Freestyle, breast-stroke, and butterfly swimmers, gymnasts who perform on the rings, horizontal, parallel, and uneven bars, basketball players who fight for rebounds, and wrestlers who execute common holds are prone to injuries involving their latissimus-dorsi, teres-major, and pectoralis-major muscles.
These three key muscles pull the arms downward from an overhead position (or raise the body when the arms are secured overhead in gymnastics) and also tend to rotate the shoulders inward, all movements which are critically important in the above-mentioned sports. Overuse injuries can occur in the three muscles, especially during high-volume swimming or repetitive gymnastics training, and acute strains in the key trio of sinews can happen during the sudden, violent movements associated with wrestling or basketball.
Naturally, athletes, coaches, trainers, and physical therapists associated with these sports have looked for exercises which specifically strengthen the three muscles. Such exercises could potentially be used to fortify the muscles against injury – or to help rehabilitate the muscles once an injury had occurred. Bolstering the triad could also promote good functional balance in the shoulder area, and might help produce the aesthetic shoulder symmetry desired by athletes such as bodybuilders and recreational weightlifters.
The lat pull-down is one such exercise, and there is little doubt that it activates our three muscles of interest. However, one problem is that there are several variations of the lat pull-down – forms of the exercise which incorporate differences in hand position and range of motion. There have been very few scientific, carefully controlled studies which have taken a close look at the lat pull-down, and as a result athletes haven’t been certain which version of the lat pull-down does the best job of activating and strengthening the three key shoulder-adductor muscles.
To find out which form of the lat pull-down activates the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, and teres major muscles most dramatically, researchers from the Department of Exercise and Sport Sciences at the University of Miami recently studied 10 experienced weightlifters (age range 18 to 50) as they utilised four common variations of the lat pull-down:
For all three ‘anterior’ lifts (close-grip, supinated-grip, and wide-grip-anterior lat pull-downs), the bar was brought down far enough to contact the chest; for the single ‘posterior’ lift (the wide-grip-posterior lat pull-down), the bar was brought down to the level of the seventh cervical vertebra. The subjects were instructed to keep their scapulae retracted during the posterior lift in order to prevent excessive cervical flexion. No statistically significant differences were found for 10-repetition-max loads for the four different lat pull-down variations (no form of the exercise allowed more weight to be used during a 10-rep-max set).
During the concentric phase of the lat pull-down (when the bar was being pulled down), activation of the latissimus dorsi muscles was greatest with the wide-grip-anterior position, compared with all three other variations. Activation of the pectoralis major muscles was greater with the close grip, compared with the wide-grip-posterior method, but the close grip was not superior to wide-grip-anterior or supinated-grip lat pull-downs. The wide-grip-posterior position produced the very least activation of the pectoralis-major muscles.
Meanwhile, the ‘long head’ of the triceps brachii was most fired up with the wide-grip-anterior pull-down. For the poor little teres-major muscle, no form of the lat pull-down was superior.
During the eccentric phase of the lat pull-down (when the bar was going back up), the latissimus dorsi muscles were again most excited by the wide-grip-anterior format; the close-grip pull-down seemed to be the worst for the latissimus dorsi during the eccentric phase. The triceps brachii also liked the wide-grip-anterior pull-down, which was better for the triceps than the close-grip and supinated-grip pull-downs. Once again, the teres-major muscles simply did not care which form of the pull-down was utilised.
To summarise, the wide-grip-anterior form of the lat pull-down was the clear favourite from the perspective of the latissimus dorsi muscles. During both concentric and eccentric phases of the pull-down, the latissimus dorsi displayed greater electrical activity with the wide-grip-anterior position, compared with the other three variations of the lat pull-down.
Overall, the wide-grip-anterior pull-down was preferred over the other three pull-downs for triceps-brachii activity, and wide-grip-anterior positioning was not inferior to any other position in terms of teres-major activation.
Can we say, then, that the wide-grip-anterior position is the best form of the lat pull-down for strengthening those sporting movements which involve pulling the arms downward and/or rotating the shoulders inward? Yes – and it makes perfect anatomical sense. The wide-grip-anterior form of the lat pull-down puts the arms in a strikingly horizontally abducted position throughout the exercise, and this puts heavy stress on the latissimus dorsi muscles, which have as their key function the adduction of the arms from abducted positions.
The latissimus dorsi muscles originate from the spines of the sacral, lumbar, and lower thoracic vertebrae, as well as the iliac crest and lower ribs, and they insert on the ‘intertubercular groove’ of the humerus, a small bony valley on the anterior, upper part of the upper arm bone.
If you think about this anatomical positioning, you can see that the latissimus dorsi would be highly activated by any movement which involved pulling the arms back from an abducted position toward the body’s midline. The close-grip and supinated-grip versions of the lat pull-down don’t accomplish that.
You might think that the wide-grip-posterior lat pull-down would accomplish the same thing, but apparently the posterior positioning calls into play activity by back muscles such as the trapezius and rhomboids, allowing the latissimus dorsi to be a little lazier.
The posterior pull-down motion is also a less natural sporting motion, so one might argue that it would be less specific to competitive movement. In addition, there has been some concern that the wide-grip-posterior position increases the risk of injury to the shoulder joint and the cervical spine. The wide-grip-anterior pull-down seems to be the winner on all counts. A word of caution, however: when using the wide-grip-anterior pull-down, avoid the somewhat popular tendency to hyperextend the trunk while pulling the lat bar downward (2).
The only key shoulder muscles the wide-grip-anterior position wasn’t outstandingly good for were the pectoralis-major muscles. The ‘pecs’ are particularly important during sporting activities in which the arms have to be drawn inwards while they are already positioned somewhat anteriorly (during wrestling, for example), and there was an indication in this study and in others (3) that the close-grip pull-down would do a nice job of bolstering pec strength during such adductions.
Thus, the wise athlete trying to develop comprehensive strength for shoulder adduction might want to include both close-grip and wide-grip-anterior lat pull-downs in his/her strengthening workouts.