If you have access to a gym, the lat pulldown machine is one of the most effective ways of working out your back muscles, especially the latissimus dorsi, which is responsible for powerful pulling or throwing motions. But if you don't have access to this sort of machine, don't worry: There are several lat pulldown alternative exercises you can do to work out your lats, along with almost all the other muscles in your back.
The Obvious Lat Pulldown Alternative
The most obvious alternative to lat pulldowns is a pull-up because it mimics the same motion. The only substantial difference is that instead of pulling the handle down to you, you're pulling your body up to a handle.
Obviously, that means you need access to a pull-up bar or set of pull-up handles that are high enough to do the exercise and sturdy enough to support your weight — which might still mean purchasing a piece of equipment or asking your gym to do so. But pull-up bars and the type of combination equipment they're sometimes included with, which might also include dip bars, are relatively inexpensive as they don't involve any moving parts.
You can also get creative by doing pull-ups on one side of a squat cage, assuming that it's securely bolted to the floor and you can grasp the top of it safely. Some cable machines have a pull-up bar attached to the frame, so that's an option too.
If you're working out at home, you can purchase a no-hardware-needed pull-up bar that mounts in a sturdy door frame. Most of the equipment options just mentioned will have both a wide-grip pull-up handle and a set of parallel handles that mimic the position of a lat pulldown with a close grip, which can be easier on your shoulder than a wide grip.
Whichever variation of a back exercise you're doing, if you're lifting for general health and strength, aim to do at least one or two sets of eight to 12 repetitions.
Pull-ups are a notoriously difficult exercise — so what if you like the idea of doing them, but aren't quite up to hefting your entire body weight up to the bar eight to 12 times? If you have access to dip bars or a piece of equipment sometimes called the captain's chair or vertical knee raise machine — which has horizontal handles that can double as dip bars — there's an easy solution: self-assisted pull-ups, which work like this:
- Stand between the dip bars, with your back to where they join the equipment frame. (In other words, you should be looking away from the piece of equipment.)
- Squat down between the bars, letting your hips sink straight down toward the ground and reach up to grasp the handles, with your palms facing in toward each other.
- Pull on the handles to bring your body up between the bars.
The simple act of having your feet on the ground helps reduce the amount of weight you're lifting, but this is still a challenging exercise. So don't be shy about using your legs for an assist, pushing against the ground to help get your body up between the bars. That's the whole point of this exercise.
There are other ways you can help yourself through pull-ups, too. One is to use an assisted pull-up machine, which is available in some gyms.
You kneel or stand on a lever during the exercise, and the machine uses a weight stack or weight plates to counterbalance your weight, effectively meaning you only lift a portion of your body weight. As you get stronger, you can reduce the amount of counterbalance weight.
You can also girth-hitch a pull-up assist band to a pull-up bar, then place your knee or foot in the band, and let it give you a boost as you pull up to the bar. These bands look a lot like the elastic resistance bands you might sometimes use for strength-training workouts, but note that the two types of bands are not interchangeable. Make sure you're using a pull-up assist band that's specifically designed for that purpose.
Elastic Resistance Pulldowns
Speaking of elastic resistance bands, they also make an excellent alternative for exercising your lats, and you can use them to mimic several lat pulldown variations. For example, here's how to do a narrow-grip pulldown — a popular lat pulldown alternative — using elastic resistance bands and a doorway:
- Hold both handles or ends of the elastic resistance band in one hand and use your other hand to shut the door on the midpoint of the band.
- Use a foam anchor — available with some resistance band systems — to hold the midpoint of the band in place, or tie the midpoint of the band in a knot and shut that knot into the top of the door.
- Kneel facing the door, with one handle or end of the band in each hand. Think "chest up and out" to maintain proper posture as you extend both hands up toward where the midpoint of the band is anchored. There should be mild tension on the elastic band at this point.
- Pull your hands down in front of you, letting your elbows lead the way — they should point down toward the floor.
- Slowly release the band up to the starting point to complete the repetition.
If you want to do wide-grip pulldowns, you don't need the doorway at all — but you will need a relatively short elastic resistance band or to grasp your band somewhere other than the ends:
- Lift both arms overhead, slightly wider apart than your shoulders; your body will form a narrow "Y" position.
- Hold the elastic resistance band in each hand, choking up enough that there is mild tension on the band in this position.
- Pull your hands down and apart, just in front of your shoulders, so that the band passes down in front of your body to about collarbone level. As with the narrow-grip variation, let your elbows lead the way on the motion.
- Return to the starting position with a slow, controlled motion to complete the repetition.
Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows
You can't really do a lat pulldown with dumbbells, but the bent-over dumbbell row will also work your lats and most of the other pulling muscles in your back and arms.
- Holding a dumbbell in each hand, hinge forward from the hips. Bend your knees slightly for extra stability and flexibility.
- Make sure your back stays flat. Thinking "shoulders back, chest forward" can help.
- Keep your shoulders stable and your shoulder blades retracted (squeezed in toward your spine) as you extend each arm, lowering the dumbbells.
- Smoothly draw both dumbbells up at the same time, leading the motion with your elbows. Speaking of your elbows, make sure they stay close to your body throughout the motion and stop when your elbows break the plane of your torso.
- Lower both weights back to the starting position to complete the repetition.
This variation on the dumbbell row requires quite a lot of core strength — which can be a bonus or a hindrance, depending on where you're at in your fitness journey. If you struggle to maintain proper form or have back problems, try doing a single-arm dumbbell row.
This exercise works exactly the same, except that you only lift one weight at a time and use the free hand and bent knee of the other side to support your body on a weight bench. Any time you do a single-sided exercise like this, make sure you remember to do a set with each arm.