The lat pulldown is a good beginner back exercise. It’s also a stepping stone to being able to do pullups, which should be your eventual goal (How to work towards doing a pullup). The “lat” part in the name refers to the latissimus dorsi, which are the big triangular muscles of your back that sweep along both sides of your ribcage.
This demo shows the seated version of the lat pulldown with a wide grip. For more on different pulldown grips and the standing lat pulldown variation, see here.
This exercise, like the bench press or biceps curl, is where the big wannabes in the gym often show their idiocy. Screaming like banshees, they throw all their body weight backwards as they haul the bar down behind their neck.
If they were really so tough they’d be doing weighted chinups, but I digress.
One of the most common mistakes in this exercise is pulling the bar behind the neck, and this is a mistake even though you may see the exercise illustrated as “correct” this way. As in the shoulder press, this alignment of the bar can cause shoulder problems.
In addition, many people lean forward and strain, putting stress on the neck.
This is a much more effective way to perform this exercise.
Begin seated with arms straightened above you. Don’t lock your elbows. If you’re a shorty like me, you may have to stand on the seat first to grab the bar and bring it down low enough.
Grasp the bar firmly and slowly bring the bar down towards your upper chest. As you do this, arch your back and push your chest up and out, and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Stick the buzzums right out. Once the bar hits your chest (or as close as you can get), hold it there for a second or two as you really try to pull shoulder blades together and downward. Then slowly release and raise the bar under control to starting position. Again, don’t lock your elbows at the top.