The cable straight arm pulldown is an isolation exercise used for building muscle and strength in the Latissiumus Dorsi (Lats) muscles. But it’s also even more effective for improving scapular strength and stability, which is essential for effectively performing multi-joint compound movements such as deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, etc. Not to mention, using cables keeps constant tension on the muscle during the movement, a key component of muscle development.

But, this exercise isn’t meant to be a sheer mass builder due to how it’s performed and you likely won’t be able to use maximum poundages while still maintaining good form. 

We’ve provided details on how to do it with tips, variations, and advice for incorporating it into your training regime. 

Here’s a guide to the cable straight arm pulldown

Related: Do Straight Arm Pulldowns For Wider, More Powerful Lats

In This Exercise:

  • Target Muscle GroupLatissimus Dorsi
  • Type: Stability, strength, and function
  • Mechanics: Isolation
  • Equipment: Cable machine, straight bar attachment
  • Difficulty: Beginner

Muscles Worked 

We’ve provided a small description of each muscle group involved in this exercise. 

Deltoid Posterior

The deltoid posterior or rear delts are one of the three heads that make up the shoulder muscles. With the other two heads, the deltoid posterior assists in abducting the arm past 15 degrees. It also helps the anterior head to stabilize the arm while the lateral head abducts the arms from 15-100 degrees, and works with the latissimus dorsi to extend the arm while walking. 

Teres Major

The teres major is a thick muscle of the shoulder joint that medially rotates and adducts the arm and stabilizes the shoulder joint. Unlike the teres minor, it’s not a rotator cuff muscle. 

Triceps Brachii

The triceps is a three-headed muscle (long, medial, and lateral head) of the upper arm locates opposite the biceps. Its primary function is extension of the forearm at the elbow joint, although it can help stabilize the elbow during fine movements such as writing. 

How To Do The Cable Straight Arm Pulldown

  1. Attach a straight bar handle to the highest notch on the cable machine.
  2. Stand in front of the machine with feet about hip-width apart, and grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip. 
  3. Take a step back away from the machine to allow your arms to move up and down in front of your body. 
  4. Lean slightly forward at the hips, lift your chest up, engage your lats, and keep your core tight.
  5. With your arms straight, use your lats to pull or push the bar down until your hands are in front of your thighs. 
  6. Slowly reverse the movement until your arms are parallel to the floor and repeat. 

Here’s a video example… 

Cable straight arm pulldown tips

  • You can also use a single grip and isolate one side at a time.
  • As you pull the bar down, you want to pretend as if you’re lifting your chest up. But your lats need to facilitate the movement, not the arms, although they’re inevitably involved to a degree.
  • Pretend you’re driving your elbows down into your body to maximize the mind/muscle connection.  
  • This isn’t a maximal lift exercise. Use a weight that will allow you to maintain your form without using momentum. 
  • Keep your core tight and rigid throughout the movement to ensure a proper movement pattern.

3 Variations/Alternatives

Few exercises are as good as the straight arm pulldown for developing scapular stability and strength. However, there are several that come close and that may be just as effective. Here are three fantastic variations/alternatives. 

Barbell pullover

The barbell pullover has lost some of its popularity due to fancy machines and the fact that some people may not feel it working as well as they do some of the other variations. But it’s still a beneficial movement for developing the same muscles as the straight arm pulldown when done correctly. The decline bent-arm pullover variation is a great exercise as well that’ll allow you to use more weight. 

And you could use two dumbbells to replicate this same exercise as it’s a better option than the single dumbbell pullover that may be more effective for emphasizing the chest muscles. 

Smith machine straight arm pushdown

You’ve probably never seen this bodyweight variation in action but it’s amazing. Now we don’t have a video to show you so we’ll do our absolute best to explain it. 

To do it:

  1. Set the Smith machine bar high enough to where you can lie on the floor underneath it and grip it with your arms fully extended. 
  2. Grip the bar with hands about shoulder-width apart and lift your butt off the ground so that only your heels are touching the ground as if you were doing an inverted row. 
  3. Move your feet back so that your legs are now bent and not extended. The bar should be more so over your stomach than your chest. 
  4. With your arms fully extended, chest up, and lats engaged, pretend that you’re pushing the bar down which will cause your body to raise up past the bar. Your legs should straighten out or come close to it during this portion of the movement. 
  5. As you come back down, your legs with bend and you can reset for the next rep. 

TRX straight arm pushdown 

The TRX system is one of the best alternatives to using weights because you can use your own bodyweight as resistance. Not to mention, you can set it up in many different places to get an amazing workout. This variation is similar to the previous variation that involves bending the knees as you push down against the handles to lift yourself upward. It’s also good for beginners too as the legs can push a little to assist.  

Related article: Best TRX Exercises For A Rock-Solid Back

How To Incorporate The Cable Straight Arm Pulldown Into Your Training Routine 

There are three ways that we suggest you incorporate this exercise into your training regime. 

One way is to do it after your heavy compound lifts as a finisher. Another is to do it before your bigger lifts to sort of re-educate the muscle movement required to maintain proper lifting posture. The last method is to do it before and between your compound lifts such as the deadlift, to again, ensure that you’re remembering to maintain proper lifting posture. 

If you do it before or in between, keep the weight lighter as to not exhaust the muscles before you perform the big lifts. 

Sets/Reps

While this isn’t set in stone, we recommend 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps for the cable straight arm pulldown. This way you’re not using too much weight which could throw off your form and cause you to recruit other muscles, taking away from the intended purpose of the movement.  

At the same time, you don’t want to train too light as you still want to use enough weight to where you’re forced to maintain proper form against a challenging level of resistance. But feel free to vary your reps outside of this rep range if it works better for you. 

Wrapping Up

The cable straight arm pulldown is a must if you want to perform better on your compound lifts. It’s more than a muscle-building movement in that you’ll develop scapular strength and stability to ensure that you maintain a safe and effective lifting posture. We’re positive that you’re now equipped with the knowledge that you need to experience the full benefits of this functional exercise.