What Is The Straight-Arm Pulldown?

The straight-arm pulldown exercise is a variation of the classic lat-pulldown. In this case, you perform the movement standing and keep your elbows locked out the entire time. The straight-arm pulldown trains the lats through a long range of motion, and is helpful for people who have trouble feeling their backs work on conventional pulldown exercises. As a result, it’s a great movement for focusing on lat development.

How To Do The Straight-Arm Pulldown

Step 1: Attach a rope handle to the high pulley of a cable station. Grasp an end in each hand and face the cable station.

Step 2: Draw your shoulder blades back together and down, as if you were trying to stuff them into your back pockets. Think: “proud chest.”

Step 3: Draw your ribs down, tuck your tailbone under, and brace your core. Your torso should feel like one tight, solid column. Bend your hips back until your torso is at a 30–45-degree angle.

Step 4: Step back from the station a bit so that you feel tension on the cable and your arms are fully extended overhead. You should feel a stretch on your lats (the muscles along the sides of your back). Set your feet at shoulder width.

Step 5: Slowly drive your arms down to your sides in an arcing motion with elbows locked out, so your hands end up in line with your hips, or just behind them.

Step 6: Reverse the motion slowly to extend your arms again.

The straight-arm pulldown may also be done with a lat-bar or straight-bar attachment, but the rope allows for better shoulder positioning and a slightly greater range of motion. As a result, you’ll get greater muscle activation. If possible, use two rope attachments on the same cable so that you can use a wider grip and get an even greater contraction in the end position. Another option is to use a band, which will increase tension in the end range of motion, helping you get a greater contraction at the bottom of the movement.

In any case, it’s important to keep the elbows extended, as any bending will cause the triceps to get involved and reduce the involvement of the lats.

Muscles Worked in the Straight-Arm Pulldown

  • Lats
  • Upper back
  • Read deltoid
  • Triceps
  • Chest
  • Core

Straight-Arm Pulldown Benefits

  • Enhanced mind-muscle connection. The straight-arm pulldown is ideal for lifters who can’t feel their lats working on traditional pulldown exercises. Keeping the arms straight prevents the mid-back and biceps from taking over the movement, so you can focus on the lat muscles you’re trying to work more directly.
  • Greater range of motion than standard pulldowns.
  • Improved stability on deadlifts. The straight-arm pulldown strengthens the lats in the same way that they’re used when deadlifting—pulling the bar tight to your body (“bending” it around the shins at the bottom of the lift/around the hips at the top). The ability to keep the bar in contact with your body throughout a deadlift creates a stronger, more stable movement and reduces the risk of injury.

How To Use The Straight-Arm Pulldown

  • Perform the straight-arm pulldown before deadlifts or other back exercises to prepare your lats for the effort and enhance their muscle recruitment. Because it provides an intense lat stretch at the top (starting) position, the straight-arm pulldown is also useful at the beginning of a workout to improve back and shoulder mobility.
  • Try it at the end of a workout for multiple sets of 10–15 reps with short rest periods in between (30–45 seconds). This will pump an enormous amount of blood into the area, which by itself is a mechanism for muscle growth.
  • Use it in place of rows or pulldowns if you have a lower-back injury. The movement is isolated to flexion and extension of the shoulders, so it prevents unwanted motion or stress in the lower back.

How To Stretch Before The Straight-Arm Pulldown

While the straight-arm pulldown can stretch your lats and increase mobility on its own, you should warm up your upper body before you perform it. The following video, courtesy of Onnit’s Durability Coach, Cristian Plascencia, is a sample routine you can use before an upper-body or back workout. (Follow Cristian on Instagram, @cristian_thedurableathlete).

Regression

If you feel like back muscles other than your lats are taking over the straight-arm pulldown, reduce the load you’re using, or try them with a band instead of a cable. You can also perform the movement while standing up more vertically, which will place less of a stretch on your lats and make the movement easier to control.

Progression

To make the straight-arm pulldown harder, use a longer rope or two rope handles at once to increase your range of motion.

What Alternatives Are There To The Straight-Arm Pulldown?

If you don’t have a cable station or band at your disposal, you can use the following substitutes to get a similar training effect to the straight-arm pulldown.

Dumbbell or kettlebell pullover. Lying on a bench and pulling the weight from behind your head to over your chest stretches the lats, but will also involve the chest and triceps to a degree, which isn’t ideal if your goal is ultimate lat development.

Gironda Pulldown. This pulldown/row combination works the back hard, but doesn’t provide the same lat isolation that the straight-arm pulldown does.