There’s one stellar piece of equipment in almost every gym, hotel, or community center that you don’t want to miss, and that is the lat pull-down machine. Often overlooked or misused, the lat pull-down—used correctly—can make your back stronger, build arm and shoulder strength, improve posture and stabilize the spine.
The latissimus dorsi, commonly known as “lats,” is the large muscle that extends across your back, shaped like a triangle: wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. Marvel at the wide shoulders of Tokyo 2021 Olympic champions Lydia Jacoby and Caelib Dressel, and you’ll know why they are sometimes called the swimmer’s muscle.
The lats attach to the spine and pelvis and insert into the top of the arm. The lats work together with the pectoral muscles to control the movement of the arms, as they swing forward when walking, running, throwing or swimming.
The strength and structure of the lats allow you to pull or reach: casting a fishing line, pulling a rope, hoisting the body on parallel bars or placing a big vase on a top shelf.
Additionally, the broad lat muscles depress the shoulder girdle, and stabilize the lower thoracic and low back, important pillars of good posture. If you always slouch, the lats can become chronically shortened, limiting arm and shoulder movement. Typically, this results in internally rotated arms, evident when the thumbs are turned inward, rather than facing forward, when your arms are by your sides. No wonder you were always told to keep your shoulders back!
Traditional pull-ups, chin-ups, and bent-over rows are all great back exercises, but don’t miss out on a highly effective tool, the lat pull-down machine.
- Once you check your seat height, grasp the bar with both hands, shoulder-width apart.
- Slowly sit back down and keep your feet on the floor.
- Brace the core and lean back slightly as you pull the bar to chest level, contracting your shoulder blades down.
- Keep your chest up, neck in a neutral position, and pull your elbows towards the floor.
- Lifting up off the seat because the weight’s too heavy. Unless you are a power lifter, needing that extra effort, a good rule of thumb is that the limbs should never be stronger than the core.
- Not bringing the elbows down far enough, missing out on hitting the entire back musculature.
- Returning the bar too quickly, and not maintaining shoulder and lat contraction. The lengthening phase of an exercise, called eccentric, is where you can gain strength. Make sure you keep tension on the bar going all the way back up until your arms are fully lengthened.
- Pulling the bar behind your neck. Jutting your head forward to pull the bar behind your head can be damaging to the anterior capsule of the glenohumeral joint. Along with wearing your shoulders out, excessive stress is placed on the cervical spine. In addition, pulling the bar down to the base of your neck can cause muscular tightness in several large neck muscles. The levator scapulae, for example, assists in extension of the neck, and heavy loads places strain on this important neck muscle. Equally important, protruding the head forward is a common musculoskeletal imbalance, as it promotes forward head posture. Instead, practice good body mechanics with a neutral cervical spine posture.