Some say that pull-ups (where your palms face away from you) and chin-ups (where your palms face you) are the best back exercises, giving you a lot more “bang for your buck” than lat pulldowns.
Personally, I take the opposite view. For most people, most of the time, pulldowns are a better option than pull-ups or chin-ups.
Is It Better to Do Pull-Ups or Lat Pulldowns?
Most research shows that lat pulldowns and pull-ups are equally effective for working the lats.
If you want a bigger, more muscular back, pulldowns are one of the best compound exercises you can do. They serve as a highly effective alternative to the pull-up, especially if you’re a beginner lacking the upper body strength to lift your own bodyweight.
In one study, Australian researchers rounded up a group of men who’d been lifting weights for at least 12 months, and got them to do pull-ups and lat pull downs to the front, using a wide(ish) overhand grip .
Electrodes were attached to various different muscles, including latissimus dorsi, biceps and abs, to measure how hard those muscles worked during both of the lat workouts.
Both exercises were done through a full range of motion, with a metronome being used to ensure a consistent rep speed.
The results show almost no difference in muscle activation between pull-ups and lat pull downs, with the researchers concluding that both exercises are “similarly effective” for working latissimus dorsi.
It was much the same story in a study carried out at Sweden’s Halmstad University . Pull-ups and pulldowns both hit latissimus dorsi to a very similar degree.
Note: Both of these studies use the term “chin-ups,” when they’re actually describing “pull-ups” (i.e. the exercise was done with a pronated grip, where your palms face away from you).
Why Lat Pulldowns Are Better Than Pull-Ups
So, if pull-ups and lat pulldowns both work the lats to a similar degree, why do I think that pulldowns are a better choice for most people?
I’ve trained in many gyms over the years, and it’s rare to see pull-ups or chin-ups being done well, under control, through a full range of motion.
Most people lack the upper body strength to lift their own bodyweight, and can only do a few really solid reps before their muscles give out.
Getting to the point where you’re able to crank out multiple sets of pull-ups or chin-ups, with good form, takes time, patience, and a lot of hard work.
If you’re expecting to turn up at the gym and do one pull-up the first week, two the next week, three the week after that, and so on, chances are you’re going to be disappointed. It’s not going to happen.
To go from one pull-up to two constitutes a 100% improvement in performance. That’s a big jump. With lat pull downs, you can make much finer adjustments in load, adding weight or reps at a gradual rate as your muscles adapt.
The Mind Muscle Connection
No matter how hard they try, a lot of people just can’t feel their lats doing the work when they’re training their back.
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If you are one of these people, you’re better off using pulldowns rather than chin-ups or pull-ups.
With lighter weights and higher reps, you can focus on getting your technique right and really feel what your lats are doing.
You’ll get far more out of certain back exercises if you focus on what the muscle is doing, rather than just trying to move the weight from point A to point B.
In one study, telling a group of untrained beginners who were doing the lat pulldown for the first time to “pull with their back, instead of with their arms, by adducting the shoulder blades and concentrating on the tension in the back musculature” led to a significant increase in muscle activity in the lats .
The same kind of thing has shown up in studies of other muscle groups, where consciously focusing on what a muscle is doing makes it grow faster.
Research published in the European Journal of Sport Science, for example, looked at two groups of men who trained with weights three times a week for eight weeks .
Both groups did the same exercises – the barbell curl and leg extension – but with one key difference.
Subjects in the first group were told to “squeeze the muscle” during each rep, while subjects in group two were told simply to “get the weight up.”
In subjects who were told to “squeeze the muscle” – dubbed an internal focus of attention – there was a 12.4% increase in the size of the biceps.
That was almost double the gains seen in the group who were told to “get the weight up,” where the average increase in biceps size was just 6.9%.
Lat Pulldown Variations
In general, most research points towards lat pulldowns with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) and your hands placed slightly wider than shoulder width apart activating the lats to a greater extent than a neutral or supinated (palms facing you) grip.
In one study, scientists from the University of Miami tested four variations of the lat pulldown .
- Wide overhand grip in front of the head
- Wide overhand grip behind the head
- Narrow underhand (reverse) grip
- Neutral grip (seated row V handle)
For both wide grip pulldowns, the hands were spaced roughly 1.5 times shoulder-width apart. For the close-grip pulldown, the hands were placed shoulder-width apart (in line with the bony bits on top of your shoulder).
Muscle activity was measured in the following upper back muscles:
- Posterior deltoid
- Latissimus dorsi
- Pectoralis major
- Teres major
- Triceps (long head)
The wide grip front lat pulldown led to the greatest muscle activity in the lats. However, there were no major differences in lat activity between the other three exercises.
Research carried in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research also shows that lat pulldowns with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you), irrespective of the width of that grip, tends to work the lats harder than a supinated (palms facing you) grip .
Canadian researchers also found a slight decrease in lat activity and a slight increase in biceps activity with an underhand, narrow grip versus a wide, pronated grip .
However, they also point out that “these changes are small and may have no weight training significance.”
In fact, some research shows no difference between a supinated and a pronated grip. In one study, pull-ups and chin-ups, done with a similar grip width, led to identical levels of muscle activity in the lats, although the biceps worked harder during the chin-up .
Overall, lat pulldowns with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you) appear to work the lats a little harder than pulldowns with a neutral or supinated grip, with some studies showing no major difference in muscle activation in the lats whether that grip is narrow, medium, or wide .
Personally, I don’t like taking a really wide grip, and prefer to keep my hands on the straight part of the bar, rather than the ends that are angled down. Here’s how it’s done:
Front Lat Pulldown
However, there are some caveats.
First, the lats are a big muscle. But most studies typically assess muscle activity in only one region of the lats.
As far back as the 1990s, researchers established that different portions of the lats were more or less active depending on the type of movement being performed .
Muscle activity may simply shift from one portion of the lats to another when moving from one variation of the lat pulldown to another. But this shift isn’t going to show up in the research if the electrodes measuring muscle activity are only in one place.
This is something that’s shown up in research on other muscle groups. The lying leg curl, for example, increases muscle activation in certain parts of the hamstrings – the lower lateral and lower medial hamstrings in particular – compared to the stiff-legged deadlift .
Lat pulldowns done with a narrow, underhand (supinated) grip feel different to lat pulldowns done with a wide, overhand (pronated) grip, and the two exercises may well stimulate a faster rate of growth in one region of the lats versus another.
What’s more, most research only reports the average results in a group of people. But not everyone is built in the same way, and some studies show a large degree of variability in muscle activation from person to person . A particular grip width or hand position that works for one person may not work so well for someone else.
In addition, the differences in lat activation are small. We’re not talking about a 50% increase, or even a 10% increase. Going from a narrow, supinated grip to a wide, pronated grip increased muscle activity in the lats by an average of just 4.8% .
Finally, you also need to consider how a particular exercise affects your joints, which brings me to another reason why pulldowns are a good choice for your workout routine.
How to Tackle Wrist, Elbow or Shoulder Pain
Chin-ups or pull-ups from a straight pull-up bar with a heavy load can sometimes lead to pain in your wrists, elbows or shoulders. Doing pulldowns, but with a lighter weight and higher reps, is often enough to solve the problem.
Doing sets of 15-20 reps isn’t an option with pull-ups, but it can be done with pulldowns.
We already know that training in a higher rep range stimulates just as much muscle growth as heavy weights and low reps, so you won’t miss out on any gains in size.
I’ve also found that back exercises done with rotating handles are a highly effective way to work around niggling joint pain in your wrists, elbows or shoulders.
Because the handle rotates, you can start with whatever grip feels comfortable, and then supinate your hands to whatever degree you want as you perform the exercise.
Working one side of the back independently also helps to iron out any differences in muscle strength from one side to the other.
If your elbows, shoulders or wrists flare up when you train your back, try incorporating some of these exercises in your workout routine.
Single Arm Lat Pulldown
Kneeling Rope Cable Lat Pulldowns
Single Arm Cable Row
While I don’t think rows are as effective as pulldowns or pull-ups, you’re still getting some lat involvement [8 , 9]. Ideally, you want to include both horizontal and vertical pulling movements in your training program.
If your back plays up during an exercise like the barbell row, try the inverted row instead. It’s been shown to work many of the muscles in the upper back just as well as the barbell row, but with less load on the spine .
You may find that one grip or hand position is less stressful on your joints than another. If so, use that. Experiment to find out which one feels best for you.
Don’t worry about the optimal grip width or hand position for activating your lats. As we’ve seen, it’s not going to make much difference one way or the other. You can’t train if you’re injured, so the best exercise is one that doesn’t cause you pain.
How do you train your back if you don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine, but you’re not strong enough to do pull-ups?
If you’ve got a pull-up bar, these alternative exercises work the same muscles, but don’t require lifting your entire body weight.
TRX Pull Up
Negative Pull Ups
Resistance Band Assisted Pull-Up
In summary, chin-ups and pull-ups are two of the best compound exercises you can do, and I like them a lot. However, lat pulldowns work many of the exact same muscles just as hard. You can and will build a strong, muscular back with pulldowns alone, and in many cases they’re a better option.
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