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Lat Pulldown Vs. Pull Ups | Which Is Better For A Big Back?

At the gym, with the rhythmic clang of weights setting the backdrop, there's a common problem we all face: should we do lat pulldowns or challenge ourselves with pull-ups?

Think of them as two different paths to the same goal—getting that broad, muscular back we all want. The age-old showdown between lat pulldowns and pull-ups is one that has gym enthusiasts and fitness buffs debating in locker rooms and online forums alike. But here's the thing – it's not about which one is the ultimate champion; it's about how each can be a star player in your fitness regime.

Lat Pulldowns: The Accessible Powerhouse

Lat pulldowns are a popular strength-training exercise that works the latissimus dorsi,  that give the "V" shape. This is a versatile, easily adjustable exercise that can be performed using a lat pulldown machine.

lat pulldowns

How It's Done:

To execute a lat pulldown, follow these simple steps:

  1. Sit down on the machine with your knees tucked under the pads.
  2. Grab the bar with a wide, overhand grip.
  3. Keep your chest up and shoulders down, while you pull the bar down towards your collarbone.
  4. Slowly return the bar back to the starting position, focusing on proper form throughout the movement.

Lat pulldowns are a versatile exercise, suitable for both beginners and advanced fitness enthusiasts, thanks to the adjustable resistance and controlled movement offered by various types of lat pulldown machines.

Muscles Targeted:

  • Primary: Latissimus dorsi (lats).
  • Secondary: Biceps, rhomboids, and trapezius.


  • With adjustable weights and various grip positions, lat pulldowns can be suitable to all skill levels and specific muscle targeting.
  • Effective for building back strength and muscle size, great for beginners or those unable to perform pull-ups.
  • Performing lat pulldowns regularly can improve posture and spinal stability by strengthening the back muscles.

Related: 11 Lat Pulldown Benefits You Need To Know About

Ideal For:

  • Those new to strength training or with limited upper body strength, as it allows for controlled movement and weight adjustment.
  • Individuals looking to isolate and build the back muscles without lifting their entire body weight.

Lat pulldowns are an excellent exercise for developing a strong, muscular back and are a great addition to both beginner and advanced workout routines. They provide a solid foundation for upper body strength and leads to overall back aesthetics and function.

Pull-Ups: The Raw Challenge

Pull-ups, on the other hand, are a bodyweight exercise that also targets the latissimus dorsi as well as other major muscle groups in your upper body. They're known for their simplicity and the intensity they bring to a workout.

Pull ups

How It's Done:

  1. Grab the pull-up bar with a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
  2. Hang from the bar with your arms fully extended and legs crossed behind you.
  3. Engage your core and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar.
  4. Slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position.

Muscles Targeted:

  • Primary: Latissimus dorsi (lats).
  • Secondary: Biceps, trapezius, rhomboids, and the muscles of the shoulders and chest.


  • Pull-ups engage numerous muscle groups, making them an efficient, compound exercise.
  • Regular practice improves grip strength, upper body strength, and endurance.
  • They enhance functional strength, which is beneficial for daily activities and various sports.

Ideal For:

  • Individuals looking to increase functional upper body strength and muscle endurance.
  • Those interested in calisthenics or bodyweight training routines.
  • Advanced fitness enthusiasts aiming for a challenging upper body workout.

Pull-ups are highly appreciated in the fitness community for their simplicity and the level of challenge they offer. They require minimal equipment but deliver maximum benefits, making them an great exercise for anyone looking to build a strong and defined upper body.

The Ultimate Showdown Of Lat Pulldowns and Pull-Ups

Both contenders bring their unique strengths to the table, transforming your upper body workout from routine to excellence. Let's break down the battle round by round, from the mechanics of each movement to their impact on functional performance and accessibility.

Equipment and Setup

  • Lat Pulldowns: The lat pulldown machine is a user-friendly. It features a cable pulley system, a weighted stack for resistance adjustment, and various handles to target the muscles from different angles. For home gyms, lat pulldown attachments expand accessibility without requiring a standalone machine and without occupying additional space.
  • Pull-Ups: Pull-up bars embody simplicity and effectiveness. From doorway frames in home gyms to big setups in commercial spaces, they require minimal equipment. Outdoor parks and playgrounds frequently feature pull-up bars, making this exercise accessible almost anywhere.

Movement and Mechanics

  • Lat Pulldowns: Performed seated, the movement involves pulling a bar down towards the chest, emphasizing control and precision. It allows for a focus on the lat muscles with less contribution from the lower body, making it an excellent exercise for isolating and building the upper back.
  • Pull-Ups: This bodyweight exercise challenges you to lift your entire body until the chin clears the bar. It's a compound exercise that targets the lats and also engages the biceps, trapezius, and core, demanding coordination and body control.

Muscle Activation

  • Lat Pulldowns: Primarily targeting the latissimus dorsi, this exercise also engages the biceps, rear deltoids, and rhomboids. The controlled movement allows for focused muscle activation, making it ideal for both muscle building and rehabilitation.
  • Pull-Ups: Pull-ups offer a wider range of muscle engagement, activating the lats, biceps, shoulders, and core. 

Skill and Strength Requirements

  • Lat Pulldowns: With adjustable resistance, lat pulldowns are accessible to all fitness levels, allowing beginners to build strength and advanced gym lifters to refine their muscle engagement and technique.
  • Pull-Ups: Pull-ups are often seen as a milestone exercise as they require a great amount of upper body and core strength. They demand not just muscle strength but also grip endurance and body control.

Progression and Adaptability

  • Lat Pulldowns: The machine's adjustable weight makes it easy to progressively overload the muscles. Also, the variety of handles allows for various grip variations, continually challenging the muscles and preventing plateaus.
  • Pull-Ups: Progressions include increasing repetitions, adding weight, or experimenting with grip variations and tempo. Despite its simplicity, the pull-up offers a wide range of difficulty adjustments, making it continually challenging.

Functional and Athletic Performance

  • Lat Pulldowns: While somewhat less functional due to the fixed path of movement, lat pulldowns still offer significant benefits in terms of strength building, muscle endurance, and injury prevention, which can translate to improved performance in various sports.
  • Pull-Ups: As a fundamental bodyweight exercise, pull-ups have high functional and athletic performance value. They improve grip strength, shoulder stability, and are directly applicable to real-world activities and sports, enhancing overall athletic ability.

The Combined Power of Lat Pulldowns and Pull-Ups

By combining the adjustable resistance and form-focused benefits of lat pulldowns with the raw, functional strength challenges of pull-ups, you can create a well-rounded back workout that not only enhances muscle growth and definition but also improves overall upper body strength and endurance.

pullups and  pulldowns

Here are the other benefits you will gain from combining this dynamic duo: 

Enhanced Muscle Development

Combining lat pulldowns and pull-ups ensures well rounded back muscle engagement. While lat pulldowns allow for targeted, controlled movements to isolate and build the latissimus dorsi, pull-ups engage a wider spectrum of upper body muscles, including the biceps, shoulders, and core, leading to balanced, symmetrical muscle growth.

Improved Strength and Endurance

This dynamic duo will challenge your muscles in different ways, leading to overall strength and endurance. Lat pulldowns help you focus on form and gradually increase weight, building foundational strength. Transitioning to pull-ups then puts this strength to the test, pushing your limits and enhancing muscular endurance as you manage your body weight.

Versatile Skill Development

The lat pulldown machine is effective for refining your technique and ensuring proper form, helps for preventing injuries and efficiently engage muscles. Pull-ups require and develop grip strength, body control, and coordination. Together, they contribute to a versatile skill set that benefits all areas of fitness.

Increased Functional Fitness

While lat pulldowns contribute to muscle building and strength, pull-ups offer exceptional functional benefits. The ability to lift and control your body weight translates to improved performance in daily activities and sports, enhancing overall functional fitness and agility.

Progressive Training Options

Incorporating both exercises allows for progressive overload and adaptability in your training. You can start with lat pulldowns to build strength and graduate to pull-ups as your strength increases. This progression not only keeps your workouts challenging but also lessen plateaus, ensuring continuous improvement.

Customizable Workouts

With lat pulldowns and pull-ups, you can easily tailor your workouts to match your fitness level and goals. Whether it's adjusting the weight on the pulldown machine or experimenting with pull-up variations (like weighted pull-ups or different grips), the possibilities for customization are endless.

Balanced Upper Body Conditioning

Together, lat pulldowns and pull-ups offer a holistic approach to upper body conditioning. They ensure that both the anterior and posterior chains are engaged and developed, promoting good posture, minimizing the risk of injury, and contributing to a well-proportioned physique.

By incorporating both lat pulldowns and pull-ups into your workout routine, you're setting the stage for a stronger, more versatile, and functionally fit upper body. This approach not only helps you towards your fitness goals but also keeps your workouts dynamic, engaging, and effective.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the alternatives if you don't have a lat pulldown machine?

Bent over barbell rows and single arm dumbbell rows are a few of the top alternatives to a lat pulldown machine that targets the same muscle groups.

What is the difference between lat pulldown and cable row?

The lat pulldown and cable row differ in movement and targeted muscles: the lat pulldown works the upper back by pulling a bar downward from overhead, focusing on the latissimus dorsi, while the cable row targets the mid-back, engaging the rhomboids and middle trapezius through a horizontal pulling motion from a seated position.

Can you do pull-ups and lat pulldown together?

Yes, you can incorporate both pull-ups and lat pulldowns in your workout routine. Doing so allows you to benefit from the controlled resistance of lat pulldowns for muscle development and the functional strength and endurance gained from pull-ups, providing a comprehensive back training program.

The Final Verdict: Which One is Better?

In the fitness world, the lat pulldown vs. pull-up debate is legendary. But here's the scoop: it's not about choosing a champ but appreciating the unique benefits each brings to your training table. 

Deciding between the guided strength building of the best lat pulldown machine and the raw challenge of pull-ups boils down to your personal fitness ambitions and your current level of strength —be it muscle building, strength enhancement, or mastering bodyweight control.

Remember, in the world of fitness, embracing diversity in your exercises isn't just about adding variety—it's about crafting a journey of continuous growth and strength.

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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.