The lat pulldown is a cornerstone of most back-building programs. Here are the best lat pulldown alternatives to help you conquer your workout goals.
The lat pulldown exercise is one of the staples of building a powerful and muscular upper back.
You step up to the lat pulldown bar, grip it, and pull your way to a stronger back.
As great as an exercise it may be, let’s be honest: few of us have a lat pulldown machine at home.
Others may simply be in a hurry at the gym and see the machine being occupied (with someone texting between sets, usually) and need a quick alternative to move on with their workout.
Or you simply don’t like the movement and feel like there are better ways to develop strong lats and upper back muscles.
In this article we are going to look at some excellent alternatives to the lat pulldown.
Some you can do at home, some you can do at the gym, some you can do with a barbell, and so on. In every case, these exercises will build strength and help you build a wider back.
Let’s jump right in.
What Muscles Does the Lat Pulldown Target?
Although we call it a lat pulldown, this exercise targets a ton of muscles in the back and arms.
The major ones include:
- Latsissimus dorsi. This is the biggest muscle in the back and the primary muscle group being used in this exercise, from the long stretch at the top of the lift to the contraction as you bring the bar down to your chin. Lats, all day!
- Posterior deltoid. Muscles that wraps around the back of the shoulders.
- Teres major. A muscle that runs along the bottom of the shoulder blade.
- Traps. Triangular-shaped muscles that connect the bottom of the head, shoulders, and down to the mid-back.
- Biceps. Yup—this exercise activates the “guns” in your arms, especially close-grip on the bar.
- Forearm muscles. All that gripping on the bar also works the brachialis and brachioradialis in the forearm.
While this isn’t a complete list of the muscles worked when doing lat pulldowns, they represent the major ones.
(For more information on how grips can change targeted muscles, check out this guide to lat pulldown grips.)
And the lats are the primary muscles we are going to focus on when searching for alternative back exercises.
Things to Look for in Alternative Lat Pulldown Exercises
The lat pulldown is a pulling movement.
Which means that we simply need to find a similar movement pattern to replicate the muscle activation of a pulldown.
The good news is that to recruit the same muscles, the pulling motion doesn’t necessarily need to be vertical (as is the case with lat pulldowns).
Horizontal pulls (like seated cable rows, for instance), can also target the lats… when done with the proper grip.
To target the lats with horizontal pulling movements, keep the elbows close to the body.
The trick with horizontal pulls is to keep your elbows tucked into your side to activate the lats. Once you understand this, lat activation becomes a piece of cake.
With vertical pulls, a wider grip (and by wider, I mean slightly outside of shoulder-width) activates more muscle in the lats.
Now that we have that little technique announcement behind us, let’s take a closer look at the exercises.
The Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives – Six Ways to Level Up Your Lats
Okay, you probably all saw this coming.
But the pull-up is not just an alternative to a lat pulldown, it’s superior in many ways.
It also doesn’t require a gym to perform the exercise, with doorway pull-up bars costing around $30. And if you already have a power rack at home, then it’s almost certainly got a bar to do pull-ups.
The problem is that most people, even well-trained lifters, can’t always do higher rep ranges to get into the range that generates the most hypertrophy.
Here are a couple of workarounds to get into the higher rep ranges:
- Banded pull-ups. Pull out your trusty resistance bands (there are bands that are built specifically for this purpose) and use the band to reduce your overall bodyweight.
- Eccentric pull-ups. Grab a plyo box or a mini ladder and hop up on the pull up bar so that you are at the top of the pull-up. Slowly lower yourself down in a three-count and repeat.
Use a medium to wide pronated grip when doing pull-ups for maximum lat activation. Research has found that the lats are most active with this grip variation, especially on the eccentric phase1.
2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Row
This is one of the most popular exercises in the gym for its simplicity and the fact that many of us can pull a lot of weight from the bent-over position.
It’s also my favorite dumbbell exercise for lats because of the short learning curve and minimal equipment.
- Grab a bench, rest one hand on it.
- This can be done with a knee on the bench (same side as the resting hand) or leaning against something and half-standing.
- Reach down for the dumbbell, and pull it up.
If you only have access to dumbbells, and want to work your lats, this is a killer way to do it.
When done properly.
The key mistake lifters make is pulling the dumbbell straight up, with the elbow flaring out to the side.
(Remember what we said earlier about keeping the elbows tucked to maximize lat engagement?)
Focus on keeping the elbow relatively in line with the body.
At the top of the pull, the dumbbell should be close to your hips, not your chest.
3. Dumbbell or barbell lat pullover
Alternatively known as the straight arm pullover, this is a compound exercise that challenges the lats, yes, but also activates the chest (more specifically, the lower muscle in the chest, the sternal head) and core.
- Lay down on a bench, extend the dumbbell straight above you
- Slowly lower it backwards, above the head until you can draw a straight line from the dumbbell to your knees.
- At the top of the movement, you will feel an excellent stretch in the lats, and they will work overtime to help bring the weight back to a vertical position.
This exercise can also be done with a barbell, but an EZ curl bar can provide a more natural and comfortable grip.
This is a great exercise as there is a ton of versatility to it. You can crank up the difficulty by doing decline dumbbell pullover, adding gravity to the mix.
Key mistakes to avoid is locking out the elbows (a slight bend ensures the lats are the ones doing the work, not your elbow joint) and lowering the dumbbell beyond 180-degrees.
4. T-Bar Rows
The T-bar row is another lift that we can really ramp up the poundage.
Because it has a neutral grip, T-bar rows put us in a biomechanically advantageous position to pull some serious weight.
Additionally, a neutral grip tends to favor a cleaner pulling motion—it’s harder for the elbows to get flighty and start to flare when our hands are facing each other.
Even though we are looking primarily at upper back exercises in this article, the lower back, hips and glutes are also engaged in this movement to keep the body steady.
This exercise can be done either with a T-bar row machine or with a barbell and a landmine attachment.
Like any other kind of bent over position, keep your back straight and remember that the path your elbows take during the course of the lift is the key to activating the lat muscles.
5. Inverted TRX rows
One of the best things my wife ever got me for Christmas was a set of TRX straps.
They can be used just about anywhere, for anything, and in the case of lat pulldown alternatives, we can unleash them to do some bodyweight training with inverted rows.
Inverted rows are also an excellent stability and core exercise. While most of us allow the core to go dormant when sitting in a lat pulldown machine, inverted rows force you to maintain a rigid bodyline, otherwise your butt is going to fall into the floor.
- Hang the straps from something sturdy (key thing to remember!), climb under the straps and grip the handles.
- Once you’ve got your hands locked into place, extend the legs and straighten the body.
- Remember to keep the elbows from flaring to engage the lats.
Another thing I like about using straps for this exercise is that there is greater flexibility in grip placement, making it easier on the wrists and allowing you to fully focus on lighting up the lats.
If these are too easy for you, there are some simple tweaks you can do to increase the difficulty, including wearing a weight vest, elevating your feet on a bench, and so on.
6. Resistance band rows
Resistance bands are a tool that every gymgoer should have in their arsenal.
In the myriad of ways they can be used, we find one that suits our purposes for lat activation: the resistance band row!
Here are a couple of ways that we can tackle the lats with a band.
- Bent over band row. Take your resistance band, anchor it by stepping on it, lean forward, and pull the ends of the band to the chest. Bring the shoulder blades together, contract the lats.
- Standing row. Loop the band around a door handle, a column on your squat rack, or anything else sturdy. Grab each end, and bracing the core, pull the ends of the band. Like the bent over dumbbell row, your hands should end by the hips.
In both cases, remember to keep an eye on those elbows. They will want to flare out, and when this happens, lat activation decreases.
Another way you can mix this up is by doing unilateral rows, which adds anti-rotation core strength into the mix.
Combining the benefits of unilateral exercise (enhanced core activation) with upper body strength is a killer way to improve athletic performance overall function.
And, as always, keep those elbows straight with the body, and let the lats do the heavy lifting.
Lat Pulldown Alternatives – FAQ
What can I substitute for lat pulldown?
The benefits of a lat pulldown machine can be simulated with resistance bands at home, a dumbbell or barbell in a home or commercial gym, or even TRX straps.
The key to a good lat pulldown substitute is technique. Keep your elbows from flaring when doing pulls and the lats will activate.
For home gyms, a weight pulley system is a budget-friendly way to get all of the benefits of lat pulldowns without breaking the bank. Additionally, assisted pull-ups are highly effective for lat muscle recruitment.
How do you simulate lat pulldown with free weights?
The best lat pulldown alternative with free weights is either dumbbell or barbell pullovers or the basic dumbbell row.
Both can fire up the lats in a comparable manner to lat pulldowns when done properly.
The Bottom Line
The lat pulldown is an awesome upper body exercise that can help you build a strong back, giving you that much-vaunted “V” shape in the shoulders.
While hitting the lat pulldown machine isn’t always possible, there are a ton of excellent alternatives that can help you crank up the lat gains, gym or no gym.
Choose a couple of these exercises, add them to your workout routine arsenal, and get those gains!
More Lat Pulldown Guides:
⭐ 5 Best Lat Pulldown Bars for Home Gyms. Lat pulldowns are a killer exercise for a stronger and muscular back. Read on for a breakdown of the best lat pulldown bars for home and garage gyms.
⭐ Best Lat Pulldown Machines for Home Gyms. Here is a breakdown of the best lat pulldown machines for home and garage gyms.
5 Lat Pulldown Grips (Pros and Cons of Each). Conquer the lat pull-down and target the right muscles with this guide to the best grips on the pulldown bar.