September 22, 2021 9 min read

Have you been looking for an exercise that can really help make your lats pop?

What if we told that there’s an exercise that can really help to build muscle in your back while also helping to improve posture and reduce back pain? Enter the straight arm pulldown.

It’s a perfect isolation back exercise and in this article, we’ll tell you all you need to know from how to perfect your form to the benefits and variations of this exercise.

Muscles Worked During A Straight Arm Pulldown

A straight arm pulldown isolates and works your latissimus dorsi muscles, commonly know as the lats. For those of you who don’t know, this muscle group is commonly referred to as the lats and is found in the middle of your back. They’re wing-shaped muscles and developing these is important to building a good physique, especially for bodybuilders.

Back of a young man with well trained body, triceps, lats and rhomboid muscle

These muscles will be doing most of the work in any exercise or motion that involves pulling. Things like a lat pulldown, pullup, or other exercises like rowing. It’s effectively the largest muscle group that’s in your back and can be worked in a variety of different ways.

The lats are not the only muscle group worked in this exercise though. There are secondary groups of muscles that help with it. These secondary muscles include the triceps, chest, abs, shoulders, and upper back.

These muscles won’t be doing that much work during a straight arm pulldown and are really only there to stabilize the motion of the exercise.

Benefits of the Straight Arm Pulldown

Probably the biggest benefit to this isolation exercise is that it’s a big driver for back gains. Not only will it make your back look larger, but it will also help it to be stronger as well. But what makes this exercise so useful compared to something like a lat pulldown? The answer lies within the range of motion that a straight arm pulldown provides.

Unlike the previously mentioned lat pulldown, the straight arm pulldown provides a greater range of motion. This means that your lats will be under tension longer and will contract fully during each rep. Essentially, you’re creating more metabolic stress for the lats which will, in turn, lead to more muscle gains!

Another big benefit of this back workout is how well it isolates your lats. Unlike exercises such as lat pulldowns or rows where your biceps might help drive the weight too much, this exercise focuses solely on your lats. This is due to the fact that your arms are completely straight during the exercise, so your biceps don’t get engaged beyond stabilizing the weight.

If you’re a lifter who really likes to deadlift, then the straight arm pulldown is an exercise you should definitely include in your exercise routine. While the deadlift is not a lat dominant exercise, the muscle group is absolutely necessary for proper stability and maintaining form during the lift. Therefore, a stronger set of lat muscles will give you that extra strength needed to complete the lift.

Finally, this exercise is perfect for those of you with bad posture. These days, many people find themselves sitting down a lot more. Whether it’s because you work from home or just having a job in an office or similar space, your posture might not be the best these days.

Luckily, this exercise can help with that. The reason being that naturally strengthening your lat muscles activates muscles that you would otherwise not use. Ultimately, your body will straighten itself out and help reduce pain and increase comfort!

How To Do Straight Arm Pulldowns

Now that you’ve seen all of the amazing benefits of the straight arm pulldowns, it’s time to actually do them. Follow these steps to really feel the burn in your lats!

 

Before we start, you should know that you’ll need a cable machine in order to do this exercise properly. 

  1. First, you’ll need to attach a wide-grip bar to your cable machine. Make sure the pulley is positioned at one of the higher points on the cable machine, if not the highest. 
  1. With an overhand grip, grab onto the bar. Take a few steps back to extend your arms over the top of your shoulders. 
  1. Now, lean forward a little bit at the hips. It can help to drive your hips backward just a little bit. Also, keep your knees slightly bent and your feet about shoulder-width apart. 
  1. Now that you're in the starting position, it’s time to do the action. While keeping your arms straight, squeeze your lat and exhale, pulling the bar down, towards your quads. 
  1. Make sure that you’re feeling the activation of the lats as you bring the bar down completely and allow your shoulder blades to move naturally. Also, remember to give your arms a slight bend. You should feel them contract completely by the time the bar reaches the top of your thigh. 
  1. Finally, let the bar back up slowly while keeping your arms straight. Control the weight as it comes back up and once your arms are over your head again, rest for a second before you start your next rep. 

Common Straight Arm Pulldown Mistakes

While the exercise itself is fairly simple, you may find yourself making these mistakes. Remember, without proper form, you could injure yourself or not engage the muscles properly. If you can, look at yourself in a mirror while doing this exercise to make sure that you’re not making any of these common mistakes. 

First of all, many people tend to bend their arms too much while doing this exercise. The whole point of this exercise is to have your arms straightened during the entirety of it, hence the name. If you bend your arms too much during the exercise, you’re essentially robbing yourself of back gains. This is because by bending your arms, you’ll engage the triceps, rather than the lats.

To bounce off of that, you still should be sure that you don’t totally lock out your elbows. This is more to prevent damage to your elbows as it can put unwanted stress on them. On top of that, keeping your elbows locked out will activate your triceps, which is something we want to avoid during this exercise. 

Another mistake people tend to make is that they’ll use their arms too much during the exercise. It is important to remember that your arms are there to stabilize the weight, not to actually pull it. That’s why it’s very important to make sure that you’re engaging your lats, really try to squeeze them, and increase that mind-to-muscle connection!

If you don’t feel this exercise in your lats or you don’t feel them contracting, it’s likely that you’re using your arms too much.Like many exercises, some lifters only perform half-reps. While half-reps can be useful when performing certain lifts or trying to focus on a particular muscle group, that is not the case with this exercise.

By performing a half-rep during a straight arm pulldown, you’re limiting the range of motion of the lats. This in turn won’t allow your lats to contract all the way, and won’t promote the muscle growth you’re looking for. Something that some people might not take into account is engaging core muscles, as well as posture.

Keeping your core muscles tight is an essential part of this exercise. Not only does it stabilize you but it will help to make sure that you don’t arch your back. Additionally, make sure that your neck and head are kept in a neutral position during this exercise to keep your spine totally aligned. 

Straight Arm Pulldown Variations

Sometimes, you may not have access to the right equipment to perform a straight arm lat pulldown. Even worse, it’s possible someone may have swiped your machine while you were off taking a water break! Fear not, as there are variations of this exercise that you can do that will work your muscles in the same way.

1. Rope Straight Arm Pulldowns 

    Did someone steal the last straight bar for your cable machine? Fear not, as a rope for a cable machine can be an excellent substitute. If you’re going to use a rope for this exercise, we highly recommend using a wider grip as this will really help you feel your lats contracting at the bottom of the rep. Additionally, this variation actually allows for better shoulder positioning and a greater range of motion, at the cost of stability. 

      2. Side Straight Arm Pulldowns 

        This is another variation that you don’t need a wide bar for. Instead, you’ll need a single-arm handle. For this variation, you’ll set up the handle in the same that you would the wide bar. The difference here is that you’ll stand with your side facing the cable machine. You’ll follow pretty much the same motion as the normal variation, really pulling with your lats and squeezing them, especially at the bottom of the repetition. 

          3. Straight Arm Dumbbell Pullover 

             

            The straight arm pullover is a variation of the pulldown that can be done with dumbbells, instead of a cable machine. While it is a good substitute for the pulldown, we have to keep in mind that this exercise will actually work the chest muscles and shoulders as well. Therefore, it doesn’t isolate the lats totally, as a pulldown does. Still, it’s a great upper body exercise to do if you are unable to do a pulldown. 

            1. Start off with appropriately weighted dumbbells and a bench or even a yoga mat. Press the dumbbells above your chest and then slowly bring them back until they’re sticking straight out from your head. 
            1. Now, squeeze your lats the same way that you would with pulldown and bring the dumbbells back to the position above your chest. 
            1. Finally, wait a second before repeating the motion for however many reps you need! 

              4. Dumbbell Straight Arm Pulldowns 

                 

                This is another variation that you can do with just dumbbells. We honestly prefer this variation more than the previous one as it does a better job at isolating the lats and doesn’t involve the chest or shoulders like a pullover. That being said, it may put unneeded stress on your lower back. 

                1. Grab your dumbbells in an overhand-style grip. Then stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. 
                1. Next, you’ll want to hinge at your hips and bend over until your torso is about parallel with the ground and let your arms hang down. 
                1. Now, like doing a pulldown, squeeze your lats and pull your arms backwards until they’re a little bit behind your back. Be sure not to overextend as it could hurt your shoulder. 
                1. Now slowly let the dumbbells back into the neutral position and rest a second before going on to the next rep. 

                5. Resistance Band Straight Arm Pulldowns 

                  This exercise is a substitute for the normal variation of this exercise. Here you only need to put a resistance band and wrap it around something about the same height as you’d need with the cable machine. Then, with either end of the resistance band, use the same motion and form as the normal straight arm pulldown. 

                  Straight Arm Pulldown Alternatives

                  Now sometimes things just don’t go your way during a workout, especially if you go to a commercial gym. You might have to go during busy hours and won’t be able to do straight arm pulldowns due to equipment restrictions. Thankfully, there are alternatives to the exercise that can really isolate your back muscles 

                  1. Wide Grip Lat Pulldown

                    Now, this is probably the exercise you already guessed as to the alternative to the straight arm pulldown. But why specifically do we use a wide grip on this exercise? We do this to really isolate the lats and reduce the amount of work that is done by your forearms and biceps. 

                    This exercise really is a no-brainer in terms of why you should use it as an alternative if you can’t do a straight arm pulldown. It’s a staple exercise when it comes to building a  bigger back, like rows. That being said, you should watch how much weight you’re using. Since your arms won’t be doing as much work, you probably won’t be able to use as much weight. 

                    2. Barbell Row


                       

                      This exercise is another staple when it comes to working out your back. You can also do this with dumbbells if a barbell is unavailable. 

                      1. Grab a barbell with an appropriate amount of weight and hold onto it in front of you. Bend over at the hips at a 45-degree angle. 
                      1. Squeeze your lats and pull the bar towards your torso.
                      1. Finally, slowly lower the bar down back to the neutral position, rest for a second, and then begin another rep. 

                      Closing Thoughts

                      The straight arm pulldown is one of the best, if not the best, exercises for building strong and defined lat muscles. The exercise isolates the lats and makes sure that other muscles aren’t incorporated in it, except for stability’s sake.

                      It also has a lot of benefits, such as helping with back pain and posture due to muscle-building effectiveness. It is definitely an exercise you should include in your back day arsenal.


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