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So, you want a broader back … The Lat Pull-down is typically the sort of exercise that a novice to resistance work would tackle for upper body toning ~ working the large back muscle.  The Pull-down offers a good alternative to traditional “body weight” chinning exercises ~ allowing for development of initial confidence, strength and technique. Too often, however, gym users learn more from watching “old hands” in the gym than from recalling advice from a qualified Instructor or Personal Trainer.  This can be the route for bad habits to develop, either in leaning too far forward (risking injury to smaller neck muscles) or too far back.

If you want to train the latissimus dorsi, but are not confident or strong enough to do chin ups, then scientific study has now proven that the Wide grip front Pull-down produces the greatest muscle activity during both the concentric and eccentric phases of the movement.  In terms of a safe and effective exercise, this is the variation I would usually suggest.

Controversy

The Lat Pull-down machine is present in most gyms in some form, but it has a controversial reputation.  Experts could not seem to agree as to the safest and most effective way of tackling the exercise.  In addition, the equipment manufacturers seem to allow a wide variety of positions for sitting or kneeling beneath the exercise bar ~ each position making different demands in terms of a safe technique.

The website of the Mayo Clinic [i] in the United States has documented sports injury cases attributed to the behind the neck Pull-down technique and linked these particularly with bending the head too far forwards and down whilst executing this exercise.  They suggest only undertaking the Pull-down as a front Pull-down exercise, and taking care not to lean too far back in the process.  Depending on the configuration of the Lat Pull-down station in your gym, this can be difficult to impossible to achieve ~ unless you specifically think through your posture before taking up your position and the load. 

In order to throw more light on the benefits and safety aspects of the Lat Pull-down exercise, sports scientists from the University of Miami [ii]  tested four variations, and published their conclusions.

An Introduction to the Lat Pull-down

The Lat Pull-down is so named because this exercise has as its Prime Mover the latissimus dorsi (the large back muscle coming from origin on the 6 lower thoracic and 5 lumbar vertebrae ~ to each side of the body with insertions to the humerus bone of the upper arm just below the shoulder [iii] ).  Several other muscles are Synergists to the movement ~ that is, they assist with producing movement at the shoulder joint.   The scientists therefore measured muscle activity in the latissimus dorsi and also the teres major (said to be latissimus dorsi's “little helper"), the posterior deltoid (to top-rear of the shoulder), pectoralis major (chest) and the long head of the triceps (back of upper arm) ~  for the following four variations of the Lat Pull-down :

¨                       Wide grip, front Pull-down

¨                       Wide grip, rear Pull-down

¨                       Close grip Lat Pull-down

¨                       Underhand, front Pull-down

For each of the Wide grip Pull-downs the hands were spaced approx. one-and-a-half times shoulder-width apart.  For the Underhand, front Pull-down the hands are placed shoulder-width apart. For the Close grip Lat Pull-down the hands are positioned at shoulder, or just wider than shoulder width apart.  The results of the study indicated considerable differences in muscle activity during each of the variations.  Note the Mayo Clinic reservation (ii) regarding taking the hand position too wide, i.e. to the end of the bar ~ where the stresses on the shoulder would be magnified.

The Findings of the University of Miami Study

The Prime Mover

The Wide grip, front Pull-down led to the greatest muscle activity for the latissimus dorsi.

There were no major differences when comparing the Underhand, front Pull-down, the Wide grip, rear Pull-down, and the Close grip Lat- Pull-down.  The key information from their study, therefore, came from comparison of the activity of the synergistic muscles.

The Synergist Muscles

¨       Activity in the pectoralis major was greatest during the Close grip Lat Pull-down, followed by the Underhand front Pull-down, then the Wide grip front Pull-down.  It was interesting that the Wide grip rear Pull-down produced the least muscle activity in the chest.

¨       Muscle activity in the posterior deltoid was greatest during the Close grip Lat Pull-down, followed by the Wide grip front Pull-down and Underhand front Pull-down, which both produced similar levels of muscle activity. There was little activity in the posterior deltoid during the  Wide grip rear Pull-down.

¨       For the teres major, all exercises produced roughly similar levels of muscle activity, although it was greatest during the Wide grip front Pull-down.

¨       The long head of the triceps was most active during the Wide grip front Pull-down, followed by the Wide grip rear Pull-down.  It was least active during the Close grip Lat Pull-down and Underhand front Pull-down.

So, changing your hand position and the type of bar you use makes a big difference to muscle activation during the Lat Pull-down.

Caution

A “warning”, reproduced from Paul Blakey’s Muscle Book (iii) :  damage to the latissimus dorsi muscle can affect shoulder mobility.

Conclusion

I would propose that :

1.        The most effective variation of this exercise generally would be a Wide grip, front Pull-down (but not too wide, as in holding to the end of the bar), with advantages in other muscle groups to be gained from varying to the two other front Pull-down positions occasionally; and

2.        Subject to obtaining a suitable position beneath the Pull-down bar, so that you do not end up leaning back more than a slight lean in order to keep the bar in front of your nose … then I would also agree with the Mayo Clinic favouring the front Pull-down technique on safety grounds.

REFERENCES :

[i]     Sports Medicine Center  at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota : website and page address = http://www.mayoclinic.com/invoke.cfm?id=SM00028&si=1128

EXTRACT :  The latissimus dorsi is a muscle on the outer area of your BACK. The Lat Pull-down works this muscle.

·         Do not bring the bar down behind your neck. This stresses your neck and shoulders and doesn't effectively work the latissimus dorsi.

·         Use a comfortable grip ~ about shoulder-width ~ on the bar. Avoid extremely wide hand positions, such as holding the ends of the bar. These positions can increase stress to your shoulder.

·         Maintain proper back posture while bringing the bar to the front of your chest. Depending on the length of your arms and torso, a slight rearward lean at your hips may be necessary, but avoid leaning too far back during the exercise.

This website includes downloadable video material of correct exercise techniques proposed by the Clinic.

 [ii]     Signorile, J.F., Zink, A.J., & Szwed, S.P. (2002) : Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 16, 539-546 :  A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down.

 [iii]       Blakey, P : The Muscle Book :  second edition revised 1998 and reprinted in 2000 by Bibliotek Books

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