Stiff Arm Pulldowns Exercise Guide — How to, Muscles Worked, & Alternatives

45-degree back extension

Stiff arm pulldowns isolate your lat muscles. 

A robust, muscular back lets you easily manage heavy loads and enhances your posture. The stiff arm pulldown stands out among many exercises targeting the back. When performed with fully extended arms, this particular exercise fortifies the back muscles, with a special focus on the lats. 

This article delves into the stiff arm pulldown, highlighting its effectiveness in back muscle development. It provides a comprehensive, step-by-step guide to mastering the exercise, ensuring you reap its full benefits. Moreover, it discusses the key advantages of incorporating this routine into your workout and suggests alternative exercises for similar muscle group development.

Dana Linn Bailey Performing Stiff Arm Pulldowns

Below is a clip of the 2013 Women’s Physique Olympia champ Dana Linn Bailey performing straight arm pulldowns with a rope attachment.

@danalinnbaileyDo it right! The straight arm pulldown.♬ midnight city (slowed reverb) (feat. kadirhho) – ciaffa & fedo DJ

Techniques & Muscles Worked

Stiff arm pulldowns are isolation exercises that use a full range of motion to target your lats. They also work other secondary muscles like the triceps and shoulders. During this exercise, core muscles, including the abs and obliques, also help stabilize your body.

This exercise uses a cable machine or a resistance band. Remember to maintain proper form, keeping your elbows locked throughout the movement. The mechanics of the cable machine keep your target muscles under constant tension, which induces muscle hypertrophy (1).

You can also do this exercise with free weights like barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells. Below is a step-by-step guide on performing the stiff arm pulldown with the proper form using a cable machine.

  1. Attach a wide grip bar to the high end of the cable machine.
  2. Stand straight with your head facing forward, chest out, knees slightly bent, and shoulder blades pulled back and squeezed.
  3. Extend your arms and grab the bar at shoulder-width length with a pronated grip (make sure you feel the tension on the cable). This is your starting position.
  4. Next, brace your core and keep your elbows locked. Slowly, in a controlled manner, pull the bar towards the floor until it reaches the side of your legs.
  5. Pause for two to four seconds and slowly reverse the movement back to the starting position, completing one rep.
  6. Perform for as many reps as you desire.


Stiff arm pulldowns are strength training exercises that build and strengthen the muscles in your back, arms, and posterior delts. Incorporating this exercise into your workout regime can provide some benefits.

Builds & Strengthens the Upper Body

The stiff arm pulldown primarily targets the lat muscles, the largest back muscle. The constant stretch and contraction of the lats give the back that winged-like physique and increase its width. It also strengthens and builds other upper body muscles, like the arms and shoulders.

Increased Range of Motion

Stiff arm pulldowns focus more on targeted muscles than traditional pulldowns, targeting them uniquely. It increases the flexion and extension of the lats, which induces muscle hypertrophy.

Better Mind-Muscle Connection

Bodybuilders looking to develop their overall back and target specific muscles should try the stiff arm pulldown. Keeping the arms straight and fully extended stops some other back muscles and biceps from taking over, solely focusing on the lat muscles. It allows you to feel the stretch and contraction in your lats, thereby creating a better mind-muscle connection, which can foster growth.

Carryover to Other Exercises

The stiff arm pulldowns target the back and upper body muscles, building and strengthening them. This makes it easier for athletes to transition to other exercises with proper form and strength, such as deadlifts, pull-ups, and rows.

Activates Core Muscles

This exercise stresses your core muscles, providing proper body coordination, balance, and stability. This helps you hit targeted muscles better and reduce the chances of injuries. It also gives you better posture

Stiff Arm Pulldowns Alternatives

Stiff arm pulldowns are excellent exercises for building upper body muscles, particularly the back. However, as effective as this exercise is, professionals have advised incorporating other exercises that build similar muscles. This helps you get the most from your workouts and avoid training plateaus (2). Below is a list of alternate exercises for building similar upper-body muscles.

Dumbbell Pullovers

The dumbbell pullover is a weight training and strength-building exercise that targets your chest, triceps, posterior delts, and lats. 

Wide Grip Pull-Ups

Wide grip pull-ups are bodyweight exercises that target the lats and shoulders. It recruits other muscle groups like the biceps and core muscles. For more resistance, you can use weighted vests or resistance bands for more gains.

Bent-Over Rows

Bent-over row is a weight training exercise that works your lats, rhomboids, traps, and posterior delts. It’s effective for building muscle mass in your back. You can perform this exercise using a barbell or other free weights like kettlebells and dumbbells.


What does a stiff arm pulldown work?

The stiff arm pulldown is an isolation exercise that works your lats, the largest muscles in your back. It also works other secondary muscles like the triceps and shoulders. Core muscles, like the abs and obliques, also play a role in stabilizing your body during this exercise.

How do you do an arm pulldown?

Ensure you feel the cables’ tension and keep your elbows locked throughout the movement. The exercise guide above provides instructions on how to do this exercise with the proper form. 

What is the purpose of the pulldown exercise?

A pulldown exercise aims to strengthen and build muscles in your back and other upper body muscles. It also improves your grip strength and ability to lift heavier loads with a strong back. 

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  1. Burd, N. A., Andrews, R. J., West, D. W., Little, J. P., Cochran, A. J., Hector, A. J., Cashaback, J. G., Gibala, M. J., Potvin, J. R., Baker, S. K., & Phillips, S. M. (2012). Muscle time under tension during resistance exercise stimulates differential muscle protein sub-fractional synthetic responses in men. The Journal of physiology, 590(2), 351–362.
  2. Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(24), 4897.
Terry Ramos
As a personal trainer and writer, Terry loves changing lives through coaching and the written word. Terry has a B.S. in Kinesiology and is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer and ISSA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist. He enjoys playing music, reading, and watching films when he's not writing or training.