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Lat Pulldown Vs. Cable Row | Comprehensive Comparison

Thinking about the lat pulldown and cable row machines? Wondering if you should stick to one, mix both, or skip them altogether? We've got all the details you need right here.

Dive into the gym's epic match-up: Lat Pulldown vs. Cable Row. It's not just about lifting weights; it's about building your upper body the right way.

Which one will take the lead in your workouts? Will you go for the lat pulldown to chisel those back muscles, or does the comprehensive strength from the cable row appeal more to you? Knowing what each exercise offers is key to shaping a workout that meets your goals.

Join us as we break down the benefits of each exercise and help you design the perfect routine for your fitness journey.

lat pulldown vs. cable rows

Table of Contents

  1. Lat Pulldown: Sculpting Your Upper Body
  2. Cable Row: Building A Stronger Back
  3. Gym Battle: Lat Pulldowns vs. Cable Rows
  4. Which is Better?
  5. Frequently Asked Questions
  6. Final Bell: The Verdict

Lat Pulldown: Sculpting Your Upper Body

The lat pulldown is a foundational exercise for anyone looking to build strength and definition in their upper body, particularly in the back. This exercise is performed on a lat pulldown machine with a wide bar attachment, and it's designed to simulate the motion of pulling something down from above.

How to Perform Lat Pulldowns Correctly

  1. Begin by setting the knee pad of the lat pulldown machine to fit firmly against your legs and keep you from being lifted off the seat. Choose an appropriate weight from the stack.

  2. Grasp the bar with a wide overhand grip, keeping your hands wider than shoulder-width apart. Sit with your back straight and feet flat on the floor.

  3. Inhale, pull the bar down to your chest, leading with your elbows, and pushing your shoulder blades together at the end. Keep your upper body still; all motion must come from your arms and upper back.

  4. Exhale and slowly return the bar to its initial position, arms completely extended and lats fully stretched, while controlling the weight on the way up.

Muscles Targeted

  • Primary Muscles: The primary muscle targeted is the latissimus dorsi, which is the largest muscle in your upper back and gives the back its width.

  • Secondary Muscles: It also engages the biceps, middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, and the rear part of the shoulder (posterior deltoids) to a lesser extent.

lat pulldown

Benefits of Lat Pulldowns

  • Upper Body Strength: This exercise strengthens and defines the upper back muscles, contributing to overall upper body strength.

  • Better Posture: Strong lats support a good posture by stabilizing your spine and shoulders.

  • Versatility: The lat pulldown machine is versatile and adaptable, making it suitable for both beginners and experienced gym enthusiasts. With the ability to adjust weights and perform different exercises, it offers a range of options to cater to different fitness levels and goals.

  • Functional Fitness: Strong lats are essential for any pulling movements in daily activities and other sports.

Related: 11 Lat Pulldown Benefits You Need To Know About

Lat Pulldown Variations

There are various lat pulldown variations that can help target different muscle fibers and add variety to your training routine. The following are some top options:

  1. Close-Grip Lat Pulldown: A closer grip stimulates the lats somewhat differently, emphasizing the lower lats and involving the forearms more effectively.

  2. Reverse-Grip Pulldown: By shifting your grip such that the palms face you (supinated grip), you will activate the biceps more and shift the attention to the lats.

  3. Single-Arm Lat Pulldown: Performing the exercise with one arm at a time directs attention to each side of the back, which helps in muscular imbalances.

Each of these tweaks can stimulate your workout program while also targeting certain muscle fibers in the upper body. To properly include these variations, cycle through them in your exercise while maintaining appropriate form and avoiding plateaus. Keep pushing yourself, and try new exercises and variations to keep your workouts interesting and challenging.

Cable Row: Building A Stronger Back

The cable row is a dynamic exercise that targets the back muscles and promotes strength and endurance. This workout is commonly carried out on a seated cable row machine, which consists of a bench, a footrest, and a cable system with a weight stack.

How to Perform Cable Rows Correctly

  1. Sit on the machine and rest your feet on the footrests, knees slightly bent. Grasp the cable attachment, which may be a V-bar, a straight bar, or handles depending on the machine and your preference.

  2. Lean slightly forward at the hips to grab the handle, then sit back with your spine straight and arms stretched in front of you. This is your starting position.

  3. Begin by pushing your elbows straight back and keeping them tight to your torso. Pull the handle toward your lower belly, pushing your shoulder blades together at the end of the exercise.

  4. Slowly extend your arms to the starting position, letting your shoulders move slightly and stretching your back thoroughly.

Muscles Engaged

  • Primary Muscles: The middle to upper back muscles, especially the rhomboids and trapezius, receive the most attention. This exercise also involves the latissimus dorsi muscle.

  • Secondary Muscles: The secondary muscles involved are the biceps, forearms, and posterior deltoids. The lower back and core muscles also work as stabilizers throughout the movement.

Benefits of Incorporating Cable Rows

  • Back Strength and Thickness: Cable rows improve the strength and thickness of the back muscles, leading to a stronger, more defined back.

  • Improved Posture: Strengthening the upper and middle back muscles can help rectify poor posture, which is especially important for those who sit for long periods.

  • Balanced Muscle Development: This exercise helps balance the growth of the back muscles, which is essential for overall muscular symmetry and function.

  • Versatility: Cable rows can be readily altered by adding different attachments and grips to target the back muscles from different perspectives.

cable rows

Cable Row Techniques

There are several variations of the cable row, each one focusing on different aspects of the muscle groups involved. Here are a few popular techniques to incorporate into your workout routine:

  • Seated Cable Row: This conventional technique is sitting on a bench with a straight back, grasping the cable attachment with both hands at chest height, and pulling towards the chest while pressing the shoulder blades together. Keep your elbows close to your body and exhale while pulling back.

  • Incline Cable Row: In this variation, you will sit facing the cable machine while performing the workout on an incline bench. Place your feet on the platform and keep a comfortable range of motion. The inclination angle is more effective at targeting the upper back muscles.

  • One-Arm Cable Row: This unilateral exercise focuses on a single arm at a time, allowing for a wider range of motion and more precise muscle targeting. Maintain proper posture while switching arms and pulling the cable back, focusing on working the specific muscle areas.

Gym Battle: Lat Pulldowns vs. Cable Rows

Welcome to the ultimate gym matchup: Lat Pulldowns vs. Cable Rows. Watch these back-building powerhouses compete, each with their strategy to sculpt and strengthen your upper body. Let's break down their movements, muscles, and impact.

Round 1: The Muscles

Let's first look at the primary muscle groups targeted by these exercises.

  • Lat Pulldown: The latissimus dorsi (broadest muscle of the back) serves as the primary muscle worked. Other secondary muscles involved include biceps, trapezius, and rhomboids.
  • Cable Row: The main muscle engaged is the middle trapezius, and secondary muscles involved are rhomboids, latissimus dorsi, biceps, and forearm muscles.

As you can see, both exercises share some targeted muscle groups, but they emphasize them differently.

Round 2: Movement

    • Lat pulldowns are performed vertically by pulling the overhead bar down towards the chest.
    • Cable rows involve horizontal pulling motion by drawing the cable handlebar toward the torso.

    Round 3: Range of motion and loading conditions

    Lat Pulldowns: 

    • Range of Motion: Lat pulldowns have a wide range of motion, from fully extended arms above the head to draw the bar down to chest level. This long movement provides for a complete stretch and contraction of the latissimus dorsi muscles, increasing muscular engagement and growth.
    • Loading Conditions: The exercise allows easy weight adjustment on the lat pulldown machine, accommodating a range of strength levels. The vertical pulling motion isolates the lats, allowing for targeted stimulation of this muscle group. 

    Cable Rows:

    • Range of Motion: Cable rows provide a wide range of motion, from fully extended arm posture to pulling the cable handle close to the body. This exercise focuses on the horizontal plane of motion, extensively working the middle and upper back muscles. The complete pulling motion is essential for maximum scapular retraction and maximal activation of the targeted back muscles.
    • Loading Conditions: Cable rows, like lat pulldowns, allow for adjustable resistance levels to accommodate varying training intensity. The seated position and horizontal pull concentrate the work on the back muscles while minimizing lower back pain, allowing you to securely manage heavy weights. 

    Round 4: Stability

    • Lat Pulldowns: During lat pulldowns, you often sit with your thighs secured under a pad, providing a sturdy basis. This stability is critical for separating the upper body, particularly the latissimus dorsi while limiting lower-body involvement. The seated position directs the effort toward the upper back muscles, resulting in targeted muscle engagement.
    • Cable Rows: In cable rows, stability is achieved by sitting with your feet firmly planted on a footrest. This position helps to anchor the body, but because you pull towards your torso, core activation is more important for maintaining stability. This increased core involvement can improve the exercise's overall benefits for the trunk muscles but may make isolating the back muscles harder.

    Round 5: Equipment and Safety

    Lastly, we'll go over the necessary equipment and some safety tips.

    • Lat Pulldown: You will need a best lat pulldown machine with an adjustable seat and overhead bar. To ensure safety, begin with lighter weights and avoid using momentum or swinging.
    • Cable Row: Needs a cable machine with a low attachment, adjustable seat, and cable row handlebar. Start with lighter weights and focus on controlled motions to achieve the best results and avoid injury.

    Which is Better?

    Determining which exercise is "better" between lat pulldowns and cable rows can be challenging because personal fitness goals, preferences, and special demands or limitations heavily influence it. Both exercises have distinct advantages and can complement one another in a well-rounded back and upper body workout plan. Here's how to decide which could be preferable for various goals:

    Lat Pulldowns

    • Upper Body Aesthetics: If you want to attain a wide, V-shaped back, lat pulldowns are ideal since they target the latissimus dorsi, which contributes to back width.
    • Pull-Up Progression: Lat pulldowns are an excellent preparatory exercise for attempting your first pull-up or enhancing your strength.
    • Upper Body Isolation: If you want to isolate upper-body muscles with minimal participation from the lower body, the sitting lat pulldown position is ideal.

    Cable Rows

    • Overall Back Development: Cable rows work a wider range of back muscles, including the rhomboids, traps, and lats, increasing overall back thickness and strength.
    • Core Engagement: Because cable rows need core stability to do effectively, they may be a better alternative if you wish to activate and build your core muscles as well as your back.
    • Functional Strength: The horizontal pulling motion of cable rows closer resembles everyday activities than the vertical pull of lat pulldowns, making them perfect for increasing functional strength.

    Better For Beginners

    When determining which exercise is most suitable for beginners, we must consider both the learning curve and the risk of injury. In this aspect, the lat pulldown is better for beginners than the seated cable row.

    The lat pulldown is a superior workout for beginners because it is easy to set up and execute. With the lat pulldown, the user adjusts the seat height and chooses the desired weight resistance. Following that, the technique is straightforward: pull the bar towards the chest while keeping your upper body stable.

    On the other hand, the seated cable row involves more form factors, such as keeping a neutral spine and preventing excessive torso movement during the pulling motion. This can be challenging for beginners still unfamiliar with appropriate weightlifting techniques.

    Frequently Asked Questions

    Which type of lat pulldown machine is best?

    Your needs and preferences determine the best type of lat pulldown machine. For best performance and safety, look for machines with smooth cable action that can support your range of motion. We are a trusted retailer offering established brands known for their focus on ergonomic design and durability, ensuring reliability in every product.

    Is the lat pulldown machine effective?

    Yes, the lat pulldown machine is effective for building strength and muscle in the upper body, particularly in the latissimus dorsi muscles, which are key for achieving a wide back. It also engages the biceps, rear deltoids, and the muscles in the middle back, making it a versatile exercise for upper body development.

    What is a good alternative for a lat pulldown machine?

    A good alternative to a lat pulldown machine is the pull-up or chin-up bar. Pull-ups and chin-ups engage the same primary muscles as the lat pulldown, particularly the latissimus dorsi, and offer the added benefit of incorporating bodyweight resistance.

    Can you do pull-ups and lat pulldown together?

    Yes, you can incorporate both pull-ups and lat pulldowns into your fitness routine. These exercises complement each other well, as they target similar muscle groups but in slightly different ways. Pull-ups use bodyweight resistance and require more core and overall upper body strength. Lat pulldowns, on the other hand, allow for adjustable resistance, which can be particularly beneficial for beginners or those working on building the strength necessary to perform pull-ups.

    Final Bell: The Verdict 

    As the gym battle concludes, it's clear this isn't about with a knockout. Lat Pulldowns and Cable Rows are both champions in their own right. The choice between them isn't about winning or losing; it's about strategy and goals.

    Incorporate the lat pulldown machine for focused upper back sculpting and achieving that V-taper, while using Cable Rows to build a robust, well-rounded back. The true victory lies in integrating both exercises, leveraging their strengths in your workout routine for a back that's not only aesthetically pleasing but also highly functional.

    So, who wins in the gym battle? You do, when you strategically deploy both these powerhouses in your workout arsenal, crafting a back that's strong, balanced, and ready for any challenge.

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    About The Author

    Matt Gemkow, the author of this content section at Select Fitness USA, boasts more than 15 years of fitness experience. He started out in sports and athletic training for many years and has since 2014 transitioned into heavy-weight training and bodybuilding. As a result, he has become one of the most experienced fitness equipment experts out there, and a valuable source of information.