When it comes to building a strong upper body, the pull-up and lat pulldown both kick butt. But which is better? Read on as we delve into the timeless deathmatch, err, debate.
Training the back is a cornerstone of an awesome upper body workout routine.
Having a strong and muscular back does more than just fill out a t-shirt: it has practical effects from improving athletic performance, stabilizing the arms, and can also improve your other upper body lifts (ahem, bench press).
Among back exercises, there are two types: horizontal pulls and vertical pulls.
The lat pulldown and the pull-up are the two kings of the castle when it comes to vertical pulls.
In this guide, we are going to take a detailed look at these two staples of back training.
We’ll cover the pros and cons of each so that you can make a decision on where to spend more of your focus at the gym.
Let’s jump right in.
Lat pulldowns – The Basics
The lat pulldown exercise can be done in a couple of different ways.
Seated lat press machine pulldowns are the one most of us are familiar with. Park your legs under the roller, insert the peg into your weight plate of choice, assume the grip on the lat pulldown bar, and off we go.
It can also be done using a resistance band at home or a home gym pulley system.
The lat pulldown works a lot of muscles:
- Lats. These are the primary muscles used in this exercise.
- Teres major. This is a small muscle that runs along the shoulder blade and helps power the lat muscles.
- Traps. Both upper and lower traps are recruited in this exercise.
- Rhomboids. Both the minor and major, found in your upper back.
- Biceps brachii. You know what this one is ?
- Forearm muscles, including the extensor digitorum, abductor pollicis longus, and so on.
- Extensors and tendons in the hand.
The lat pulldown has a lot of flexibility built into the exercise, with different grip and hand placements targeting different muscles (See: 5 Lat Pulldown Grips and the Benefits of Each).
Lat pulldowns – The Pros
The lat pulldown is a gangster when it comes to building muscle and strength in the upper back.
But there are some specific benefits to this exercise that make it a must-have in your upper body workout routine.
Intro to pull-ups. Not all of us can do a whole bunch of pull-ups. Even experienced athletes struggle to do more than 6-8 of them. Lat pulldowns are a great way to strengthen your lats when you aren’t quite at the point where you can do pull-ups without assistance.
Can be done with just a resistance band. Although most of us are familiar with lat pulldown machines, the exercise can be done without one. Lasso a resistance band around something sturdy, kneel down, and off you go. This makes it a great exercise for people on the go. The exercise can also be done with a weight pulley system, which can be attached to your power rack or installed as a stand-alone exercise machine in your home gym.
Unilateral variations. Lat pulldowns can be done with one hand! If you are favoring a side (injury, for example), or you are rehabbing from an injury, or you simply prefer focusing on working one side of your body at a time, there is a single-handed lat pulldown for you. Switch out the pulldown bar with a D-handle attachment and target one side of the body at a time.
Straight-arm pulldowns. Another variation of this exercise, that is wildly effective for targeting the lats, is standing and pulling the lat pulldown bar down with straight arms. This is a great variation for lifters who have trouble firing the lats as it prevents the biceps and middle back from overpowering the lats.
More resistance options. The amount of weight used when doing pull-ups starts at your bodyweight. Doesn’t leave a lot of room for easing into an exercise! With lat pulldowns, you have the option of going lighter, handy for days when you are in more of a recovery mode or when you want to do high-rep sets with less weight (3×20, for example).
Laser focus on technique. The most crucial part of any exercise in the gym is doing the movement properly. Less weight on the bar or rack means you can focus on executing the exercise optimally.
Pull-ups are a simple exercise that is often done with terrible mechanics, and this is partly due to the fact that the exercise starts with a high load. It’s hard to focus on technique when you are simply struggling to do a handful of reps.
Lat pulldowns give you a chance to pull the bar down, and really feel the shoulder blade retraction without overcompensating with shrugged shoulders, pulling the head forward, and so on.
Lat Pulldown – The Cons
Less core activation. Because the body is generally pinned under a roller, there is less core activation when doing lat pulldowns. While the lat pulldown is technically a compound exercise, it does isolate the back and shoulders. With pull-ups, there is much more core activation in order to keep the body rigid when pulling the body up and down.
Incorrect range of motion. It’s easy to cheat on this exercise. The big one is when the bar doesn’t go high enough, soliciting that stretch in the shoulder blade and lats. Getting stronger and building more muscle means going through the full range of motion
Pull-ups – The Basics
The pull up is a bodyweight exercise that challenges the upper body. Starting from a head hang, the body is pulled skyward using the musculature in the back, shoulders, and arms.
The muscles used in the pull-up include:
- Lats. Otherwise known as the latissimus dorsi
- Biceps brachii. Sun’s out, gun’s out!
- Traps. Both the upper and lower trapezoid muscles.
- Deltoid. Not to confused with altoids.
- Erector Spinae. Excellent for lower back stability and strength.
- Rectus abdominis. Core work!
Pull-ups – The Pros
There are plenty of things to like about pull-ups.
Here are the key benefits of pull-ups:
More core activation. During pull-ups, the core is firing like crazy to keep your body straight and to prevent it from sagging like an overcooked spaghetti noodle. The core is a stabilizer, above all else, and when doing pull-ups, it’s doing its best to keep the body rigid. This heightened core activation applies to both people who are really good at pull-ups (can do 10+ reps) or those who are working their way there (10-and-under reps).
Grip Strength 9000. Although lat pull-downs work your forearms and grip, unless you are doing more than your body weight, it won’t come close to the grip that’s being developed with pull-ups. Forearm strength is one of the key limitations to getting stronger with pulling exercises (deadlifts, for example), and pull-ups are an excellent way to improve grip and forearm strength.
Better for athletic performance. Because pull-ups are a multi-joint, closed kinetic chain exercise, they send a wave of strength and power that translates into better transfer power between the upper and lower body. In a less science way, pull-ups better translate to full body performance1, making it an essential for athletes and those who simply want to get more athletic potential from their body.
Engages more muscle than lat pulldowns. The lats are the primary muscles being targeted in both exercises. But the pull-up is recruiting a whole bunch of other muscle groups, too. One fascinating study with a group of college-aged men and women found that lat and trap muscle activation was similar with both lat pulldowns and pull-ups. But core activation was 50% higher and bicep activation 25% higher when doing pull-ups1.
Better calorie burn. To piggyback on the previous point, when you recruit more muscle fiber, you are also burning more calories. For people who are on a time-crunch with their workouts (which, let’s be honest, is most of us), if it comes down to doing lat pulldowns or pull-ups, hit the pull-up bar.
Back training 9000. As you get stronger on the pull-up bar, you’ll find that there are a ton of ways to further escalate the difficulty. Adding weight with a dip belt (and clipping in a weight plate or two) or using a weight vest are an excellent way to increase the difficulty and keep you in the 3-5 rep range for maximal power development.
Minimal equipment. And finally, pull-ups are a compound exercise that can be done just about anywhere. Doorway pull-ups bars are very inexpensive, and if you have a little handyman-know-how, you can install a simple steel pipe somewhere sturdy and get to work.
Pull-Ups – The Cons
Now that we’ve sung the praises of the almighty pull-up, let’s promptly throw a wet towel on its efficacy!
Even intermediate lifters will struggle to complete more than 1-3 reps.
Pull-ups are a shake made with two scoops of humility if I’ve ever seen one.
There are plenty of well-conditioned athletes in the gym who struggle to do more than 4-5 proper reps.
Which can make it difficult to hit the hypertrophy sweet spot of 8-12 reps on a consistent basis (without using the pull-up machine or bands).
The temptation of cheating on the short range of motion.
The pull-up is a breeding ground of incomplete range of motion. I’ve done it, you’ve done it: sacrificed the bottom 1/3 of the movement to get a sneaky few more reps in.
Most often, it’s at the beginning of the pull, when people should be in a dead hang.
Pull-uppers will often cheat the bottom end of the movement in order to skip having to overcome gravity and accelerate out of a dead hang.
(That said, this temptation is just as real on the lat pulldown machine. Sometimes you just need to eat that humble pie and reduce the weight so you can hit full range of motion.)
Lat Pulldowns vs Pull-Ups: What’s Best for you?
Lat pulldowns are great for…
- Activating the lats before a big back workout
- Beginners who want to progress to pull-ups
- Mastering the basics of back pull exercises
- Want more control when training the lats
- As a “finisher” exercise to train safely to failure
Pull-ups are best for…
- Athletes who want better power transfer through the body
- Recruiting more core and bicep muscle fiber
- Developing forearm and grip strength
- Working out at home with minimal equipment
- Burning more calories in less time
Lat Pulldowns vs Pull-Ups: FAQs
Should you do lat pulldowns and pull-ups on the same day?
Yes! There are several instances where you should definitely do both exercises on the same day.
Lat pulldowns are an excellent way to activate the lats without going to failure or overloading the nervous system.
Experienced lifters can and should use lat pulldowns as a way to prime the lats and forearms so that they don’t hit the pull-up bar with cold, sleepy muscles.
Lat pulldowns are also a great burner exercise to do at the end of a workout when you want to “rep-out” and train to failure.
Are assisted pull-ups better than lat pulldowns?
The assisted pull-up is a hybrid between lat pulldowns and pull-ups.
You get the best of both worlds, essentially, copying the motor patterns of the pull-up with the weight-assist of a lat pulldown exercise. Simply strap on a pull up assist resistance band, and focus on proper technique and muscle recruitment.
For less-trained individuals (people who can do less than 10 pull-ups consecutively), assisted pull-ups are better for lat activation than pulldowns or even pull-ups3.
The Bottom Line
There are a lot of reasons to love both of these exercises, and let’s be honest for a second here…
This might be a “vs” battle, but it’s not an either/or.
They both have a place in every seasoned lifter’s workout routine.
But if you are pressed for time, and only one of the two will suffice, here’s a recap:
- Pull-ups are best for additional core work, forearm activation, and power transfer between the upper and lower body.
- Lat pulldowns are awesome for people easing into lifting weights, want to hit higher rep ranges, and want to really zero in on the lats.
Whichever you choose, may the back strength and muscle be with you!
More Guides Like This
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.
6 Lat Pulldown Alternatives for a Strong and Muscular Back. 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.