Fitness Tips

Are You an Ace at Push-Ups? Strengthen Your Shoulders Even More With Pull-Down Exercises

Zoe Weiner

Photo: Getty/kazuma seki
Push-ups were the move of the 2020 quarantine; however, even if you're able to drop and do 20, you may not be working your core, arms, and chest to the fullest extent. But by adding in pulldown exercises, which work the exact opposite muscles in your body, you can hit every angle of your muscles. Because many of us spend our days hunched over our laptops, this chest-opening move is the perfect remedy to poor posture, and helps build strength in your upper back and shoulders to keep them pain free.

The benefits of pulldown exercises

Pulldown exercises strengthen the latissimus dorsi muscles in your back, which are the big muscles that control your scapula—you can find them right below your shoulders. Because of this, "they give you better posture and alignment, and also help to prevent injury," says Robert Brace, CPT, a certified personal trainer and the founder of Brace Life Studios. When done properly, the move also works your shoulders and triceps. Plus, it's a great way to build grip strength, which happens to be an indicator of longevity.

Depending on where you place your hands on the bar, these types of exercises can also target different muscles in your upper body. "There are many variations of pulldown exercises, but most exercises train the broad back muscles, shoulders, and arms," says Jesica Mazzucco, CPT, a certified personal trainer in New York City. "Wide grip lat pulldowns work the upper back, bicep, and lat muscles, single arm lat pulldowns work the biceps and lats, bent over rows and straight arm lat pulldowns work the trapezius and lats."

Of course, no matter what kind of pulldown exercises you're attempting, you'll want to make sure you're doing it right.

The biggest mistakes people make when doing a pulldown exercise

1. Rounding your shoulders forward

When doing a pulldown, think about keeping your chest up and your shoulders back, which will help ensure that you're working the right muscles. "Make sure to keep the chest out during the up and down movement, because the back muscles contract when the shoulders are pulled back," says Mazzucco. "You should also squeeze the shoulder blades together at the bottom of each rep to reach full contraction in the back muscles." If your shoulders are naturally rounding as you pull the bar toward you, it's likely a sign you're using too much weight.

2. Using too much weight

Speaking of "using too much weight," it's also not a good idea to overload the bar.  "Another indication that you should try less weight is if you are using momentum to bring the weight down to your sternum," says Brace. "The motion should be smooth and controlled in both directions. Throwing your body or the weight around can be dangerous and at the very least it is ineffective."

3. Placing your hands too far apart

Because the bars used in pulldown exercises are wide, people often mistakenly think that using a wide grip is the way to go—but that's not the case. "A wide grip puts extra stress on your shoulder muscles because you place them in an unnatural state," says Mazzucco. "Your range of motion is also reduced when you have a wide grip, meaning you will not engage or stimulate the muscles well." To get it right, place your hands slightly wider than your shoulders.

4. Pulling the bar to the wrong place

No matter what type of pulldown you're doing, you'll want to pull the bar in front of your body so that it kisses your sternum—bringing it too low or pulling it behind you can mess with the functionality of the move. "You should avoid pulling the bar down to the waistline if you are performing a lateral pulldown, because it puts extra stress on the shoulder muscles and you don't engage the lat muscles," says Mazzucco. "Pulling a bar behind your neck can also cause shoulder issues such as rotator cuff tears, so it is best to pull the bar to the top of the chest, where the collarbones are."

How to do a pulldown exercise properly

1. Sit up straight, and grip the bar with your hands slightly wider than your shoulders. Try to tighten your fists around the bar as much as you can.

2. Keeping your elbows pointing down, your shoulders back, and your chest proud, bring the bar to your chest so that it hits your sternum. Think about engaging and pulling through the larger muscles in your back, and avoid driving the motion from your arms.

3. Slowly return the bar to its original position, maintaining control of the muscles in your back and shoulders.

How to mimic the effects of a pulldown exercise at home

To fake the effects of a pulldown exercise at home (read: without gym equipment), simply grab a resistance band and try the moves below.

1. Lat pulldowns

Put both hands in the middle of the band and raise it over your head with your arms straight and your palms facing forward. Separate your hands to create tension in the band, then slowly lower it to your chest, following the same principles listed above. Hold your position at the bottom of the move for one to three seconds, then return to the starting position slowly and with control.

2. Straight arm pulldowns

Place the band around a stable base over your head, or close it into a door. Hold the ends of the band in each hand, and keep your arms straight as you pull against the resistance to bring your hands toward your hips. Return to the starting position slowly and with control.

Looking for other ways to work your upper body at home? Check out the video below. 

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