Virtually every gym in the country has a machine for lat pulldowns. They are among the most widely performed upper body exercises in commercial gyms. Even Arnold does them. Even so, lat pulldowns are not particularly effective for developing the upper body.
Lat pulldowns do have some value; for those who have upper body injuries or are in the beginning stages of shoulder rehabilitation, lat pulldowns are a better choice than, let’s say, chin-ups. It’s just that if you’re looking to build functional strength and muscle mass in your upper back, there are much better exercise choices. Here are six:
1. Narrow parallel-grip chin-up. The semi-supinated grip is the strongest elbow flexion grip. As such, this grip enables you to lift the heaviest loads for chin-up variations and strongly recruits the inferior fibers of the lats. These fibers have been shown to have a higher fast-twitch make-up than the superior fibers and, therefore, should be trained with lower reps.
A V-handle chin-up station, which has the handles set about 6-8 inches apart, works just fine for this exercise. Focus on bringing your lower sternum to the handles as you pull yourself up. In other words, lean back as you near the top of the concentric range.
2. Subscapularis pull-up. In this variation of the pull-up, assume the starting position of the wide-grip pull-up and pull yourself up until your upper pecs touch the chin-up bar. However, once you reach the top, push yourself away from the bar and lower yourself under control. The subscapularis muscles are strongly activated as you attempt to control the descent, and as such this exercise can help with structural balance.
3. Seated rope cable rows to neck. The vast majority of trainees devote far more time to chest work than they do back work, and as a result they often develop a round-shouldered posture. Position the adjustable pulley so that it's directly in front of your pecs. Using a rope, rather than a straight bar, reduces the stress on your forearms and wrists.
Grab the ends of the rope with a pronated grip. Protract your shoulders and extend your forearms. Begin the movement by retracting your shoulder blades, and then immediately bend the elbows to continue the movement until the forearms make contact with the upper arms. Make certain to eliminate the lower back from assisting with the exercise by keeping it perpendicular to the floor at all times. If the development of your rhomboids is lacking, pause for a moment when the shoulder blades are retracted.
4. Negative-accentuated seated cable row. This variation of the row, introduced by Jerry Telle, enables you to overload the eccentric portion of the seated cable row. Start the exercise like a regular row, and then quickly pull yourself back, beyond the point where your upper back is perpendicular the floor. Keep the handles close to your chest, return to perpendicular, and then slowly (a 4-6 second count) allow your arms to straighten. You’ll find this technique enables you to handle much more weight than you could lift otherwise, thus effectively overloading the eccentric portion of the exercise.
5. One-armed arc dumbbell row. This exercise differs from your standard one-armed dumbbell rows by the trajectory of the weight. In this modified version, instead of bringing the dumbbell to the chest, bring the dumbbell to the hip -- the elbow should come up as high "over" the hip as possible. In arc dumbbell rowing, because of the rearward trajectory used, the lats perform more of a shoulder extension movement. Of course, the weight will have to be drastically reduced, sometimes by two thirds.
6. Sternum chin-up. This variation of the chin-up, which was popularized by bodybuilding guru Vince Gironda, involves leaning back throughout the entire movement. At the top of the movement, the lower portion of your chest should touch the bar. You can use either a supinated or pronated grip, and the grip can vary from narrow to the much more difficult shoulder-width grip.
As you pull yourself to the bar, lean your head back as far away from the bar as possible and arch your spine. At the upper end of the movement, your hips and legs will be at about a 45-degree angle to the floor. You should keep pulling until your collarbone passes the bar and your sternum touches it. By the time you've completed the concentric portion of the movement, your head will be parallel to the floor.
A case could be made to consider this the king of compound movements for the upper back because it not only works the lats but creates a great overload on the scapulae retractors. The beginning of the movement, however, is more like a classical chin, while the midrange resembles a pullover motion. Finally, the end position duplicates the finishing motion of a rowing movement. If you're particularly strong and you still find it easy, you may want to slow down your concentric tempo.
There are certainly many more effective exercises for the upper back than these six described, but making them a regular part of your training will ensure that you develop these large muscles quickly and in the shortest amount of time.