Wide for wide, in for in, in for out, out for in—we’ve heard all the catch phrases for where to hold the bar on a lat pull-down. But do a few inches in or out really make a difference? The latissimus doris (LD) primarily works to create two major actions on the arm. It works in adduction (pulling the arms to the sides of the body) and extension (pulling the arms down from a horizontal position past the torso; 2). Muscles contract in the same fashion, fibers become shorter, and this creates movement. If muscles all contract the same, why does a changing in hand position on pull-downs and pull-ups feel vastly different?
The Department of Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University took on the challenge of answering this question. They looked at electromyographic (EMG) action of the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, and middle trapezius under varying hand positions on the lat pull-down to determine which created the greatest amount of muscular activity in each of the muscle groups.
It’s all in the grip
Much of the way lat pull-downs are performed is based on personal belief and experience. Though the lat has a few anatomical variations from person to person, it still ultimately performs the same two major actions for everyone. With the movement, the bar path will go in one of two directions. The bar can be pulled in front of the head or behind it (or you can rock back like your dodging an undercut (not the optimal method) for a few). Any pull-down movement performed behind the head can narrow and impinge the tendons that run through the subacromial space and lead to pain or even tendentious in the glenohumeral joint if it is done repetitively (2). There is an endless number of ways to perform the movement. But which one is the best for muscular development and shoulder health?
Penn State took twenty regularly active men and had them perform wide over-handed, wide under-handed, narrow over-handed, and narrow under-handed gripped pull-downs (3). Due to negative effects of behind the neck pull-downs, all pull-down styles where performed in front of the head. In efforts to see how hard each muscle was working, EMG electrodes were placed parallel to the muscle fibers’ anatomical orientation on the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, and middle trapezius. Then the men performed each style of pull at 70 percent of their one rep max. After all results were analyzed, it was found that wide grip over-handed lat pull-downs had elicited greater muscular activity of the latissimus dorsi than either wide or narrow under-handed pulls. Results also displayed that there wasn’t any significant difference in wide or narrow gripped over-handed pull-downs. Further, EMG results from the middle trapezius and biceps brachii muscular activity failed to show any difference between any styles of the pull-down (3). What does this all boil down to? If you’re targeting specific lat strength, grip the bar over-handed. It doesn’t matter whether it’s wide or narrow. Just make sure that it’s over-handed in terms of muscular activity.
Over-handed lat pull-downs and pull-ups reign as champion. This is purely an anatomical reason when the movement is broken down. When the forearm is placed in an over-hand (pronated) position, it places the shoulder in a mechanically disadvantaged state (1). This causes the lats to perform a greater amount of work compared to an under-handed pull. Many may think that this is due to the biceps compensating and taking over in the under-hand pull-down, but this isn’t so. The EMG results from the study cancel out this idea. Biceps brachii showed similar activity in all four styles. The real reason is linked to the fact that when you hold a bar in an over-hand position and look out at your elbows, they are positioned more to the side of your body than in an under-handed position. When the elbows are out, the shoulder joint has to travel in a greater range of motion to complete the pull-down, which explains why the lats were activated to a greater degree when held with an over-hand grip (1). Optimizing this fact in your training can be done with a rotator bar, which forces you to move your elbows even further out to your sides. Over-handed pulls reign supreme, and the debate is finally settled. Wide or narrow is of no matter. Just hold the bar over-hand, right? This is true with one slight limitation. The latissimus dorsi’s anatomical structure is generally the same on everyone, but the joint that it directly influences has a few more considerations to note before you grip the bar and start spreading those lats.
Shoulder joint limitations
The shoulder is a highly mobile joint. It needs to be strengthened to produce force yet mobile enough to move through a full range of motion. Over-handed grip pull-downs and pull-ups are great for developing the lats, but they will also place the shoulder into a externally rotated state, which can be a problem for people suffering from rotator cuff tears, tendentious, or even frozen shoulder in extreme cases (2).
When pain is present in the shoulder, proper movement should be a greater concern over which movement is going to give you the biggest bang for your time spent in the gym. Under-hand gripped pulls are great for keeping the shoulder in a more neutral non-rotated position, but there are better choices. Neutral grip pulls with bars such as the Swiss multi-grip cable bar, the fat grip double D handles, and the fat grip neutral lat pull-down bars are better choices for two reasons. The neutral hand position will place a greater amount of work on to the lats without compromising the position of the shoulder joint. It also disperses the load over the entire hand, which helps maintain forearm and elbow health in the lower arm. A neutral grip will be the most beneficial choice with the presence of shoulder pain. Once the pain or issue is relieved, it’s time to rotate that grip around and get the most out of your pull-ups or pull-downs.
The debate over the best method to perform the lat pull-down has lingered for years in the minds of self-proclaimed gym gurus and professionals alike. We can all now sleep better at night knowing that the debate has finally been settled. Wide or narrow doesn’t matter. Just make sure that you can see the back of your hands when you do your pulls. This will ensure optimal lat development. But we aren’t all created equal. Limitations to training arise with injuries, and modifications need to be made to ensure that movements can be performed safely. If the shoulder joint is limited in movement—be it flexion, abduction, or external rotation—switching to a neutral grip is the best approach. Removing external rotation from the pull-down will allow you to continue working when pain limits optimal movement. Lat pull-downs are a wonderful exercise when working up a client or yourself to a full pull-up. Make sure to select your grip appropriately based on shoulder health and then unleash the potential packed in your back.
Antinori F, Felici F, Figura F, Marchetti M, Ricci B (1988) Joint moments and work in pull-ups. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 28: 132–37.
Crate T (1996) Analysis of the lat pull down. J Strength Cond Res19: 26–9.
Lusk S, Hale B, Russell D (2010) Grip Width and Forearm orientation Effects on Muscle Activity During the Lat Pull-Down. J Strength and Conditioning Research 24:1895–1900.