Training

Should You Do Light Or Heavy Lat Pulldowns?

July 6th 2019

Depending on your goals, you may want to do a heavy lat pulldown if you want to gain more strength and size. Alternatively, you can do light lat pulldowns for hypertrophy and to increase more blood flow to the area. 

The lat pulldown is a fantastic upper-body exercise because it crosses multiple joints and uses more than one muscle group, which is known as a compound exercise.

Compound exercises help you burn more calories in less time than isolation exercises. (Tucker, Alexa. 2016)

I like to say it gives you a good bang (result) for your buck (effort).

A lat pulldown machine is needed for this exercise, and almost every gym is outfitted with at least one.

Although there are many different brands with minor differences, most will consist of a seat with thigh supports and a long bar overhead that attaches to a weight stack.

During the exercise, you sit on the seat and pull the bar down toward you.

More on specific form later. 

MUSCLES WORKED DURING THE LAT PULLDOWN

Lat is short for Latissimus Dorsi - large, flat, triangular-shaped muscles located on each side of your posterior trunk.

They are what give bodybuilders that triangular shape from behind.

Lats are primarily responsible for the movement of your upper arm, but they may also work in some thoracic movements and respiratory functions. (Jeno, Susan H. 2019). 

The lats attach to the humerus (the large bone in your upper arm) and have multiple origin attachment sites along the hip, lower spine, ribs, and scapula. (Jeno, Susan H. 2019). 

The lats are quite an intriguing muscle to study due to their multiple attachment points if you have any interest in anatomy and how the body works.  

Aside from the lats, the lat pulldown exercise also works the following muscles:

  • rhomboids
  • middle and lower trapezius
  • teres major
  • teres minor
  • infraspinatus
  • posterior deltoid
  • levator scapulae
  • biceps

(Boldt, Andrea. 2018).

Two of the above muscles comprise some of the rotator cuff, a commonly injured part of the shoulder.

When performed correctly, the lat pulldown helps to strengthen and build the rotator cuff, keeping your overall shoulder joint healthier. 

If you are just starting out with a strength training program, it should absolutely include lat pulldowns for an efficient upper body and back workout. 

PROPER FORM FOR THE LAT PULLDOWN

The proper form for any exercise is key, and especially important during the lat pulldown to protect your shoulders and activate the appropriate muscles.

Focus on posture.

Before pulling the bar down toward your chest, make sure your upper back muscles are properly engaged by drawing your shoulders down and then retracting them back.

In other words, sit with a proud, good posture. 

Imagine you want to squeeze a $20 dollar bill between your shoulder blades and lift your chest bone as you pull your shoulders back.

Maintain this proud chest while performing the exercise - both as you pull the bar down and as you return it to the start position.

Retracting your shoulders in this way engages your rhomboids, mid trapezius, and teres minor muscles.

Core Exercise

In addition to sitting with proper posture, you should lean back slightly, keeping a straight spine.

This will engage your core muscles as you pull the bar down. (Klein, Sarah. 2012).

Bonus! 

Now that we have the anatomy out of the way, we can discuss the pros and cons of doing light lat pulldowns versus heavy lat pulldowns.

CHOOSING A WEIGHT FOR LAT PULLDOWNS 

There are multiple variations of the lat pulldown, and choosing the proper weight can be a bit tricky.

Armed with the below info, you'll look like a pro and maximize your results in the weight room. 

First, you want to consider your goal behind strength training.

Are you aiming for strength, hypertrophy, or endurance?

  It is a common belief in the resistance training world that low reps (between 1-5) maximize muscular strength; moderate reps (8-12) maximize muscular hypertrophy, and a high rep range (15 or more) maximizes muscular endurance. (Schoenfeld, Brad J. et al. 2016) 

The idea behind resistance training is to choose a weight heavy enough that you feel as if you could not perform another rep after completing the prescribed number in the set.

If you are able to perform many more reps, the weight is too light and you may not achieve the desired results.

If the weight is too heavy, either your form will break down or you won’t be able to complete the appropriate amount of reps, again falling short of your goal.  

With that said, lifters, especially beginners, need some structure to follow.

To make concepts and ideas easy to understand, many newer lifters are taught that different rep ranges are more suited for a specific result.

So, whether or not you are doing a heavy or light lat pulldown, you will always be training something.

There are pros and cons to each. 

PROS AND CONS OF DOING LIGHT LAT PULLDOWNS 

Let’s first define what is meant by light vs heavy weight, since these are arbitrary terms.

For the purpose of this article, I will define light as any weight with which you can complete more than 20 reps.

Heavy will be defined as any weight with which you cannot complete more than 5 reps.

This will differ by the athlete. 

Pros

Since the weight is light, it is easier to maintain the proper postural form mentioned above, and therefore the exercise becomes safer for your shoulders.

Choosing a lighter weight allows you to complete more reps before failure, working on muscle endurance.

Overall you may achieve less muscle breakdown during this type of a workout, meaning you won’t feel as sore the following day or two.

Lastly, a light weight allows you some flexibility to experiment with different hand positions such as wide or narrow hold an underhand or overhand grip.  

Cons

On the flipside, since the weight is light, you may not achieve the appropriate muscle fiber recruitment necessary for increased strength. 

Increasing strength works like this; imagine you have a heavy dresser to move.

You will likely call a few of your friends and ask for their help.

Your brain and muscles work the same way.

When your brain senses a heavy load, it “calls” more muscle fibers to aid in the movement.

This communication between your brain and your muscles is referred to as neuromuscular and improves with training.

Strength is simply a function of neuromuscular adaptation to heavy loads and can only happen when weights are heavy enough. (Beardsley, Chris. 2017)

Even if your goal is not raw strength, using too light of weight may prevent you from achieving hypertrophy results as well. 

PROS AND CONS OF DOING HEAVY LAT PULLDOWNS

Pros

Strength.

Choosing a weight for the lat pulldown that allows you to complete at least two reps but no more than five reps will result in the neuromuscular adaptation needed to increase pulling strength. 

Another advantage of heavier weight and fewer reps is the workout will take less time to complete since performing five reps takes about a quarter of the time needed to perform 20 reps (assuming constant tempo). 

Do you want to show off in the gym with some pull-ups?

A heavy lat pulldown better prepares you for the effort needed to complete an unassisted pull-up. 

Cons

Strong does not necessarily mean chiseled or cut.

If your goal is to look better naked, you most likely want hypertrophic results and should choose a moderate weight that allows you to perform at least eight reps but no more than 15 in a set. 

Perhaps the most importing disadvantage of doing heavy weight on the lat pulldown is the risk of injury or compromise at the shoulder joint due to bad form.

Failure to properly activate the rhomboids and mid-trapezius first with good posture puts too heavy of a strain on the smaller rotator cuff muscles and could result in damage over time. (Occhipinti, Mark. 2019)

COMMON ERRORS OF THE LAT PULLDOWN

I see it at least once every time I walk into a gym - someone doing the lat pulldown with rounded shoulders.

This is absolutely a no-go if you want a strong lat pulldown. 

Regardless of the weight is heavy or light, you should prioritize proper form.

Pulling the bar behind your back is another common error.

This version of the lat pulldown became popular for some reason, but it is not safe for your shoulder joint.

Always pull the bar in front of you to a target on your lower chest. 

WHAT TO DO WHEN FIRST STARTING LAT PULLDOWNS

 

  1. Adjust the seat and thigh supports so they gently press on your thighs
  2. Adjust the pin in the weight stack to select a weight that is lighter than you think you can safely do
  3. Stand up and reach overhead to grasp the bar. Place your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. 
  4. Sit down in the seat with legs underneath the thigh support.  Engage your upper body and core muscles until you are sitting with good posture and correct form. 
  5. Inhale then pull the bar down to your body, lifting your chest slightly to meet it. Keep your elbows pointing down to the floor and your shoulders down and back. 
  6. Slowly return the bar to the starting position, exhaling and taking approximately 2-3 seconds to reach the top. 
  7. Determine your 10RM - your 10 rep max, the amount of weight you can lift for 10 reps.
  8. Decide whether your goal is muscle strength, hypertrophy or endurance and then adjust your weight and reps accordingly.

Remember to rest longer between sets when performing lower reps at a higher weight. 

WANT THE CLIFF'S NOTES? 

There’s a safe bet in case you are left a bit confused after reading all this information.

Choose a weight that allows you to safely perform 10 repetitions, where the last 2 repetitions are very challenging.

Repeat that weight for 3 sets per workout.

Remember to continually increase your weights as you adapt to the training to stay within that 10-rep range. 

Happy Pulling! 

REFERENCES 

Tucker, Alexa. “The Exercises That’ll Help You Get More Done In Less Time.” www.self.com, October 9, 2016, www.self.com/story/compound-exercise-benefits-strength-training. Accessed June 30, 2019.

Jeno, Susan H., Varacallo, Matthew. “Anatomy, Back, Latissimus Dorsi.” StatPearls Publishing LLC, Last updated April 5, 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK448120/. The National Center for Biotechnology Information, Accessed July 1, 2019. 

Boldt, Andrea. “Muscles Used in a Lat Pulldown Machine.” www.livestrong.com, Updated January 30, 2018, www.livestrong.com/article/227108-muscles-used-in-a-lat-pull-down-machine/. Accessed July 2, 2019.

Klein, Sarah. “Fix Your Form: How To Do The Perfect Lat Pulldown.” www.huffpost.com, Updated December 7, 2017, www.huffpost.com/entry/fix-your-form-how-to-exercise-lat-pulldown_n_1846635. Accessed July 2, 2019.

Schoenfeld, Brad J., Contreras, Bret, Vigotsky, Andrew D, Peterson, Mark. (2016) “Differential Effects of Heavy Versus Moderate Loads on Measures of Strength and Hypertrophy in Resistance-Trained Men.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine (15), 715 - 722. www.jssm.org/hf.php?id=jssm-15-715.xml#. Accessed June 28, 2019.

Beardsley, Chris. “Mechanical Loading and *not* Motor Unit Recruitment is the Key to muscle growth.” www.medium.com, August 30, 2017, medium.com/@SandCResearch/mechanical-loading-and-not-motor-unit-recruitment-is-the-key-to-muscle-growth-8d6f73ada6fc. Accessed July 2, 2019. 

Occhipinti, Mark. “Shoulder Injuries: Pain, Diagnosis & Exercise Rehabilitation.” www.afpafitness.com, February 4, 2019, https://www.afpafitness.com/blog/shoulder-injuries-pain-diagnosis-exercise-rehabilitation. Accessed July 2, 2019.

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