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This or That: Narrow Grip Pulldowns vs. Rows

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar, but will yield different results. Knowing which does what, and how you can change up your usual favorites, will help give you greater efficacy in the gym. Last time I gave you a battle of the shoulder presses, comparing a military and an Arnold press. This week, let's look at two exercises for your upper back: a lat pull-down and a seated row. And here's the catch: we're going to look at both in their close or narrow-grip variety. Turns out, not only are these exercises different, but changing the width at which you keep your hands will subtly change the impact of each.

Narrow-Grip Seated Rows
Both of this week's exercises are done using a cable machine. Let's begin with an absolutely standard back exercise, the seated row. Sit straddling a flat bench with its short end facing a cable machine and the cable set at a point level with your chest. Attach a double handle to the cable. Take one handle in each hand with your thumbs on top and palms facing each other, keeping your elbows low and slightly bent. Keep your shoulder blades together as you bend your elbows and pull your hands directly back toward your abs. Keep your elbows close to your sides and think of using your pinkie fingers as you draw your elbows back, trying to use your back muscles rather than your biceps. At the limit of your motion, you should feel like you are wrapping your elbows slightly around your back. Extend your arms forward back to the starting position, keeping your thumbs up and your elbows low as your arms come forward.

Here are the benefits of narrow-grip seated rows:

  1. Work the entire back complex: Seated rows in general will increase the overall bulk of your back by focusing effort on the majority of the back muscles. You will target your latissimus dorsi, which are the large wings of muscle on either side of your back (more on them below); also your rhomboid and trapezius muscles in the middle and upper back. In the shoulder, you will work your posterior deltoids across the rear of the joint. In the arm, your biceps get a bit of work as well (though you should try to direct your effort away from them to your back as you do the exercise). Using a close grip will target the middle back, in particular the trapezius and rhomboid muscles.
  2. Develop flexibility: In a close-grip seated row, you lift your chest somewhat towards the end of the movement. As you do, you also engage your erector spinae (spine extensors). This helps give you flexibility through your trunk.
As you can see, seated rows are a reliable way to target all of the muscles of the back and the back of the arm. To move your work toward the middle of the back, you use a close grip. In either case, however, all of the major muscles of the back will be involved, and you will develop flexibility as you work.

Narrow-Grip Lat Pulldowns
This exercise will isolate your lats, in particular their lower aspect. For the pulldowns, seat yourself at a cable station beneath a narrow-grip attachment suspended from the cable (this will be two handles that attach to a single ring or hook). You may also use the standard lat pulldown bar, gripped close to the center (hands slightly narrower than your shoulders). Your legs should be stabilized by resting under the machine's knee pads. Reach up and grip the handles or bar with your hands a little less than shoulder-width apart (if using handles, your palms will be facing each other; if the bar, palms facing you). Pull the handles or bar downward toward the chest, keeping your chin up. Keep your shoulders down throughout the movement. As you pull down, broaden your chest. Bring the handles or bar close to your chest, with your elbows at your sides. Slowly resist the upward motion of the handles, and let your back muscles stretch as you return to the starting position.

So far, so good. Here are the strengths of the narrow-grip lat pulldowns:
  1. Develop the lat triangle: Pulldowns develop the latissimus dorsi (assisted by the teres major). Your latissimus dorsi, or "lats", are the large planes of muscle that run across your back on either side, from under your armpit toward the center of your back. They are effectively wings of muscle, in a large V formation. Training your lats will give your back the distinctive triangular muscle shape (wide above, narrow below) that many guys look for. That triangular effect is increased by the narrow grip, which targets the lower part of your lat muscles (the wider grip will hit the higher part of the muscle).
  2. Secondary muscles worked: As the narrow grip demands that you draw your shoulder blades together, you also work your lower trapezius (center back) and posterior deltoids (back of your shoulders). Pull through the pinky side of your hands to get your biceps (both the biceps brachii and brachialis) involved. If you use the handles, and thus your palms are facing each other, you’re also engaging the brachioradialis (upper forearm).
In short, for an overall basic back exercise, it's hard to beat a seated row. To put a stronger focus on the lats, and their lower aspect in particular, a close or narrow-grip pulldown is a good choice. Any grip-type in a pulldown will work your lats, so you can vary the width to move the tension around the muscle. Lat work will give your back a defined and sculpted look, in addition to building strength and flexibility. It's a good choice, but as a supplement to the kind of overall development offered by the seated rows.

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.