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A lat pulldown is one of the best exercises for targeting and building biceps and other muscles. But more and more people are looking for alternatives.
While a lat pulldown offers the best in terms of target muscle strengthening, improving muscle development, and overall development of shoulder muscles, it’s far from a perfect solution.
Done incorrectly, a lat pulldown or straight arm pulldown can lend itself to injury, especially from common mistakes such as using forearms instead of your back; letting your elbows go backward, or performing the lat pulldown too quickly.
The other problem? Lat pulldowns require exercise equipment, usually in the form of a cable pulley machine. Cable pulley machines are available at most gyms, but if you don’t have a gym membership, there’s a good chance you don’t have a cable pulley machine.
A cable pulley machine (pull down machine) costs anywhere from a few hundred to even a few thousand dollars and can be quite heavy and take up a lot of space. So while lat pulldowns are an excellent exercise, there’s a need for alternatives. In this article, we’ll cover you a guide to the best alternatives and then give you frequently asked questions about lat pulldown exercises.
- 1 1. Pull-Ups
- 2 2. Decline Dumbbell Pull Over
- 3 3. Kroc Rows
- 4 4. Elastic Resistance Pulldowns
- 5 5. TRX Pull-ups
- 6 Do I need alternatives to a lat pulldown?
- 7 FAQ’s About Pulldowns
What the exercise is
The classic pull up is a staple workout for a reason. Like a lat pulldown, pullups mostly target back muscles. Generally, performing a pull up requires three stages: the first position, where you hang from the bottom; the mid position, as you pull halfway up, and the final position, as your chin exceeds the bar.
In order to do a proper pull-up, you should grip the bar with both hands, shoulder width apart, and hang with elbows facing out. As you pull yourself up, your back should be held firmly, but you should make sure not to tense your neck too much. After your chin exceeds the bar, come down for the completion of a rep.
Pullups are beneficial in a number of ways. For one, lat pulldown, pullups are considered a compound exercise, meaning they engage multiple joints and muscles at once, mostly for the upper body and back. Unlike some full body or even upper body exercises, pullups are actually considered relatively gentle on joints.
Pull-ups primarily target the upper back (Latissimus dorsi) as well as other shoulder and bicep muscles (such as the traps; muscles along the spine; shoulder blade muscles; and muscles under the armpit). As you can see, pull-ups are one of the most straight forward alternatives to a lat pulldown.
Pull-ups require a simple pull up bar that is not only widely available in gyms but can be easily installed at home and cost anywhere from under twenty dollars to around one hundred.
Pull-ups are notoriously hard to perform if you don’t already have upper body strength, especially relative to overall weight. For some, it can be a difficult exercise to start with or progress. For better or worse, they mostly target the upper back. Those looking to shed significant weight should introduce pull ups later on.
2. Decline Dumbbell Pull Over
A decline dumbbell pullover is another alternative to a lat pulldown, and in many ways, it may feel less intimidating to anyone not accustomed to gym equipment or all in one machine. In fact, a decline dumbbell is an exercise you can do right at home.
What the exercise is
A decline dumbbell is a relatively simple exercise where you lie on a bench (decline preferred) with dumbbells in both hands. In order to perform the exercise, arms are raised above the lower chest, with elbows bent as you lower the dumbbell. Arms should be held parallel to the ground, then lowered back down.
A decline dumbbell pullover is considered a fairly effective exercise for building upper body muscles. Classed mostly as an “isolation” exercise for the chest, the decline dumbbell pullover does have some secondary benefits such as triceps and lats.
Primarily targets the chest, with secondary work on the triceps and lats.
You’ll need a good set of dumbbells, which may vary in weight as your progress, as well as a declining bench. Both are relatively affordable pieces for at-home gym equipment, and both can be found in almost any gym setting.
Since it’s an isolated exercise, you won’t get as robust of a full-body/ upper body synergy and muscle development as you would with lat pulldown. It’s also important to note that how much you benefit from a decline dumbbell is from how well you perform the activity, and with what precision.
3. Kroc Rows
If you’re especially concerned with building strength and doing so without requiring machine equipment, Kroc Rows may be one of the best alternatives to a lat pulldown. They are also pretty customizable, meaning you can adjust as you progress in strength.
What the exercise is
Kroc Rows are a form of dumbbell rows that typically employ heavier weights and are performed bent over. Though you can decide what makes sense for you, this exercise tends to have many reps but small areas at a time, most commonly in sets of twenty.
Fitness guru Matt Kroczaleski suggests a certain technique: As you begin your rep, drop your shoulders so that you’re stretching your back muscles. As you raise your arms, your shoulder blades, not your arm, should be carrying most of the weight. To complete a rep, the dumbbell comes to your rib cage and then is lowered to the original position.
Kroc Rows offer a number of benefits. One of the most notable–and different from a lat pulldown–is grip training. Knot Rows help you establish a stronger grip, and that grip training can serve you well for other exercises. It’s also helpful for overall back strength and form.
As an alternative to a lat pulldown, Kroc Rows are often noted for their back muscle-building benefits. You’ll see improved strength, as with lat pulldown, in latissimus dorsi, as well as secondary benefits for the obliques, biceps, and trapezius.
Like with a decline dumbbell, this one of the best alternatives to a lat pulldown if saving space from a bulky machine is concerned. However, since Kroc Rows demand heavier weights, depending on your current level, it might get more pricy. Still, the equipment is simple: dumbbells and an adjustable bench. Check out how two of the most popular dumbbell brands compare here.
This exercise, since it’s performed hunched over, could lend itself to more strain if done improperly, or with someone prone to back issues. While it’s an excellent grip training practice, this is also an exercise where having someone spot you is a good idea.
4. Elastic Resistance Pulldowns
Also making our list for best lat pulldown alternatives is elastic resistance pulldowns. As the name implies, elastic resistance pulldowns involve elastic bands to provide the resistance needed in order to get some of those strength benefits.
What the exercise is
You can perform using a wide or narrow grip technique, but the basic premise is that you grab an elastic band with one hand while using the other to secure the door around the middle of the band. Normally, you’ll also use a foam anchor. The activity is done from kneeling in front of the door using a ‘chest up and out’ position. You can see how to perform this activity here.
Obviously, with elastic resistance pulldowns, you’re getting plenty of resistance as you perform reps. The customization of being able to perform both wide and narrow grip pulldowns is excellent, as is the ability to set this exercise up nearly anywhere. It’s especially helpful for targeting lats.
While an elastic pulldown may not work as many muscle groups, it does target lats if that’s an area of interest and/or concern. Other muscles groups worked include the biceps and shoulders. It’s also something anyone can do effectively, regardless of overall fitness level or weight.
In order to perform this lat pulldown alternative, you need a resistance band and foam anchor, both inexpensive. Interestingly, this activity is in many ways ideal for home use.
Elastic resistance pulldowns, compared with other lat pulldown alternatives, could take more precise attention to learn, as the steps to set them up are unlike other activities. While elastic resistance pulldowns target lats, they don’t give you the same full and nuanced upper body workout as lat pulldown, so it’s best to mix this activity with other upper body workouts.
5. TRX Pull-ups
TRX pullups are one of the lesser-known alternatives but lauded for being more friendly to those perhaps starting a strength training program. They’re also sought after for those who don’t have access to the equipment needed for a lat pulldown or who can’t do a traditional pull-up.
What the exercise is
Think of a TRX as a type of modified pullup. In fact, many use TRX pullups as a way to slowly build strength and work their way up to performing traditional pullups. To do this pullup and lat pulldown alternative, you need to hold on to the TRX handles so that your arms are forward and knees bent at around ninety degrees. In order to get a full effect, you have to squeeze the handles while focusing on your abdominal muscles and upper body.
What’s great about a TRX pullup is that more can do it. You’re still getting a workout in, and still strengthening, but it doesn’t require as much upper body strength, to begin with. For many, it can pave the way to graduating onto pull-ups. It also works the core, which many lat pulldown alternatives do not focus on, so it’s a good exercise to include with your workout routine.
TRX pullups target the core especially, meaning you’ll be able to work on your abdominal muscles while also seeing incremental improvements to upper body strength.
TRX pull-ups may not require as bulky of equipment as for a lat pulldown, but they do require specialized equipment nonetheless. You’ll need a TRX suspension kit, retailing around a hundred dollars.
It’s still an investment, and again could be considered less intuitive. For anyone who can already perform standard pull ups, it may not be the best alternative is upper body strength is the main target.
Do I need alternatives to a lat pulldown?
Without a doubt, there’s much to praise about lat pull downs. That said, whether or not you need to find alternatives depends on your lifestyle, access, and budget. While a lat pulldown can be a great workout for your biceps (in addition to lat muscles), it certainly has some downsides.
Even if you do have access to proper gym equipment, it’s also good to vary your strengthening workouts. Finding the best alternatives for a lat pulldown can improve overall conditioning, reduce your risk for injury, and develop muscles in a more nuanced way.
So even if you do enjoy a lat pulldown workout, chances are you’ll benefit from finding some of the best alternatives.
How do you find the best alternatives for a lat pulldown?
The best alternatives for a lat pulldown will accomplish one of two things: either they will mostly mimic the movement and benefits of a lat pulldown, or provide more targeted muscle sculpting. While you can’t find a workout exactly like a lat pulldown, the best alternatives will provide many similar benefits, and may also prove more accessible, both in terms of skill level and equipment required.
What can I do instead of pull ups?
Often, people think of pull ups when discussing lat pulldowns and alternatives–though it’s important to keep in mind that a lat pulldown is different than a classic pull up.
There are several alternatives, which is helpful to keep in mind when you consider that not everyone can do a pull up or chin up. While we will cover more and in more detail, some common alternatives include assisted pull ups; band pull downs; and working with weights in other ways.
Where to Buy the Equipment
Almost all of this gym equipment can be purchased through a sports supply company, chain, or online suppliers like Amazon. It’s ideal to see the equipment in person if investing in a machine.
FAQ’s About Pulldowns
A lat pulldown works not one, but multiple muscles at once, which is why it’s considered among the more effective exercises for a total strengthening workout. The main muscle, latissimus dorsi, the most prominent muscle in the upper body/back, tasked with extension and horizontal abduction, and rotating the arm. In addition, a lat pulldown works biceps and forearms.
A lat pulldown may work many muscles at once, but it’s also considered targeted muscle exercise. It’s also said to encourage synergy between different muscle groups, meaning they will move more effectively and in conjunction with one another. They also may help ease pain from common issues associated with poor posture and hunching, and, of course, provide the general benefits of muscle workouts (increased metabolic rate and reduced risks for osteoporosis and arthritis).
Doing a lat pulldown properly can not only improve workout benefits but prevent injury. While using the pulley machine, you should bring your chest to the bar with your elbows facing straight down, with your chin lowered right around the bar. It’s also important to squeeze your lats as you perform the pulldown.
A standing pulldown combines two major exercises: the lat pulldown with the row. It’s still very much targeted muscle work, but you’ll be targeting in a different way than you would with lat pulldown, but still building muscles in the back. This modified exercise works by using a barbell on the back of the rack around hip height and using a bar with a wide grip.