Lat Pulldown vs Pull-Ups: Which is Best?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
September 8, 2022

Pullups were the go-to workout for building broad, herculean lats before machines. However, they are difficult for the majority of people to achieve. Hence, others turn to lat pulldowns to develop solid and wide backs.

The main distinction between pull-ups and lat pulldowns is that pull-ups are a bodyweight workout while lat pulldowns require a machine. For the most part, both exercises engage the same muscle groups but differ significantly in the benefits each activity offers.

Although the lat pulldown was designed to replicate pull-ups and should be incorporated into strength training programs, the goal for which the exercise is performed should guide the decision of which activity to prioritize over the other.

What is a Lat Pulldown?

The lat pulldown is a compound exercise that involves the use of a cable lat pulldown machine. It primarily targets the latissimus dorsi muscle, but it activates other upper back muscles as well.

wide grip lat pulldown

Benefits

Lat pulldowns target the latissimus dorsi and offer more isolation to the muscle than a pull-up does. By isolating the back muscles, more repetitions may be performed without feeling fatigued on the biceps and triceps brachii muscles.

Because lat pulldowns are performed with a cable machine, they provide constant tension while the weight is lifted and lowered. Cable-loaded machines allow for controlled motions and are great for all levels of fitness.

It is also easy to progress the exercise because the weight is adjustable. Beginners can start as light as they need the resistance to be, and simply adjust the weight to progress.

How to perform

To perform a lat pulldown, comfortably take the seat in front of the cable lat pulldown machine as the feet are positioned flat on the ground. The bar’s height must be adjusted to be placed at a level where the extended arms can easily grab it without having to fully stand up.

The bar is grasped with a wide overhand grip. The abdomen must be pulled in and braced while maintaining a neutral spine before beginning the action. By pulling the shoulders and upper arms back and down, the bar is lowered until it hits the upper chest.

Once the muscles are fully tightened, the muscles between the shoulder blades are squeezed together. After the movement is complete, an eccentric contraction takes place to gradually return to the starting position.

What is a Pull-Up?

A pull-up is an upper body exercise that involves the use of one’s own body weight as resistance. It is often confused for the chin-up, but its difference lies in the grip employed. The pull-up utilizes a pronated grip with the hands facing away to reduce recruitment of the biceps brachii and engage the latissimus dorsi more.

pull up

Benefits

The pull-up is a calisthenic exercise, which means the exercise is done by relying on the person’s body weight as resistance. It involves the use of minimal equipment such as a pull-up bar, which may be substituted by almost anything such as a sturdy door if the bar is unavailable.

As a compound exercise, pull-ups do a great job of engaging multiple muscle groups at once. It improves grip strength significantly while simultaneously developing back, shoulder, and forearm muscles.

How to perform

To perform a pull-up, one positions themselves directly under a pull-up bar. Using an overhand grip, the bar is grasped with the hands placed slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. If unable to reach the bar, a box may be used to stand up on.

Before movement is initiated, the feet are lifted so the body is off the ground. The core muscles are engaged to brace the spine, as the shoulders are pulled back and down.

The lifter pulls themselves up by recruiting the back, shoulder, arm, and forearm muscles until the chin is over the bar. At the top of the movement, the scapula must remain retracted and depressed. Upon completing the movement, the elbows are extended as the body is slowly lowered to return to the starting position.

Differences in Muscle Recruitment and Activation

The lat pulldown is considered an alternative to the pull-up due to the magnitude of muscle activation of the same muscle groups in both exercises.

A study by Hewit et al., 2018 measured the magnitude of muscle activation and muscle activation patterns between the pull-up and three other alternatives including the seated lat pulldown. Its focus was centered on the latissimus dorsi, rectus abdominis, biceps brachii, and trapezius muscles.

Upon examining patterns of muscle activation, it was shown that the rectus abdominis muscle was the most active muscle group when performing pull-ups. This is due to the fact that the rectus abdominis helps maintain a rigid body through all phases of the pull-up.

There were similar patterns in biceps brachii, trapezius, and latissimus dorsi muscle activation, but still lesser when doing lat pulldowns as compared to doing pull-ups. The main difference in muscle activation between these two exercises was the degree to which the rectus abdominis was engaged.

Which One is Better?

Among the two, pull-ups work the best for increasing strength as it engages more muscle groups to a greater extent. This is beneficial to improve functional strength relative to pulling as in bouldering, swimming, vaulting, and mountain climbing.

 On the other hand, lat pulldowns are better if more isolation to the back muscles is needed. This may be more beneficial if the goal is to increase latissimus dorsi muscle mass, due to the isolation it provides.

While pull-ups build explosive, functional upper body strength, lat pulldowns are more beginner-friendly and may help achieve doing pull-ups in the long run. Utilizing both exercises will keep the body adjusting and working to attain bigger and stronger lats.

Programming and Progression

How pull-ups and lat pulldowns are programmed into a workout depends on how much load can be employed.  Doing straight sets with a fixed number of repetitions per set is usually how it goes for lat pulldowns.

Progression of the exercise occurs when the load is increased by adjusting the weight on the machine. The goal as to which the exercise is performed dictates the number of reps and how much weight should be loaded onto the cable.

As for pull-ups, when doing it with body weight alone, the exercise can be progressed by increasing the number of repetitions per set. It can also be made more challenging by doing weighted pull-ups. This is achieved by wearing either a weighted vest or a dip belt with weight, or holding a dumbbell between your feet.

Final Thoughts

The pull-up and lat pulldown are two excellent back workouts that may be utilized to generate significant growth and visible results. These activities don't have to be in competition with each other.

To benefit from the advantages of each of these activities, it is best to incorporate both exercises into your training routine. It might seem wise to prioritize the pull-up, but if there is a need to increase pulling strength after pull-up sets, the lat pulldown is a fantastic alternative for increasing mass and developing muscle strength.

References

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. Lusk, S., Hale, B., & Russell, D. (2010). Grip Width and Forearm Orientation Effects on Muscle Activity During the Lat Pull-Down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(7), 1895-1900. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181ddb0ab

3. Signorile, J., Zink, A., & Szwed, S. (2002). A Comparative Electromyographical Investigation of Muscle Utilization Patterns Using Various Hand Positions During the Lat Pull-down. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16(4), 539-546.

4. Youdas JW, Amundson CL, Cicero KS, Hahn JJ, Harezlak DT and Hollman JH. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullupTM rotational exercise. J Strength Cond Res 24 (12) : 3404-3414, 2010.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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