely matches their needs and goals. And if you still can’t decide between these exercises, why not do both? Either in the same workout or alternating them session by session.
Whichever way you slice it, the lat pulldown is a great exercise, and all its variations are worthy additions to your upper back workouts. And if you aren’t doing lat pulldowns, you are really missing out, so add them to your training pronto!
1 – Andersen V, Fimland MS, Wiik E, Skoglund A, Saeterbakken AH. Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pulldown. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):1135-42. doi: 10.1097/JSC.0000000000000232. PMID: 24662157.