Lat pulldowns vs pull up is a comparison you’ve likely considered if workouts are part of your weekly routine. And these are two of the most popular exercises for back growth.
Like most people, you’ve probably heard that pull ups are the better of the two because they are more challenging. But how accurate is that widely held belief?
We’ve put together this post to help you understand the two exercises and their benefits. So, let’s dive in and compare lat pulldown vs pull ups.
How Are Lat Pulldowns And Pull Ups Different?
The primary difference between lat pulldowns and pull ups is that the former requires a machine, whereas the latter is a bodyweight exercise.
To perform lat pulldowns, you have to sit inside a machine, secure your legs, and grab a bar, which you then have to pull down to yourself. In contrast, a pull up is about grabbing a bar and pulling yourself to it.
What Muscles Do Both Exercises Train And Develop?
The primary muscle group that works during lat pulldowns and pull ups is the latissimus dorsi, which covers a large percent of the upper and middle back. Our lats are the largest muscles in the upper body, and developing them leads to a broader back. (1)
The second primary muscle involved in both exercises is the bicep, which covers the front side of the upper arms. Our biceps’ primary function is elbow flexion (bending), which occurs as we pull the weight down or pull ourselves up.
Other upper back muscles, including the trapezius, rhomboids, infraspinatus, and rear deltoids, also play a role during both exercises. One of their functions is to provide torso support and keep our shoulder blades retracted. The muscles also assist our lats and biceps with pulling the weight (or ourselves). (2) (3) (4) (5)
Pull-ups also force our midsection to work extra hard in keeping us stable. In contrast, lat pulldowns are easier, and your core doesn’t have to contribute as much.
Lat Pulldown vs Pull Up: Which Is Best?
Answering this question is difficult because there are multiple things to consider. For most people, lat pulldowns will be the better option because they can control the level of resistance. You can gradually reduce the load with each new set to keep going as you get fatigued. In contrast, pull up are more challenging, and every trainee needs at least some strength to do the exercise safely. (6)
Lat pulldowns are also easier to recover from. Pull-ups are a full-body activity, and trainees often need more time to recover for each subsequent set.
Many people also struggle to do even a single pull up repetition, so relying on that movement to train your back can limit the number of sets and reps you can do in a workout.
Still, pull ups are a fantastic exercise, and learning to do it will benefit you for a long time. For example, you can do the exercise even if you don’t have gym equipment. If you lack the strength to do pull ups, you can begin with eccentric pull ups, where you lower yourself as slowly as possible.
Safety Considerations For Both Exercises
The most important thing you need to ensure safety is a proper warm-up. Begin with some light cardio, do some dynamic stretching, and move to the two exercises.
Maintaining proper technique is another essential element of safe training, so keep your elbows close to your body and learn to retract your shoulders for both movements.
When doing lat pulldowns, inspect the machine and ensure that it is safe to use. The pad should secure your feet, and the cable should be solid.
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- Latissimus Dorsi Muscle. Physiopedia. (n.d.). https://www.physio-pedia.com/Latissimus_Dorsi_Muscle
- Trapezius muscle: Middle back pain, shoulder stretches, trapezius pain. Cleveland Clinic. (n.d.). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/body/21563-trapezius-muscle#:~:text=The%20trapezius%20is%20a%20muscle,spine%20and%20helps%20with%20posture.
- Contributors, W. M. D. E. (n.d.). Rhomboid muscle pain: Why you get it and what to do about it. WebMD. https://www.webmd.com/pain-management/what-to-know-about-rhomboid-muscle-pain#:~:text=The%20rhomboid%20muscles%20are%20a,Pull%20back%20your%20shoulder%20blade
- Hersh, E. (2020, January 15). Infraspinatus pain causes, symptoms, and treatments. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/infraspinatus-pain
- Pirie, E. (2022, February 22). Deltoid muscle. Kenhub. https://www.kenhub.com/en/library/anatomy/the-deltoid-muscle
- Braith, R. W., Randy W. Braith From the Center for Exercise Science, Stewart, K. J., Kerry J. Stewart From the Center for Exercise Science, & Braith, C. to R. (2006, June 6). Resistance exercise training. Circulation. https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.105.584060