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    How to Do the Single-Arm Lat Pulldown for Spectacular Back Development – Fitnessnacks

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    You’ve probably heard that the best way to build your back is with rows, pull-ups, deadlifts, and so on. And, for the most part, that’s sound advice: Large and heavy compound exercises are phenomenal for both gaining muscle and increasing strength.

    However, relying solely on those tools is also a bit like trying to sculpt a statue with just a sledgehammer. Working with a more diverse toolset in the weight room will sharpen your results. 

    A muscular person doing a single arm lat pulldown.Credit: Solinda Hong / Youtube

    The single-arm lat pulldown may just be the best tool in your toolbox to sculpt your lats. On your next back day, once you’ve finished your heavy rows, head to the cable machine and see for yourself. 


    How to Do the Single-Arm Lat Pulldown

    The single-arm lat pulldown requires a bit more technical know-how than some other isolation exercises. Between the equipment you use and your unique anatomy, you might find that it takes some experimenting to learn how you can best target your lats. 

    To get started, you’ll need access to a standard lat pulldown station. With it, make sure you have a traditional one-handed handle attachment to grab onto. 

    Step 1 — Find Your Angle

    Setting up to do the single arm lat pulldown.Credit: Solinda Hong / Youtube

    When you set up for the single-arm lat pulldown, you have a variety of stances to choose from, largely dependent on the equipment at your disposal. If you have access to a lat pulldown machine, you can start in a seated position, or seated sideways, working your arm farthest from the pulley system. 

    If you opt to work on a dual stack cable cross, you might consider setting up in a kneeling or lunging position. The bottom line is you’re looking for the setup that allows you to feel the most tension in your lat from the point of maximum length to the point of maximum contraction.

    Coach’s Tip: Allow the weight to stretch your lat to its fully lengthened position when you set up in order to increase your range of motion and improve overall lat activation.

    Step 2 — Drive Your Elbow Down

    A person doing the single arm lat pulldown.Credit: Solinda Hong / Youtube

    Brace your core and set your scapula, then drive straight downward, leading by dropping your shoulder away from your ear and then following through by pulling your elbow downward until your upper arm is flush with your torso.

    Coach’s Tip: Since your lats are responsible for lateral spinal flexion, consider finishing each repetition by “crunching in” on your lat for an even greater contraction. 

    Step 3 — Control the Eccentric

    Reversing the movement in the single arm lat pulldown.Credit: Solinda Hong / Youtube

    Once you reach the end of the range of motion, pause for a beat and then reverse the movement. Maintain continuous tension with the cable as you let your elbow rise. At the top, allow the cable to pull your shoulder upward towards your ear.

    Coach’s Tip: Keep your ribs down and your chest up to keep your scapula in their proper range of motion.


    Single-Arm Lat Pulldown Sets and Reps

    Cable exercises rarely make for good one-rep max lifts, but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the single-arm lat pulldown for a variety of purposes. Here are some of the ways that you can incorporate the single-arm lat pulldown into your routine to help you reach your goals.

    • For Muscle Mass: Perform 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps, focusing on slowing down the eccentric portion of the exercise to maximize time under tension.
    • For Strength: Perform 4 sets of 6 to 8 slow and controlled reps.
    • For Endurance: Perform 4 sets of 15 to 20 reps with limited rest. 


    Common Single-Arm Lat Pulldown Mistakes

    The single-arm lat pulldown cuts down on the variables of the two-handed pulldown variation significantly. But there are still a few mistakes that could keep you from utilizing the lift for all it’s worth. Here are a few to watch out for.

    Dumping Your Shoulders Forward

    Once you’ve reached the end of the range of motion, your elbow has nowhere to go but backwards. As a result, your shoulder might start to move forward. This compensation may cause undue stress or discomfort. While occasional “shoulder dumping” may not be harmful, it can be both a cause and symptom of scapular dyskinesis. (1) 

    [Read More: The Best Barbells for All-Around Training, Weightlifting, Powerlifting, Deadlifts, and More]

    If you can’t properly pull by leading with your elbows and tucking your upper arm against your torso, your lats may be too weak relative to other muscles in your upper back. Drop the weights down and focus on your technique before building back up.

    Going Too Heavy

    Check your ego at the door when you start working with cables. Unlike free weights, cables provide continuous tension across an entire range of motion for a given lift, making cable exercises like the single-arm lat pulldown ideal for high-repetition hypertrophy work. 

    Going too heavy with the single-arm lat pulldown might tire you out and defeat the purpose of the movement. You’re only using half of your back, after all, so don’t try to turn your set into a full-body exercise.

    Torso Twisting

    The single-arm lat pulldown doesn’t have to be a full-body movement. While it’s perfectly common to be a little stronger on one side of your body, you shouldn’t be contorting yourself to squeeze out repetitions on your non-dominant side.

    Be mindful of any errant torso movement during the exercise. If you find yourself leaning into each repetition to get your arm where it needs to be, try contracting your abs harder to stabilize your spine. 


    Single-Arm Lat Pulldown Variations

    Once you know your way around a pulley station, you can get a solid workout just by changing your setup or by changing your cable attachment. Here are some variations on the single-arm lat pulldown that you can perform with cables to get a well-rounded back workout. 

    Lat Pulldown

    You should have some level of familiarity with the standard two-armed lat pulldown before you get started with an exercise like the single-arm pulldown. A back-building staple, the lat pulldown lets you work with significantly heavier loads than you can with the single-arm lat pulldown. As a result, the lat pulldown is probably a better means of applying progressive overload, which plays an important part in muscular growth and development. (2)

    To perform the lat pulldown, take a seat at the lat pulldown station and grab a hold of the bent lat bar. Then sit back slightly to increase the angle of your trunk, depress your lats, and pull.

    Neutral-Grip Lat Pulldown

    For those short on time, consider adding the neutral-grip lat pulldown to your routine. The neutral-grip lat pulldown targets your lats, your rhomboids, your traps, and even your posterior deltoids, making it a great all-around back builder. 

    The neutral-grip pulldown is also quite intuitive. As long as you have a triangle bar attachment for the station and can keep your elbows tucked tightly to your sides as you pull, you’re in business. 

    Single-Arm Straight-Arm Pulldown

    If you have trouble engaging your lats during conventional pulldown exercises, take a turn performing the single-arm straight-arm pulldown. Just like the single-arm lat pulldown, you perform the single-arm straight-arm pulldown unilaterally. 

    Start in either a standing or kneeling position with a slight bend in your torso, holding onto the cable overhead. Then, keeping your arm perfectly straight, pull straight forward, taking your arm through a wide arc. This exercise relies entirely on shoulder extension — one of your lats’ principal functions — and removes the assistance usually provided by your biceps. 


    Single-Arm Lat Pulldown Alternatives

    Your lats are the biggest muscle group in your upper body. Even if you love the single-arm lat pulldown, exclusively using it to train your lats would be reckless when you have these alternatives to consider.

    Pull-Up

    If you want to build overall muscle endurance and strength, don’t shy away from bodyweight training. The pull-up targets your back, arms, and core muscles all while building an incredible amount of grip strength.

    If standard pull-ups are a little beyond your skill level, you can decrease overall load during the exercise with assistance, either with the help of a resistance band, or by performing machine-assisted pull-ups. 

    Dumbbell Pullover

    Looking for a way to target your back and chest at the same time? Take a stab at the dumbbell pullover. The dumbbell pullover is a rather unique free-weight isolation exercise that targets both your lats and your pecs. 

    You can perform the dumbbell pullover by lying flat on a bench, holding a dumbbell at arm’s length above your head with both hands. Then, slowly drift your arms back behind your head. Rather than focusing on a specific end range of motion, try to stretch your lats while keeping them under tension. You’ll find that this exercise mimics the same range of motion as the straight-arm pulldown. 

    Single-Arm Dumbbell Row

    For a unilateral exercise that lets you lift a little more weight than the single-arm lat pulldown, you can incorporate the single-arm dumbbell row. Your lats are the primary mover while performing the dumbbell row, but you can also effectively target your lower traps and rhomboids with this lift.

    To get started with the single-arm-dumbbell row, kneel on a bench. Keeping your back flat, pull your elbow in towards your torso, contracting the muscles in your back. Think of the dumbbell row as the free-weight alternative to the single-arm lat pulldown.


    Muscles Worked by the Single-Arm Lat Pulldown

    As with any compound pulling movement, the single-arm lat pulldown primarily targets your latissimus dorsi. But as with all exercises, you inevitably end up using other muscle groups to stabilize your joints. Wondering what your body is actually doing when you perform the single-arm lat pulldown? Here’s how it all breaks down. 

    Latissimus Dorsi

    Your lats are the biggest muscles in your upper body. Your lats’ primary function is scapular motion, creating movement about your shoulder like internal rotation, adduction and extension of the arm. They’re also involved in lateral spinal flexion, making the single-arm lat pulldown a must for athletes who frequently engage in lateral movements like football or rugby players.

    Scapular Stabilizers

    Your rhomboids, teres major, and other small stabilizers work together to provide you with scapular mobility. The ability to protract and retract your scapula is key to good posture and healthy shoulders, and, particularly important for powerlifters, scapular retraction allows you to pack down your shoulders on the bench press. 

    Biceps

    Your biceps brachii stabilizes your elbow joint during flexion. However, your biceps are also a wrist supinator — it turns your wrist upward (think all manner of dumbbell curl). During the straight-arm pulldown, your biceps (and brachialis, a deeper muscle in your upper arm that also flexes your elbow) activate to help you finish each repetition.


    Benefits of the Single-Arm Lat Pulldown

    Cable exercises have long been touted as a low-impact alternative to free weights that let you maintain continuous tension on a muscle across the duration of an exercise. Here’s how the single-arm lat pulldown exemplifies the best of what cables have to offer.

    Improve Scapular Mechanics

    If you have nagging shoulder mobility or function issues, you can do banded rotator cuff exercises until the cows come home and they may not accomplish much. During the two-handed lat pulldown, incongruent mobility or stability is made manifest in leaning back excessively, dumping your shoulders forward, or shrugging at the top of each rep.

    [Read More: The 25 Best Back Exercises for Strength and Muscle Gain]

    The single-arm lat pulldown offers a mechanically advantageous alternative, letting you work in a more natural movement pattern to retract your scapula and contract your lat muscles without reinforcing faulty movement patterns. 

    Isolate Your Lats

    From rows, to pull-ups, to lat pulldowns, most exercises that target your lats are heavy compound exercises. While these exercises play an important role in developing big and powerful back muscles, they all work a wide range of muscles spanning your arms, shoulders, and core. 

    While it is a compound exercise (since it involves motion at more than one joint), the single-arm lat pulldown lets you target your lats almost exclusively, which should provide greater levels of hypertrophy.

    Address Muscular Imbalances

    As a unilateral exercise, performing the single-arm lat pulldown makes you more aware of potential differences in strength and mobility from one side of your body to another. Luckily, the single-arm lat pulldown provides an immediate solution to the problem: By slowing down each rep and dialing in your technique, you can resolve imbalances as you become aware of them.


    Who Should Do the Single-Arm Lat Pulldown

    More often than not, exercise programming is a matter of preference. Even if you don’t fit into one of the following groups, the single-arm lat pulldown can still be a great way to build your lats. On the other hand, if you do fit into one of these categories, incorporating the single-arm lat pulldown into your routine could be a game-changer that helps you level up in the gym.

    Beginners

    No one stepping into the gym for the first time does so with a truly clean slate: Whether or not you realize it, you’re constantly developing and refining movement patterns throughout everyday activity. 

    You bring those movement habits with you into the gym, too, for better or worse. Your dominant arm, for example, may steal the show during barbell-based exercises to your detriment. The single-arm lat pulldown gives you an opportunity to address imbalances and improve your mobility, all while building the largest muscles in your upper body.

    Bodybuilders

    Anyone who’s looking to build a more aesthetic physique knows just how important a well-developed back is. Your lats make your shoulders look broader and your waist thinner.

    [Read More: What You Need to Know About How to Build Muscle]

    Most importantly, the single-arm lat pulldown should appeal to bodybuilders because it allows for failure-adjacent training without much added risk. After you finish up with your rows, and your pull-ups, and your lat pulldowns (and so on), use the single-arm lat pulldown to finish your back workout on a high note, torching your lats and getting a great pump.

    Weightlifters

    As any Olympic lifter will attest, the snatch and the clean & jerk require a pretty serious level of scapular and thoracic mobility. Since weightlifting is composed entirely of bilateral (two-limbed) movements, including the single-arm lat pulldown in your workout routine can be helpful for addressing potential imbalances in your posterior chain strength. A bigger, stronger back never hurts a weightlifter’s performance, either. 

    Get Down With the Pulldown

    Isolation exercises like the single-arm lat pulldown let you zone in on your lats and build them beyond what you might be able to achieve with heavy free-weight training alone. That’s all that it’s meant to do, but the exercise gets bonus points for novelty as well. 

    Next time you want to isolate your lats, keep it simple: Skip the tips and tricks, head to the cable machine, and do the single-arm lat pulldown instead.

    FAQs

    If you still have any questions about the single-arm lat pulldown, try consulting these frequently-asked questions.

    Can I lean back while performing the single-arm lat pulldown?

    Leaning back excessively while you perform the single-arm lat pulldown is an indication that you’re probably lifting a weight that’s too heavy for you to use. As a result, you could be engaging other back muscles, or even your biceps in order to control the load.

    What cable machine should I use to do the single-arm lat pulldown?

    Ideally you should use a lat pulldown machine to perform the single-arm lat pulldown, but any number of cable machines can work, as long as you’re able to get the cable far enough overhead to stretch your lat at the top of each repetition.

    References

    1. Borloz S, Graf V, Gard S, Ziltener JL. Dyskinésie de l’omoplate [Scapular dyskinesis]. Rev Med Suisse. 2012 Dec 19;8(367):2422-8. French. PMID: 23346745.
    2. Krzysztofik M, Wilk M, Wojdała G, Gołaś A. Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2019 Dec 4;16(24):4897. doi: 10.3390/ijerph16244897. PMID: 31817252; PMCID: PMC6950543.

    Featured Image: sakkmesterke / Shutterstock



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