Vertical Pulling for the Horizontally Challenged – Part 1

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Vertical pulling has a long history in the muscle-building world. It is somewhat checkered by modern paradigms. While a wide back has always been envied by all, the road to achieve it is the subject of many speculations. Should you do lat pulldowns or should you not do lat pulldowns? Are pull-ups only for athletes, or can bodybuilders benefit from them?

The Back Width Conundrum

The development of the latissimus dorsi muscles are largely responsible for the “width” of the back. Thus, bodybuilders and weekend warriors alike have tried different exercises to target this elusive muscle and gain their “wings”. Arthur Jones, a controversial bodybuilding guru of the 70’s designed a machine many still consider to be the best pullover machine to date. It helped boost the success of his Nautilus brand of gym equipment.

Jones’ opinion was that lat development lagged because of the strength of the arms. The design of this machine takes them almost entirely out of the equation. The concept was to have the trainee push down on a padded bar with his elbows instead of pulling down a bar held in his hands. The concept was sound, and soon thousands of Nautilus pullover machines were produced. Jones certainly seemed to like big lats, as he spent a lot of time designing machines to train them. He even came up with a combo pullover/lat pulldown machine so you could train both movements with as little rest as possible. Those who are well-versed in the history of the iron games know that this is because Arthur Jones signature method of muscle-building was the pre-fatigue method.

The Horizontal Challenge

The wide back, aka “horizontal challenge”, was on its way to being solved. Then, with the rise of exercise kinesiology, scientists started to question the efficacy and safety of certain movements. The first one to be targeted was the infamous behind the neck lat pulldown. Then bodybuilders started questioning the lat pulldown altogether. Strength athletes have poo-pooed it as well, comparing it to a watered-down chin-up.

But chin-ups and pull-ups suffered as well. The 80’s saw the rise of mass monsters on the bodybuilding scene. While some were quite strong, such as Ronnie Coleman, others had a lack of relative strength. So relative strength-focused exercises such as the chin-up & pull-up fell out of favor. Add in the mirror training effect and a general lack of enthusiasm for back training and chin-ups became a rarity in gyms.

And yet, if you understand anatomy a little bit, you know why they are rightfully called “the upper body squat.”

The  Lats under scrutiny

Vertical pulling of all types recruit the latissimus dorsi. Those with a traction component, such as lat pulldowns and chin-ups, also recruit the elbow flexors.

The latissimus dorsi muscles have many functions:

  • extend the arm (bringing it down and back)
  • adducts the arm (bringing it closer to the midline of the body)
  • internally rotates the humerus (the upper arm bone)
  • depresses the scapula
  • provides active tension on the thoracolumbar fascia
vertical pulling
The latissimus dorsi muscle

 

The muscle originates on the posterior third of the iliac crest, to the thoracolumbar fascia and on the spinous process of T7 to L5. At its origin, it looks a like a flat slab of muscle fibers. Those fibers converge to form a thick wire that attaches on the bicipital groove of the humerus. It is this part that can hypertrophy and give the impression of back width.

As is well-known, choosing the right parents is the key to bodybuilding success, and lats are no different. If they attach on a larger portion of the iliac crest, they will give an impression of going down the back at an upright angle. This is often referred to as “attaching low” on the back. On the contrary, if the lats attach on a small portion of the iliac crest or just on the thoracolumbar fascia, the angle will be much steeper. This origin can dramatically change the hypertrophy potential of your lats and your performance in the various vertical pulling motions.

Keeping things in motion

As you can see, the latissimus dorsi is one of the major muscles in the human body. It is in charge of many complex motions and sports actions. In gymnastics, it allows the various movements on the rings, uneven bar, and horizontal bar. From the swimming stroke to the karate chop, the latissimus is involved in all the downward motions of the arm. Do you remember Michael Jordan’s legendary slam dunk that became the logo of his shoes? Yep, latissimus as well.

It is also heavily recruited in the pulling motions of sports such as wrestling, Brazilian ju-jitsu, judo, and other type of grappling sports. Since it is an internal rotator of the humerus, it is an important component of punching and throwing motions as well. Rowers and kayakers need all the latissimus dorsi strength and endurance they can get

It is one of the key players in a strong and healthy shoulder joint, and crucial in many sports activities.

The poorly understood lat pulldown

In the land of neglected vertical pulling exercises, lat pulldowns are the red-headed stepchild. The gym goers aren’t fond of it because they say it does not target the latissimus dorsi adequately. The sport science community critiques its biomechanics and suspects the behind the neck version might cause shoulder issues.

The first statement is probably a myth based partly on poor technique. Michael Yessis, who wrote several authoritative textbooks on strength training, also mentions one interesting fact; in order to stimulate all parts of the lats, it is important to use more than one grip. He recommends the classic wide pronated grip and the close neutral grip variation.

Another nail in the coffin of this myth was one of coach Poliquin’s observations. He noticed that vertical pulling performance increased when soft tissue treatment was done to remove adhesions. The most common adhesion, in his experience, was between the latissimus and the teres major.  The latter is often called the mini-lat because it shares some of its adduction and internal rotation functions. It runs parallel to the latter part of the lat as well, so both muscles are in close contact. The friction resulting from training can cause adhesions which in turn reduce the recruitment of the lat.

While this is speculative, the combination of both of those factors might explain the lat pulldown’s poor reputation.

Of course, it is a much less functional exercise than chin-ups and pull-ups. Doing those two exercises recruits more total muscle mass and develops whole-body tension that is vital in sports.

The Case of the BTN

The last myth seems at least partly true. Studies have shown little EMG difference between a front of the neck vs. a behind the neck (BTN) lat pulldown. But many have noted a reduction of the subacromial space, a factor involved in shoulder impingement and other shoulder issues.  To properly perform the BTN version, you need to have both good upper back extension and great external rotation. In our hunchbacked, rounded-shoulders era, this is like finding an under-billing lawyer. So, the sports science community might be right, even though these factors are more prerequisites than a formal ban

Effective Variations of Vertical Pulling

The lat pulldown offers many possibilities for variations. Be it in terms of grip orientation, grip width, body positions, and/or tools. It is a vertical pulling jackpot. Here are a few interesting ones, but they are by no means the only ones.

The Wide Pronated Grip Lat Pulldown – The classic

This one should be in a museum next to Mona Lisa and the Venus of Milo. It is that iconic. Go into a gym and chances are this is the version you’ll see most often. Due to the grip orientation and width, it places an extra demand on the adduction function of the latissimus dorsi. It also minimizes the elbow flexor moment, placing more demand on the lats.

The Close Neutral Grip – The Workhorse

If you want to move big weights, you need to involve as much muscle mass as possible. That is what this version does. It recruits the biceps brachialis as well as the latissimus and teres major. It also recruits the lower portion of the pectoralis major and the brachialis.

The Mid Supinated Grip – The Reliable One

This version allows you to move big weights and be more comfortable as well. The fact that your hands are shoulder-width apart lets the elbow push back. The close neutral grip version suffers in comparison, especially with trainees who have broad shoulders and ribcage.

The Lean Away – Mixing it up with the Rows

 

If you lean back during the pulldown motion, you will engage the mid back muscles; the shoulder retractors. Those muscles are usually worked better with rowing movements. But lean away, and you can gain the extra recruitment that targets your whole upper back.

Overhand Grip – The Monkey Grip for a gorilla-sized back

The overhand grip, where the thumb cannot go around the implement, was one of coach Poliquin’s favorite variations. He called it the monkey grip, since it hearkens back to the way chimpanzees hang from tree limbs. This is also how his hero, Tarzan, would go swinging from tree to tree. This places a greater emphasis on the lats during the pulling movement.

As you can see, the lat pulldown deserves a place in your workout. It can be a good, reliable back-builder and a great start to vertical pulling exercises. Its ability to target different muscles lends it a great versatility. It is not, however, a great movement for sports. While beginners and amateur sportsmen can use it, the chin-ups and pull-ups are better options. They also offer their own hypertrophy punch, as we’ll see in part 2 of this article.