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If you’ve been around the gym for a while, you’ve probably heard that a wide grip is best for building width in the lats. People pretty much follow the advice without a great deal of thought because the logic is pretty simple, after all—a wide grip equals wide lats. By the same logic, I guess a narrow grip gives you narrow lats. From this example, it should be clear that relying on gym logic isn’t always the best policy. Some researchers in Norway came to the same conclusion and decided to conduct a study to shed light on the subject.
The study compared three different pronated grip widths while doing lat pulldowns (to the front) and measured muscle activation by way of electromyographic (EMG) activity. The thinking was that one of the grips would produce the greatest activation of the lats and therefore be the best grip for size and strength gains. The three grips were determined by the width of the shoulders (i.e., biacromial distance). The three grips were shoulder width, 1 1/2 , and two times shoulder width. The subject’s six-rep max (6RM) was chosen as the weight load.
In the end, there was no significant difference between the three grip widths. All three grips activated the lats equally. What differed was the participation of the biceps. This was reflected in the different weight loads for each grip. Subjects weren’t able to use as much weight for a wide grip versus medium and narrow grips despite the lats being activated to a similar extent. I think this is something everyone has experienced. The reason the biceps aren’t as active using a wide grip is that they don’t contribute as directly to the lowering of the bar, instead because the hands are so far beyond the width of the elbow, activating the biceps actually pulls the hands inward rather than down.
In a previous installment, we discussed the misunderstood notion of muscle confusion and the impact of changing exercises on a muscle group. What we learned from this study was that changing the width of the grip doesn’t change the stimulus on the lats significantly; at least while the grip remains pronated (palms facing away) and the elbows are kept out to the side. The biggest contributing factor in how the muscle is strained is the direction of pull and plane of travel of the elbows. In order to change the stimulus from pulldowns, you’d need to pull from in front, keeping elbows up and out as you pull. In this way, the line of strain is horizontal and in line with the upper lat. Keep in mind the designations “upper” and “lower” are only meaningful at the origin of the lat near the spine. The two exercises combined will hit the entirety of the lat for maximum development.