The hardest part of training the lats for size is learning to feel them contracting. We are not used to, in our everyday lives, feeling this muscle being isolated or working on its own. And, since the biceps are involved in the lat pulldown, they can be used to do much of the work to the detriment of the lats. Doing your lat pulldowns one side at a time, or unilaterally, can help you to learn what it feels like to contract and work the latissimus dorsae. Not only are they are great learning tool before switching to regular bilateral lat pulldowns but you may want to make them a mainstay of your lat training.
When doing lat pulldowns the traditional way, with both arms, it is extremely difficult for bodybuilding beginners to feel like they are really working their lat muscles. Like many things, once you learn how to feel them contracting and make them take the brunt of the work, it becomes more natural and automatic. Many people focus on having a large variety of exercises to work their lats while never really feeling like they’ve fatigued them, let alone getting that elusive pump. Universal lat pulldowns are the best, and perhaps only way, to really learn how to do this.
By isolating one arm at a time, it becomes much easier to concentrate on the action of the lat muscle and feel it contracting. You can even place your free hand on the working lat to help tell whether it is contracting. Another tip is to learn to pull through your elbows instead of through your forearms/hands. This will better isolate the traps during the pulldown movement (not that you can ever fully isolate the muscle; you can’t).
Unilateral Lat Pulldown Exercise Technique
1. Replace the long bar in the Lat Pulldown machine with the single hand straps usually found on the cable crossover machine, depending on the setup available to you.
2. Seat yourself in the Lat Pulldown machine.
3. Grab the single hand strap with one of your arms. If needed, hold the feet-lock with the other hand for support.
4. Lean back slightly and pull the cable as if you are doing your regular lat pulldown concentrating on pulling with the elbows and feeling the contraction of the lat muscle.
5. Pull down as far as you can, concentrating on getting a full contraction of the lat while depressing and retracting your shoulder blade on the working side. Squeeze hard at the bottom for at least a one-count!
6. After you are done with one side, shift to the other.
Unilateral Lat Pulldown Tips
- Do not skip the big squeeze at the bottom. If you are really trying to gain size, and you want to get a big lat pump, it is better to use a weight that will allow you to get a full contraction and a BIG hard squeeze at the bottom. This will make all the difference!
- Despite what people tell you about proper exercise form, I’ve found it better to lean back slightly. This allows a better feel for the lat and helps you avoid using too much biceps while getting that scapular depression and retraction at the end.
- As well, to help you feel the lat working and to help get a full contraction, you may want to laterally flex your torso just a little at the end. Do not shift at the hips but instead bend your torso toward the working side. You should feel the rib cage pivoting on your torso. This will really help you get a good tight contraction. You can’t do this when using both hands so this is another advantage of the one-side pulldowns.
- Watch some YouTube videos on the unilateral lat pulldown to get more tips. It’s okay to try different things to find out what works for you. Remember the goal here is not only to work the lat but develop a feel for when the lats are really working so if any recommendations you find do not really help you do that, disregard them. Use what works for you!
This video by John Meadows provides some good tips that may help you learn to work those lats!