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Breaking Down the Lat Bar Pulldown

By Mike Lidge, MS, RSCC, Philadelphia Phillies

Importance for the Overhead Throwing Athlete

The lat bar pull down is a staple vertical, upper body, pull exercise that is often used as alternative to the traditional pull-up. One of the primary goals of this exercise is to train proper scapular depression and elevation through a full range of motion. While the latissimus dorsi (lat) is the primary muscle involved in the pulldown exercise, secondary muscles include the teres minor, teres major, infraspinatus, biceps brachii, brachioradialis, brachialis, posterior deltoid, and middle and lower trapezius.

As the largest muscle of the upper body, the latissimus dorsi plays a major role in the overhead throwing motion. Throwing a baseball is one of the most violent movements in sports, and the lat plays a direct role in accelerating the arm up to 7000 degrees per second (1). Both the lat and the teres major are involved in shoulder extension, adduction, cross body adduction and internal rotation (1). During the throwing motion, the lat controls the arm eccentrically when going into “layback”, then transitions the arm from “layback” into acceleration, moving the arm concentrically across the body (2).

Proper Set Up and Execution Checkpoints

• Sit erect on the lat machine pad with the head, mid back and low back in a straight line and the knee pads in contact with the middle of the thigh.
• Keep the chest up, shoulders back and look straight ahead, not up or down.
• Avoid sitting too close or too far from the machine.
• Grasp the bar using an overhand, closed grip with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart and arms and elbows fully extended overhead.
• Grasp the bar firmly to create tension through the shoulders.
• Inhale, brace the core and maintain a neutral spine before starting the pull.
• Pull down on the bar with both hands, drive the elbows toward the floor and pull the bar to the front of the chin.
• Pause at the bottom of the pull and then return to the starting position under control until the arms and elbows are fully extended.
• Keep the palms and eyes facing forward throughout the movement.
• Maintain proper posture and tension in the shoulders throughout the movement.

Five Common Movement Faults and Solutions for the Lat Bar Pull Down

Despite the fact that the lat pull exercise is performed in a seated position on a cable machine, there are a number of ways it can be performed incorrectly. Coaches should insist on perfect form on every rep because placing the shoulder in a fixed position and moving it under load using improper technique can lead to problems. When performed correctly, this exercise can help improve strength throughout the upper and mid back.

  1. The problem: Humeral anterior glide resulting in shoulder internal rotation and scapular anterior tilt. This can occur as a result of either pulling the bar too low or letting the bar stray too far in front of the body. When either of these occur, the shoulders are forced into internal rotation in a fixed position and under load which places the line of force on the anterior shoulder, pecs and biceps instead of the upper back musculature. This movement fault reinforces several of the poor posture traits that many athletes already suffer from – slumped shoulders, anteriorly tilted scapula, and tight pecs. In addition, most throwers already have a loose anterior capsule to begin with, which creates a path of least resistance to complete the movement.

The solution: Grasp the bar slightly wider than shoulder-width to keep the athlete from                          “dumping” the bar forward. Use cues that reinforce proper bar path to ensure proper glenohumeral joint position and a posterior tilted scapula. These can include telling the athlete to “drive the elbows into the floor.”

 2. The problem: Hyperextension of C, T or L spine. Hyperextension in either the cervical, thoracic, or lumbar spine is a common movement fault. Cervical extension occurs when an athlete looks up at the bar when performing the movement. Looking up promotes improper head position and can restrict upward rotation via compression of the levator scapulae during the eccentric phase of the movement. Extending the thoracic or lumbar spine reduces the range of motion in the lats that make it easier for the athlete to complete the movement. This shortened range, however, inhibits proper scapulothoracic rhythm (the fluidity of which the scap should move along the rib cage) that is essential for overhead throwing athletes. Thoracic or lumbar extension also shuts off the anterior core musculature, destabilizes the spine and creates energy leaks through a lack of tension created through the movement.

The solution: The athlete should be cued to look straight ahead and keep the back of the head, mid back, and low back in line. The athlete must engage the core throughout the movement by bracing the rib cage to ensure a proper neutral spine and prevent the scapula from moving properly along the ribcage. Having a slight backwards lean away from the machine is OK.

3. Limited range of motion. Research indicates that the lat produces more force at its end range during the throwing motion, making it important for the athlete to work through a full range of motion (3). Cutting reps short occurs when the athlete does not fulling extend the elbows at the top and finish with the bar in front of the chin. Many competitive athletes need to be reminded to focus on working through a full range of motion rather than pulling more weight.

The solution: Each athlete has a different functional range of motion. Coaches should strive to ensure that every athlete works within his range of motion and maintains proper posture and form by fulling extending the elbows at the top (without shrugging) and finishing with the bar in front of the chin.

4. Changing the angle of pull. This usually occurs when an athlete tilts the trunk away from the bar too much, creating more of a horizontal than a vertical angle of pull. While a slight tilt away from the bar is acceptable, too much tilt turns the movement into a row instead of a pulldown. This, in turn, causes scapular retraction instead of scapular depression.

The solution: Although some athletes can maintain a neutral spine while tilting the trunk away from the machine, the coach should instruct all athletes to sit upright and lean back slightly. The goal of the exercise is to work into shoulder extension and achieve proper elevation and depression of the scapula.

5. Shrugging the shoulder at the top of the movement. Creating and maintaining tension in the lat throughout the movement is important for proper execution. Shrugging the shoulders at the top of the movement, reduces tension in the lats which, in turn, requires the athlete to re-engage after each rep. This can also lead to the “jerking” of the bar during the pull, instead of using a steady, controlled movement under constant tension.

The solution: Allow the bar to return to the starting position under control with the arms and elbows fully extended. Maintain tension in the shoulders by cueing the athlete to “pull from the armpit” throughout the exercise.

Exercise Prescription: Perform 3 sets of 6-10 reps two times per week in-season and perform a 20-30 second lat stretch after each set. There are variations of the lat bar pull down that can be incorporated into a training program by simply changing the hand grip. Variety can be achieved by using a wide-grip, neutral- grip, narrow-grip, reverse grip, or performing single-arm pull downs. Changing the grip is a relatively easy way to achieve the goals or needs of the athlete.

Contraindications: It is important to note situations in which the lat pulldown may not be appropriate. Some throwers exhibit overactive lats when assessed for shoulder function. Muscle imbalances that arise from overactive lats include weakness in the mid- and low- trapezius and rotator cuff muscles. Tight lats can alter throwing mechanics and potentially increase the risk of injury. Mobility work coupled with scapular stability exercises should be incorporated for these players, along with training the lats through a functional range of motion. Players with prior elbow injury should be cautioned about working to full elbow flexion or extension when performing pull downs under load. Using a cable pull down machine with movable arm positions and handle attachments is one way to limit risk. One pulldown variation that should be avoided for all throwers is the behind the neck pull down. When the weight is pulled behind the neck, the cervical spine is excessively flexed, while the shoulders are fixed under load at extreme external rotation. This movement increases the risk of shoulder problems.

References

1. Fleisig GS, Andrews JR, Dillman CJ, Escamilla RF. Kinetics of baseball pitching with implications about injury mechanisms. Am J Sports Med. 1995 Mar-Apr;23(2):233-9.

2. Jobe FW, Moynes DR, Tibone JE, Perry J. An EMG analysis of the shoulder in pitching. A second report. Am J Sports Med. 1984 May-Jun;12(3):218-20.

3. Gowan ID, Jobe FW, Tibone JE, Perry J, Moynes DR. A comparative electromyographic analysis of the shoulder during pitching. Professional versus amateur pitchers. Am J Sports Med. 1987 Nov-Dec;15(6):586-90.

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Mike Lidge, MS, RSCC, is a minor league strength and conditioning coach with the Philadelphia Phillies.

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