There’s been much discussion as to how to do a lat pulldown in order to isolate your latissimus dorsi better. Isolating your lats is important, because your lat is the largest single surface area muscle in your body. (They’re often nicknamed your “wings”.) Many people argue that pulling in front better hits the lat, and others argue that pulling the bar down behind your neck works it better. So which is true?
The short answer: the front. When doing a lat pulldown in front, you engage your latissimus dorsi and your deltoid muscles (shoulder) through the movement. Depending on how far spread your hands are, you will hit different areas of the lat. Doing the exercise behind your head will rotate your shoulder and cause the exercise to focus instead of on your lat, on your rhomboid–the muscles in the upper middle area of your back.
I’m not saying that doing a pulldown behind your head necessarily a bad exercise, but you do have a HIGH chance of tearing your rotator cuff. I’ve actually heard people say that doing so is bad for you, but that’s untrue, so long as you do the exercise properly. But if you think that pulling the bar down and behind you will isolate your lats, that’s where you’re wrong.
Doing a pulldown behind your neck is a great way to focus on hitting your rhomboids from a unique angle. Doing a pulldown in front of your body is a great way to focus on building bigger lats. As with all our exercise comparisons so far, either move is useful, depending on your goal. Just make sure that you’re pulling the weight straight down and that your upper body stays vertical (i.e., not leaning back to do the motion). If you’re going to lean back, you might as well instead do a cable row–also a good exercise, but works your back differently from the lat pulldown.