1. If you want to stay injury free while lifting heavy ass weights for the long run, you better learn how to properly brace and stabilize your shoulder, core and hips and build tension. Some people can be coached into good stable positions, while other struggle forever.
2. Stop thinking the “squeeze the armpits” cue during the deadlift is going to work for everyone. I’ve seen this cue fall apart many times, and end up putting athletes into brutal forced spinal flexed positions that will eventually lead to injuries.
3. The straight arm pulldown and it’s many variations is the perfect activation drill to teach athletes how to achieve and maintain proper tension through the shoulders, core and pelvis, and really acts as a catch all stability primer before big compound movements like the deadlift.
4. No matter what your goal, equipment limitations or training level, I have you covered with the perfect straight arm pulldown variation to translate into bigger, stronger, and more stable deads. All you have to do is place this movement in before your big compounds movements and reap the benefits.
Lifting Heavy Ass Weights Safely Is All About Activation
When it comes to pulling heavy weights from the floor while maintaining a rigid pillar position throughout the lift, nothing may be more important than staying tight through the lats. While targeting the lats may seem like a very narrow and simplistic point of focus, the best methods that improve performance while mitigating the risk of injuries are indeed simple that have a synergistic effect throughout the rest of the body. Now that’s the kind of catch all activation I look for as a coach every damn time.
While we’ve all been coached to “squeeze your armpits” during loaded hip hinging movement patterns to stabilize the shoulder girdle and thoracic spine/cage, I have seen this coaching cue fall apart many times in even elite performance athletes which ends up translating into some pretty piss poor dynamic postures which rip the athlete into a continuous flexed spinal position throughout the concentric phase of the lift. While spinal flexion isn’t the demon that we once thought it to be, any time the spine is forced into a flexed position from poor bracing and stabilization, this is a recipe for an injury. And anyone who has coached enough athletes will agree with that statement.
While it’s clear that the armpit cue doesn’t work for everyone, what is the next step in the movement remediation for achieving and maintaining a strong canister position at the shoulder, core, pelvis and hips during loaded movements? If you are struggling with volitionally staying tight during big compound movements, it’s time to target the lats with direct activation work. But why the lats with so many other key players in spinal and pillar stability?
The Importance Of The Lats For Global Stability
The lats are the broadest muscles in the body that have distal insertion points into the posterior rig cage, thoracic and lumbar spine, and multiple dense sheaths of fascia that span the lower back, gluteal region, hips and pelvis. Simply put, the lats are the active cornerstone of posterior lumbo-pelvic stability.
What makes the lats even more intriguing from a stability standpoint is their attachment into the medial aspect of the upper humerus, making the lats the prime extensor of the upper arm and true shoulder joint, while also playing a key roll in internal rotation. Anytime a muscle courses over multiple joints, it’s action for stability of the joints it encompasses is exponentiated. So in this case, the lats integrate the shoulder, thoracic cage, pelvis and hips together as a functioning unit. To take it a step further, due to the size and anatomical location of this set of muscles, the lats strength and capabilities to volitionally activate make actively tapping into them a requisite to stabilize the entire pillar, especially with loaded movement.
So if you are having trouble tapping into your mind muscle connection naturally by squeezing your armpits, it would be smart to take the next step and place the lats in the perfect position to be directly activated before big compound movements like the deadlift. And the single best way to activate the lats is through straight arm pulldown variations that allow the lats to move the upper arm into extension and internal rotation at the proximal origination point while maintaining a rigid isometric position distally at the broad insertions. But like with most movements, benefits and results are derived from perfect execution and programming strategies, so lets review the perfect straight arm pulldown for results driven practice and programming.
The Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
While the name of the movement really gives away the focus point, it’s worth detailing the importance of the proper execution of the straight arm pulldown. Here are the pivotal keys to perfecting your form and technique to maximize the tension and muscular recruitment through the isolated lat group, but also to increase it’s transference into your big compound lifts for the day. These points will stand true for all variations of the straight arm pulldown, and are requisites to mastering this movement and getting the most out of the lat activation:
Maintain a locked out straight elbow position throughout the concentric, eccentric and flexing phase of the movement. This will ensure the the triceps group does not aid in the extension of the elbow and shoulder joint, which would ultimately reduce the direct isolation of the lats.
Position the shoulders in a neutrally centrated position. This position should not allow for compensatory movement of the shoulders such as elevation, protraction or hyper internal rotation.
Ensure that the anterior core including the multi-layer abdominal wall is actively bracing throughout the entire movement, as the eccentric portion of the straight arm pulldown will challenge the anti-extension moment of the core and spine.
Execute each rep with slow and deliberate concentric and eccentric contractions to minimize the compensation patterns taking over at the shoulder, core or hips.
Control your maximal allowable range of motion that also maintains proper shoulder and spinal position throughout. Again, we are working hard to avoid losing tension at the lats that is common when compensation patterns kick in.
Finally, it is imperative that you tap into your mind muscle connection and flex as hard as you possibly can at the bottom of every rep. This will maximize the tension and activation through the lats while they are in the perfect position to fire (internally rotated and extended at the shoulder). I consider the straight arm pulldown and it’s many variations an internally tension driven movement, meaning the emphasis should be placed on your flexing as opposed to adding more external load.
Now that we have covered the basics of the straight arm pulldown, it’s time to feature some of the options when choosing the perfect variation of the straight arm pulldown for your needs, equipment limitations, and current level of performance and training abilities. The following four straight arm pulldown variations are ordered from most simple to most advanced, so if you are new to this movement, start simple and work your way up the chain to chose the variation that is right for you, and actually produces results in your big lifts.
Banded Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
The most basic of the straight arm pulldown variations is the standing banded pulldown. This variation allows for a great “feel” due to the accommodating banded resistance that places more resistance on the hard flexed portion of the movement and lets up on resistance towards the top stretched position. This variation is also very equipment friendly, as the instant implementation into a program is as easy as picking up a pro-mini band and attaching it to a pull up bar and getting to work. This is the reason why I chose to use the banded straight arm pulldown variation in my FHT Program.
Since the band is essentially used as a learning tool to teach you how to isolate and fire the lats, you can get away with using the same resistance band for an extended period of time. Remember, this is an activation drill, not necessarily a strength movement that you want to continuously load up in a periodized fashion. If you do outgrow the banded straight arm pulldown variation, you can either invest in a thicker band, or move onto the cable straight arm pulldown variation below.
Cable Straight Arm Pulldown
The cable straight arm pulldown is going to have the same basic feel and function as it’s banded counterpart above, but with the added advantage of being able to objectively load up using the cable rack. Utilizing the same standing position, it’s imperative that the core stays strong, especially in the eccentric phase of the movement where your arms come up overhead into a stretch between each rep.
If you are moving from the band to the cable rack and progressing the straight arm pulldown, remember that the cable system does not account for accommodating resistance, but rather even loading throughout the strength curve. That means that your choice in weights needs to be dialed in, taking into account the maintenance of perfect technique throughout the entire range of motion. I will say it again, this is all about maintaining tension and maximizing isolated lat activation, so keep the loads low and your internal tension high.
To take this variation to the next level, the progression that I commonly use with my athletes and aesthetics clients is one which allows for a greater range of motion to be utilized. This can be achieved through positioning yourself on a decline bench and staying within the cable rack for decline cable straight arm pulldowns that are detailed below.
Decline Cable Straight Arm Lat Pulldown
While this variation may feel like you are bodybuilding instead of activating, the proof is in the range of motion. One of the limiting factors to a standing straight arm pulldown variation is the range of motion at the top of the movement. Simply put, it is very hard to get to terminal shoulder flexion without compensating or losing tension, which would ultimately defeat the purpose of the activation drill.
By using a slight decline on the piece of equipment that people commonly use to flare up their lower backs and herniate discs, we are going to put this bench to use intelligently. I first picked up this movement from coach Lee Boyce, and it has stayed in my training library ever since. By using the slight decline angle and having the cable set at a lower height, you are locked into a full range of motion if you can maintain stability and control through the pelvis and lower spine. Ensure that you are not compensating to get more shoulder flexion overhead by hyper-extending the lower back. This is a no-no, and will again defeat the purpose of the activation drill. The last thing you want to be doing before loading up a deadlift is crushing your facet joints and discs into a hyper-lordodic position.
Work hard to stabilize your core, pelvis and maintain constant tension and a huge flex at the bottom of each rep. When you have mastered this variation, you have one more big jump to the apex of the straight arm pulldown continuum, the bent over straight arm pulldown.
Cable Bent Over Straight Arm Pulldown
This is my favorite variation of the straight arm pulldown, but also one you must earn your way to implement into your program if you have any chance of seeing notable benefit. The bent over position allows the a natural hip hinge to occur at the hips and pelvis, while maintaining a rigid torso and spine. This angle places even more tension throughout the thoraco-lumbar fascia and other deep fascial connections of the posterior chain connecting to the lats. This position essentially pre-stretches the lats, allowing for even greater activation.
Also, by hip hinging over, increased terminal flexion shoulder range of motion is allowed, really accentuating the stretch on the lats from the top and bottom of the structures. Finally, I see this movement to be more highly transferable into deadlifting and other compound movements as it does indeed utilize the hip hinge, which is the exact foundational movement pattern that will be loaded after the activation drills have commenced.
To really get the most out of this variation, use an extra long rope setup on the cable. This will allow for better shoulder extension paired with internal rotation. If this is not an attachment you have readily available, hook two normal ropes to the single cable clip and pull from there, using the longer ropes on each side. When you do this one correctly, the tension and activation is through the roof, and should be one hell of a novel training stimuli to the lats and posterior chain.
Programming The Straight Arm Pulldown
Since we are not truly loading up the straight arm pulldown in a linear fashion due to the movement being more dependent on internal muscular tension and recruitment, it’s pivotal that we program and execute perfect reps in order to increase the transference into the big lifts.
First off, we want to be placing this straight arm pulldown variation directly in front of your big deadlift of compound movement for the day. The plasticity of your brain and ability to utilize the post activation potentiation effect is just a few minutes, so don’t do these 20 minutes before hitting deads.
Starting with a few sets of 8-10 reps with a load that you can 100% dominate in terms of tempo, range of motion and most importantly that active flex at the bottom of the movement will do the trick. If you are using a band, over time you can add some reps to your scheme, or just move to a heavier band or cable setup.
When progressing the cable pulldown variations, move up the loads with caution. This movement will be sneaky, as adding too much weight will deactivate the lats due to bringing in accessory movers into the exercise. This is about the feel and function of the movement, so stay where you can feel the movement the most, period.
Now it’s time to go enjoy the added benefit of lat activation, core stabilization and a nasty pump of the lats that will transfer into function. And remember, squeeze hard!
About The Author
Meet Dr. John Rusin | The Strength Doc
Dr. John Rusin is an internationally recognized coach, physical therapist, speaker, and writer, whose published over 200 articles in some of the most widely regarded media outlets in the industry like Men’s Fitness, Testosterone Nation, Mountain Dog Diet, Bodybuilding.com, and Muscle and Strength, to name a few.
Along with an impressive laundry list of publications, Dr. John works with some of the world’s most elite athletes, including Gold Medalist Olympians, NFL All-Pro Quarterbacks, MLB All-Star Pitchers, Professional Bodybuilders and World Class IronMan Triathletes.