WHEN MOST GYM devotees think about back day, the lat pulldown is probably at the top of their mind—particularly the wide-grip, overhand version of the exercise. But if you take a closer look at this upper body split staple, you’ll find another variation that can provide similar—and potentially shoulder-safer—big back benefits: the close-grip lat pulldown.
By shifting your grip this variation is going to allow you to pull through a more extensive range of motion—with less risk of internal rotation of your shoulders—to add plenty of size and shape to your back, says Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. If you can use a neutral grip and V-handle attachment, you’ll help to create a more natural movement.
“It gives me a really, really advantageous angle to kind of drive my elbows together and still find external rotation at the shoulder joint,” Samuel says. “So that’s one of the reasons I really, really like the close-grip lat pulldown.”
What Muscles You Use in the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown
The close-grip lat pulldown targets mainly the same muscles as the wide-grip, including:
- Scapular stabilizing muscles
The close-grip pulldown will also sneak in some extra abdominal work, too. Plus, if you’re working with a heavier load, your grip (and therefore your forearms) will get a good workout as well.
Who Should Do the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown?
Anyone can benefit from incorporating the close-grip lat pulldown into their back day workouts, especially if building mid-back muscle is one of your goals. With this exercise, not only are you building a bigger back—but by hitting your rhomboid muscles harder, you’re also going to be protecting your shoulder joints, which is a long-term necessity for all exercisers.
How to Do the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown
Start by attaching a V-bar to the pulldown machine (if you have one). Again, this neutral grip is easier on the shoulders—which will allow you to more easily drive your elbows in toward your body as you pull, creating a safer shoulder position as well as a greater range of motion as opposed to wide-grip pulldowns. (If you’re using a standard wide bar, using a reverse grip can provide similar results.)
Setting up here is pretty similar to other lat pulldown. Start by finding a comfortable position to sit. When it comes to seat placement, there is no concrete “right answer.” Lower is generally better, but it’s more important to find where you can execute the move seamlessly (but don’t overthink this part).
You may heard that by using a “lazier” and softer grip, you’ll be working your rhomboids more. Samuel says no—you should emphasize a tight grip. This will allow you to work with heavier loads and pull more weight, which will help you build muscle. You’ll also add forearm focus to the movement, which is never a bad thing.
“That’s gonna give me a stronger grip on the bar and that’s going to matter once I can really push some load,” Samuel says. Because I’m going to have that strong grip, it’s also going to help my grip last longer so I can get more out of every step.”
The last step to focus on is to remember to pull your elbows toward each other during each rep—keeping them perpendicular to the ground, and staying that way. Also focus on your engaging your core muscles, which will help you to avoid back arching. Instead, keep focus on maintaining tension throughout your torso.
“I’m thinking about keeping my abs tight because every single time I return this bar to the top I’m essentially thinking about being in a vertical plank,” Samuel says. “I want that kind of tension through my abs.”
Performing the Close-Grip Pulldown
- Set seat at a comfortable height. Grab the handle, using a neutral grip if it’s a V-handle or underhand grip for the more standard wide bar.
- Focus on keeping your feet planted into the ground, core tight, and maintain a tight grip on the bar.
- Lean back slightly—do not arch your back for this—then, squeezing your shoulder blades, drive them down as you pull. Remember to drive your elbows down as well as you pull the bar to the top of your chest.
- Hold momentarily at the bottom, then return to start position under control.
How to Add the Close-Grip Lat Pulldown to Your Workout
A good place to add the close-grip lat pulldown in your workout is usually after a rowing movement. Make the close-grip pulldown your main vertical pulling (moves like pullups and pulldowns) movement of the workout.
If you’re trying to lift heavy, three to four sets of six to eight reps will be more than sufficient. If you’re opting for lighter weights, the same three to four sets is sufficient, but increase the reps—12 to 15, even higher if possible. That should be a great range to keep the lats firing, and your shoulders safer.
Jeff Tomko is a freelance fitness writer who has written for Muscle and Fitness, Men’s Fitness, and Men’s Health.
Brett Williams, a fitness editor at Men’s Health, is a NASM-CPT certified trainer and former pro football player and tech reporter who splits his workout time between strength and conditioning training, martial arts, and running. You can find his work elsewhere at Mashable, Thrillist, and other outlets.