The straight arm pushdown/pulldown is a killer lat exercise because it isolates the lats and keeps them under continual tension.
Here, you see me at the end of a set of straight arm pushdowns showing the love to my training partner Nancy. The straight arm pushdown (sometimes called pulldown) is a basic cable weight training exercise that works the latissimus dorsi. The exercise really isolates the lat, and by the end of a set of these, I guarantee you'll be feeling mean.
The exercise is not too hard to set up. On your cable machine, raise the attachment point as high as it will go. Then, secure a straight or EZ Bar handle to it. When you grasp the bar, your hands should be able to extend up at a 45 to 55 degree angle from horizontal without the weight stack touching. Then, keeping your arms fixed with a slight bend in the elbow and chest high, push the bar down to the point that it touches your legs. Return under control and start again.
The difficulty in this exercise arises from the fact that your lat is always under tension and extremely well isolated. You can emphasize the narrow or the wide part of the lat by choosing a shorter or longer bar. You may also need to kneel to get the desired range of motion without the weight stack touching at the highest extension of the arms. In the analysis presented below, Nancy Arnold and I (Bud) chose the longer EZ bar to emphasize the outer lat. Nancy has a bodybuilding competition coming up, and the lats are a key competitive element.
There are a few form breaks on this exercise. One is to excessively bend and possibly flex the arms, having the dual effect of shortening the distance the weight is pulled and possibly involving the biceps and triceps at different points in the movement. The second is to involve the lower back and rock the torso to gain momentum. The third is to hunch over the bar at the end of the movement, relieving tension on the lat by bringing body weight to bear.
In this video, Nancy is pushing 100 lbs. on a 1500 calorie diet, frankly a pretty remarkable feat that many guys could not achieve. We start the exercise with her continuing a conversation we had started about the demands bodybuilding places on competitors to achieve ultra-lean physiques.
In the video, Nancy's form is close to impeccable. One area that might be questioned is the angle of her arms at the top of the movement. Nancy is on the low but still acceptable side because the length of her arms makes up for the lower angle and allows her to achieve a good range of motion.
At the end of the video, I note she is at 100 lbs. and tell her that is poor. Why? She had pushed 100 lbs. on the previous set and had clearly mastered the weight. She could have gone up. We both try to push each other to do the most we can with acceptable form. It's lifting as heavy as you can with good form that builds muscle mass. Nancy went up to 105 on the next set.
In this video, I'm pushing 130 lbs. My chest is high and my arms are only slightly bent. I'm getting a long range of motion raising my arms to a 45 degree angle or better. However, I'm not perfect. On my last couple of reps, Nancy detects me hunching over at the end of the movement to relieve pressure on the lats and calls me on it. I try to straighten up. I did not go up in weight on later sets even though I wanted to because I had reached the limit of what I could do with minimal form breaks.
I should make some remarks about the workout. We were limiting ourselves to 60 seconds rest. These weights were hard with that level of rest, and you have to get motivated. You have to get a little mean. You have to want to make that stack go up.
- ExRx.net devotes a page to the straight arm pushdown and related lat exercises. The version of the exercise we show here uses straighter arms. Only a slight bend in the arms seems sufficient to keep stress off the elbow.
- We performed this workout on February 27, 2006. Nancy describes it here, and I describe it here.