The v-bar pulldown (sometimes called the close-grip pulldown) is a variation on the classic lat pulldown. It primarily works the large latissimus dorsi muscles in your back, though there are myriad muscles that come into play in supporting roles throughout the movement (more on this below).
Pulldowns are typically performed with a bar that curves down at the ends. This bar is attached to a cable, which in turn is connected to weight bars. Pulldown stations can be adjusted for a range of weights, with a range of handles, and are found in pretty much every commercial gym the world over.
Pulldowns and their variations are easy to learn and perform (though there are some tips to bear in mind if you really want to nail it- again, more on this below). They form an important part of any back training regime and will lead to improvements across most major lifts.
Latissimus Dorsi: A Rough Guide
The Latissimus Dorsi (‘lat’ for short) is a very large fan-shaped, superficial muscle that covers a large portion of your mid- to upper- back. It originates at the iliac crest in your hip, along the spine, at the T5-T7 vertebrae, at the lower three ribs of the rib cage and the scapula’s inferior angle.
From these points of origin, the lats run to insert at a single spot just underneath your armpit. It snakes through, beneath your armpit, to a spot called the intertubercular groove. This is just next to the ball and socket joint of your arm.
Your biceps’ long head muscle runs over this spot as well, and the short head runs just beside it. Hence, when you use your lats for most movements, the biceps are also recruited: they have an important interplay with the lat’s insertion.
Trying to isolate your lats away from your biceps in any meaningful exercise is therefore quite hard. Of course, you can have straight arm pull downs (though here you will also be recruiting your triceps’ mass), but this is very much an auxiliary movement. It brings nothing like the kinds of benefits, or the level of stimulation, that something like a row or a pulldown can bring to the lats.
This will show in today’s discussion, below. The bicep and lat interplay will be crucial in understanding and correctly performing the v-bar pulldown.
So, we now know a little bit about our lats. But how do they work: what is their function?
The lats’ job is mostly to control the shoulders, arms and, in small part, the lower back. They extend, adduct, and medially rotate the arm and draw the shoulder inferiorly. In simple terms, your lats pull your arms back down from a raised position, draw your arms back and pull your elbows in towards your body.
They also bring your shoulders back and down from a shrugged position. Squeezing your shoulder blades in and down will allow you to tense your lats. This in turn will lead to greater stability through the core and posterior chain and forms a key component of any ‘breathe and brace’ position. You will use this for pretty much every big compound movement (more detail below) meaning that the stronger your lats are, the stronger the base of every one of you major lifts.
Any time you pull anything in towards your body, you are using your lats. Any time you pull your body up to something, as you would for a pull up, it will be your lats doing the brunt of the work. If you want to tense them for a strong posterior, you will do so by actively drawing your shoulders together and down.
Why Lats Get Left Behind
It’s relatively common to see people in the gym who have developed pecs, shoulders, arms and legs, but who have completely neglected their lats. This will, of course, lead to the usual issues with muscular and postural imbalances. Alongside this, under developing your lats will lead to overall weaknesses.
The lats are quite hard to engage. Most people can tense their biceps easily enough. Experienced lifters will be able to flex their pecs, shoulders, triceps, quads and hamstrings with no issues. But many people cannot actively engage and flex their lats without loading them. Even then, it can be hard to chase a pump through them in the same way as with the limbs, shoulders and chest.
Their mind muscle connection to the lats is weak.
This means that the lats won’t be able to perform one of their key roles to any great degree: they won’t be able to be tensed and used as a stabilising factor during other lifts.
But most people don’t think too much about this: they want to train the ‘t-shirt muscles’, and the lats aren’t in there. They want to build heavier squats, deadlifts and bench presses, so they spend a lot of time on their legs, posterior chain and chest, without giving due attention to the upper back.
How To Remedy This
Include smaller grade, secondary assistance work to really fatigue your lats after your main lifts. This is where the v-bar pulldown comes in. Use it after a tough upper body press, working the overhead or bench press’ antagonists. Use it after pull ups to go for volume, chasing that pump.
Focus in on the feeling through the lats. It will be common at first to feel the wrists, forearms and biceps more acutely, as your mind muscle connection with these smaller muscles will be more attuned. But really concentrate on the lats’ contraction and extension and those motor pathways should soon develop.
A great deal of mass will also develop, especially if you have been really neglecting your back training. You will get that ‘Christmas Tree’ look, you will get those ‘wings’ that many lifters want and all lifters need.
How To Perform The V-bar Pulldown
The v-bar pulldown will work your lats through pretty much their full contractile range of motion. It will also bring stimulation to your traps, rhomboids and serratus. This will build muscle. Importantly, it will also train the interplay of all these muscles with one another, making your whole upper back far more efficient and stable.
To perform the v-bar pulldown with correct technique, simply:
- Use a lat pulldown machine
- Attach a v-bar to the pulley. Adjust the knee pads to the correct height, so that your legs will be held firmly in place. You should be able to brace against the pads as you perform the lift
- Hold onto the bar with your palms facing one another in a neutral grip. Sit down, bracing your legs against the knee pads
- Lean back slightly. You don’t want to go too far, otherwise you will be performing more of a regular cable row with your rhomboids, deltoids and arms taking much of the slack. You should find an angle that will allow you to fully engage, and keep the pressure on, your lats
- Flare your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together and down. This should be where you begin to pack your lats, flexing them, with a boosted mind-muscle connection
- Tuck your elbows in and pull the bar down to your chest. Drive the weight down using your elbows rather than your hands as a focal point. This will put the stimuli in your lats rather than your biceps
- Squeeze at the bottom, taking note of the sensation of contraction, and return the handle to the top under control. Repeat for the desired rep range, usually 4-12.
You can allow your torso to move slightly but keep the movement as a natural way to move the force through your body, not as an exaggerated sway to give you more momentum in the pull.
Keep the weights low to begin with. This will help you to develop good technique without this kind of momentum and will allow you to really focus on contracting your lats rather than just hefting through the movement.
If you want more tension going into your lats, relaxing your forearms and biceps a little more, try using lifting straps to tie your hands to the bar. This will give you fewer things to focus on, so you can really concentrate on that lat activation and the mindfulness that needs to go with it. It will also mean that even more of the load is being born by the lats, and that you may even be able to increase the load above what you’re able to comfortably grip for reps.
As mentioned above, you can put the v-bar pulldown in a few different places in your training schedule. If you train your deadlifts or bench press as their own day, use the v-bar pulldown as an accessory or finisher for your torso and upper-posterior chain. If you break your training up into bro-splits, use it as a main mover or an accessory on your back day.
Sets can come down as low as you want them, but it might be a good idea to start off in the higher ranges (8+). Remember, chasing that mind-muscle connection through your lats is as important to your gains as simply eliciting a pump or going to failure.
V-bar Pulldowns: The Carry-over
As either a controlling antagonist, a supplementary mover, or as a stabilising mechanism, your lats play their part in every one of the major lifts. Without properly developing them, you will be severely limiting the amount you will be able to lift on the squat, bench press and deadlift.
For this reason, v-bar pulldowns and lat work in general should be a priority in any training regime. The carry-over is just too significant to ignore.
Even if they’re not being used or trained directly, your lats will help with the following:
Your squats are a great stabilising mechanism for your torso during squats. Keeping them packed (tensed, with your shoulder blades pulling together and downwards) will protect your spine and maintain upright posture. It will stop you from collapsing in on yourself under maximal load, thus making heavier loads that much easier to bear.
Rest the bar on your upper traps. From here, try bending the bar (obviously you won’t be able to, just the direction of force alone is what we’re looking for here). Bend it across your upper back, pulling the elbows downwards and towards your hips as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
This should help you to activate your lats more fully, especially as you get used to doing so.
The lats work for the bench press in a very similar way to the squat: they are crucial stabilisers. They give you something firm to push from, and something firm to push into the bench. They help you to maintain near-equal force production through each arm- especially as your mind-muscle connection to them grows.
They are also antagonists. They help to control the descent as you bring the barbell towards your chest, and they help to reverse the motion as you begin the press itself. You will find yourself having a great deal more control over the bar if you have well-developed, stable lats that if you forgo training them.
The lats are stabilisers for the deadlift. They will allow you to keep your torso erect and your posture strong so that all the power you push into the ground is transferred into the bar as it lifts. This will also stop you from caving forwards and will keep your spine safe under load.
However, they also play a role in force generation. They sit just above the main muscles of the posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings and erector spinae) and have an important interplay with them all. They allow you to bring your full force to bear and will aid in lockout, as you cling the bar to your hips. This will be especially true of rack pulls or higher deadlifts and Romanian or pause deadlifts, as they control the bar’s path from your knee upwards and give you a bit more pull.
Frequently Asked Questions
We’ve covered quite a lot today. We’ve seen how important lat development is, and how good and in what manner the v-bar pulldown is for working them. However, there are some common questions and concerns that a lot of lifters have.
Let’s take a minute to answer some of these:
What muscles does the v-bar pulldown work?
V-bar pulldowns are primarily an exercise for the upper back, as with most pulling/rowing motions. They work the latissimus dorsi as a prime mover, with considerable assistance from the posterior deltoids and biceps.
Should you do lat pulldowns behind your head?
It is inadvisable to do so. The range of motion you will get from bringing the bar to your chest, out in front, will be perfect for upper back growth. Going behind the head limits this. It can also aggravate shoulder impingement.
Is the lat pulldown effective?
Yes, it’s one of the cornerstones of lat training, and upper back training in general. However, it might not be considered a primary exercise, but rather more akin to an assistance exercise. Primary exercises, which are more challenging, stimulating, and elicit greater adaptation, include barbell rows, pull ups and chin ups.
Does the v-bar pulldown work your biceps?
Yes, they will assist the lats in bringing the bar through its required range of motion. It’s hard and often unnecessary to isolate the lats from the biceps: they naturally work in tandem, and strength and mass gains to either will often include exercises that hit both.
Does the v-bar pulldown help with pull ups?
Yes, in theory. It works similar muscles, using the lats and biceps dominantly in the same range of motion that pull ups typically use.
However, there is actually much less carry over than you might expect. This is due to complex nature of pull ups, and the intense stimulation that your muscles go through during them. Working v-bar pulldowns won’t perfectly simulate the pull up, nor will it prepare you for them as well as the relevant physiognomy might suggest at first.
The best way to use the two together is to put the pull ups first as your main mover for the workout, followed by v-bar pulldowns as an assistance finisher for higher reps.
The v-bar pulldown is no replacement for any other form of pulldown. It places more emphasis on your lats than other varieties and so should be used for lighter weights at perhaps higher reps, but other than this all pulldown variations will give you a lot.
Specifically, they will give you a great insight into your mind-muscle connection with your lats, and they will help you to build those lats to make them bigger, stronger and more efficient. Give it a go: put it into your routine next time you have a back day, or when you’re next stuck on what form of row to use.
It’s well worth trying.