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Lat Pulldowns: Front or Behind the Neck? Best for a Big Back

Lat Pulldowns: Front or Behind the Neck? Best for a Big Back

by:Robbie Durand

If you look at some of the old Pumping Iron videos featuring Schwarzenegger and Ferrigno, they show they doing lat pull downs behind the neck! For years, bodybuilding has been lat pull downs behind the neck. There has been some controversy regarding the lat pulldown behind the neck as some sports authority experts believe that lat pulls behind the neck can be dangerous. Pulling the bar behind-the-head puts the shoulder joint in a comprised angle increasing the risk of shoulder injury. Another big question that most lifters have been grip width and also what variations of the lat pulldown work the lats.

Here are a few studies examining grip width and lat activation.

A study compared the primary and secondary EMG activity of the shoulder musculature during four types of the lat pull-down:

-pronated wide grip to the front of the body,

-Wide grip behind the neck

-Pronated close grip, and

-Supinated grip.

The researchers hooked electrodes all over the subject’s back and also their arms and shoulders. The results indicate that changes in handgrip position affect the activities of specific muscles during the lat pull-down movement. Also, the performance of the lat pull-down exercise using the wide grip hand position produces greater muscle activity in the lats than any other hand position during both the concentric or eccentric phases of the movement. Their results demonstrated a greater activation of the lats and the long head of the triceps brachii the wide grip compared with the remaining variations. The biceps activation was greater during the behind-the-neck variation.

Best Grip for Maximal Lat Activation

If you walk into the gym, when you see people performing the lat pull-down, most people favor the wide bar lat-pulldown bar. It’s a popular belief that the wide grip lat pull-down is the superior exercise for activating the lats compared to a narrow grip lat pulldown. Researchers had subjects perform lat-pulldown using three different pronated or overhand grip widths. Fifteen men performed 6RM in the lat pull-down with:

-narrow grip lat pull-down,

-medium grip lat pull-down,

-and wide grip lat pull-down

change repetition speed, infinite_labs
There was not a big difference in the muscle activation between the three exercises, but the medium grip had a slightly greater activation of the lats, but just for variety, one may want to consider incorporating all three into your routine.

Researchers placed electrodes all over the subjects back and arms to measure the muscle activation of the back and arms. At the end of the study, the subjects were able to use more weight for the narrow and medium grip than for the wide grip. There was similar EMG (i.e. muscle activation) activation between grip widths for latissimus, trapezius, or infraspinatus, but a tendency for biceps brachii activation to be greater for medium vs. narrow when the entire movement was analyzed. Collectively, a medium grip may have some minor advantages over small and wide grips; however, athletes and others engaged in resistance training can expect similar muscle activation that in turn should result in similar hypertrophy gains with a grip width that is consistent with a medium grip pull-down. There was not a big difference in the muscle activation between the three exercises, but the medium grip had a slightly greater activation of the lats, but just for variety, one may want to consider incorporating all three into your routine.

Underhand Versus Overhand Grip

So now that you understand the hand width makes little difference in the activation of the lats what about the hand grip being an underhand grip or an overhand grip. Two trials of 5 reps were analyzed for the following grips; wide grip-overhand, wide grip-underhand, narrow grip -overhand and narrow grip-underhand. Researchers placed EMG electrodes parallel to the muscle fibers on the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, and the middle trapezius. The results showed that both wide and narrow overhand grips had greater muscular activity of the latissimus dorsi than either of the underhand grips. Results also showed that there was no significant difference in muscular activity between wide or narrow overhand grips and there was no difference in the biceps brachii or the middle trapezius between any of the grip variations. So if you looking for maximal lat activation, choose the overhand grip, whereas an underhand grip will activate more biceps.

Lastly, don’t perform lat pulldowns behind the neck, its dangerous for the shoulder. Pulling the bar down behind your head wreaks havoc on your shoulder joint. The shoulders are a relatively small muscle group that are not designed to lift the sort of loads the lats are capable of. The shoulders are a secondary muscle used during lat pulldowns, but the movement cannot be performed without them. Consequently, massive loads can be placed on the shoulders and rotator cuffs (stabilizing muscles deep in the shoulder). By bringing the bar behind your neck, you are opening the shoulder joint up slightly which exposes the muscle and tendons to becoming entrapped within the shoulder joint.

Lusk, SJ, Hale, BD, and Russell, DM. Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res 24: 1895–1900, 2010.

Andersen V, Fimland MS, Wiik E, Skoglund A, Saeterbakken AH. Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2014 Apr;28(4):1135-42.

Sperandei S, Barros MA, Silveira-Júnior PC, Oliveira CG. Electromyographic analysis of three different types of lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct;23(7):2033-8.

Signorile JF, Zink AJ, and Szwed SP. A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res 16: 539– 546, 2002.

McCluskey GM and Getz BA. Pathophysiology of anterior shoulder instability. J Athl Train 35: 268–272, 2000.

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