Lat Pulldown vs Seated Row: Major Differences Explained

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
August 17, 2022

When speaking of compound back muscle exercises, one would be mistaken to discount the effectiveness of the lat pulldown and the seated row; two highly popular machine-based pulling movements that are often compared due to their similarities.

However, the two exercises are in fact quite different, with the only shared characteristic being that of their purpose within a workout routine - as well as the fact that they are both compound machine-based exercises.

The lat pulldown and the seated row actually train the muscles of the back and the biceps in differing capacities, leading to somewhat different results in terms of strength and muscle mass. 

What is the Lat Pulldown?

The lat pulldown is a machine-based compound exercise primarily performed in order to replicate the movement of a pull-up, thereby targeting the latissimus dorsi and the biceps brachii to great effect.

lat pulldown

The lat pulldown is usually performed with its own namesake machine alongside the use of a straight bar attachment, though it is entirely possible to do so with any ordinary cable machine so long as the exerciser adjusts the pulley sufficiently high enough overhead.

Benefits

The greatest benefit of the lat pulldown exercise is in its safety, allowing the exerciser to induce significant training stimulus in the latissimus dorsi muscles without fear of sustaining acute injury.

This benefit is only further exemplified as the lat pulldown reinforces scapular retraction and proper external shoulder rotation over time, ensuring that the lifter learns to master these biomechanics as they continue in their training career.

Furthermore, the lat pulldown is often considered an excellent tool for carry-over to other bodily suspension movements, such as ring dips and muscle ups.

How to Perform

In order to perform a lat pulldown repetition, all that is needed is for the exerciser to seat themselves beneath the handle of the machine and grip said handle at approximately shoulder width apart. The torso should be vertical with little to no leaning backwards, as doing so will reduce latissimus dorsi recruitment.

wide grip lat pulldown

To begin, the exerciser will then pull the handle towards themselves, stopping once it has reached a parallel level with their clavicles or chest before slowly allowing the resistance of the machine to pull it back into place.

What is the Seated Row?

The seated row is also a machine-based compound exercise most often used in a training program as a source of training stimulus for the mid and upper back muscles alongside the biceps and rear deltoid heads.

cabled seated row muscles

Unlike the lat pulldown, the seated row will generally feature an angle of resistance at a horizontal plane, meaning that the exerciser is pulling the handle towards themselves instead of at a downward angle aided by gravity.

As such, not only does the seated row allow for significantly more weight to be moved, it is also capable of aiding in carry-over to other pull type exercises such as the deadlift and the barbell row.

Benefits

The main benefit associated with seated rows is its ability to build a wide and thick back, placing significant training stimulus on much of the middle and upper back while still maintaining excellent activation of the biceps brachii.

In addition, seated rows recruit comparatively more muscles than the lat pulldown or other cable machine based back exercises. 

This will allow for a more complete training session of the back and biceps, with less accessory exercises needed.

For athletes and powerlifters performing the seated row as a method of off-season preparation, the higher amount of weight that may be moved will also result in greater acclimation to such loads, both physiologically and psychologically.

How to Perform

To begin performing the seated row, the exerciser will grip the handle of the machine in both hands and retract their shoulder blades, bracing their feet against the plates with the knees bent and the core braced.

cable seated row

Drawing from the back and the elbows, the exerciser will then pull the handle towards their lower ribcage as they maintain an upright torso, only stopping once the handle has made contact with their abdomen.

Once the concentric portion of the seated row has been completed, all that is left to do is slowly release the shoulder blades as the exerciser returns to their starting position - thereby completing the repetition.

Muscle Activation Differences Between the Lat Pulldown and the Seated Row

As was mentioned earlier in the article - while the lat pulldown and the seated row do indeed train the muscles of the back and the biceps, the lat pulldown is more specialized and recruits a smaller number of muscle groups.

Comparatively, the seated row trains more muscles as it is capable of activating the rhomboids, posterior deltoid head, the brachioradialis and the lower portion of the trapezius. 

Each of these muscle groups are either not recruited at all by the lat pulldown, or otherwise underutilized so as to result in lesser development taking place.

However, this is otherwise balanced out by the significantly more effective activation of the lat pulldown, placing greater emphasis on the lower portion of the lats and aiding in attaining the much coveted “V-taper”.

Mechanical Differences Between the Lat Pulldown and the Seated Row

The lat pulldown and the seated row each require the use of different exercise mechanics in order to perform properly, with the lat pulldown being relatively more simplistic than the seated row in terms of relevant form cues and biomechanics that must be followed.

During a repetition of the seated row, the exerciser will retract their scapula alongside internally rotating their elbows and shoulders so as to avoid excessive stress being placed on the rotator cuff. 

Furthermore, significant activation of the core and erector spinae muscles will take place as any forward or backward leaning is a deviation from proper form, “cheating” the repetition and reducing activation of the back muscles.

This is not the case with the lat pulldown, of which primarily features only elbow retraction and shoulder depression during the concentric portion of the repetition.

As such, performing the seated row is somewhat more complex and involves more joints than the lat pulldown.

Equipment and Safety Differences of the Lat Pulldown and the Seated Row

Despite the fact that both the lat pulldown and the seated row are cable machine-based exercises, they in fact use two different types of machines specifically made for such a purpose - requiring a decision be made for home gym owners as to what machine to purchase.

Furthermore, due to the differences in kinetic chain utilization and exercise complexity, the relative margin of safety is also distinct between the two. 

This means that, in the case of a novice seeking an accessory back exercise, it is the safer option that is the better choice.

Equipment

The lat pulldown exercise is ordinarily performed with the use of a machine that is fittingly named the lat pulldown machine, while the seated row is performed with the use of a cable row machine.

While both exercises may be performed with a conventional cable machine, it is likely that the angle of resistance will be sub-optimal and yield less effective results.

Safety

Likewise, despite the fact that both exercises are considered to be quite safe when performed correctly, it is the seated row that is more likely to result in acute injury if any break in form is present, whereas the lat pulldown possesses a much lower risk of injury.

Once again, it is the lat pulldown that appears to win out in this category, especially in regards to novice exercisers or those with a history of injury in the back or shoulders.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can You Do the Lat Pulldown and Rows on the Same Day?

Though the lat pulldown and seated row share quite a number of muscles worked, they can in fact be performed within the same training session so long as total volume and resistance is kept to within a reasonable level, especially if other compound back exercises are performed as well.

Can You Do Pull Ups and Lat Pulldowns Together?

Yes - lat pulldowns and pull ups may in fact be used together.

The lat pulldown is often used as an accessory movement to the pull up so as to reinforce general pull up form and maximize any latissimus dorsi training stimulus induced.

However, it is important to first perform the pull up within the order of exercises as the lat pulldown will prematurely fatigue the muscles utilized therein, weakening performance and potentially leading to insufficient muscular development.

Are Seated Rows and Pulldowns Enough?

Though seated rows and lat pulldowns are perfectly effective exercises, they do not provide a complete training stimulus due to their machine-based nature. 

This equates to a reduced utilization of synergist muscle groups, as well as poor carry-over to real life or athletic activities. 

As such, unless the exerciser is simply training for pure muscular hypertrophy, it is advisable that a free weight exercise is paired with either or both of these two cable exercises.

In Conclusion - Which is Better?

Tallying up all the information presented, we can come to the conclusion that it is the lat pulldown that is superior - at least, for novice exercisers, bodybuilders wishing to focus on their V-taper or individuals with a history of injury.

Otherwise, it is the seated row that is superior as it activates a larger swathe of muscle groups to a more intense capacity.

In truth, however, both the lat pulldown and the seated row are equally effective back-building exercises, and fulfill the role as secondary compound movements quite well. 

A healthy exerciser will see definitive results with the performance of either movement, regardless.

References

1. Cronin, John & Jones, Julian & Hagstrom, John. (2007). Kinematics and Kinetics of the Seated Row and Implications for Conditioning. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association. 21. 1265-70. 10.1519/R-21246.1.

2. Snarr, Ronald & Eckert, Ryan & Abbott, Patricia. (2015). A Comparative Analysis and Technique of the Lat Pull-down. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 37. 21-25. 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000173.

3. Lorenzetti, Silvio, Romain Dayer, Michael Plüss, and Renate List. 2017. "Pulling Exercises for Strength Training and Rehabilitation: Movements and Loading Conditions" Journal of Functional Morphology and Kinesiology 2, no. 3: 33. https://doi.org/10.3390/jfmk2030033

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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