If you want to train your back, but you don’t have access to a cable lat pulldown machine, this page will show you what to do.
Chances are you’re looking for an effective lat pulldown alternative because you’re training in a home gym with limited equipment.
Maybe all you have is a barbell, adjustable bench, a pair of dumbbells, a pull-up bar and some elastic resistance bands.
You want an exercise that works the same muscles as the lat pulldown, but can be done without a cable machine and weight stack.
For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, you can’t actually do a lat pulldown with dumbbells.
However, there are exercises that use dumbbells, bands or your own bodyweight to train the same muscles as the lat pulldown.
More about that in a moment.
First, I want to quickly run through the muscles worked by the lat pulldown, before looking at some alternative exercises you can use to replace it.
Lat Pulldown: Muscles Worked
The lat pulldown is a compound lift, and challenges most of the major back muscles, with the exception of the spinal erectors. The main muscles worked during the lat pulldown are:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres major (a muscle in the upper back that helps the lats)
- Rhomboids (muscles that sit underneath the traps connecting the spine to the shoulder blade)
- Elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis)
- Posterior deltoid
The muscles in your forearms are also involved in the lat pulldown, and it will require a certain level of grip strength to perform.
There are lots of different ways to do the lat pulldown, from the wide-grip lat pull-down to the single-arm lat pulldown to the reverse grip lat pull-down, all of which hit the back from a slightly different angle.
Although the same upper body muscle groups are being worked during the various lat pulldown variations, certain upper back muscles are going to be more or less involved depending on which of the alternative grips you use.
Overall, when you do the lat pulldown exercise with an overhand grip (palms facing forward), the lats tend to work a little harder compared to pulldowns done with a hammer-type grip (palms facing each other) or underhand grip, with some trials showing no major difference in lat activity whether the grip is narrow, medium, or wide [4, 5, 6].
How To Do the Lat Pulldown: Proper Form
- Set the seat height so the knee pads sit snugly on your thighs, and provide enough pressure to stop your body being lifted off the seat.
- Take hold of the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing forward), and your hands a little wider than shoulder width apart.
- Sit on the lat pulldown machine while facing the weight stack.
- Remaining in a seated position, pull the bar down until it’s roughly at chin level.
- At the bottom position your elbows should point down rather than back.
- Pause briefly at the bottom before returning the bar under control to the starting position.
The Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives
One of the best lat pulldown alternatives out there is the pull-up, which ranks as one of the most effective upper body exercises you can do.
What’s the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups?
With the pull-up, you take a pronated hand grip (this refers to an overhand grip where your palms face away from you), with your hands positioned slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
The chin-up, on the other hand, is done with an underhand grip (palms facing you), and a grip that’s slightly narrower than shoulder width.
Because the pull-up is typically done with a wider grip, it’s the perfect substitute for the wide grip lat pulldown.
Making some changes to your grip and hand position turns the pull-up into another highly effective compound exercise – the chin-up.
Specifically, the chin-up is performed with an underhand, or reverse grip, which means that your palms face you.
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The width of your grip is also slightly narrower than shoulder width, whereas with the chin-up it’s slightly wider than shoulder width.
These two changes to your hand position make the chin-up a very effective alternative to the reverse grip lat pulldown.
Problem is, not everyone has the upper body strength to do pull-ups and chin-ups, especially if you’re overweight, or you’re relatively new to strength training.
I’ve trained in many gyms over the years, and it’s the exception rather than the rule to see someone doing a proper pull-up, using proper form, under control, with each rep performed through a full range of motion.
Reaching the stage where you’re able to crank out multiple sets of 5-10 reps will take time, patience, and a lot of hard work.
However, chances are you know that already. You want an alternative to the lat pull-down, but one that isn’t pull-ups or chin-ups.
All of which brings me to the TRX lat pulldown.
TRX Lat Pulldown
If you can’t do regular chin-ups or pull-ups, or even band-assisted chin-ups, you can use a suspension trainer (like a TRX or Jungle Gym) or gymnastic rings to do the TRX lat pulldown.
Like the pull-up and chin-up, the TRX lat pulldown uses the weight of your body to provide resistance.
But unlike those two exercises, which require lifting your entire body weight in each rep, it’s possible to adjust the amount of weight you lift depending on how you position your body.
If you start off directly under the anchor point, the TRX lat pulldown is going to be harder compared to starting the exercise with the anchor point in front of you.
Likewise, putting both feet on the floor in a squat-type position makes each rep less challenging compared with keeping your legs straight and starting out with your arse on the floor.
That means you can start off with an easier version of the TRX lat pulldown, and progress to harder versions over time as you get stronger.
- Adjust the straps on the suspension trainer so you can just reach the handles with your arms outstretched
- Take hold of the handles and pull your torso upwards.
- Briefly hold the top position before lowering yourself under control to the starting position. That counts as one rep.
- Keep your hips low to avoid turning the exercise into an inverted row.
Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
The resistance band lat pulldown is one of the more popular lat pulldown alternatives out there.
For one, it doesn’t require much in the way of equipment, which makes it ideal if you’re training in a home gym. Rather than a cable pulley machine all you need is an elastic band and a stable object to loop it round.
Both exercises also look very similar, and work the same muscles in your back, shoulders and arms.
However, even though they might look the same, lat pulldowns with resistance bands aren’t a direct replacement for cable lat pulldowns.
Why is that?
When you do lat pulldowns on a machine, you’re lifting a weight that goes straight up and straight down.
From the stretched position at the top, where your arms are straight, to the contracted position at the bottom, you’ve got a constant level of tension on the lats throughout the whole of the exercise.
But that’s not the case when you’re doing lat pulldowns with bands.
With an exercise band, the resistance is greatest at the bottom of the movement, as you pull the band close to your torso. Then, as you straighten your arms, the resistance is reduced.
Rather than constant tension, as you get with a lat pulldown machine, the tension varies throughout the exercise.
The lat pulldown with bands provides more resistance when your lats are contracted, with your arms closer to your torso, than it does at the top when you arms are straight.
Why does that matter?
One of the things that stimulates growth in a muscle is subjecting it to high levels of tension at long muscle lengths, a phenomenon known as stretch-mediated hypertrophy.
By that, I mean you want an exercise that challenges your muscles in a stretched position.
You get that, to a degree at least, with exercises like pulldowns, pull-ups and chin-ups. But with resistance band lat pulldowns, the tension is at its lowest when your arms are straight.
That doesn’t mean lat pulldowns with bands are worthless. They’re still a decent replacement for lat pulldowns on a machine, but they’re not identical.
Lat Pulldown Alternative Exercises With Dumbbells
You can’t do a lat pulldown with dumbbells. The closest you can get is to hang upside down with a dumbbell in each hand and your arms straight, pull the dumbbells up towards your head, before lowering them under control to the starting position.
Unless you happen to be Spiderman, this isn’t really an option for most people.
However, while you can’t do a lat pulldown with dumbbells, you can use dumbbells to train the same muscles as the lat pulldown exercise.
Here’s what I mean by that.
Most exercises for your back can be put into one of two categories:
- Vertical Pull
- Horizontal Pull
Vertical pulling movements can’t be done with barbells or dumbbells, but horizontal pulling movements can.
Put differently, you can use exercises like barbell rows or the bent-over dumbbell row to work the same muscles as you would do on a cable lat pulldown.
To be clear, a horizontal pulling movement is not a direct one-for-one replacement for a vertical pulling movement.
Complete development of the back requires a combination of both vertical and horizontal pulling exercises, preferably using different hand positions and variations in technique to recruit and stimulate all the muscles in the back.
However, horizontal pulling exercises can be done with adjustable dumbbells, and they work the same muscles in the back and arms, which makes them a “not ideal but better than nothing” substitute for the lat pullldown.
Single Arm Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row is a horizontal rather than a vertical pulling exercise, so it’s not a perfect substitute for an exercise like the pull-up or lat pulldown.
However, if you don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine, you’re not quite strong enough to do pull-ups for multiple reps, and you only have a single dumbbell, the single-arm row is an effective exercise for training your lats and upper back.
- Place your hand and knee on a flat bench to support your weight.
- Pick up a dumbbell with your other hand.
- Maintain a slight bend in the leg that’s on the floor.
- Pull the dumbbell up towards your waist.
- Keep your arm close to the side of your body, with the elbow pointing back.
- The path of the dumbbell should be up and slightly back rather than straight up and straight down.
- Keep your spine in a neutral position during each rep rather than allowing your back to round excessively.
- Lower the dumbbell under control until your arm is straight.
Incline Dumbbell Row
Any type of chest-supported row, be it the incline dumbbell row on a bench or chest-supported T-bar row, offers similar benefits to the single arm row in the sense that lower back fatigue isn’t an issue.
TRX Inverted Row
One of my favorite bodyweight back exercises is the inverted row, also known as the bodyweight row.
If you’re just starting out, the inverted row can also serve as a first step on the road to pull-ups and chin-ups.
These are usually done with a suspension trainer. However, gymnastic rings are a lot cheaper than most suspension trainers, and work just as well.
- To alter the difficulty of the exercise, adjust the length of the straps.
- The longer the straps, the closer you’ll be to the floor, making the exercise harder. You can also try wearing a weighted vest if you find the inverted row too easy.
- Making the straps shorter means that you’ll be in a more upright position. This makes the exercise easier, as you don’t have to lift as much of your bodyweight.
- Pull your body up towards the handles.
- Your body should be in a straight line throughout the exercise, with only your arms moving.
- To focus on the lats, keep your elbows tight to the body rather than flaring them out to the side.
- Lower yourself under control back to the starting position.
Resistance Band Rows
If you don’t have any dumbbells, and nowhere to anchor a suspension trainer, the resistance band row is another option.
However, it does suffer from the same problem as the resistance band lat pulldown, in the sense that the resistance is reduced at the end range, where your arms are straight.
But as long as you’re pushing yourself hard in each set, the band will still provide some degree of stimulus for growth.
What About Dumbbell Pullovers?
Although it looks nothing like a lat pulldown, one exercise often recommended as a substitute for the lat pulldown is the dumbbell pullover.
It’s typically done by holding a dumbbell in both hands, lying crossways on a bench, dropping your hips, then lowering the dumbbell behind your head until you feel a stretch in your lats. Then you return the dumbbell to the start position.
However, studies show that the dumbbell pullover hits the chest a lot harder than it does the lats.
With dumbbell or barbell pullovers, the lats do get a deep stretch under load when you’re in the bottom position, which can play a role in stimulating muscle growth.
So it’s not like pullovers have no role at all in building the lats. But all things considered, I see them as more of a chest than a back exercise.
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