Lat pulldowns are the go-to exercise for building strong and toned latissimus dorsi muscles. But if you don't have the necessary equipment, you're out of luck, right? Wrong. There are plenty of other exercises that work the lats, including pull-ups, pull-overs and inverted rows, so don't sweat it.
Lat Pulldown Variations
Lat pulldowns often refer to the cable machine station used to perform them, and not the exercise itself. Many people don't consider that the exercise can be performed without a cable machine. You can mimic a lat pulldown with a simple exercise band attached to a high pull-up bar. The bar needs to be high enough and the resistance band firm enough that it's taught when your arms are extended straight over your head.
How to: With your arms extended straight overhead, bend your elbows and pull down until your hands are at chest height. Then return to your starting position with control.
While you won't be able to stack the weight on like you would with a cable machine, a tough resistance band will be enough to give the lats a good workout.
Pull-ups mimic lat pulldowns almost exactly, except you're pulling your body weight up instead of pulling a weighted bar down. There are a variety of ways to do them with different equipment for the beginner and more experienced. If you can't yet do an unassisted pull-up, start with an assisted version.
Assisted Pull-Up Machine
An assisted pull-up machine is a common installment in gyms. You choose your weight -- here's where it's a little different than other machines -- by how much assistance you want. You can figure out how much of your body weight you're lifting by subtracting the amount of assistance you select on the weight stack.
How to: Step up and put your knees up on the pad and grab the handles above you with a wide grip. With control, pull yourself up until your chin is above your hands, then lower yourself down with control.
These are easy to do at home with a pull-up bar and a resistance band. The resistance band gives you a "leg up," taking over some of the load of your body weight. You might have to play around with a few different bands to find the resistance you need. As you get stronger swap out for a lighter resistance band.
How to: Loop the resistance band over the pull up bar and pull one end through the other forming a stirrup. Put one foot into the stirrup and wrap your other foot around your ankle. Pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar, then lower yourself down with control.
Negatives build strength in the eccentric part of the exercise, where you're coming down and your lats and other working muscles are lengthening. Although you might not yet be able to pull yourself up, you'll be able to lower yourself down for at least a little bit of the way before your muscles give out.
How to: Get up onto a bench or box positioned under and slightly behind the bar. Reach up and grasp the bar with a wide overhanded grip. Then jump up, using momentum to get your chin above the bar. Hold there for a second, then very slowly extend your arms to lower your body back down to where your arms are extended. At a certain point your strength will give out and you'll come to a dead hang. Come back to the starting position and repeat.
Beyond Assisted Pull-Ups
Doing pull-ups without the props isn't any different. Take a wide overhanded grip and move with control. Don't swing your body or use momentum to get yourself over the bar -- that's not going to do your lats any favors.
If you're past pull-ups and ready to add some weight, do so conservatively. Add a 5-pound plate to a dip belt. If you can complete eight reps with good form, add a little more. And so on.
Pull-overs are an isolation exercise that target the lats, with other muscles, including the triceps, working as synergists. You can do these a couple of ways, with a barbell on a bench and seated in a cable machine.
Load up a barbell with an appropriate weight. Lie down perpendicular on a weight bench so that your upper back is square across the middle. Have your feet on the floor hip-distance apart and flex your hips slightly. If you're working with a heavy load it's best to have a spotter place the barbell in your hands when you're in position. Otherwise, get into position while holding the barbell, or reach for it on the ground behind you when you're lying on the bench.
How to: Start with your arms extended over your chest, elbows slightly bent. With control, lower the bar over and beyond your head until your upper arms are just about parallel with your chest. However, don't force your range of motion. Just go as far as you can without stressing your shoulders. Return to your starting position with control and repeat.
If you have access to a cable machine, you can do a version of a cable pull-over using a narrow-grip bar attached to a high pulley.
How to: Sit on a straight-back chair facing away from the weight stack. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip. With your elbows slightly bent and fixed, bring the bar forward and down as far as you can. Return to your starting position with control.
Inverted rows are a great alternative to cable rows if you're lacking a cable machine. They're a compound exercise that targets the whole back, including the lats, as well as the biceps, and even the hamstrings, glutes and abs. That's a whole lot of bang for your buck.
You can do these with an empty barbell set up in a squat rack. You can even do them with a sturdy table. Set up the barbell about arm's length from the floor and lie underneath it with your chest directly under the bar and your legs extended. If you're using a table, position your body underneath the table with your chest under the table edge.
How to: Reach up and grab the bar or table edge with a wide overhand grip. Firm up your core -- you'll need that stability to keep your body in one solid plank throughout the exercise. Bend your elbows out to the side and pull your chest up to the bar or table edge. Return almost to the starting position with control, but don't touch your body down to the ground in between reps.