The Straight Arm Pulldown
The straight arm pulldown is an excellent lat-isolating strength exercise which has been derived from the classic lat pulldown exercise. Unlike the lat pulldown, the straight arm variation involves assuming a standing position rather than seated. Additionally, as the name suggests, the exercise involves maintaining straight arms throughout the entirety of the movement, whereas the lat pulldown involves a large degree of elbow flexion.
Straight Arm Pulldown Analysis
The exercise can be considered an isolation exercise which means that movement occurs across one joint only – in this case, the shoulder joint. The lat pulldown, meanwhile, would be considered a compound exercise as movement is generated across more than one joint – the shoulder and elbow (1).
Isolation exercises are specifically beneficial when looking to develop specific muscles or muscle groups. Performing isolation exercises regularly can also facilitate improvements with bigger, heavier compound exercise and may also assist in ironing out any muscular weaknesses and imbalances that exist.
In the case of the straight arm pulldown, the idea is to isolate the latissimus dorsi – the biggest and most powerful muscle group of the back. While the lat pulldown does work the lats to a significant degree (2), the lats work through a shorter range of motion when compared to the straight arm pulldown. The large range of motion found with the straight arm pulldown increases the demand and stress on the lats which forces it to adapt and grow stronger.
While it is the lats that are predominantly driving the movement of the straight arm pulldown, there are other muscles and muscle groups that work to generate and control movement. The rhomboids and traps (upper back), the rear deltoids (back of the shoulders), triceps (upper arm), pectorals (chest) and core, must all contract in some capacity to assist in the movement.
Straight Arm Pulldown Benefits
In addition to strengthening the lats, there are a number of benefits associated with regularly performing this exercise. Firstly, this exercise is excellent for improving the mind-muscle connection. As the name suggests, the mind-muscle connection simply refers to the level of activation felt when performing exercise. Studies suggest that one can actually increase the level of muscle activation by focussing on the working muscle when exercising (3).
The lats are notoriously difficult to “feel” and many lifters find it challenging to feel the lats contracting and relaxing during conventional lat pulldown-type exercises. With the increased range of the straight arm pulldown and the fact that this is an isolation exercise, it becomes much easier to feel the lats.
As mentioned earlier, isolation exercises can have a substantial impact on improving movement and form with compound exercises. This is certainly the case with the straight arm pulldown and the deadlift.
The pulldown strengthens the lats and places them in a similar position to the deadlift. For many people, the deadlift can be a very tricky exercise to learn and rounding of the spine is a common problem.
Often, this rounding can be overcome by engaging the lats. Because the lats assist in lumbar spine flexion and extension (4), learning to activate them properly can help in maintaining a neutral spine alignment. Therefore, performing the pulldown regularly will strengthen the lats, allow for a greater engagement during the deadlift and facilitate deadlift form.
Straight Arm Pulldown Coaching Points
For the straight arm pulldown, a cable pulley and attachment are required. A rope is recommended as the attachment as it will allow for the greatest range of motion. A bar will suffice, however, the range will be slightly more limited using a bar, as the legs prevent the bar moving further back. The rope, however, allows the user to continue pulling backward until the hands are aligned the hips.
Increasing the range of motion will have a knock-on impact on the amount of the lat activation. As suggested earlier, the greater the range, the greater the activation of the muscle. If possible, consider using two ropes rather than one; this will allow for a wider grip and may enhance activation further.
In order to effectively perform the straight arm pulldown, follow the 6 coaching points below.
1) First, select a high pulley, or if adjustable, move the pulley up until it is approximately at head height. Attach the rope to the pulley and grasp both ends of the rope firmly.
2) Before moving into position, focus on pulling your shoulder blades back and down. Squeeze the muscles in order to hold the shoulder blades in this position throughout.
3) Pull your ribcage down, tuck your tailbone under the body and squeeze all core musculature. From there, focus on pushing your hips backwards so that your upper body tips forward by 30-45 degrees.
4) Still holding that solid position, step away from the pulley to create cable tension. As you move backwards, the arms should extended fully overhead and the feet set at hip-width. At this point, you should already be feeling a stretch in the lats.
5) From this position, maintaining straightness, drive the arms down in an arching motion until the hands are by the hips or even slightly beyond the line of the hips. Focus on squeezing the lats at this point.
6) In a controlled fashion begin to reverse the movement. Once again, maintain straight arms and focus on bracing the core in order to control the movement back to the starting point (5).
Look to complete 10 – 15 reps for 3 sets and ensure to rest for 1-2 minutes between sets.
As emphasized a number of times, it is vitally important to maintain straight arms at all times during this exercise. If flexion is allowed to occur at the elbow, some of the emphasis will move away from the lats and onto the triceps, biceps and rhomboids.
Using the Straight Arm Pulldown
As touched on earlier, the straight arm pulldown can have a knock-on impact on one’s deadlifting ability. Therefore, it may be appropriate to perform the pulldown, or another lat-specific exercise, prior to deadlifting. In addition to this, the stretch that is applied during the pulldown can enhance back and shoulder mobility and therefore, performing the exercise at the start of a workout, may be beneficial.
This pulldown variation may also prove to be useful for those who suffer with lower back issues. This is because the body position protects the lower back and the movements required do not involve any motion around the hips or spine.
If your goal is to build muscle size, consider perform 10-15 reps of the straight arm deadlift toward the end of the workout. For maximizing muscle growth, take short rest periods between sets as this will cause a large degree of muscle damage – a key mechanism for muscle growth.
Straight Arm Pulldown Progressions and Regressions
If the straight arm pulldown is a new exercise, be prepared to work with lighter loads for the first few weeks. This will give the nervous system time to safely learn the movement patterns required. If using the equipment is challenging or the movement feels uncontrolled, consider switching to a resistant band which will simplify the demands of the exercise substantially.
For those who find the arching arm movement a challenge, consider performing the exercise while standing more upright instead of hinging right over. This will reduce the stretch placed on the lats and consequently enhance movement control.
The most obvious way to increase the challenge of the pulldown is to add more load to the pulley. However, as mentioned earlier, it is possible to increase the range of motion by using two ropes or by selecting a longer rope which will effectively increase the intensity of the exercise.
Straight Arm Pulldown Alternatives
There are a couple of alternative exercises that can be performed to replicate the movement and stress of the straight arm pulldown. They are ideal for those who do not have access to a pulley and rope.
Dumbbell / Kettlebell Pullover
To set up for the pullover, grab a single dumbbell or kettlebell and lie back on a flat bench. Dig the heels into the floor and hold the weight in both hands directly above the chest. Keeping the arms straight, gradually lower the arms over the head until the upper arms are next to the head. The lats will be stretched out maximally at this point. From that position, drive the weight back up to the starting point above the chest.
The gironda pulldown is a combination of both a pulldown and a row. The movement places a great demand on a number of back muscles however, it does not provide the same type of isolation as a straight arm pulldown.
The straight arm pulldown is undoubtedly one of the best lat isolating exercises. It can provide a wide range of benefits – from developing lat strength to improving one’s deadlift technique. Regardless of your health and fitness goals this exercise should be considered when designing a workout or training program.
1- Gentil, Paulo; Soares, Saulo; Bottaro, Martim (2015-6). “Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy”. Asian Journal of Sports Medicine. 6 (2). doi:10.5812/asjsm.24057. ISSN 2008-000X. PMC 4592763. PMID 26446291.
2- Lehman, Gregory J; Buchan, Day Deans; Lundy, Angela; Myers, Nicole; Nalborczyk, Andrea (June 30, 2004). “Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study”. Dynamic medicine : DM. 3: 4. doi:10.1186/1476-5918-3-4. ISSN 1476-5918. PMID 15228624.
3- Calatayud, Joaquin; Vinstrup, Jonas; Jakobsen, Markus Due; Sundstrup, Emil; Brandt, Mikkel; Jay, Kenneth; Colado, Juan Carlos; Andersen, Lars Louis (2016-3). “Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training”. European Journal of Applied Physiology. 116 (3): 527–533. doi:10.1007/s00421-015-3305-7. ISSN 1439-6327. PMID 26700744.
4- Bhatt, C.R.; Prajapati, B.; Patil, D.S.; Patel, V.D.; Singh, Binodkumar G.P.; Mehta, C.D. (March 7, 2013). “Variation in the insertion of the latissimus dorsi & its clinical importance”. Journal of Orthopaedics. 10 (1): 25–28. doi:10.1016/j.jor.2013.01.002. ISSN 0972-978X. PMC 3768243. PMID 24403744.
5- “Straight Arm Pulldown”. exercise.wsu.edu.