The glenohumeral (GH) or shoulder joint allows for the most complex combinations of movement seen in the body. It has significant musculature that acts upon it, and presents with the greatest possible degree of mobility. This maximum mobility can be observed during full circumduction that covers 360° of movement. This significant range of motion (ROM) comes at a price however; as the joint is also known to be significantly prone to injury in sedentary and athletic populations alike. Consequently, a prudent trainer will find it desirable to utilize lifts that promote optimal muscle balance and stabilization of the shoulder joint. One of the major muscles to focus upon in this respect is the latissimus dorsi. This muscle acts as the primary shoulder adductor in the frontal plane and extensor in the sagital plane. As it performs these biomechanical actions, variations of the pull-up and pull-down exercises are predominant lifts used to activate and challenge the latissimus dorsi.
Without significant expertise in biomechanics the pull-up and lat pull-down exercises may appear to provide an identical stimulus on the GH joint and the latissimus dorsi. However, this is not the case. The major concept to consider is the inherent differences in kinetic chain utilization. Pull-downs are an open kinetic chain exercise, whereas pull-ups are a closed kinetic chain variation. In general, during an open kinetic chain exercise the hands or feet will move in open space (bench press, cable pushdowns); while during a closed kinetic chain exercise (push-ups, dips) the hands or feet will remain secure against an immoveable surface (distally fixed). During the pull-down exercise, the latissimus dorsi adducts the shoulder without demanding as much aid from stabilizing and synergistic musculature when compared to a pull-up particularly when the legs are locked under the anchor pads. This is due to the stable orientation of the lift as the resistance is pulled toward the body while a secure seated position is maintained. During the pull-up however, the force must be transferred across the elbow and shoulder joint to accelerate the weight (bodyweight and any extra load) toward the hands fixed on the bar. Weak core musculature and force compensation can cause inappropriate swaying of the body position which further identifies the added stabilization requirements relative to the force.
The pull-down exercises can be effectively used for hypertrophy or strength training adaptations. Although pull-ups may induce hypertrophy or strength, they also provide an additional challenge and adaptation in ‘kinetic chain functionality’; or the ability to transfer force through multiple joints. This concept was depicted in a recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research where the relationship between the one repetition maximum (1RM) for the pull-up and lat pull-down. During this study, elite female swimmers performed a 1RM lat pull-down, multiple lat pull-down repetitions at 80% of the 1RM, and pull-ups to failure. Anthropometric variables were examined including; arm lengths, total body mass, lean body mass, and percent body fat. There was a positive correlation between total body mass, lean mass, and body fat percentage and 1RM lat pull-down, whereas the same variables had a negative correlation with pull-ups. Differences in arm length did not seem to influence performance in either exercise significantly. It appeared that lat pull-down and pull-up maximums did not correlate with muscle mass in a synonymous manner; therefore the exercises should not be substituted for one another in a training regimen as they provide differing challenges.
Correct EndingContraindicated Ending
It is common knowledge that multiple variations are regularly used for the pull-up and pull-down exercises. First, there are potential variants in grip type and width. A supinated, pronated, or neutral grip can be implemented with either a narrow or wide grip width. Secondly, it is common to vary the terminal end of the pull to either the clavicles in front of the head or upper trapezius behind the head. It is thought that this promotes variance in activation of the latissimus dorsi. This is a common misconception however, as has been shown repeatedly in modern research.
In the second study, 10 healthy male participants performed 3RM sets of close grip (CG), supinated grip (SG), wide grip anterior (WGA), and wide grip posterior (WGP) variations of the lat pull-down exercise. EMG activity was examined in the PD, LD, teres major (TM), and the long head of the triceps (TLH). This study revealed that the WGA variation, or pulling down in front of the head to the chest, provided for the greatest activation of the latissimus dorsi. The results also indicated that the handgrip position affects the activation of various muscles during the movement. It is significant to note that recent research has also revealed that greater activation of the latissimus dorsi during the pull-down exercise can be encouraged with specified teaching instructions. When novice lifters were taught to initiate the action from the shoulder and focus on medially rotating the scapulae; they were less prone to overuse the elbow flexors and forearm to overcome the resistance.
In summary, it appears that the modification of handgrip or angle of pull relative to the head may alter the lat pull-down or pull-up exercises to some degree; but given the purpose of these lifts pulling in front of the head is considered superior. With this form, there is greater activation of the shoulder adductors and lower risk of consequent injury to the rotator cuff, joint capsule, and synergistic upper back musculature. Pull-ups in front of the head provide a similar but increasingly functional challenge; making them potentially the preeminent option overall. Proper form and teaching cues with a focus on latissimus dorsi activation will encourage greater increments in performance and functionality; without the unnecessary risk of injury seen in other variations devoid of regard for fundamental principles of biomechanics.