Whether you’re a complete newbie to resistance training or a seasoned veteran, the straight arm pulldown is one of the best exercises to increase strength and muscle mass in your upper back and improve your posture.
What Is the Straight Arm Pulldown?
The straight arm pulldown is an isolation exercise that works the upper back muscles, shoulders, and arms. Still, people predominately use it to activate the latissimus dorsi, otherwise referred to as the lats.
It does, however, work the posterior deltoids, triceps, rhomboids, and teres major muscles in your upper arms, although these are all secondary muscles in the exercise.
You perform the straight arm pulldown by standing in front of a cable pulley machine; however, I will explain how to do it correctly in more detail further in the article.
Straight Arm Pulldown vs. Lat Pulldown: How Do They Differ?
The straight arm pulldown and lat pulldown both work your back muscles; they are, however, different in their own right.
During the lat pulldown, the biceps and traps are engaged more than when doing the straight arm pulldown, typically allowing you to lift a heavier load than you would during the straight arm pulldown.
However, with the straight arm pulldown, you are pulling from your lats, which means you will not be able to move as much weight.
The straight arm pulldown involves having a steady posture as the core is engaged throughout each repetition. In contrast, the lat pulldown consists in sitting down at a cable workstation with little focus on the posture required.
Straight arm pulldowns require a closer grip than the lat pulldown, which predominantly uses a shoulder-width grip.
Both exercises activate the lats; however, the secondary muscles involved differ. The straight arm pulldown uses the core muscle groups, whereas the lat pulldown incorporates the biceps and trapezius muscles.
The movement of both exercises differs as the straight arm pulldown does what it says in the name: you use straight arms to pull the bar down.
However, the lat pulldown involves a bend in the elbows to pull the bar down to your chest.
Benefits of the Straight Arm Pulldown
A big problem for many people is that they spend far too much time sitting behind a desk or driving for long hours, which can cause underactivation of the lats and other back muscles, which is how injuries occur.
The knock-on effect can negatively impact people’s posture as they begin to slouch, round their back and shoulders, and feel pain and tension in those muscles.
The beauty of the straight arm pulldown is that it can help activate these underused muscles and reduce or prevent back pain and discomfort.
The trick is to keep active and also stretch daily.
Strong and Muscular Back
The range of motion is vast on the straight arm pulldown as you do a long stretch which means the lats will contract at the bottom of each rep, which will help you develop a strong, muscular back.
Never underestimate the benefits of a strong back. It is suitable for assisting you in other sports activities; it is also helpful for regular day-to-day activities.
Improved Mind-muscle Connection
There is no direct bicep involvement during the straight arm pulldown, which is a good thing as it isolates the lats and improves your psychological connection to your lats during each repetition.
How To Do the Straight Arm Pulldown
You will need a cable pulley machine and a straight bar attachment.
- Set your bar attachment to shoulder height and stand in front of the pulley machine with feet shoulder width apart.
- Grab the attachment with an overhand grip and arms fully extended.
- Hold a slight bend in your knees and lean forward a little.
- While keeping your arms straight, squeeze your lats as you bring the bar down to your thighs.
- Pause momentarily at the bottom of the rep while still squeezing your lats hard, then return to the starting position slowly.
- Always ensure your core is engaged throughout, then repeat.
Straight Arm Pulldown Mistakes
1. Doing Partial Reps
It is essential to bring the attachment down to your thighs for a full contraction of the lats so your arms are fully extended; however, many trainers pull it halfway and return to the starting position.
By doing this, you are wasting energy and, ultimately, potential gains.
You are also at risk of injury.
2. Bending of the Arms
A common mistake with many trainers is bending their arms during the straight arm pulldown. Doing so removes the tension from the back onto the triceps, which is not the target muscle.
A tip is to reduce the weight slightly and focus on perfect form instead, and again, ensure the arms are fully extended.
Remember: the clue is in the name of the exercise.
3. Using Too Much of Your Arms
Contrary to popular belief, your arms should have a secondary role in this exercise as your lats should be doing most – if not all – of the work to bring the weight down.
Straight Arm Pulldown Alternatives
Here are some other back exercises that you can incorporate into your training alongside the straight arm pulldown:
1. Bent-over Barbell Row
The barbell row is a great alternative exercise to the straight arm pulldown.
I have an article on the barbell row and how to perform it correctly, which you can read by clicking this link.
2. Wide Grip Lat Pulldown
The wide grip lat pulldown variation is another exercise that allows for less pressure on the biceps and forearms.
Grab the bar with a grip that is more than shoulder width apart, with palms facing away from you.
Pull the bar down until it touches the top of your chest. You never want the bar going lower than the chest as you are taking the emphasis off the back and into more of the traps and shoulders.
You can read a more detailed breakdown of this exercise in an article I wrote.
3. Dumbbell Pullover
The dumbbell pullover has a different feeling than the straight arm pulldown, but it works the lats just as well when the dumbbell is stretched over and behind your head.
Lie faceup on a bench with your head on the edge and put your index fingers and thumbs over each other and around the dumbbells.
Lower the dumbbell behind your head with your arms slightly bent, but ensure you stop if you feel discomfort in the stretch.
Bring the dumbbell back up to the starting position slowly.
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About the author
I'm Chris. I have a vast interest in all things relating to health, wellness, exercise, and nutrition. I also love to improve my mindset and learn how to increase my productivity. If you'd like to say hello or ask me a question, please visit my contact page, and I'd be glad to hear from you. Alternatively, you can find me on Twitter (@liveliftlife).