I never thought I'd write an article endorsing lat pulldowns. In my previous writings I've always championed chin-ups and pull-ups as far superior to the lowly lat pulldown.
But things change, or more to the point, things evolve. New research becomes available, we question what we've been doing, try new things, and provided we're not saddled with the debilitating need to be right about everything, we change our thinking. And Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning changes.
Today, if you were to ask me what to do for upper body pulling I'd say bodyweight rows on the TRX or rings (see the video below), followed by one of the variations of the lat pulldown you're about to see.
Think of the TRX or ring rows as the heavy horizontal pulling exercise and the lat pullowns as the lighter vertical pull. As a matter of fact, from here on I'll just call them pulldowns because they work a lot more than just the lats.
Pulldowns work the lats, the lower and middle trapezius, the rhomboids, and the serratus, including other muscles. And by the way, please do not ever call them "lateral pulldowns." I laugh when I see this. Lat is short for latissimus (as in latissimus dorsi), not lateral (as in to the side).
So why the change of heart? Quite simply, we've found that most people aren't able to do vertical pulls like chin-ups or pull-ups well. As much as I like them for elite athletes, I admit I've been guilty of trying to jam a square peg into a round hole.
As our client base moved from primarily athletes to a mix of athletes and "normal" adults, our thought process had to change. The reality was that the majority of our current clients were a long way from pull-ups and chin-ups. Furthermore, older clients or those with shoulder issues have trouble with bodyweight vertical pulls like pull-ups.
An exercise like the TRX or Ring Row is far more scalable (see video below) than the pull-up.
Sure, with the pull-up we can use bands, isometrics, and eccentrics; but can we do these things well?
What we see in our facility are people overusing their upper traps and biceps in vertical pulling exercises like chin-ups and pull-ups. Yet I don't see this nearly as much in the TRX row or in rows with rings.
In the TRX or ring row, I see a fully scalable exercise that I can progress or regress to my needs, something far more difficult to do well with a pull-up or chin-up.
Now we can use the bodyweight row as the primary exercise and complement it with versions of the pulldown. In this way, we get the best of both worlds.
Another reason I like pulldowns again is the invention of the Functional Trainer. No, not the guy in the headband doing curls while standing on the Bosu, the machine with the two arms.
Why did we used to do all our pulldowns with both hands on a fixed handle? Because everyone else did and we really had no other choice. For years, the lat bar or the V-handle determined how the shoulder would work in the pulldown exercise.
Finally, companies like FreeMotion and Keiser developed units they call Functional Trainers with two independent arms and two independent handles. And with that, a whole new group of shoulder-friendly exercises was born.
We could now use both arms at the same time, but separately. The functional trainer became like a dumbbell for the shoulder in pulling exercises. Now we could select the best hand position for us, instead ofhaving the hand position selected for us.
How many lifters do you know with shoulder problems? One of the primary causes of shoulder problems is the constant rubbing of the rotator cuff tendons under the acromial arch. The rubbing leads to attrition of the rotator cuff tendon, much like pulling a rope back and forth across a rock. If you pull with a fixed bar, you rub the same portion of the tendon under the acromion every time.
Now grab the handles of a Functional Trainer. What most people will do is try to mimic the position of the straight bar. This is just dumb! Take a look at the exercise below.
This an X-pulldown and it's the ultimate shoulder-friendly exercise. Our instructions are clear: start thumb-down (internally rotated at the shoulder), finish thumb-up. (externally rotated at the shoulder).
By moving from a thumb-down position to a thumb-up position, I've added external rotation to the pulldown – so I've made it into a very joint-friendly spiral, while adding a little rotator cuff twist. This exercise just went from zero to hero in my book.
Another big teaching point comes courtesy of my friend Michol Dalcourt. While performing the movement, push your chest toward the machine. You just retracted the scapulae, but you didn't need the old school cue, "pinch the shoulder blades."
Michol made a great point years ago in a seminar: you can't push your chest forward and shrug your shoulders simultaneously. Pushing the chest forward is retraction, while shrugging is elevation. So if you want to eliminate shrugging at the top of the pulldown, cue chest to bar, not bar to chest.
Another great point Michol made is that there are no muscles that move the chest forward, only muscles that move the shoulders back. However, the result of the two cues (shoulders back versus chest forward) can be totally different. Try it – it works every time.
To add a shoulder stability component, try alternating X-pulldowns (see video below).
By holding the arm in the down position I can get more low trap and rhomboid (think W from your Y-T-W series), while the opposite side gets into retraction, depression, extension, horizontal adduction, and external rotation. Talk about bang for the buck! With this, we can now combine a scapula stability exercise with our vertical pulls.
For a little variety, try alternating without the crossed grip.
With these three exercises we now have plenty of great shoulder-friendly exercises for all our athletes and clients.
Does this mean we don't use pull-ups or chin-ups anymore? Hardly. What is does mean is that we use the right exercise with the right client. If I have young athletes capable of doing pull-ups and chin-ups you can bet they'll do them.
If I have older clients with neck and cervical issues or younger clients with strength issues, you'll see the bodyweight row or the pulldown combo.
Either way, it's time to stop hating on the pulldown. Give these exercises a shot – your shoulders and your clients will thank you.