The lat pulldown is often one of the central parts of a workout program for strength athletes, and with good reason. The exercise provides an extremely effective upper body workout for a range of muscles - especially the back.
But what if you turn up to the gym and all the lat pulldown machines are taken? Or maybe you prefer working out at home and don’t have access to the equipment?
This guide will take an in-depth look at seven of the best exercises you can use as a lat pulldown alternative to effectively target and build muscle in the same parts of the body. We’ll also look to answer some of the frequently asked questions.
The Lat Pulldown: A Closer Look
Before taking a look at some of the best alternative exercises to the lat pulldown, it’s useful to explain what makes this exercise so popular and effective, as well as the muscles that are worked most by the movement.
Firstly, the lat pulldown is suitable for all levels of athletes. Pretty much all machines have a selectorized weight stack, so it doesn’t matter how strong you are, you can easily pick a weight that’s comfortable for you.
Secondly, the exercise is considerably easier to learn and master than other strength exercises such as a deadlift or squat.
While it’s always nice to learn a new complex movement, it’s equally as satisfying getting to grips with one after just a couple of minutes of use.
Another reason the lat pulldown is so popular is because it’s ideal for drop sets. This is when you gradually reduce the weights as you near fatigue, allowing you to train beyond muscular failure and take the muscular development in your back to a whole new level.
Finally, lat pulldowns work several muscles at the same time. This makes the exercise extremely time-efficient, as it trains the latissimus dorsi, forearms, biceps brachii, lower trapezius, middle trapezius, posterior deltoids, pectoralis minor, and much more.
1). Single Arm Lat Pulldowns
The first alternative to the lat pulldown we’ll take a look at is the single arm variation of the exercise. The traditional lat pulldown is a bilateral exercise, meaning it works both your arms at the same time.
While there’s nothing wrong with this, it can sometimes be useful to train one arm at a time, making the lat pulldown a unilateral exercise. It could be said that the single arm lat pulldown is more of a variation than an alternative, but nevertheless, it remains a valid exercise.
To perform a single arm lat pulldown, simply replace your bar with a D-shaped handle. This not only allows you to train one arm at a time, but it also enables you to rotate your wrist as you perform the exercise, taking a significant amount of stress off your elbow joint.
- Attach a D-shaped handle to the lat pulldown machine and then sit down on the seat, gripping the handle in one hand
- With your torso in an upright position, bend your arm and pull the handle down so it’s level with the front of your shoulder
- Extend your arm and repeat the movement
- Make sure you do an equal amount of reps on both arms
2). Bent Over Barbell Rows
The next alternative is an extremely popular choice for athletes looking to build a stacked back. As the name of the exercise suggests, bent over barbell rows are performed using free weights - usually a barbell, but can also be done with dumbbells and resistance bands.
The exercise hits the latissimus dorsi a little differently to the lat pulldown due to the mechanics of the movement, but nevertheless, it’s a great alternative for adding some serious mass and strength.
- Load up your barbell with a suitable weight and position yourself in the middle of it with your feet hip-width apart
- Pick the barbell up with an overhand (pronated) grip, while bracing your core and driving your elbows up
- Make sure you keep your elbows close to your side and pull the bar so it’s up into your belly button
- Lower the barbell back down in a controlled manner, and repeat the movement
3). Pull-Ups And Chin-Ups
Pull-ups and chin-ups are ideal for people who love to exercise at home, as all you need is a pull-up bar or something sturdy to hang from.
These bodyweight movements can be performed with either an overhand or underhand grip, and are one of the best alternatives to the lat pulldown in terms of replicating the biomechanics of the movement.
Pull-ups and chin-ups can also be modified to suit beginners. For example, a popular variation of the exercise that’s great for building up strength is a band-assisted pull-up.
- Firstly, find a pull-up bar or something suitable to hang from, and grip it with your hands pronated, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart
- While hanging from the bar, embrace your core and retract your scapula
- Pull yourself up to the bar by pulling your elbows down to your side
- Lower yourself back down in a slow and controlled movement, and then repeat
Aside from being a great workout for building a wider back, there are several variations that can be done with this exercise to target other muscles as well. Check out this article on the best pull up bar exercises for abs!
4). Resistance Band Lat Pulldowns
This is another great alternative to the lat pulldown as it’s essentially the same movement with the same biomechanics, just with a resistance band instead of a machine weight.
All you need for this exercise is a suitable anchor point to fix your resistance band overhead. This could be a roof joist, a tree branch, or you could just tie a knot in the band and trip it in a door.
It’s the perfect exercise if you prefer to do your workouts at home, and it’s also ideal for beginners due to how easy it is to perform.
- Find a suitable place to anchor the band above your head
- Pull down on the band until your hands get to shoulder level
- Keep a straight back throughout the movement and keep your shoulders pulled back
- Allow your arms back up in a slow and controlled manner, and then repeat the movement
5). Seated Cable Rows
Rows generally are great lat pulldown alternatives for strengthening lats and building a wider back. Bent over rows, however, can often put a significant strain on your lower back, which is why many people prefer seated cable rows - especially since all the same muscles are worked.
Seated cable rows can be performed with either a narrow, wide, underhand, or overhand grip. Just be mindful that you shouldn’t allow your lumbar spine to round when doing this exercise as this is what can lead to a strain on your back.
- Sit on the platform and grasp the cable attachment
- Slightly bend your knees and brace your abdominals
- Pull the handle towards your lower abdomen, while trying not to use the momentum of the row
- Keep your back straight and squeeze your shoulder blades together in order to target your middle to upper back
- Return the handle forward and then repeat the exercise for the desired repetitions
6). Dumbbell Pullovers
While dumbbell pullovers may not look anything like the lat pulldown exercise, this alternative is a useful option if you want to change things up a little. It’s primarily used as a chest exercise, but it also targets your lats in a similar manner to the lat pulldown.
Some gyms may have pullover machines you can use for this exercise, but don’t worry if not, the dumbbell version is still extremely effective.
- Lie flat on an exercise bench and hold a single dumbbell in your hands above your chest with your arms straight (not locked)
- Slowly lower the dumbbell back behind your head while keeping your elbows tucked in and your arms straight
- Lower the weight until it reaches a little below your head level and hold the position for a couple of seconds to stretch your lats
- Bring the dumbbell back up and over your chest, and then repeat
7). Chest-Supported Incline Dumbbell Rows
While bent over rows are a fantastic exercise for replicating the lat pulldown, using a bench to support your chest is ideal if you want an exercise that really isolates your back.
The chest-supported incline dumbbell row provides a great alternative to the lat pulldown as it prevents the need to use your core for bracing. What’s more, it also eliminates any kind of momentum with your chest, allowing you to concentrate solely on working out your back.
- Begin by setting a bench to a 45-degree angle
- Then pick up a pair of suitable dumbbells and sit on the bench, with your chest resting on the bench pad
- Brace your body by pushing your feet into the ground and then gradually allow the dumbbells to fall beneath your head
- Pull your elbows back and retract your scapula, while at the same time pushing your chest into the pad
- Allow the dumbbells to go back slow and controlled
Frequently Asked Questions
Which Is The Best Lat Exercise?
This is a subjective question as the answer is dependent on a number of factors, including muscle insertions, anatomy, and other variables. In other words, one exercise might benefit an athlete more than others.
As a general rule when trying to find an effective lat exercise, any exercise which recreates the adduction movement present in a lat pulldown or a pull-up will provide you with good lat activation.
What Muscles Do Kroc Rows Work?
The Kroc row is an exercise which is essentially a hybrid between a deadlift and a one-arm dumbbell row. The best thing about performing your rows in this way is that you’re able to achieve a peak contraction with a very heavy weight. As a result, this places an overload on pretty much all your upper back muscles, including your traps, lats, and rhomboids.
Which Is Better, A Lat Pulldown Or A Pull-Up?
For beginners who prefer simple exercises which are easy to perfect but still provide great strength benefits, a lat pulldown is probably the best option.
However, pull-ups are often considered as the “king” of upper body exercises due to the fact that they work a high number of support muscles. Pull-ups can also be performed anywhere with a pull-up bar or with something suitable to hang from.
Is A Close Grip Lat Pulldown More Effective?
A wide grip will allow you to get a little higher lat activation, so if your main goal is to strengthen your lats, you should opt for a wide grip press when performing the exercise.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that using a close grip will put your arms in a stronger position and allow you to pull a greater amount of weight.
How Often Should You Train Your Back Muscles?
As is the case with most muscles in your body, you shouldn’t perform back exercises or back workouts on any more than three non-consecutive days a week.
This is because if you’re lifting heavy weights (enough that you’re only able to perform five to eight repetitions), you should give yourself at least a couple of days to rest and recover before performing the exercise again.
Does A Lat Pulldown Work And Strengthen Biceps?
Yes, lat pulldowns have shown to significantly work and grow the biceps. In fact, the popular back exercise works the biceps muscle just as effectively as a barbell curl.
Therefore, adding barbell curls to a program of lat pulldowns in order to further target the biceps isn’t likely to result in further muscle growth.
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