With a powerlifting background, coupled with my strong desire to become a pro football player during my early lifting days, etched a high-poundage philosophy firmly in my mind. Of equal importance, I also paid close attention to exercises that placed specific work-loads on muscle groups in an effort to reach a maximal level of development.
One of the recognized strengths in my physique has always been my back, and two exercises which continue to play a strategic role in my back training are lat pulldowns with an underhand grip and straight-arm pulldowns.
I know bodybuilders will do almost anything to continually shock their muscles in an effort to sustain anabolic conditions. It's the name of the game. However, your chances of winning the game become much greater if you go about your training with understanding and knowledge.
So let me explain how to do each movement correctly so that you can maximize gains without wasting effort.
Beginning with a shoulder-width underhand grip, I lean back until my torso's at least at a 45-degree angle to the floor. I've always used a shoulder-width grip on these because experience has taught me that this is the best way to get a maximum contraction in my lats. I could never understand why so many bodybuilders use a wider grip for these. A wide grip won't build a wide back; that's just a myth as far as I'm concerned.
In my opinion, a shoulder-width grip is better because it allows you to maximally engage the lats with heavier poundages. Additionally, this grip lets you get a much fuller contraction than a wider grip.
After you lean back 45 degrees or so, make sure to arch your lower back so that your chest comes forward a bit. This is essential because it allows you to isolate your lats better. Without the arch, the tendency is to engage the biceps more while performing the movement.
During the concentric phase, I bring the bar level to the bottom of my nipples, pulling my elbows as far back as possible, trying to bring together my shoulder blades as I contract my lats. For the eccentric phase, I release the weight slowly, making sure to keep my lower back arched. Control becomes increasingly important as you drop the pin farther down the stack; you can't allow the stack to snap your arms back up through the negative phase.
Because I use heavy weights for these, I always release slowly. (A quick release can result in a shoulder dislocation or muscle tears.) Although I use an explosive initial movement and follow-through, the slow release also gives me a good negative and a thorough stretch going into the next rep.
The reason I prefer a palms-up grip is that it allows me to work my upper lats more efficiently.
The point of this exercise is to work the lats in a very specific way. This movement effectively isolates the lats and complements other back exercises in a balanced back routine. The key is to be strict: Since it's an isolation movement, less weight can be used, largely because fewer secondary muscles become involved in the action of the movement. Place your feet together about three feet from the machine and grasp the bar with an overhand grip. Bend slightly at the waist and arch your lower back to maximize the isolation effect.
I think that straight-arm pull-down is actually a misnomer for this movement, because you shouldn't keep your arms completely straight. Actually, your arms should be bent slightly, which allows you to engage the lats better, minimizes the possibility of an elbow-joint injury, and lets you contract the hell out of the working muscles.
From the extended position, force the bar downward until it touches the top of your upper thighs. Squeeze the lat muscles.
As with lat pulldowns, I return the bar slowly to prolong the negative phase and reduce the chances of injuring my shoulder joints. What I like about this movement is that it also stresses the serratus and, to some degree, the pectorals, but you should concentrate on the lats, especially in the fully contracted position.
I tackle back training in two different ways, so the order in which I use pulldowns depends on the workout. If I'm working upper back first, lat pulldowns will come first in the workout; if I'm working lower back first, the pulldowns come last. I alternate the straight-arm lat pulldowns with the curl-grip version to keep the muscles from adapting to a predetermined sequence of movements.
For both of these movements, you can't help but fully engorge your lats with blood if you use a four-set 10-rep format. For me, four sets means two serious warmup sets and then two sets balls-out.
As far as poundages go, there are too many variables involved to be specific. I always go by how I feel on a given day, rather than trying to force myself through a regimented series of increasing poundages and failing to execute the work. I don't go to the gym to waste my effort.
Try incorporating these two movements into alternate back workouts, and see for yourself if you don't get into an intense back-thickening groove.