Using the Lat Pull Down Machine to Get Strong for Your First Pull-up

The lat pull down machine is a great way for beginners and intermediate people to learn how to use their back muscles properly so that once sufficient strength is acquired, pull-ups and chin-ups can be performed with proper form. In my experience using the lat pull down machine is the fastest way to teach proper technique transition to make pull-ups quickly.

Here is a video we shot of the lat pull down in use. The cool thing about this particular machine is that the weight that you lift corresponds to the real force you exert. Sometimes machines use complicated pulley systems that actually halve the weight being lifted. This is not the case here.

Why the Lat Pull Down Machine?

The reason why you should start with the lat pull down machine if you are unable to do a single pull-up or chin-up is that this is the best way to learn proper technique for the pull-up. While you are working on perfecting your form, you will also improve your strength and will be soon ready for the real deal on the pull-up bar.

And the reason I’m writing about the lat pull down machine in this article is that most demonstrations you can see online suck – the same way that most people are pathetic at chin-ups and pull-ups, because they don’t know how to engage their back in the movement.

An Exercise Machine That Actually Works?

Most machines in the gyms seem to be a good idea for a workout for somebody who is inexperienced. Problem is, if you never graduate past a “machine user level” you will not learn how to apply the gym strength in the real world.

Cable machines however are the “good guys.” They don’t stabilize the weight for you and also provide constant tension – something that even free weights can’t accomplish all of the timee.

Using the Lat Pull Down Machine Properly

  • Use pronated grip – hands on top. Pronated just means with your palms facing down. The other grip – with your palms up, is called supinated. If you need help remembering which is which, just make a mental note that supinated is the grip you’d hold a cup of soup with. So the pronated grip is the other one. The reason for the pronated grip recommendation is that this is the better position for learning how to use the back. The biceps muscle is weaker here so you are forced to use your back muscles – the lats.
  • Grab shoulder width apart. This is the most natural movement and will be a great aid in learning the pull-up & chin-up, as well as the muscle-up later.
  • Pull down the shoulders with straight arms. This is the key to all pulling movements. Just lower your shoulders without bending the elbows.
  • Next pull with the back and arms. Flex your armpit muscles – the lats, as well as your biceps simultaneously and pull the bar down.
  • Pull the elbows back and touch the chest. When your upper arms become parallel to the ground, start pulling back with your elbows and the muscles of your mid back and touch your chest with the bar. Finish by pushing your chest out.

Action Plan

  • Train 3x per week. This is the recommended training frequency when training to acquire a new skill like this. If the stimulus is any less frequent, chin-ups and pull-ups will not happen any time soon.
  • Do 3 sets of 5 reps. Try to do the sets with proper form. When it becomes easy to do the third set of five, it’s time to add a little bit more weight. Go for the smallest increment possible that the lat pull down machine allows. Even better – if there are small weight plates or dumbbells at your gym, put them on the stack of weights of the machine so that you achieve gradual increases in resistance instead of jumping from one plate to the next.
  • Alternate with 8-12 reps. If you hit a plateau, start alternating those 3 sets of 5 with 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps. So every 3-4 weeks switch between sets of 5 and sets of 8-12.

Where do you stand? Can you do chin-ups and pull-ups easily with proper engagement of the back? Or do you still need to master the lat pull down machine?