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March 20, 2022
Lat pulldowns have been the primary weapon of choice to build a bigger back for gym rats and bodybuilders for decades. Anyone with the aim of developing a wide, V-tapered back would turn to make lat pulldowns their first port of call. However, with the rise of at-home training and limited access to gyms people have had to get more creative, thinking outside of the box when it comes to packing on mass. Further, a lot of people understand the benefits of altering exercise selection for the development of their muscles. This article will outline the anatomy and function of the lats, before providing 9 alternatives that are more accessible or hit the lats in a way pulldowns just can’t.
Unsurprisingly the primary target and mover of lat pulldowns are the latissimus dorsi. However, this compound movement requires a lot of support from surrounding muscles to execute it efficiently. The lower traps depress the shoulder blade as you pull down, while the mid traps and rhomboids retract the shoulder blades, pulling them together. The teres major has a supporting role in the pulldown, assisting in adduction (pulling the arm in towards the body). While the biceps contribute to the movement by flexing the elbows.
Forearm position and grip width influence the degree of involvement of these muscle groups. Narrower grips underhand pulldowns require greater bicep contribution, while wide overhand pulldowns stress the teres major more.
The lats - alongside the trapezius - are the most superficial muscle in the back, covering everything from the iliac crest up (excluding where the traps are).
Being the widest muscle in the body, the lats are spread thin and have multiple attachment points and functions.
What does this mean for lat pull downs?
All versions of lat pulldowns will hit the lats, but some might lean more towards one function over another.
With all this said it's obvious why lat pulldowns are such a staple in so many people's training. They are an excellent compound, training a host of other back and arm muscles. Unlike other compounds, they use cables providing constant tension through the whole range of motion. Finally, they are versatile and easily manipulated to find the best mind-muscle connection. You can change handles and grips until you find what works best for you.
Despite the impressive list of benefits the lat pulldown offers, they do have some weaknesses.
Firstly, there is an obvious requirement for lat pulldowns - the lat pulldown machine. This means lat pulldowns are only really doable at a gym. Unless you want to splash some cash and have the space, other options might need to take priority if you’re training from home.
Secondly, from a technique perspective people tend to have difficulty connecting with their back musculature during training, likely because it’s out of view. Big compounds like lat pulldowns can exacerbate this issue, with people butchering their execution, training everything but their lats. Other options can help hone your lat training, finding exercises more suitable for you.
Whether you want to switch things up to better develop your lats, lat pulldowns are really hitting well for you, or you simply don't have access to a lat pulldown machine, here are the best alternatives you can do...
This exercise exploded in popularity when Arnold Schwarzenegger outlined them as a staple in his back training routine. This pullover variation has both practical and biomechanical benefits. Firstly, dumbbells are much more easily accessible - making this a great option for anyone unable to get into a gym. Secondly, the exercise allows you to fully stretch the lats underload, which is difficult during lat pulldowns without significant modification. This, combined with the resistance profile (the exercise gets harder as you flex the shoulder) means dumbbell pullovers tap into the loaded stretch, providing excellent hypertrophic stimulus. Finally, being an isolation exercise, you can add lat volume without overburdening other muscles while developing a better mind-muscle connection.
To get the most out of this exercise, keep those elbows in a fixed position. Drive through the elbows, thinking only about flexing and extending the shoulder with your elbows tight to your sides.
This has many of the same benefits as the dumbbell pullover, being an isolation exercise and really stressing the lats in that stretched position. Performed on cables, the straight arm pulldown provides constant tension through the movement - unlike the dumbbell version - and elicits a great contraction. There is also more chance for modifications, with a variety of grips and handles available to allow you to find your best fit. However, this does have a similar drawback to lat pulldowns, most people don’t have cable machines at home!
Set the cable up to slightly above head height, with a bar, single rope or dual ropes attached. These all provide unique benefits:
Related: Best Cable Back Exercises
Pull-ups have been commonplace in all kinds of strength training, from bodybuilding to Crossfit to powerlifting. This lat pulldown alternative is easily accessible. Many parks have bars, companies make stand-alone stations as well as door and wall-mounted kits that can fit in just about anyone's home. One benefit of this movement contrasts with those before. It is an even bigger compound than lat pulldowns. If you can perform pull-ups accurately, ensuring your lats are getting the brunt of the work, they can provide even more bang for your buck and be a great way to slap on slabs of muscle.
As we discussed previously, grip impacts which muscles support the lats more. Two main pull up variations are underhand close grip, also named chin-ups, or overhand wide grip. For the former, aim for shoulder width apart and the latter, 6-8 inches outside shoulder width.
Related: Best Pull Up Alternatives
Unlike some of the previous movements, this one requires some more high-tech kit. Low cable rows really allow you to focus on shortening the lats in a way that can be difficult during lat pulldowns. This variation lets you focus on imbalances and the mind-muscle connection training one arm at a time.
One-arm dumbbell rows are commonplace in training plans across the world, and with good reason. Not only are they easy access, but they also can be manipulated to smash your lats or upper back depending on how you perform them. Lat dominant variations, like the low cable row, get the lat nice and short while loading them relatively heavy.
Again, this can easily turn into a mid and upper back exercise, so make sure the lat is the limiting factor when performing these.
Related: Best Dumbbell Back Exercises
Barbells are wonderful pieces of equipment, with many basing their whole programs around barbells with excellent results. Barbell rows can be manipulated and moulded to fit almost any goal or purpose when it comes to back growth. Lat focused barbell rows let you load the lats heavy, getting them short under a decent load. This is accompanied by how easy access barbells are. Most home gyms will have a barbell and some plates, and that is a great place to start.
Related: Best Barbell Back Exercises
This movement has often been called a “meadows row”, popularized by the late John Meadows. This movement, like the other row variations, lets you get the lats shorter than most lat pulldown variations. One bonus of this version is the stability caused by the landmine. This allows you to focus on the mind-muscle connection and training your lats to their fullest. This is a wonderful hybrid between a free-weight and machine-like movement. These can be done at home! All you need is a bar and a corner you don’t mind messing up a little!
You can manipulate which part of the back works by changing foot positions, shuffling forward will hit the lats while backward will hit the upper back. The main this to remember is the weight should be coming into the hip crease.
If you don’t have access to a lat pulldown, it is unlikely you’ll have access to a plate loaded row. However, if you’re fortunate enough to have a gym equipped with one of these, they can be an amazing way to train your lats. These are normally set up so that during the initial pull of the movement, the plates are traveling vertically. As the row continues, the weights travel horizontally, reducing the work required to move them. This means they match the strength curve effectively, being heavy when the lats are in their mid-range and lighter as they get shorter.
The exercise can be performed easily at home with a minimal kit, making them a great alternative to lat pulldowns. All you need is a straight bar - which can be a barbell in a rack or a pull-up bar - and somewhere to put your feet. Despite the name, the stability added from the foot support means these resemble pulldowns more closely than pull-ups, making them a great weapon in the home training arsenal. Not only this, but they are easier than pull-ups, lowering the exercises barrier for entry, and easy to load as you can just pop a plate on your lap.
It looks like this...
Consider the below when selecting from the exercises above...
The isolations in this list are the cable and dumbbell pullovers, taking out the biceps ad other back muscles to focus solely on the lats. If you’re looking to add some lat volume - without added stress to supporting muscles - these are both great options. When programming the dumbbell pullovers, it is important to account for the imbalanced resistance profile discussed. You should look to combine this with other lat exercises, like lat focused rows or machine work, that stress the lat in shorter ranges. Additionally, you can add a band to the dumbbell pullover, making sure it is slack at the bottom and tightens as you contract your lats.
b) Horizontal Rows:
In opposition to this, we have lat focused the horizontal rows - dumbbell, barbell, landmine, plate loaded and cable. These are amazing at shortening the lats but don’t allow for full lat stretch, so they should be paired with pull-overs or over movements with a greater range. These are also compound movements, requiring support from the mid and upper back as well as the biceps and forearms. When programming them, it’s important to remember this, as throwing them in might impact how these muscles recover. This being said, as long as your lats are the limiting factors in the movement, and you're getting a good mind-muscle connection and pump, then you're doing most of the right things.
c) Vertical Pulls:
Vertical pulls are the closest to lat pulldowns in terms of movement pattern. These can be used as a direct replacement for lat pull downs, whether you’re training at home or in a gym, and are the easiest like for like substitution out of this list. It is important to recognize how difficult these can be. Many people fall into the trap of just trying to get their chins over the bar, forgetting the point of the exercise is to stimulate lat growth. Make sure you’re strong enough to perform these cleanly and efficiently, or you’ll be leaving gains on the table. These provide a good range of motion, with resistance throughout. If most of your lat training revolves around variations of these vertical pulls, with lat focused rows and pullovers sprinkled in you’re on the right track.
Author: Tom MacCormick (BSc in Sports Science and Coaching, MSc in Strength and Conditioning)
If you have any questions about lat pulldowns or alternative exercises, please feel free to leave a comment below and we will reply as soon as we can...
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