The lat pulldown is a machine-based pulling exercise that has earned a place in practically every training program due to its effectiveness at targeting the latissimus and biceps brachii muscle groups.
Despite its popularity however, the lat pulldown presents several issues that can make it incompatible in certain situations - thereby requiring an alternative exercise to be used instead.
Fortunately, whether you’re in the gym or at home, there is doubtless a perfect alternative exercise to the lat pulldown for your circumstances - many of which can even surpass the lat pulldown itself in certain respects.
For the most part, the lat pulldown is substituted out of a workout routine because of a simple lack of equipment, wherein a lat pulldown machine is not available or otherwise is unusable by the exerciser.
Other reasons why the lat pulldown many need to be replaced are a need for greater stabilizer muscle recruitment, insufficient training stimulus or a simple dislike of the exercise by the lifter themselves.
In particular, the vertical pulling motion of the lat pulldown can alienate certain portions of the middle and upper back, making it a poor accessory exercise if more than just the latissimus dorsi needs to be recruited.
A suitable lat pulldown alternative should possess two characteristics; recruiting the same muscle groups as the lat pulldown itself, and that the alternative must be capable of fulfilling the same role as the lat pulldown within the training program.
In short, the lat pulldown alternative should train the latissimus dorsi and the biceps brachii at a minimum - though many exercisers may wish to choose another compound movement that trains more than just these muscle groups alone.
The lat pulldown’s role within the majority of modern training programs is as an accessory movement, meaning that it is performed after more intense and compounding exercises have already been performed.
This is to ensure that no premature fatigue of muscles can lead to a breakdown in form or failed repetitions.
Knowing this, we can see that any substitute to the lat pulldown must also be capable of fulfilling such a role - either by nature of its lower level of intensity, or that it may be programmed in such a way that it is capable of fulfilling an accessory exercise role.
Whether you’re on vacation or don’t have access to a nearby gym, it is still possible to replicate the training stimulus and muscular activation pattern of the lat pulldown with everyday objects at home.
While these are still considered resistance exercises and as such will result in muscular hypertrophy, expectations should be tempered. It is considerably more difficult to isolate muscle groups without the use of additional fitness equipment.
This can mean that the intended purpose of the lat pulldown within your training program is altered somewhat, ending in a different sort of training stimulus that can require further restructuring of the program itself.
Essentially the “big brother” of the lat pulldown, pull ups are a bodyweight compound exercise that train much the same muscle groups as the lat pulldown - though at a significantly more intense level, especially in regards to the recruitment of synergist muscle groups.
Pull ups are the most suitable alternative for you if intense recruitment of the lats is the main goal - and if you are willing to recruit far more muscle groups than the lat pulldown originally would.
This particular substitute to the lat pulldown excels in developing size and strength along the middle back, greatly improving the wideness of the entire back and significantly improving vertical pulling strength.
When substituting the lat pulldown with pull ups, it is advisable to reduce the total volume of each set in order to account for the comparatively higher intensity of pull ups.
For more advanced exercisers who find pull ups to be too easy, the addition of further weight in the form of weighted vests, dip belts or other weighted equipment is also advisable.
Conversely, an assisted pull up machine can help novice exercisers.
Another bodyweight compound exercise of comparatively high intensity, inverted rows trade in the vertical pulling motion of the lat pulldown for a more angled one that produces greater posterior deltoid head and rhomboid muscle recruitment.
Inverted rows may be used as a lat pulldown alternative for individuals that cannot perform a pull up, but otherwise do not have access to any sort of resistance equipment as well.
The fact that the inverted row only requires the exerciser to carry part of their own bodyweight makes it significantly easier than the vertical bodyweight exercises.
Though the intensity of the inverted row will depend on the lifter’s own bodyweight, it can generally be used as a direct 1:1 substitute in terms of volume - so long as any subsequent deltoid work is also reduced in volume.
Quite similar to pull ups except for the fact that the biceps are given a more significant role, chin ups are also a bodyweight compound exercise that fulfill the role of developing back musculature via a vertical pulling motion.
Chin ups are the ideal at-home alternative to the lat pulldown if the lifter wishes to increase the biceps recruitment beyond what regular pull ups can achieve.
Chin ups excel as a middle back and biceps builder, surpassing the lat pulldown in such a regard while also being of far higher intensity.
As such, when substituting lat pulldowns with chin ups, it is advisable to greatly reduce the total volume of repetitions while also reducing total biceps volume during the workout session itself.
In the event that the lifter wishes to take advantage of the many benefits associated with free weight exercise, there are also quite a few alternatives to the lat pulldown that can fit such a criteria.
It should be noted that there is also a tradeoff in such a scenario, as free weight exercises are known to recruit more stabilizer muscles and generally be more difficult than machine-based exercises like the lat pulldown.
This will require the exerciser to reduce the total volume of their workout, as well as to pay more attention to their form cues so as to avoid injuring themselves.
Ordinarily considered to be a pectoral isolation exercise, dumbbell pullovers can actually also function as a latissimus dorsi exercise - though their activation of the chest muscles may make them incompatible with many training splits.
Dumbbell pullovers are the ideal free weight alternative for lifters that wish to try an exercise entirely different to the lat pulldown - especially in full body workout sessions where the included pectoral muscle recruitment is a bonus instead of a complication.
In addition, since dumbbell pullovers and the lat pulldown share a similar level of intensity, there is generally no need for excessive changes in volume or total weight, thereby allowing you to simply switch from one exercise to the other.
For lifters seeking greater muscular development throughout the entirety of the back, there are few alternatives as effective as the t-bar row, or what is otherwise known as the landmine row.
T-bar rows are less an alternative and more of a full progression from the standard lat pulldown, surpassing it in terms of intensity, complexity and number of muscle groups recruited simultaneously.
This, in turn, leads to far greater development of muscle mass in the back and biceps, with the trapezius and latissimus dorsi muscles benefiting in particular from T-bar rows.
In fact, T-bar rows are among one of the only alternatives to the lat pulldown capable of developing the erector spinae muscles - of which are vitally important for proper back bracing.
However, due to the far higher level of resistance used in T-bar rows, it is generally best to stick to the repetition ranges of 5 to 10 per set so as to avoid fatigue or injury.
For the most similar kind of training stimulus, it is best to look to machine-based exercises for a lat pulldown alternative. This will allow you to retain the high specificity of muscular activation and low risk of injury that is associated with the lat pulldown and other exercises like it.
Of course, this also means that you will need to have access to such machines in the first place, making the following alternatives unsuitable in the event that the required equipment is not available.
Essentially the cable machine variation of the lat pulldown, cable pulldowns are as close as you can get to lat pulldowns without actually having access to a lat pulldown machine.
The sole difference in performance between the two pulldown variations lies in the angle of resistance, wherein the lat pulldown will likely come from directly above the lifter’s head, whereas the cable pulldown may take on a somewhat more forward angle of resistance instead.
This will result in somewhat increased triceps brachii recruitment, but otherwise works practically the same muscles as the lat pulldown.
Substituting the lat pulldown with cable pulldowns requires no additional work or alterations of the workout, and the sets and repetitions may be immediately transposed between the two exercises.
A machine specifically created for the performance of the high row exercise; the high row machine can act as a substitute to the lat pulldown in cases where the lifter wishes to increase the recruitment of their trapezius muscle, or those that require a unilateral alternative instead.
The high row machine is particularly useful as an alternative for those that want to retain the vertical pulling mechanic of the lat pulldown, allowing impressive training carry-over to other vertical pulling activities, such as rock climbing or pull ups.
Due to their shared machine-based nature and the fact that they recruit the same muscle groups for the same biomechanics, substituting the lat pulldown with the high row machine requires little to no additional change in the training program, allowing the lifter to simply switch from one to the other as they wish.
The sole change more advanced lifters may wish to make is a subsequent reduction in deltoid isolation volume, as the high row machine activates the medial and posterior deltoid heads to a greater degree than the lat pulldown.
To conclude this article, we would like to note that the alternatives covered previously are only a small number of the dozens of possible substitute exercises.
Regardless of whether you boast membership to a well-equipped gym, or prefer the comfort of working out at home, there is an alternative to the lat pulldown that fits your needs perfectly.
So long as you ensure that proper training programming is followed, substituting the lat pulldown will not yield any significant disadvantages and may even improve your workouts immensely.
1. Jennifer K H, Daniel A J, Todd C. A Comparison of Muscle Activation during the Pull-up and Three Alternative Pulling Exercises. J Phy Fit Treatment & Sports. 2018; 5(4): 555669. DOI: 10.19080/JPFMTS.2018.05.555669
2. Lehman GJ, Buchan DD, Lundy A, Myers N, Nalborczyk A. Variations in muscle activation levels during traditional latissimus dorsi weight training exercises: An experimental study. Dyn Med. 2004 Jun 30;3(1):4. doi: 10.1186/1476-5918-3-4. PMID: 15228624; PMCID: PMC449729.