Having strong upper back muscles are just as important as having strong chest, shoulder and arm muscles. Exercise physiologist Peggy Kraus M.A., suggests that exercising your upper back helps correct postural imbalances to help you look more graceful. The lat pulldown works your upper back, and its various grips, such as the reverse grip and the wide grip, determine the effectiveness of the exercise for certain areas of your body.
The lat pulldown is a multi-joint exercise that primarily targets your latissimus dorsi or lats -- the large fan-shaped muscles on either side of your back. The exercise also works a range of other muscles on your upper back such as the rhomboids, teres major, the middle and lower trapezius and the rear deltoids. Other muscles engaged include your biceps and the outer portion of your chest.
Your grip on the lat pulldown bar determines how much you engage your lats and which other muscles you emphasize. According to a study published in the November 2002 issue of "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research,” wide-grip lat pulldowns to the top of the chest engage your lats more than reverse-grip lat pulldowns. Reverse-grip lat pulldowns with your palms facing you shift the focus onto your biceps. This grip also allows you to use more weight.
When performing wide-grip lat pulldowns, use a grip that is slightly wider than shoulder-width. A helpful guide is ensuring your forearms are roughly parallel as you pull the bar down. Using a wider grip may be uncomfortable and limit your range of motion, thus engaging fewer muscle fibers and lessening the effectiveness of the exercise. Perform reverse-grip lat pulldowns with a shoulder-width grip and keep your elbows in front of you. Use a narrower grip if you find that more comfortable.
Do not pull the bar down behind your head when doing wide-grip lat pulldowns. "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" notes it is not as effective as lat pulldowns to the top of your chest. According to strength coach Paul Chek, writing for the University of Washington, behind-the-head lat pulldowns place excessive stress on your shoulders and may cause injury. Avoid hurting your shoulders by pulling the bar down to the top of your chest.
Another option involves a fixed-width V-bar and using a close grip with palms facing. According to "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research” study, this grip activates your chest muscles, but works your lats less than wide-grip pulldowns to the chest. Vary your upper back exercises by alternating between wide pulldowns to your chest, reverse-grip pulldowns and close-grip pulldowns.