The straight arm pulldown is one of the most slept-on back training exercises out there.
While some might mistake it for a normal tricep pulldown, the straight arm pulldown is an entirely different movement. It doesn’t even train the same muscles.
If you are looking to progress your physique to the next level and build a V-taper you’re proud of, look no further.
1. First, you need a cable machine. Set up the cable just above your head.
2. Take either a rope or bar extension and lean forward so your back is at a 45-degree angle with the floor.
3. Bring your arms straight and up in front of you so they’re in line with the angle of your back.
4. From here, keep your arms mostly straight (just slightly bent) and your scapula retracted as you move your arms all the way to your thighs.
5. Pause at the bottom to feel the squeeze in your lats, and then return back to the original starting position.
The straight arm pulldown is an isolation movement that primarily works the latissimus dorsi (lats), which, as we wrote about in this article on lat training, is a tricky muscle. It is a specialized movement that is meant to target your lats in a way where there is very little help from other muscle groups. Think of it like a concentration curl, except for your lats.
While there are many different exercises to work your back, straight arm pulldowns help you isolate the lats. They also help to develop the mind muscle connection to your lats that can be very hard to cultivate.
While pull ups and rows are great exercises to develop your lats, they work other muscle groups too. For example, a pull-up is a compound movement that works your traps, lats, biceps, and abs. The straight arm pulldown will not rope any other muscle groups into the exercise, acting as a true isolation movement for your lats.
Another benefit to the straight arm pulldown is that it can help to develop the V taper that often takes people years. This is because the lats are responsible for this V taper.
While the straight arm pulldown is a straightforward movement, there are many ways to screw it up.
One of the most common technical mistakes I see time and time again is keeping your elbows bent throughout the exercise, almost treating the straight arm pulldown as a modified tricep pulldown.
The triceps will act as a stabilizing muscle in the straight arm pulldown, but the lats will be the main muscle group being worked. Keep your arms fully extended, or with a very slight bend if you want to fully isolate the lats.
Another common mistake is not keeping your shoulder blades pulled back throughout the movement. If your shoulders are rounded forward, your lats won’t be in a position to contract, and your triceps and shoulders will do the majority of the work.
If you’re having trouble figuring out how to protract your scapula, there are lots of exercises out there to guide you in the right direction. One of my favorite ways to teach this is to use a pullup bar.
As you hang from the bar, try and move yourself up without bending your arms. This will teach you what it actually feels like to protract your scapula, and the position you must be in for the straight arm pulldown to work its magic.
Next, you want to make sure that you don’t raise your arms too high at the top of the movement. This will take tension off the lats and onto other muscles. When you raise your arms too high it’s common to feel the stretch in the long head of the triceps, which we want to avoid.
The last mistake is neglecting the importance of good posture. Set up with your abs engaged, glutes squeezed, and you head in a neutral position, avoiding forward head posture. Poor posture will prevent you from feeling the right muscles, and leave you susceptible to injury.
The first advantage to being on your knees during the straight arm pulldown is that you can get a deeper stretch. If you’re working on a cable machine that’s shorter than normal, it can be hard to get a good stretch on the way up because the machine’s not tall enough.
Another benefit to the kneeling variation is it eliminates a lot of the momentum that’s common if you’re on your feet. Basically, it’s harder to cheat. Third, it’s easier to stabilize your core and posture in the kneeling position than standing, so it’s easier to focus on the lat contraction.
For the one-arm variation, you might need to lower the weight and take things a little bit slower, but this could be a great mixup to your routine if you’ve been doing the regular variation for a while.
You can also experiment with different attachments. Try out the rope, the regular bar attachment, or the lat pulldown bar. Each of these attachments has its own advantages and disadvantages.
With the regular bar, you can use a wider grip. However, you’re limited in your range of motion since you can’t move the attachment past your thighs.
With the rope attachment, it’s harder to maximally contract the lats at the top, but you can get a greater range of motion (and contraction) at the bottom, because you can move the rope past your thighs.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and mix it up.
Since it’s an isolation movement, the straight arm pulldown is a great exercise to do at the end of your workout, after you’ve done compound movements like rows and pullups.
Often, this exercise works better in the higher rep range (12-20) to fatigue your lats.
Alternatively, you can do it as a warm-up for the lats and use light weights.
This exercise offers many benefits to your physique and posture, and offers a killer squeeze at the bottom to help anyone master their mind-muscle connection for their lats. Try out each variation and attachment and find out what feels the best for you. Your lats will thank you.