When it comes to lat exercises, the lat pulldown and pull-up are two of the most popular options. Both exercises work the lats (the large muscles on the sides of your back), but they use different techniques.
So what are the differences between lat pulldowns and pull-ups? The lat pulldown is a machine-based exercise that requires you to pull a bar towards your chest. The pull-up is a bodyweight exercise in which you hang from a bar and pull yourself up until your chin is over the bar. It can be done with assistance or additional external load. Pull-ups also require more core activation.
The lat pulldown and the pull-up are both exercises that should be included in any well-rounded strength training program, but there are certain times when you may want to prioritize one over the other.
In this article, we’ll take a closer look at both exercises and discuss the pros and cons of each one. I will also give you some tips on how to do them correctly and get the most out of them. By the end, you’ll know which one will be better for you and how you can incorporate it into your routine.
Differences Between Lat Pulldown and Pull-Ups
There are 5 main differences between the lat pulldown vs the pull up:
- Equipment used in the exercise
- How to perform the exercise
- Muscle groups activated
- How much load you can use
- How they can be programmed
1. Equipment Used in the Exercise
The lat pulldown can be performed with a dedicated seated lat pulldown machine. Less commonly, it can be performed with a regular cable machine if the former is not available.
Pull-ups are bodyweight exercises that are performed with a pull-up bar that may exist inside a power rack, a pull-up station, or a pull-up bar between a door frame.
Pull-ups can also be performed using an assisted pull-up machine. In this machine, there is a load set at less than your bodyweight that pushes you up to make the pull-ups easier. You can also use a resistance band attached to the pull-up bar if you don’t have the strength to do an unassisted pull-up.
2. How to Perform the Exercise
In the lat pulldown, you are seated in a machine with a thigh pad that locks your legs down to the seat. You pull a weighted lat pulldown handle downward towards your upper chest.
In the pull-up, you are pulling your own body weight upward towards a fixed bar.
Lat pulldowns are difficult to replicate if you don’t have access to the correct machine, but there are plenty of lat pulldown alternatives you can do with other equipment.
3. Muscle Groups Activated
Both lat pulldowns and pull-ups activate the following muscle groups:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Trapezius (also referred to as the traps, this is a triangular-shaped group of muscles at the back of the neck and shoulders)
Both exercises also involve many of the smaller muscles in the back and shoulders, as I’ll discuss below.
The main difference in muscles activated is that in pull-ups, the rectus abdominis muscles (which are your six-pack muscles) are activated to maintain posture during execution.
You can also change the muscles that are used in lat pulldowns slightly by changing your grip. A narrow-grip lat pulldown will target more of the middle and upper back while a wide grip will target more of the lats.
If you’re looking to also strengthen your forearms and grip, you can do both lat pulldowns and pull-ups with fat grips.
4. How Much Load You Can Use
In the lat pulldown, you can use loads as low as 10-15lbs, as the machines are normally set in many weight increments. Whereas the lowest load you can use with pull-ups is your own body weight.
This makes pull-ups, if performed with full bodyweight, more of an intermediate exercise and the lat pulldown more of a beginner exercise.
5. How They Can Be Programmed
How much load you can use for lat pulldowns and pull-ups affects how these exercises can be programmed in your own training.
With the lat pulldown, you can perform straight sets of a certain number of reps where you can increase load over time. You may find that you can implement programming techniques such as multiple drop sets, where you immediately drop the load multiple times after doing a certain number of reps.
With the pull-ups, assuming you are only doing them with your own bodyweight, you may have to progress by doing more reps over time.
You may also have to implement rest pauses in order to finish off a prescribed number of reps. Rest pauses are when you rest for a short period to finish off reps in a set – typically between 10 to 20 seconds.
Another way to make pull-ups more challenging is to perform them with a slower tempo. Learn more in Is It Better To Do Pull-Ups Fast Or Slow?
Lat Pulldowns: How To, Muscles Used, Tips, Common Mistakes, Pros and Cons
Lat Pulldown: How To Do It
- Attach a long lat pulldown handle to the cable end of the lat pulldown machine and adjust the thigh pad so you secure your legs comfortably into the seat.
- Alternatively, you can wheel a bench or place a box by a dual-adjustable pulley or cable crossover machine with the cable handle set to the top of the column.
- Grip the bar with an overhand grip with a wider than shoulder-width grip with the machine set at the load you want to use.
- With a tight grip, sit down on the seat with your elbows relaxed.
- Maintain a vertical torso or slightly lean back about 10 degrees and pull your elbows straight down, bringing the handle to your upper chest.
- Make sure that your forearms are always parallel to the cable angle.
- Slowly allow the handle to elevate back up to the start and repeat for a desired number of repetitions.
Lat Pulldown: Muscles Used
The muscles used in the lat pulldown are:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Rear deltoids
The latissimus dorsi (lats) are large back muscles that are connected from the lower spine and hip and into the back of the upper arm. They help bring the arm from a forward or raised position downward towards the torso.
The lats are normally activated during any horizontal or vertical downward pulling movements. In the lat pulldown, they help bring the arm downward towards the sides of the torso.
These muscles are attached at the front of your upper arm and help bend your elbows. These muscles are always activated during any pulling movement.
For the lat pulldown, they help bend the elbows as the elbows come downward during the execution.
These are deeper mid-back muscles that help rotate the shoulder blades during the pulling movement.
For the lat pulldown, they help rotate the shoulder blades and keep them in a downward position so you aren’t tempted to shrug your shoulders up towards your ears.
The rear deltoids refer to the muscles at the back of the shoulders. They are activated during all pulling movements, though to a minimal degree.
Like the rhomboids, they help keep the shoulder blades in a downward position and work together with the lats to bring the arms down in a vertical motion in the lat pulldown.
The trapezius is a triangular-shaped muscle that runs along the base of the neck and extends to the mid-back. In the lat pulldown, it aids in the movement of the shoulder blades and helps stabilize the arms.
Lat Pulldown: Pro Tips
Below are three tips for performing lat pulldowns effectively:
- Sync your breathing with your repetition. When you perform each repetition ensure that you exhale when you pull the handle down and inhale when you let the handle go up. When you inhale, your rib cage and torso expand, which helps stretch your lats in the process. This is beneficial for increasing the stimulus for muscle mass.
- Gradually accelerate the handle down. When you execute each repetition and you fatigue or go heavy, it is easy to inadvertently use momentum. By gradually pulling the handle down, you can focus on keeping your torso as still as possible.
- Allow your head to come forward at the top. When you reach the top, allow your torso to lean forward and your head to come forward a tad. This allows your lats to stretch even more at the top of the repetition. This is better for increasing the muscle hypertrophy stimulus.
Related Article: Barbell Shrugs vs Dumbbell Shrugs: Differences, Pros, Cons
Lat Pulldown: Common Mistakes
The most common mistakes I see in the lat pulldown are:
- Overextending lower back. You do not want to over-extend your lower back too much because this is limiting your range of motion on your lats.
- Not fully extending your arms. The top few inches are often the hardest part of the repetition, so it can be easy to unconsciously cheat the range of motion by not fully extending your arms. This limits the range of motion on the lats and the biceps.
- Pulling the handle too low down your chest. This is more often seen among novices, where they go very light and pull the handle too low down their torso to the point that their forearms become somewhat horizontal. This takes the emphasis away from the lats and biceps and puts it more on the tricep muscles.
- Leaning back too much. By leaning back too much to the point that the cable is perpendicular to the torso, the exercise becomes more of a row. This pushes the emphasis more on the upper back muscles. This is not a dangerous thing, but you take your emphasis away from the lats.
- Swinging back too much. If you are swinging back to try and get the weight down, you are putting the tension more on your lower back and less on the lats. This is likely a symptom that you are fatigued or going too heavy. Subsequently, you’ll need to reduce the weight.
Lat Pulldown: Benefits
Below are two benefits of the lat pulldown:
- Easily weight adjustable. The lat pulldown uses an incremental weight stack, which makes it very easy to adjust the weights from set to set or from workout to workout.
- Better at isolating the back and bicep muscles. As the lat pulldown locks your legs in place, it allows you to isolate the back and bicep muscles. There is less need to manage your core or leg muscles.
Lat Pulldown: Drawbacks
- Typically only accessible in commercial gyms. The lat pulldown is not an exercise that can easily be performed at home or outdoors. This requires the use of a lat pulldown machine, which may be a hefty investment if you are looking to train your lats at home.
If you only have a limited amount of equipment available, check out these 9 lat exercises you can do with dumbbells.
Lat Pulldowns: How To, Muscles Used, Tips, Common Mistakes, Pros and Cons
Pull-Ups: How To Do It
- Hold onto a pull-up bar or something similar with a wider than shoulder-width grip and hang with your body in full extension with your feet close together.
- Keep your abs, glutes, and quads tense throughout the exercise.
- Bend at your elbows and pull your upper chest all the way up to the bar until your chin rises above the bar.
- Slowly control yourself and lower yourself back down to the start position.
Pull-Ups: Muscles Used
The muscles used in the pull-up are:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Rear deltoids
- Rectus abdominis
These large back muscles originate from the lower spine and hip and into the back of the upper arm.
They act to pull the arm from a forward or elevated position down towards the torso. They are normally activated during any horizontal or vertical downward pulling movement.
For the pull up, they help bring the torso upward and closer to the upper arm.
The biceps are attached at the front of your upper arm. They help bend your elbows. These muscles are always used for pulling exercises.
For the pull up, they bend the elbow and bring the upper arm towards the forearms.
The rhomboids are deeper mid-back muscles that help rotate the shoulder blades during pulling movements.
For pull-ups, they help rotate the shoulder blades and bring them slightly closer together.
The rear deltoids are the muscles at the back of the shoulders.
In the pull-up, they assist the lats, though they are not activated to a large degree.
The rectus abdominis is the muscle that people refer to as the abs or the core.
It is engaged throughout the entire movement and helps you keep your body stable so you don’t swing too much.
The trapezius is a muscle that runs along the back of the neck and extends down to the mid-back.
In the pull-up, it helps depress the scapula (i.e. keep the shoulder blades from being raised up toward your ears) and keeps it stable.
If you’re having trouble feeling your lats when you do pull-ups, check out How To Activate Your Lats More During Pull-Ups (5 Tips).
Pull-Ups: Pro Tips
Below are two tips for how to do a pull-up correctly:
- Think about pointing your legs and feet to the floor. When you cue your legs to point down to the floor, you naturally will clench your quads, glutes, and abs so your body will stay fully extended. This will help with the angle at which you are performing the pull-up to keep the tension on the lats.
- Use rest pauses. Rest pauses are useful ways to gain enough recovery to add additional repetitions to the end of your set or if you know if you are about to fail a set you are prescribed in your workout routine.
Pull-Ups: Common Mistakes
Below are two common mistakes I see in the pull-up:
- Jerking your legs up. A very common mistake is using momentum by kipping your knees upward quickly to get your body up.
- Not allowing yourself to fully extend. When people do pull-ups, they tend to not fully extend their elbows and allow their arms to finish by the side of their ears.
Below are three benefits of pull-ups:
- Easily accessible exercise. This exercise can easily be performed in the gym, at home (many wall-mounted dip bars also have pull-up bars), or outdoors and requires minimal equipment.
- Measurable performance. This is often used as an exercise to measure strength performance on your back. With consistent technique, you can also measure your own performance by counting how many pull-ups you can do. As well, you can progressively overload the movement by doing weighted pull-ups with a dip belt.
- Carry over to large compound exercises. The pull up is a great exercise that builds overall back strength that can improve performance in exercises such as squats and deadlifts.
To learn more about how pull-ups can help your other lifts, check out Do Pull-Ups Help Deadlifts? (Yes, Here’s How) and 17 Exercises To Improve Bench Press Strength (That Actually Work).
- Gets harder if you gain weight. If your body weight increases, this increases the resistance going through your muscles, which makes it harder. This can make measuring improvement a little difficult.
- Needs further assistance if you cannot pull up. If you are not able to pull up your body weight, you will need further assistance by using a resistance band or an assisted pull-up station.
Pull-ups can also cause calluses and rips on your hands, but you can prevent this by using pull-up gloves.
Frequently Asked Questions
Are Lat Pulldowns Better Than Pull-Ups?
There is no simple answer to this question. It depends on your goals and what you are trying to achieve. If you are looking to build relative strength, pull-ups would be the better option. However, if you are looking to build general upper body strength, lat pulldowns would be a better option.
Do I Need To Do Lat Pulldowns if I Do Pull-Ups?
No, you don't need to do lat pulldowns if you can do pull-ups. However, lat pulldowns can be helpful if you are looking to increase the number of repetitions you can do or build additional upper body strength.
To determine if pull-ups alone are enough to get you the results you want, check out Are Rows & Pull-Ups Enough For Back And Biceps?
Why Are Lat Pulldowns Harder Than Pull-Ups?
One of the main reasons lat pulldowns are harder than pull-ups is because you are isolating your back and bicep muscles more and cannot rely on cheating repetitions with kipping your lower body.
Lat Pulldowns vs Pull-Ups: Which One Should You Do?
While both the lat pulldown and pull-up are excellent exercises, there are some scenarios where it makes sense to do one instead of the other.
Lat Pulldown vs Pull Up: Which Is Best For Powerlifting?
The better choice for powerlifting is the lat pulldown because it allows you more freedom using lighter intensity loads to steer away from too much high-intensity lifting. You can also use different grips to target your lats differently.
Lat Pulldown vs Pull Up: Which Is Best For Climbing And Bouldering?
The better choice for climbing and bouldering is the pull-up because this is a highly specific exercise that has a lot of carryover to the activities performed in this sport.
Lat Pulldown vs Pull Up: Which Is Best For Muscle Mass?
The lat pulldown is better for building muscle mass in the lats because you can isolate your lats and biceps more than pull-ups. You can also keep your repetitions more consistent and rely on lower weights and higher reps if that is what you respond best to.
Lat Pulldown vs Pull Up: Which Is Best For Beginners?
The lat pulldown is the better choice for beginners because it is a simpler exercise to learn and execute. You can also use a lighter weight to start off with, which can help you avoid any potential injuries.
Lat Pulldown vs Pull Up: Which Is Best For Max Strength?
The pull-up is the better choice for max strength because the movement technique is standardized for testing your strength at the end. Bodyweight pull-ups are high intensity for most people, but you can also perform weighted pull-ups to increase the intensity even more.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com