Due to their prominence, well-developed back muscles have been described as wings. Want wing-like back muscles? On the short list of things that allegedly “give you wings” are energy drinks, good deeds, and upper body vertical pulling.
After consuming energy drinks throughout my younger years, I can dispatch the first claim. Alertness and insomnia? Yes. Back muscles? No. As for good deeds, this is a fitness article so it shall be kept secular. That leaves vertical pulling — pull-ups and pulldowns.
Although pull-ups can be modified for nearly everyone, nothing beats the adjustability and convenience of cable-stack pulldowns. But the traditional overhand grip isn’t for everyone, especially those with shoulder issues. (1)(2)(3)
The neutral-grip lat pulldown is a shoulder- and elbow-friendly alternative to standard lat pulldowns. Find out how to perform, program, and modify this big back builder.
Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown Technique Breakdown
Dr. Merrick Lincoln demonstrates how to do a neutral-grip pulldown and talks you through a complete repetition. Check to see what form looks like before reading on for the details.
As opposed to using a straight or cambered “lat bar,” the neutral-grip pulldown requires use of a bar with grips running perpendicular to the length of the bar. This allows you to keep your forearms in a “neutral” rotation, with your palms facing each other, halfway between full supination (palms facing toward you) and full pronation (palms facing away from you).
Step 1 — Establish Points of Contact
Face a cable machine with your glutes on the seat, both feet flat on the floor, and your upper legs under the thigh pad. If necessary, adjust the height of the thigh pad or seat for secure fit.
Form Tip: When setting the height of the thigh pad or seat, ensure your feet are flat on the floor with your heels slightly behind your knees. This enables you to easily slide your feet back to stand when it’s time to retrieve or return the pulldown bar.
Step 2 — Grab the Bar and Set Your Trunk Angle
Grab the handles with a shoulder-width, or slightly narrower, position. If the bar has traditional cylinder-shaped grips, use a fully closed grip with your fingers and thumb wrapped around the bar. If the bar has more modern paddle-style or angled grips, ensure the palms of your hands make maximum contact with the paddles. With this handle, the knuckles of your fingers should be flexed over the top of the handle.
Once your grip is secure, lift your chest, lean back slightly (e.g. 10 to 30-degrees from vertical), and brace your core. Maintain this trunk position throughout the exercise. In the stretched position, your elbows should be locked completely straight.
Form Tip: If you have range of motion limitations in the overhead position, you may benefit from leaning back slightly further (e.g. approximately 30-degrees from vertical). This changes the pulling angle and reduces stress on your shoulder joints.
Step 3 — Pull Down to Peak Contraction
Initiate the movement by drawing your shoulder blades together and down, and “pull your shoulder blades into your back pockets.”
Immediately after beginning to move your shoulder blades, begin pulling your elbows toward the sides of your ribcage. Peak contraction is achieved when your shoulder blades are squeezed together and down, and your upper arms are pinned to your sides.
Form Tip: Don’t worry about getting the bar to your chest, below your chin, or to some other arbitrary position. Focus on achieving a strong contraction in your back muscles when you reach the bottom position.
Step 4 — Return and Seek Stretch
Lower the weight and allow your arms to be drawn upward, slowly letting your elbows extend. At the same time, allow your shoulder blades to be elevated. The upward movement phase ends when elbows are completely straight and a strong sensation of stretch is felt across the outside of your armpits — that feeling is your lat muscles being properly stretched.
Form Tip: As your arms are drawn overhead and your latissimus dorsi are stretched, your low back might tend to arch. Avoid this by keeping your abdominal muscles engaged to maintain a neutral torso.
Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown Mistakes to Avoid
Common errors in the neutral-grip pulldown occur when range of motion goes unchecked, when compensations are permitted, and when your arms “out-muscle” your back.
Excessive Range of Motion
The uninitiated often assume the pulldown is not complete until the bar touches their chest. This is erroneous. Hyperextension of your shoulder places additional stress on the front of the shoulder. (4)(5) This is not typically good for folks with anterior shoulder instability, a prevalent issue among lifters. (4) Also, consider the physics of hyperextending the shoulders at the bottom of the pulldown — Demand on the shoulder muscles actually decreases due to a shortened resistance lever.
Still convinced touching the bar to your chest is “necessary?” Watch a handful of folks with barndoor backs perform neutral-grip pulldowns. They don’t touch the bar to their chest — Albeit, they likely couldn’t if they wanted to due to the size of their latissimus dorsi and teres major muscles.
Avoid it: A good rule of thumb for pulldown range of motion is to pull down and back until your triceps squeeze against your lats. Achieve a strong contraction, then begin the upward movement.
Slouching Into the Repetition
The sticking point, or most challenging part of the repetition, occurs near the bottom of the downward pulling phase. Novice lifters often work through this portion of the lift by rounding their shoulders forward and flexing their mid-back. This gives the appearance of “crunching” or slouching at the bottom of the repetition.
Avoid it: As you pull, keep focus on your back muscles by reminding yourself to create space between the front of your shoulder and the cable pulley.
“Curling” the Weight Down
While it’s true the neutral-grip pulldown can be a great biceps-builder, it is not intended to be an arms-focused exercise. Lifters who initiate the pulldown with elbow flexion and “muscle” the bar down with their elbow flexors are missing out on back gains.
Avoid it: Performed properly, upper body vertical pulling exercises (i.e. pull-ups and pulldowns) are initiated by back muscles, specifically your lower trapezius and latissimus dorsi. (8) These muscles should activate a split-second before your biceps. Ensure this sequence by downwardly rotating and depressing your shoulder blades to begin each rep or “pull your shoulder blades into your back pockets.”
How to Progress the Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
To learn the neutral-grip pulldown, start with light weight. Over time, progress the exercise by adding weight and/or repetitions. Incorporating strategic pauses may also be useful for dialing-in proper form and building strength.
Start Light, Add Weight and Reps
Once proper form is dialed in, progress the pulldown by adding weight. The amount of weight you add should be related to your primary training goal. A weight that allows four to six good repetitions is an effective target when you’re prioritizing strength. A wide range of weights can be effective for hypertrophy, so pick a weight that allows a repetition target you prefer (e.g. eight to 12 repetitions, 12 to 16 repetitions, or 16 to 20 repetitions).
Once you’ve established your working weight, you will need to add weight or repetitions over time to ensure you are progressively overloading your muscles. A simple strategy is to add repetitions, then add weight once you’ve exceeded the top end of your target repetition range. For example, if you/re aiming for eight to 12 repetitions per set, start by identifying a weight that allows you to perform approximately eight repetitions.
In a week or two, you’ll likely be hitting nine or 10 repetitions with the same weight. Eventually, you’ll reach 13 repetitions, which is the signal to add weight. Note: If you have a bit more training experience, gains sometimes come more slowly and you might consider the occasional deload to ensure ongoing progress.
Near the bottom position of a pulldown, when your elbows are bent and just in front of your chest, the resistance at the shoulder is amplified by the length of the humerus (upper arm bone). This is the sticking point, or portion of the exercise where muscular failure or form breakdown is most likely to occur. It’s also the perfect position for adding an isometric hold or “iso-holds.” This is an intensification technique used to prolong time under tension and improve strength at targeted positions.
To add an iso-hold, simply stop at the most challenging portion of the pulldown. Hold for four to six seconds, and then complete the repetition. Iso-holds can be performed on the final repetition to maximize set performance or incorporated on every repetition. Keep in mind, you will likely need to lower the weight or repetition target if you intend to use iso-holds on every rep.
Benefits of the Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
Sure, there are a lot of back exercises you could do at the gym, so why focus on this pulldown variations? With good effort and decent programming, lifters can build respectable size and strength with the neutral-grip pulldown due to the setup, range of motion, and user-friendliness.
Works Back Muscles Through a Full Range of Motion
During pulldowns, shoulders reach the overhead position at the top of every repetition. This exposes the target muscles to substantial stretch and load. This mechanical tension is a key driver of muscle growth. (6) Unlike rows, for example, which only train the muscles through a relatively partial range of motion, pulldowns reach maximum or near-maximum stretch on the target muscles.
Full range of motion training may result in more muscle gain over time. (7) As a bonus, full range of motion training is likely to improve flexibility as effectively, or even more effectively, than stretching. (9)
An Alternative for Banged Up Shoulders and Elbows
Although traumatic injuries among resistance trainees are somewhat uncommon, a large percentage of lifters complain of painful shoulders and elbows. (4)(10) The lion’s share of these issues can often be attributed to overuse or training errors.
Forearm position during exercise affects the stress and strain experienced by joint structures, connective tissues, and muscles around the elbow. (11) Structures around the shoulders experience different patterns of stress based on your arm path. For example, the “high five” position of abduction and external rotation passed through during traditional lat pulldowns is associated with increased stress the front of the shoulder. (4)(1)(3) Temporarily avoiding this position may be indicated in the presence of certain shoulder injuries.
It may be prudent for lifters to incorporate neutral-grip variations to reduce the risk of overuse. Periodically switching out pull-ups or traditional lat pulldowns for a slightly different vertical pulling exercises, such as neutral-grip pulldowns may help to ward off overuse-type injuries.
Lifters already contending with overuse injuries related to upper body pulling may wish to experiment with variations such as the neutral-grip pullover to determine whether it’s better tolerated than previous exercises.
Allows Easy Use of Advanced Training Techniques
Advanced training techniques can include methods used to take sets past failure (e.g. forced reps, drop sets, rest-pause), delay failure (e.g. cluster sets), or increase time under tension by imposing a tempo (e.g. lowering the weight very slowly with six-second eccentrics). (12) The neutral-grip pulldown is typically performed on a stable and safe machine that allows for efficient use of these techniques.
The pulldown machine enables quick manipulation of weight — Just move the pin or slide plates on or off. This allows for efficient performance of drop sets. The machine is also self-contained and “self-spotting.” If muscular failure is reached, there is very little chance of getting pinned under weight. Just stand up and control the pulldown bar back to the top position.
Similarly, if the lifter wishes to take rest within a given set (i.e. cluster set training), the machine allows for quick stops and starts. Finally, the seated position on the machine allows for a training partner to safely and efficiently assist the lifter to perform additional reps. Advanced training techniques are far from easy, but the pulldown setup makes them about as efficient as they can be.
Muscles Worked by Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
The neutral-grip pulldown hammers muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms. (3)(13)(14) The pulldown is a relatively fundamental movement because it recruits a number of upper body muscles and works them through a significant range of motion.
Shoulder Extensors — Lats, Upper Back, Deltoids
The neutral-grip pulldown targets the muscles that extend the shoulders or draw the arms from in front of the body toward the back of the body. They primarily include the latissimus dorsi, teres major, rear deltoids, and the long head (or innermost portion) of the triceps brachii. Interestingly, the lower part of the pectoralis major (“costal fibers” of the chest) contribute to the pulldown as well. (14)
Collectively, the shoulder extensors have the potential to be highly aesthetic muscles. Well-developed latissimus dorsi gives the back breadth, while teres major and rear deltoid enhance shoulder dimensions. And if any gap remains between the arms and upper sweep of the lats, building the long head of triceps brachii will appear to fill it in. “Wings” achieved.
Sometimes called “scapular muscles,” the muscles of the mid-back act on your shoulder blades. No big back is complete without the visual interest and depth of well-developed scapular muscles.
While these muscles may not be the primary target of the pulldown, they will receive a training effect. During the pulldown, the rhomboids, lower trapezius, and middle trapezius rotate the shoulder blades downward, pull them together, and draw them toward the small of your back.
Curls aren’t the only way to build big biceps. Drawing resistance toward the body trains the muscles of elbow flexion (bending your arms) — Specifically, your biceps brachii, brachioradialis, and brachialis. Functional importance notwithstanding, these muscles give your arms a more muscular, anaconda-like appearance.
How to Program the Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown
Neutral-grip pulldowns can fit nicely into most lifters’ programs in a full body workout, back day, or pulling session. Whether your major training goal is strength or muscle gain, an overarching recommendation is to perform neutral-grip pulldowns earlier in the workout to maximize adaptations.
As a Primary Exercise for Strength
The neutral-grip lat pulldown is long range-of-motion, multi-joint exercise that allows incremental loading. These features make it ideal for use as a primary exercise in your “back day” or “pull day” routine. Primary exercises, sometimes termed “core exercises” in some circles, are typically placed earlier in the workout before any “accessory exercises,” which are typically single-joint exercises or rehab/prehab work.
This exercise order is preferred, because multi-joint exercise performance tends to suffer when performed after isolation exercise. (15) Moreover, exercises performed earlier in the workout tend to stimulate greater improvement in strength. (16)
To prioritize back strength, hit two to five sets of four to six repetitions using 85% or greater of your one-repetition maximum (1RM), ideally early in your workout. (17)
As High-Volume Hypertrophy Work
If your training focus is building a big back, address neutral-grip pulldowns toward the beginning of your workout. Due to heavy involvement of the biceps brachii and other elbow flexors, it is best practice to perform pulldowns before curls or other direct biceps exercises.
Some research has shown that as few as three sets of barbell curls performed before pulldowns can decrease back-training performance by three to five repetitions. (13) Lost repetitions does not bode well for optimal muscle gain, as hypertrophy is positively related to exercise volume (i.e. total weekly sets x reps). (18) Maximize pulldown volume by performing this exercise early in the workout.
For building bigger back and biceps, perform three to six sets of eight to 20 repetitions using a weight that brings each set within three or fewer repetitions of failure.
Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown Variations
On your back-building quest, there are many variations of the neutral-grip pulldown to help move you forward. Select the most appropriate variation based on personal preference, equipment availability, and goals.
No pulldown machine? Prefer pull-ups over pulldowns?— Swap neutral-grip pulldowns for pull-ups. If multiple neutral-grip widths are available, start with the ones closest to shoulder-width or slightly narrower.
Despite the fact your bodyweight provides the resistance, the mechanics of the neutral-grip pul-up are similar to the neutral-grip pulldown. Start from a dead-hang, initiate from your shoulder blades, and pull your elbows down to your sides.
V-Bar Lat Pulldown
Using a narrow v-bar or “chinning triangle” attachment results in a tighter arm path and hits your back and arms differently. Neutral-grip pulldowns with the v-bar appear to rely more heavily on the biceps brachii than shoulder-width and wide neutral-grip variations. (13) So the v-bar pulldown is a great option for those prioritizing strong, thick arms.
The v-bar pulldown is performed much like the neutral-grip pulldown except the lifter should focus on squeezing the elbows and forearms together throughout the exercise. Elbows should graze your ribcage below your pecs as you approach the bottom position of the exercise.
Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Lat Pulldown
Single-arm lat pulldowns are wonderful for feeling the stretch and contraction of your latissimus dorsi and other shoulder extensor muscles through a large arc and long range of motion. Because each arm is worked individually, they can also help to address any possible side-to-side strength asymmetries.
The half-kneeling single-arm lat pulldown is the next level of single-arm pulling. The “half-kneeling” position (i.e. one knee down) provides a large, stable footprint for the addition of subtle trunk movements. These trunk movements allow more stretch at the top followed by a stronger peak contraction at the bottom of each rep. The former may enhance “stretch-mediated” muscle growth, while the squeeze at the bottom promotes mind-muscle connection and increased latissimus dorsi activity. (6)(19)
Face the cable stack and kneel with the working side knee down. Allow your shoulder blade to be pulled up for a full stretch through your lat. Side-bend your trunk slightly away from your working arm. Pull by drawing your shoulder blade and elbow down and in. Achieve peak contraction by aggressively pulling your arm to your ribcage and side-bending slightly toward the working side. Focus on feeling your lats “cramp” at the bottom of each rep.
Swiss Bar Pullover
The pullover is a phenomenal exercise for the shoulder extensor muscles — Latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, part of your pectoralis major, etc. Although commonly done with a both hands on a single dumbbell, the pullover may also be performed using a neutral-grip implement such as a Swiss bar, a multi-grip barbell, or triceps bar.
The Swiss bar may enable those with less-than-ideal range of motion (i.e. limited forearm pronation or shoulder external rotation) to reap the benefits of pullovers – Namely, heavy loading overhead when the target muscles are at their longest lengths, which may enhance growth.(6)(20)(21) Just be sure to have an attentive spotter due to free weights passing over your head and face during the movement.
It is common to use lifting straps during pulling exercises such as deadlifts and barbell rows. Lifting straps may increase the amount of weight a lifter can handle, prolong the set by minimizing grip fatigue, and spare your grip for subsequent exercises.
While it is possible to use straps for neutral-grip pulldowns, it is typically not necessary. The neutral-grip position tends to stronger than a pronated (overhand) grip, though not as strong as supinated (underhand) grip. (22) Moreover, trained lifters have demonstrated no beneficial effects of lifting straps on pulldown one-repetition maximum, repetitions to failure, or total repetitions across three sets to failure. (23) That being said, if you train deadlifts during a back workout, there might be benefits to using straps to preserve your grip if you’re performing heavier pulls later in the workout.
Compared to other pulldown variations, the neutral-grip pulldown may bias certain shoulder muscles and even certain parts of the lats.
While some neuromuscular strategies may differ due to grip orientation, more notable differences can be attributed to differences in grip width. The lat pulldown traditionally uses a relatively wide grip, which results in resisted shoulder adduction (i.e. pulling your arms down and into the sides of your body). (24) neutral-grip pulldown typically uses a shoulder-width or slightly narrower grip. This grip width results in resisted shoulder extension (i.e. pulling your arms toward the back of your body).
The most reliable method of determining a muscle’s action is to analyze its moment arm (how a muscle crosses the joint and how much leverage it has over the joint). For example, muscles crossing behind the shoulder will extend the shoulder when they shorten. Shoulder extensors with a larger moment arm extend the shoulder more efficiently.
Since the posterior deltoids and teres major have the greatest moment arms for shoulder extension through much of the pulldown’s range motion, it could be inferred that the neutral-grip pulldown will emphasize these muscles. (14)
The latissimus dorsi is a broad, multi-part muscle with fibers originating on the pelvis (“iliac part”), lumbar region (“lumbar part”), and lower thoracic spine (“thoracic part”). Certain parts are mechanically better suited to adduct the shoulder (i.e. iliac- and lumbar parts), whereas the upper portion of latissimus dorsi (i.e. thoracic part) is a strong shoulder extensor. (14)
Putting that all together, from a mechanical standpoint, traditional lat pulldowns may best target the iliac and lumbar parts of the latissimus dorsi (“lower lats”), while neutral-grip pulldowns may better target the thoracic part of latissimus dorsi (“upper lats”), teres major, and posterior deltoid.
Ultimately, more research is needed. To cover your bases for complete back development, incorporate both pulldown variations into your training plan.
First, let’s examine how these rotating handles are often used. The handles are commonly held in the pronated (“overhand grip”) position at the top of the pulldown then gradually twisted into the supinated (“underhand grip”) position at the bottom of the repetition.
Another option is to maintain the same grip and forearm position throughout the pulldown. You could hold the rotating handles in a neutral position (or any other position) throughout the repetition; however, this option introduces an additional degree of freedom (read: “instability”) and may result in reduced maximum weight or repetition performance.
The rotating method feels very natural for some lifters. Anecdotally, twisting the handle throughout the repetition promotes shoulder external rotation during the pulldown. This might be useful for keeping tension on primary muscles like latissimus dorsi and teres major.
Objective research on rotating handles is sparse, however. Some research has reported pull-ups performed with rotating handles increased latissimus dorsi muscle electromyography (EMG) activity, albeit not to a level reaching statistical significance. (8) But interpret these findings with caution. It must be stated that muscle activity via surface EMG is not an indicator of the quality of an exercise and it does not necessarily mean rotating handles promote better lat growth or strength. (25)(26)
Ultimately, if rotating handles feel more natural or more comfortable to you, go ahead and use them instead of a rigid pulldown bar.
Earn Your Wings
The neutral-grip lat pulldown builds a wide back and thick arms to boot. When performed with a shoulder-width or slightly narrower grip, it tends to be a joint-friendly exercise for your lats, upper back, mid-back, and biceps. Altogether, neutral-grip lat pulldowns may be among the best options for building a set of wings when your shoulders have other plans.
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