Pull-Ups vs. Lat Pulldowns

Young woman training in the gym
A young woman is doing lateral pull downs. (Image: boggy22/iStock/Getty Images)

Pull-ups and lat pulldowns share a number of similarities, including how the joints in the upper body move while doing them and the muscles they work. However, depending on your current strength levels, one exercise may be more ideal than the other. Both exercises can be modified to decrease their intensity or increase their difficulty.

Pull-Up Technique

The pull-up is most commonly performed with an overhead bar or a pull-up station that features wide handles. Reach up and grip the bar or handles using an overhand, wide grip. Your hands should be positioned outside your shoulders and your palms should face away from you. Pull your body up until your chin clears the height of the bar and then control your body down by extending your arms. Once your elbows are straight, go into the next rep.

Lat Pulldown Technique

The lat pulldown is done on a cable pulley pulldown unit, which features a wide bar overhead. Grip the bar with an overhand, wide grip, similar to the grip used for pull-ups. Hold onto the bar as you sit at the unit and position your thighs so that they’re securely against the leg support pads. Sit tall as you pull the cable bar down towards your upper chest, driving your elbows down to the sides of your torso. Stop the bar just short of making contact with your upper chest and then return it to the starting position by extending your arms. Go into the next repetition after your elbows are fully extended.

Muscles Worked

During the pull-up and lat pulldown exercises, your shoulders are performing adduction, which means your upper arms are being pulled down towards the midline of your body. This movement is handled by the latissimus dorsi, often tagged as your lats, which is the largest muscle in your back. The lats are considered the primary mover during both exercises. In addition, your elbows are bending, which is due to contraction of the brachialis, brachioradialis and biceps brachii muscles in your arms. Therefore, those looking to develop strength and size in their back and biceps would do well by incorporating both the pull-up and lat pulldown into one workout. One difference between the two exercises is that during pull-ups, the muscles in your core have to contract to keep your torso steady while you lift and lower your body.

Differences in Difficulty

While you can increase the load you're lifting during pull-ups with a weighted vest or belt, there's no way to decrease it. Your back and biceps are forced to lift up your entire body weight, and this can make the exercise extremely challenging. How difficult the exercise will be for you mostly depends on how much you weigh. Therefore, those who are unable to do full pull-ups will often incorporate lat pulldowns into their workouts instead. You can easily increase or decrease the load you’re lifting during lat pulldowns by varying where you insert the pin into the stack of weighted plates. Lat pulldowns can also be used as a way to build the strength necessary for eventually completing pull-ups.

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