Your back is a surprisingly tricky area to hit when at the gym. Often times, you might think you’re targeting your back but you’re actually hitting most of your shoulders or even your triceps.
If you’re splitting your workout into individual days, with each day targets a different muscle group, you want to make sure what you’re doing on back day is, in fact, hitting your back muscles.
The straight all pulldown is an excellent lift for your back. It isolates the muscles, forcing your back to do the majority of the lift.
Of course, it’s also done on a machine. We generally will tell you to avoid weight lifting machines because these machines just don’t give you the kind of resistance stabilizer muscle training as free weights.
But thankfully that isn’t the case with the straight arm pulldown. It’s a move you can’t do with weights and it uses pulleys, so you’re still forcing your stabilizer muscles to engage.
If you’re looking for an excellent way to target your back and build stronger and bigger lats than ever before, the straight arm pulldown is a move you need to start performing right away.
Getting to Know Your Back
Your back is made up of a series of different muscle groups. Under your shoulder blades and running to the base of your butt, there are several muscles you’ll need to focus on.
The lats, also known as the latissimus dorsi, make up an almost butterfly-shaped area of your back. Starting in the middle of your back, which is where the tip of each muscle group comes together, the muscles expand out on each side of the spine, running down to the corner of your hip bone.
The top of the muscle then moves up to just under your armpit.
This is the largest muscle group of the back and is the primary focus of the straight arm pulldown.
While the straight arm pulldown does a great job targeting your lats you will also want to bring in other back lifts to hit the other areas of your back filling in from the point of where your lats come together along with your spine and moving down to just above your glutes is the erector spinae.
This is your lower back and is what you target when you perform Superman stretches on the floor. It is considered part of your core muscles and you’ll often target it when performing ab and core workouts.
Splitting the top of the lats, running up along the spine to the base of the neck are your traps (known as the trapezius muscles). You’ll work these with a number of varying upper back and shoulder lifts).
Directly on top of the lats along each side are two smaller muscle groups.
Often these are confused with just being part of the pats, but are actually individual muscles due to how the muscle fiber curves in a different direction.
Right above the lats is the teres major. This muscle begins at a point near where the lats and traps come in contact and fans out, making up most of the muscle that connects with the back of your armpit.
Directly above the teres major is a sliver muscle called the teres minor. This is a very small muscle that is about the size of your thumb.
Above the teres major and minor is the infraspinatus. This muscle meets the teres major at a point along the lats. It runs alongside the traps and reaches up toward your back, with one point of the muscle touching on the tip of your armpit and fanning up along the shoulder blades to the trap.
This is an important muscle group although it is targeted mostly with shoulder and upper back lifts.
Keep all of this in mind when performing the pulldown exercise.
While the arm pulldown is a great way to build your lats, the largest muscle group of your back, you’ll still want to perform other back exercises to ensure you target all of the other muscles portions of your back.
What is the Straight Arm Pulldown
This move is also known as the cabled pullover, and it impacts on your back heavily depends on how you perform it. You will need a cable machine in order to perform this move.
Use the top pulley so you are pulling down on the weight. You also want to use the flat bar for the move as well.
Position yourself so you begin the lift with your arms out directly in front of your shoulders.
Do not begin with your arms elevated above your shoulders and pointed at the ceiling. This will work more of your shoulders than your back if you perform the move like this.
Now, as the name of the lift suggests, pull down the weight. Keep your arms straight with a slight bend in the elbow to prevent your arms from locking up.
Pull the weight down to your waist, making sure to never reduce tension on your back.
It’s important when you do this to never use your arms to bend and push the weight.
If you do this you end up performing a tricep pulldown, in which case the majority of the weight is being moved with your triceps.
That is fine on arm day, but this isn’t arm day, it’s back day.
Hold the weight down at your waist for a moment, then slowly raise the weight back up.
By slowly letting the weight back up you put extra tension on your back and you’ll hit the front of your shoulders some as well. It also keeps all of your muscles fully engaged without any break.
This is critical for building a bigger, stronger back and a major advantage of using the cable machine.
It is possible to remain in full tension the entire lift, which will put extra emphasis on your muscles, cause additional muscle damage, allowing you to craft larger muscles.
Focus First On Form
When it comes to the straight arm pulldown your form is critical.
Overall it isn’t a difficult move to perform. It doesn’t put much strain on your joints either, so if you have shoulder or elbow pain this is a good move to perform.
However, the move is easy to perform wrong. If you’re not careful you’ll open yourself up to potential lower back injuries or, at the very least, move the lift from focusing on your back to focusing on your arms.
It’s important to begin this lift using a lower weight. You want to fine-tune your form before adding additional weight.
As mentioned above, you want to begin with the short bar extended out parallel with your shoulders. Maintaining a slight bend in your elbows (around 30 degrees or so) pull the weight down to your waist.
It’s important to begin with lighter weight as, if you’re not ready for this move and put too much weight onto the cable machine, you’ll end up leaning into the lift).
When you lean into the lift (you might lean away from it as well), you’ll put added strain on your lower back, which increases the possibility of an injury. So begin with less weight.
The form of your lift maintains the focus of the lift on your lats.
If you want to bring the shoulders into the lift and start the pull down at a higher angle that is possible, although you’ll likely find the amount of weight you can lift for your delts and your lats is different, which will hinder the growth of one muscle group.
We prefer to split it up into different days.
Sets and Reps
This is a great move to perform to overload. It’s one of the main benefits of using the cable machine.
You can overload your muscles without fear of the muscles crashing down onto your body. Most you’ll deal with is a bit of noise of the handle hitting the top of the cable machine.
You’re likely not going to do as much weight as you will with other back exercises, so push this one further to the end of your back day workout (focus on the lifts using larger free weights over the cable machine before moving to the straight arm pulldown).
With this lift, you’ll want to perform two or three sets. Aim for 8 to 12 reps per set. You’re taking your time during the lifts so it’ll be easy to overload and complete the lift to failure.
When using the cable machine the biggest variant you’ll have while lifting is the kind of attachment you use.
For the standard pulldown, you want to use the short bar.
The short bar will hit more of the interior lats, emphasizing the strength around your shoulder blades moving down to your spine.
However, there are some options with how you can switch it up.
You can use the wide grip bar if you’d like. This will place more of a focus on the exterior of your lats, rounding to around your rib cage.
The muscles around this area of your body are thinner and often are not as exclusively targeted as the other areas of your back, so it may be worth experimenting with this kind of a lift.
Another great option is to use the rope attachment.
Now, you do need to be careful with the rope. Because it is not a secure bar it’s easier to turn this lift into either a tricep extension or a forearm exercise.
However, if you maintain your form with the rope, the rope is good because you don’t just stop the lift at the front of your waist. You’ll pull the rope past your waist until it is even with your backside.
The major advantage here is you substantially increase the stretch placed on your lats.
By increasing the stretch on your lats you’ll break down the muscle tissue further, which helps you obtain bigger gains.
It’s best, to begin with, the traditional pulldown using the flat bar, but once you have the form solidified here, you’ll be able to move on to the rope attachment.
Don’t Have a Cable Machine
So let’s say you don’t have a cable machine. You can’t exactly replicate it at home.
However, there is a variant you can do using a barbell. It isn’t exactly the same and it won’t completely work your lats running all the way down, but if it’s the only option you have then it is worth doing.
For the variant, you’ll want to use a bent arm barbell.
Begin with lighter weight as you start out with this lift.
Lay flat on a bench, holding the bent-arm barbell over your chest with a bend in your elbows, now, slowly lower the barbell back over your head, all while maintaining the bend in your elbows.
Go as far as you’re able to, then hold it in this back position for a moment. Return to the front to complete one rep.
The benefit here is you can achieve a nice stretch of the upper lat muscles.
It won’t fully target everywhere the pulldown lift does, but if you don’t have a cable machine at the gym you go to or at home, this is is a suitable alternative.
If you’re looking for a way to get a bigger and stronger back, you need to start performing moves that specifically target your back. Your lats are some of the more difficult muscles to hit, yet a stronger back helps with not only other upper body moves but some lower body moves as well (like the deadlift).
With a straight arm pulldown, you’ll exclusively target your lats, making it a must exercise if you’re serious about a bigger back.
It isn’t a complicated move, and a relatively safe one thanks to the pulldown pulley system. So if you haven’t started implementing the straight arm pulldown, now is the perfect time to do so.