Developing lat size and strength has always been one of the fundamental goals of all lifters.
(That's how you can easily hit a 2x bw deadlift by the way.)
Whether you are a powerlifter, bodybuilder, strongman, or even an athlete, you know how critical it is to engage your lats.
Being on the biggest back muscle, it is no wonder why you need to place so much emphasis on it.
But on an exercise as staple as the lat pulldown, how come you do not feel it working on your lats?
Lat pulldown not working lats
Sometimes, you may be working on your lats while not being aware of it. The two biggest pointers in activating your lats are to focus on pulling your elbows down to your armpits and doing reps in a controlled manner (this means using lighter weight).
Here are some great technique cues that can help you envision engaging your lats—
- Your hands are hooks
- have a workout partner touch your lats
- Use less weight
- A slight lean is beneficial
- Do a wide grip lat pulldown
- Do it slower
- How is your posture?
- Do not judge on soreness
- 25 reps is the magic number
i) Your hands are hooks
On the lat pulldown, picture your hands as hooks.
Now, “hook” onto the bar. The goal here is to pull your elbows down to your armpits.
This removes any excessive pressures and tension you may be wanting to do when trying to do a lat pulldown.
One common complaint is that lifters will feel like they are using their arms too frequently.
Well, there is no doubt that in a heavy lat pulldown you will need to engage your grip in order to not let the weight pull you out of position.
At the same time, you just need to apply enough grip strength so that you remain in control of the movement...
(Similar to having enough grip strength control for a 225lbs bench.)
ii) Have a workout partner touch your lats
The mind-body connection seems like a fictional story but ask any bodybuilder to see if it makes a difference.
For some lifters, engaging the lats feel foreign to them.
They do not know how the lats feel when are contracted and how they feel when they are relaxed.
For this reason, having an external stimulus (your workout partner) frequently touching your lats or even placing their fingers on your lats will provide when stimulation for you to realize which body part you are moving.
iii) Use less weight
Let us face it— we all want huge lats.
(Deciding on heavy or light lat pulldowns is a separate issue).
And in order to get huge lats, we need to lift huge weights, right? Not exactly.
For some lifters, they may just be using too much weight to properly engage your lats.
The weight is too heavy so you are compensating on your lat pulldown without even realizing it.
This can be dangerous, especially if you are not even aware of it.
iv) A slight lean may be beneficial
Many lifters claim that when leaning backward slightly, they can feel their lats being engaged.
Make sure to point your chest upward and lean back slightly in order to activate your lats.
v) Do a wide grip lat pulldown
Studies show that a wide grip lat pulldown may help you slightly in activating your lats over a supinated grip (palms facing towards you).
However, the difference is small and research suggests that it may be insignificant.
But for beginners who want to get a very good advantage in order to activate their lats, you should try every exercise that can help you get closer to your goal.
Lat pulldown vs seated row
Also in the study linked above, scientists suggest that the seated may also be equally, if not more, beneficial in activating the lats than the wide grip lat pulldown.
More studies will need to be conducted but this could be a step towards finding the most optimal exercise in order to activate your lats.
Personally, I recommend that you need to include both and try them out to see which has the bigger carryover in size development and strength progression.
Should I retract my scapula to activate my lats?
Based on the research linked above, researchers found in this experiment that scapula retraction had no significant effect on lat activation.
However, the study did mention that other research papers found that scapula retraction does help activate the lats more.
So, it is controversial and you know what you should do?
- Try both of them out.
- Have a workout partner help you visualize your lats contracting.
- Take a video and see how your lats move.
vi) Do it slower
Whenever you do an exercise too quickly, you leave out an important training variable— time under tension (TuT).
Time under tension is vital if you want to grow and stimulate your muscle.
Anyone can do 100 reps of lat pulldowns in less than 5 minutes.
What most gym-goers need to focus on is slowing down the movement and making sure that their lats are contracted and squeezed when necessary.
So, at the top of the movement, get familiar with how your lats feel when they are relaxed.
Then, slowly, pull your elbows to your armpits.
Notice how I am not saying pull the weight to your chest; some lifters will confuse themselves and feel it only in their arms.
Once your elbows are in your armpits, hold that bottom position for 2-3 seconds.
Get comfortable with squeezing your lats down there.
Then, slowly extend your arms back up and finish the rep.
vii) How is your posture?
Some lifters have developed a forward head posture through their everyday environment.
Some gym-goers have found that tucking in their chin while pointing their chest upward may have an effect on stimulating your lats.
viii) Do not judge on soreness
For some bodybuilders and beginner lifters, they may expect that in order to work out your lats, you need to feel sore afterward.
Sometimes, you may feel soreness.
But do not rely on being sore to know that you are working on your lats.
Focus more on contracting and relaxing the muscle while doing an appropriate amount of weight.
This will ensure that your lats are actively engaged and the muscle fibers are being slightly damaged since you are using resistance.
ix) 25 reps is the magic number
Why 25 reps you may ask?
25 reps is making sure the weight is not heavy enough for you to ego-lift and use the wrong muscles.
At the same time, it should be heavy enough that you can maintain a longer time under tension while exercising your targetted muscle— the lats.
At your next workout, try to do sets of 25 for 1-2 of your lat exercises and repeat that for a few cycles.
Watch for the dramatic changes in both size and strength.
Lat pulldown form
There is no “right” lat pulldown form. However, many lifters can mimic the following suggestions in order to achieve great lat activation:
- Think of your hands as hooks
- Pull down with your elbows
- Do controlled reps
- Hold the rep at the bottom position for at least 2 seconds; concentrate on squeezing your lats
If you followed the suggestions above, I am confident that you will not ask what perfect form looks like.
It will be different for everyone since everyone has different strengths and weaknesses.
As a beginner, you should focus on what works for you and how you can achieve proper lat activation from the lat pulldown.
Lat pulldown, how far down should you bring it?
Grip width heavily impacts how far you will bring the lat pulldown to your chest. It is best if you focus less on far you can bring down the lat pulldown and focus more on pulling down as far as you can with your elbows while squeezing your lats at the bottom of the lift.
This way, you will avoid making any mistakes when trying to contract your lats.
For instance, if you take a neutral grip for the lat pulldown, there is a good chance you are able to bring the bar down to your chest while still squeezing your lats.
Now, what if you do a wide grip lat pulldown?
You may notice that you may barely bring the lat pulldown below your nose but you feel your lats squeezing the entire time.
This is good and will be enough to stimulate your lats.
Where should you feel lat pulldowns?
You should feel the lat pulldown mainly in your lats but you can vary the weight, grips, implements, and angles to feel the lat pulldown—
- In your upper back
- In your arms
- In your forearms
This can be confusing but this does highlight how great the lat pulldown is for varying stimuli to different muscles at different stress points.
If you are feeling the lat pulldown in your arms and you want to feel it more in your lats or upper back:
- Lighten the weight
- Increase your back lean
- Slow the tempo down
If you are feeling the lat pulldown in your back and you want to increase more forearm work:
- Use a thicker bar
- Lighten the load
- Slow down the tempo
The lat pulldown is a great exercise and can be used to grow huge lats when done effectively.
However, many mistakes can be made when performing the lat pulldown, resulting in less lat activation.
As a result, it gets a bad rep in the lifting community and other exercises are offered as alternatives to replace the lat pulldown.
Do not be so quick to judge the lat pulldown; it is just a machine designed to help you achieve your training goals.
Why Do I Feel Lat Pulldowns in My Chest?
- Your chest is not relaxed
- Your back is too weak
- Your pec muscles are too tight
- Your posture sucks
The easiest and immediate solution to this issue is to—
- Have a slight lean to bias your back
- Imagine pulling with your back, not your chest
- Control the tempo
- Use a light weight for 25 reps for several sets