The lat pulldown is something of a staple in bodybuilding and strength athletics, with pro and commercial gyms around the world catering for it. It is a powerful tool for building a wide, strong upper back. Though it mostly works the large latissimus dorsi muscles in the mid back, as a heavy compound movement, it also brings many other muscles into play, such as the biceps, rhomboids and posterior deltoids.
Overall, it is perfect for mass and strength through the torso.
However, whilst the lat pulldown is good, it’s not the only way to build a strong back. Nor is it necessarily the best. In fact, there are myriad that can work the same muscles and mechanisms, in the same ranges, with similar results.
We’ll look at a few of the best lat pulldown alternatives today, exploring what makes the lat pulldown so effective, where variety can be key, what that variety should look like, and what it takes to build the back you want.
Lat pulldowns are generally performed on a specific lat pulldown cable machine, often using a curved bar (other bars and handles can be used for variations on the classic pulldown). The cable is attached to the bar at one end and a stack of weights at the bottom. The machine can be adjusted for height and range of weights.
Lat pulldown machines can be found pretty much everywhere: their utility and ubiquity are quite astounding. Pulldowns are also incredibly easy to learn and perform, at least in a casual sense. Though there is some minutiae involved that more experienced lifters will make use of, and which will make the exercise far more efficient and safer in the heavier ranges, a basic pulldown can be performed by somebody on their first ever trip to the gym.
The user simply sits on the machine, takes the handle in both hands, leans back, and pulls the handle down to touch their chest for one rep. They will be able to immediately begin building strength and size through their back and arms.
Though it is important to train and maintain strength and muscle mass in all sections of the body, the back can be especially vital.
It is incredibly useful for lifters to have a strong back as it engages in a major way in every major compound movement. It is also very useful in everyday life for the same reason: any load bearing you may go through in life, from carrying the shopping to moving furniture, will rely mostly on having a strong, able back.
Unfortunately, the lats can be quite hard to engage. Most of us don’t naturally possess a good mind-muscle connection. Think of it like this: if somebody asks you to flex your biceps or tense your abs, you can most likely do it. But what if somebody asks you to flex your lats? Seasoned lifters can do it- I can do it. This is because I’ve trained my lats repeatedly over the years. Untrained individuals will probably struggle, however. Their mind-muscle connection will be poor.
If mind-muscle connection to the lats is weak, the lats won’t be able to adequately aid the breathe and brace– one of their key functions. Exercises like the lat pulldown help lifters to work on this mind-muscle connection. The carry over into other lifts will be profound as torso strength and full body stability improve. To risk not training the lats is to risk allowing every other exercise to suffer.
In addition, overlooking the back can have serious health consequences. Later life back ache (or even back ache in younger years) can be chronic, as are injuries to the back. This is all often avoidable by working on back musculature through safe, controlled compound movements like the lat pulldown.
There is also a powerful aesthetic component to back training that shouldn’t be ignored. Though it may be tempting to work on more glamorous looking ‘beach muscles’, the v-taper, the illusion of broad shoulders, and the presence inherent to a muscular physique are all achieved by having wide, strong lats.
The Lats: What They Are and How They Work
It’s important to understand the relevant back musculature for this conversation.
The latissimus dorsi muscles (lats) cover a large portion of the mid- to upper- back. They are fan shaped, superficial muscles originating in the iliac crest of the hip, along the spine, the lower three ribs of the rib cage and the scapula. From here, they insert just underneath the armpit, at a point called the intertubercular groove (right by the arm’s ball and socket joint).
The long head muscle of the biceps also runs to this point, with the short head running beside it. This is a large part of the reason there is often such strong interplay between the lats and biceps: most meaningful lat exercises will recruit both the back and biceps.
The main function of the latissimus dorsi is to control the lower back, shoulders and arms; they extend, adduct and medially rotate the arm, drawing the shoulder inferiorly, whilst lending a great deal of isometric support to the spinal column. They also bring the shoulder blades back and down: squeezing your shoulders in and down will activate the lats, allowing you to tense them for greater core and posterior chain stability.
Basically, they allow you to row your arms towards your body, pull your elbows in towards your body and hold your torso upright in a good posture. The latter is key for maintaining a good breath and brace posture. For this reason, the lats are crucial in every major lift, whenever your body is under load.
The Benefits of Strong Lats for Lifters
So, when do you use your lats?
Well, any time you pull anything towards your body, or pull your body up towards something, you are using your lats. We’re talking about rows and pull ups, here. We’re also talking about carrying everyday objects, hugged in towards your chest or abdomen. Any time you place your torso under load, bracing your core and maintaining good, solid, strong posture, your lats will be doing a lot of the work.
With this in mind, strong lats play a role in pretty much every form of physicality you can imagine. They play primary roles in all major lifts, even if they are only acting as stabilisers, antagonists or non-prime movers.
For example, the lats are used during the squat, despite it ostensibly being a lower body exercise. The lats stabilize the bar on your back, protect your spine and help you to maintain an upright torso. If you struggle to engage the lats when you squat, rest the bar on your lower traps and try to bend it half by pulling the elbows down and toward your hips (you shouldn’t be able to actually bend it!) This should switch your lats on, leading to a healthier, stronger brace.
The lats play a similar role when you deadlift. To maintain proper spinal position, without any rounding, you will need to engage your lats. They will help you to drop your hips and raise your chest, will help you to transfer your lower body power into the bar, and will help you to control the bar as you lift.
Try to tuck your shoulder blades into your back pockets. Again, can’t be done! But this isn’t the point. In initiating this motion, your lats will activate.
Finally, for the bench press, the lats provide stability and aid a great deal in force transference throughout the body, especially from the legs’ drive. This will, of course, help all the power to go into the bar. Lats also work antagonistically during a press; they allow you to control the bar more ably on the descent.
Any permutation on any of the above exercises- and, realistically, most workouts should feature at least one- will therefore be aided by lat training. Strong lats with a good mind-muscle connection and the ability to properly brace will see every lift improve drastically.
Problems With the Lat Pulldown
There aren’t too many problems with the lat pulldown- the purpose of this article isn’t to argue against including in your training. However, there are better exercises out there for those who are more experienced, and there are common mistakes that often halt the benefits to be gained from the lat pulldown.
As mentioned above, lat pulldowns are incredibly easy to learn. They are also pretty easy to perfect, with a little time and patience. They will inspire new growth quickly and ably.
However, there are two areas in which there is quite often room for improvement. The first pertains to common user mistakes. The second concerns actual useful trauma and overload caused and elicited by each rep.
To begin with, there are a few things that you see at every lat pulldown station in pretty much every public gym going that you should avoid. Doing so will keep you safer and will bring about greater results.
- Adding momentum: This is common to many exercises but seems to be more so with the lat pulldown. Users often initiate momentum through the back and hips, yanking the bar down rather than pulling it down, under control, using lat contraction. Keep your torso completely still, core braced, and squeeze through the shoulder blades and lats to bring the bar to your chest. If you can’t make it, use less weight. This isn’t about how much weight you can move, it’s about how much fatigue you can generate in your lats.
- Pulling behind the head: This also seems to be endemic. Users often lean their head forwards and pull the bar down behind, towards the backs of the shoulders. There are a couple of things wrong with this. Firstly, it puts your shoulders into a mechanically compromised position, risking injury. Secondly, it doesn’t do much for your lats. Your lats are there to pull weight inwards, towards your chest. To use them correctly, do exactly this: pull weight (in this case, the bar) inwards, towards your chest.
- Going too heavy: This relates to momentum but can be seen even in static lifters. Ego lifting should be avoided. Though it’s good to push yourself in big lifts, the lat pulldown should remain light and controlled. It’s an assistance exercise, meaning you want controlled, high reps, in which you build mind-muscle connection and feel the burn. Going too heavy will stop you from being able to do this. It will also shorten your range of motion. If you can’t pull the bar to within an inch of your chest for every rep, you need to bring the weight down.
In addition to these common mistakes, we also have training effect and muscle stimulation to worry about. As mentioned above, the lat pulldown is an assistance exercise. It isn’t top-tier- not even close. It’s good as a way to bring about hypertrophy as a final exercise, after doing some top-tier exercises. These stronger exercises will, however, be where most of the overload comes from- it will be where the majority of your gains will be earned.
But what are these top-tier exercises? Well, let’s take a look.
Top Five Alternatives to the Lat Pulldown
The following are all top-tier exercises. They provide the most stimulation to your lats and the auxiliary muscles used, eliciting greater hypertrophy than lat pulldowns, giving greater strength gains and athletic carryover. Including them regularly in your training regime will lead to a wider, stronger back, alongside strength increases in every other compound exercise you perform.
1. Pull ups
Pull ups are something of a standard in muscle and strength building regimes: they are perfect for building muscle, developing core and back muscular interplay, and for building a great deal of strength through the lats, arms, traps, core, rhomboids, posterior delts and scapula. They are what the motion involved in a lat pulldown is trying to mimic.
All you’ll need to perform pull ups is a bar that you can hang from. Feel free to try out a range of grips.
To perform a pull up:
- Grab a pull up bar with your hands shoulder width apart. If you are new or want to go for lighter, higher reps, use resistance bands for support.
- Pull your shoulders down and back to engage your scapula
- Pull yourself up with your elbows to make sure you’re engaging your lats. When you can feel a contraction in you traps and lats, your lats are engaged and good to go
- Pull yourself up to the bar, so that it is at eye or chest level. Squeeze your lats at the top.
- Lower your body slowly, under control
- Repeat for your desired set and rep range
2. Inverted rows
Inverted rows may at first seem like a soft option alternative to the pull up. There is some credence to this: they mimic the mechanics of a pull up but deliver a lower intensity and require less of the athlete. However, this makes them perfect for two things.
For those starting out, and for those who forever reason cannot include pull ups to any great volume in their training, they make a perfect facsimile.
As well as this, inverted rows are great for mind-muscle connection through the back and arms. Pull ups can be slightly stressful, with a bit of body-English and a lack of mindfulness involved. Inverted rows can be performed with more constant tension through the torso, slower, with more control and more mindfulness.
To perform inverted rows:
- Set up a barbell in a rack at about hip height or slightly higher. Alternatively, use TRX ropes, gymnastics rings, the underside of a flat table… anything that you can grip and pull yourself towards from the ground will work
- Place your hands shoulder width apart and keep your feet on the ground, far forward enough that your body is as close as horizontal to the ground as possible
- As with the pull up, bring your shoulders down and back to engage your scapula
- Pull yourself up to hand height, so that the bar or whatever you’re using comes to chest level. Squeeze your lats at the top.
- Lower your body slowly, under control, without touching the ground. Keep your body straight and your core tight throughout
- Repeat for your desired set and rep range
3. Single arm rows
This is a lighter option and will generally work well as an accessory move after the main lifts. You just need a relatively heavy dumbbell and a bench to perform it. As with the inverted row, it’s great for building mass through the lats and arms whilst enjoying the mind muscle connection and a good deal of contraction.
To perform a single arm row:
- Use a flat bench. Rest your left knee and left hand on the bench, in a semi-tabletop position, and take a dumbbell in your right hand
- Put your right foot back and brace, finding a position in which you feel the most comfortable and secure
- Keep the dumbbell hanging neutrally, engage your shoulder blades, squeezing them to engage your lats
- Press down into your left hand as you row the dumbbell up to near chest height
- Return the weight carefully, under control
- Repeat for the desired sets and reps, then do the same on the other side.
4. Incline dumbbell row
All back rows are perfect for working the lats- all of the exercises on this list are variations of some kind on a back row. The incline dumbbell row is a very stable exercise, perfect for working your brace as your build up your mind-muscle connection. You need two dumbbells and an adjustable bench.
Incline dumbbell rows will work your lats, traps and arms. You can go quite heavy and still be in control, still feel the squeeze at the top of the movement and the connection to your lats, as the bench will give you something against which to brace.
To perform an incline dumbbell row:
- Set the adjustable bench to an incline, as though you were going for some incline chest press work
- Take a heavy dumbbell in each hand
- Sit on the bench, facing the upright, and lay your chest and abs against the bench
- Brace against the bench and grind your toes into the ground, squeeze your shoulder blades together and bring your upper arms against your ribs
- Row the weight up to chest height, leading upwards with your elbows
- Squeeze at the top then lower the weights slowly, under control
- Repeat for the desired reps and sets
5. Bent over row, the king of back training
We’ve saved the best for last, here. The bent over row, in whatever form it comes, is arguably the greatest mass builder for the whole back, the best supplementary work for the posterior chain, and the best accessory move to deadlift variations.
The bent over row recruits the whole back, with lats working as prime movers, alongside using the core, glutes and hamstrings as stabilisers in quite a major way.
Form is all vital with the bent over row. The best way to manage your form and keep your mind-muscle connection at work is to begin light and never go higher than is comfortable. If you’re heaving to half-deadlift just to bring the weight off the ground, you’re going too heavy. This move is designed for heavy weights, but work with what you can manage.
Aim for slow, controlled movements, pausing to contract your shoulder blades and lats at the top of each rep if possible.
To perform bent over rows:
- Load up a barbell with plates. If you’re unsure how much to use, begin with a bare bar and add 5-10kg each set until it begins to feel challenging
- Stand with your feet shoulder width apart, with your shins a couple of inches from the bar
- Roll your shoulders back, squeeze your shoulder blades together and take a breath, as you would for a deadlift set up
- Bend your knees forwards, so that your shins touch the bar, again, as with a deadlift
- Brace, squeeze those shoulder blades, and row the bar up until it touches your sternum. If you want to, deadlift the bar up to waist height, then lean forwards to let the bar hang before beginning to row
- Lower back down. Options are to put it back on the ground, to lift from dead, or to stop shy of the ground and keep the pressure on. Both come with their own benefits
- Repeat for the desired rep and set range.
Rather than trying to pull the bar upwards, it can help to try to pull your elbows up, behind you. This may help with greater lat activation, control and mind-muscle connection. If you can, as mentioned above, try to pause at the top for extra contraction and to really test out your brace position.
There we have it- 5 exercises to use as alternatives to the lat pulldown.
As mentioned above, these shouldn’t necessarily replace the lat pulldown- the lat pulldown is a great exercise, well worth using as assistance or as a finisher on your back or deadlift days.
However, try some of the above as well. Variety can be key for progress. Combine them- use pull ups and bent over rows as your main exercises before finishing on single arm rows followed by lat pulldowns. Play around, make some gains, and try to build strength, size and that all-important mind-muscle connection.