Lat pulldown

USED IN: All programs (see "Pull-up or Pulldown?" on page 149 for an explanation)

SETUP: Attach the appropriate bar to the high pulley of the lat-pulldown station. Grab the bar with the designated grip (if the workout chart doesn't specify, use an overhand grip that's just outside shoulder width). Position yourself with your knees under the pads, if the apparatus you're using has them. Start with your arms straight,

Win One for the Gripper

Every well-equipped gym offers a variety of attachments for rows and lat pulldowns. These handles allow every possible type of grip—overhand, underhand, and whatever lies in between. Let's look at how those various grips affect your muscles.

Your forearm has two bones, the radius and the ulna. The two of them are parallel to each other when you take a palms-up grip, with the ulna on the inside (above the pinkie) and the radius on the thumb-side. That alignment puts your biceps in their strongest position.

When you rotate your hands inward so your palms face each other, you have what's called a "neutral" or, if you want to get really geeky, "semi-supinated" grip. Your forearms are in a very strong position with this grip, since you've now fully engaged two muscles: the brachialis, a thick, strong muscle that lies between the biceps and your upper-arm bone, and the brachioradialis, your biggest forearm muscle. The biceps are in a weakened position here, but they still contribute.

If you rotate your palms all the way around so you have an overhand grip, you've twisted your radius all the way around your ulna, so the radius is now on the inside. That puts your biceps in the weakest position of all, although the brachialis and brachioradialis are still strong in this position.

Many believe that a wider grip on pullups and pulldowns builds a wider back. It's not really true, since the main upper-back muscles—the lats and traps—don't engage differently with different arm widths. They pull your arms down and shoulder blades together in all these exercises.

But a wider grip does force your arms out farther from your torso, which challenges your rear deltoids more. And the wide, overhand grip does put your arm muscles in a relatively weak position, meaning the lats might have to work harder, even if the range of motion is shorter with a wider grip.

torso upright. (It's okay to lean back a few degrees at the start, as long as you can hold that position throughout the movement.)

LIFTING: Initiate the pull by squeezing your shoulder blades together in back. Pull the bar to your upper chest without leaning back to generate momentum. It's helpful to envision pushing your chest up toward the bar; that puts your upper-back muscles in their strongest position.

LOWERING: Return the bar to the starting position, keeping it under control.

Variations

These are easy to figure out from the workout charts:

• "Wide-grip" means you use the widest possible grip on the longest bar. (The grips on these bars are angled downward slightly.)

• "Close-grip" means the triangle-shaped attachment; your palms will face each other with your hands just a few inches apart.

• "Underhand-grip" means you grab any bar with your palms up and your hands shoulder-width apart.

• "Mixed-grip" means a combination overhand-underhand grip on the bar. Alternate on each set, so if you start with your right hand over the bar on the first set, it'll be under the bar on the next. If you're doing an uneven number of sets, change grips halfway through the final set so you get equal work for both sides of your body.

The Truth about Arm Curls

Show this program to any serious bodybuilder, and he'll scoff at the lack of arm exercises. Nothing is more sacred to the bodybuilding mythos than the idea that small muscles designed to assist bigger muscles in multi-joint movements need their own special exercises, if not entire workouts.

I confess: Even I was convinced that those arm exercises must do something. My position was that they represented a lot of time and effort for a pretty small reward.

But when I went through some studies recently, I was surprised to find that this is only true for beginners. Advanced lifters don't necessarily get any increase in arm size from arm-isolating exercises.

Let's start with a 1993 study published in the Journal of Applied Physiology. The researchers put elderly men through twelve weeks of heavy-duty training. They did two biceps workouts a week, consisting of four exercises: three sets each of barbell, dumbbell, and hammer curls (a hammer curl is a dumbbell curl in which you keep your palms turned toward each other instead of pointing up toward the ceiling), plus four sets of curls on a Cybex machine.

The oldies quickly became goodies: The volume of their biceps increased 14 percent, while their biceps "peak" ("the point of maximal girth of the muscle") swelled a whopping 23 percent.

If I thought I could get those results from twenty-six sets of curls a week, I'd be right in there curling away with the meatheads and mooks. But I almost certainly can't. That's because, when studies look specifically at changes in arm girth in experienced lifters, they don't find any.

Let's start with the same team that performed the aforementioned study. The year before, in the same journal, the researchers showed that competitive bodybuilders saw no increase in arm girth after a twenty-four-week training program.

Their conclusion: "These data suggest that the extent of any change in muscle mass or muscle fiber characteristics is minimal after a bodybuilder of either gender has attained a high degree of muscle mass and a highly competitive status."

Here's another, more recent study, published in 2002 in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. The object of the study was to look at a specific training technique, which isn't worth describing here. However, only half the experienced lifters in the study were using that technique. The rest were doing their exercises the conventional way. And neither group saw any changes in arm size in nine weeks.

Of course, a good trainer can always find some way to increase a dedicated lifter's muscle size—he'll find some kind of unique stimulus the lifter hasn't tried before. But chances are about 100 percent that any increase in arm size in a seasoned ironhead would be accompanied by increases in the size of all the muscles surrounding the shoulder joint—delts, pecs, lats, traps. Even then, the changes in size wouldn't be dramatic, unless the lifter had been starving himself before the program began (thus deliberately shrinking his muscles so that they would grow faster when he started eating again) or unless he had overeaten to the point that he had gained a lot of fat along with the muscle size.

Bottom line: Curls are mostly for newbies and juicers. Unless you have a specific reason for doing arm-isolating exercises, save your time and energy for other pursuits.

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