Latissimus dorsi: The broadest muscles in your back and the ones that help define your back and waist shape. Arguably, the lat pulldown is one of the most rewarding exercises (or maybe I just think they're fun). However, it can also be one of the most dangerous if not done properly.
Before fitness, before fun, safety is our number one priority.
The lat pulldown is without a doubt the #1 exercise that we see performed in an unsafe manner on the gym floor. For those unfamiliar with the exercise, allow me to lay out the safest technique.
The idea is to bring the bar to your collarbone, in FRONT of your head. While pulling the bar down, squeeze your shoulder blades behind you and pull your elbows back. Try to put as much emphasis on your back muscles (and as little on your biceps) as possible. There are varying grip options for this exercise, depending on which bar you're using.
In front vs behind the head
The safety issue comes when we see people doing this exercise with the bar behind the head. Bear with me here. In order to pull the bar behind your head, your shoulders need to rotate externally (outward) and come into an abduction position (lifting the arm sideways). It's almost like you're waving to someone, only your arm is behind you instead of in front. This position puts maximal stress on your shoulder joint. Combine this with the resistance of pulling the bar down and you may be asking for a shoulder injury
. While pulling the bar behind your head may put more emphasis on the traps (hint: there are other, safer ways to work your traps), it puts the shoulders in a compromised position.
Studies also show that a wide grip, anterior (in front of the face) pulldown produces the most muscle activation, when compared to other grips and/or behind the head. It activates more of the latissimus dorsi and gives you more lifting bang for your buck. It also puts the shoulders in a safer position. There's also an option to adjust the body angle to accommodate any existing limitations (note that there are some cases where certain individuals should not be doing this exercise at all, as instructed by their doctor).
For most of our population, the risk vs reward is not worth a behind the head pull. If you do insist on pulling behind the head, take it slow, drop the weight down to an appropriate level, and stop when you get to the knob on the back of your head (the very top of the neck). Shoulder injuries, in one form or another, are one of the most common limitations we see and we're committed to helping our patrons achieve optimal, long-term health. If you have any questions about how to do an exercise, please ask one of our trainers for help. We're more than willing to help you in your health and fitness journey.