Lat pull-downs and pull-ups are the two best competitors of your time in the gym. In fact, they are the most preferred exercises for someone who wants to build a broader back.
Unfortunately, the lat pull down is harder than the pull-up. It may seem a surprise to you, but I’ve met some people in the local gym who found themselves struggling with lat pull downs rather than pull-ups.
So, is it really just because of the pull down machine you’re using that makes the exercise more difficult?
Stick with me as I break down this rivalry, find out why lats pulldown is harder than pull-up, and what exercise is best for you!
Table of Contents
- Targets: back, shoulders, and obliques
- Equipment Needed: Light weights, cable pulley machine, or resistance band
- Level: Beginner
Lat pulldown is a compound exercise that targets several muscles in the upper body. It is the seated version of the lat pull-ups. The muscles most notably involved in lateral pull-downs are:
- Latissimus dorsi – the flat, large muscle on the back that stretches behind the arm. It is commonly called the “lats;.”
- Rhomboids and trapezius – the muscles between and across your shoulder blades;
- Biceps brachii (bb) – the biceps or the large, thick muscle on the front of your upper arm;
- Teres major (TM) – the small muscle along the lateral border of the scapula; and the
- Posterior deltoid – found at the back of your upper arm.
As a weight-adjusted cable exercise, lat pull down requires you to pull a bar downwards towards your chest. You do this workout while being seated in a lat pulldown machine.
Maintain proper posture while performing the lat down at a workstation to ease the pulling movements, like when you are starting a lawnmower, opening a door, or swimming.
Movement Pattern: How to Do the Lat Pulldown Correctly
1. For your starting position, adjust the pull-down machine, weight, and pads so your knees will be securely underneath. For proper form, your knees and hips should be at about a 90-degree angle with your feet flat on the floor, hip-width apart.
2. Grasp the pulldown bar with your hands slightly shoulder-width apart. Lean back slightly while keeping your abdomen braced and drawn in. This posture also offers greater spinal stability. Abdominal bracing and drawing-in activate the muscles close to the spine, the multifidus, the transverse abdominis, and the global abdominal muscles.
3. Pull down the bar towards your chest. As you flex your elbows, simultaneously perform scapulae retraction and depression and shoulder adduction. Lower the pulldown bar until you feel a slight stretch in the pectorals.
4. Avoid your shoulders shrugging, your head jutting forward, or letting your low-back arch during this motion to maintain a safe and ideal posture. Pause in the most contracted pose and smoothly return to your starting position.
5. Repeat the desired repetitions without relaxing your shoulders. Maintain full control of the lat pulldown weight to allow ideal eccentric muscle contraction.
Read Next: Lat Pulldown Machine with Weight Stack
Meet Your Fitness Goals and Skill Levels with Lat Pulldown Variations
One of the nice things about doing lat pulldown is that you can do this exercise in various ways to meet your fitness goals and skill levels.
Beginners may first opt for bands or light weights to ensure they use the correct form. You can work out in a standing position, putting one leg forward.
Experiment with grips too. Try narrow, wider, under-or overhand grips to target particular muscle groups. Using a wider grip works the back muscles more. A close grip lat pulldown recruits the forearm muscles. A middle-distance grip with hands shoulder-width apart emphasizes your middle back and the biceps more.
Avoid common mistakes when doing a lat pulldown. For example, don’t hold the bar too wide or pull down the bar too far. Stop when your elbows need to go back to pull the cable down. Doing otherwise will put too much stress on your shoulder joint.
Benefits and Drawbacks of the Lat Pulldown
- Reduced muscle use (can be considered a drawback too). Reducing the scapular and core control demands makes it a more manageable and easier exercise for beginners.
- Weight adjustments. Whenever you’re struggling to get more reps, it’s easy to drop sets or lower the weight and keep going with your workout. This is a great way to build volume and keep training while fatigued. Pull-ups don’t offer this benefit.
- Consistent tension. Since lat pulldown uses a cable machine, it offers consistent tension. This is ideal for isometric movements, which refer to contractions or tightening of a specific muscle or group of muscles.
- Less muscles. The reduced recruitment of the stabilizer and core muscles makes a big difference if you train for calisthenics or gymnastic strength.
- Equipment availability. The lat pulldown machine is one of the commonly used commercial gym equipment. That means occupying such a piece of popular equipment during the busiest hours is not easy. You may look for an alternative for that workout or go to the gym that isn’t during peak hours.
- Targets: back, shoulders, and core
- Equipment Needed: Chin-up bar or pull-up machine
- Level: Intermediate
Besides the lat pull-downs, lat pull-ups are one of the most popular exercises in the gym. It’s a preferred workout for those wanting to achieve the V-shaped back or increase their back muscles desired by weightlifters, bodybuilders, and fitness enthusiasts alike.
A strong back is vital for a strong chest. It means that the more you do lat pull-ups, the better you are equipped to do the bench press.
Pull-ups need a chin-up bar or a pull-up bar, which can be a simple doorway bar or freestanding.
In traditional pull-ups, you use an overhand grip on the pull-up bar. In chin-up, which is a pull-up variation, you use an underhand grip. Of course, you can use other modified versions of pull-ups to build strength.
Movement Pattern: How to Do the Lat Pull-up Correctly
1. Set or mount the pull-up bar far enough above the floor so you can entirely do pull-ups there and not have your feet touch the ground. A good guideline is a minimum of 50cm (20”) below the ceiling.
2. Stand below the pull-up bar. Do an overhand grip, shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms, pull your shoulders down, and brace your abs. You cross your ankles and bend your knees for a balanced position.
3. Lean back slightly, bend your arms, and lift your chest towards the pull-up bar. Exhale while pulling yourself up and pause slightly at the top.
4. Lower yourself. Repeat these movements without touching the floor. You can do other variations, like doing a one-arm pull-up or muscle-ups. Related: Best Outdoor Pull-Up Bar
Benefits and Drawbacks of Pull-ups
- Heavy loading. The loading of pull-ups is inherently heavy. After all, you can’t just quickly reduce your body weight. That is why the exercise requires you to be strong. You can also do one pull-up, which is excellent if you want to accelerate size and strength.
- Series of progressions. Although challenging, pull-ups have a series of progressions that allow you to develop from a beginner to proficient. In addition, you can reduce the overall difficulty of pull-ups.
- Core demands. A pull-up involves a large amount of training that targets the core muscles. It’s an area of training-effect you cannot get from a pulldown.
- Reduced effectiveness. The pull-up cannot be controlled or loaded in the same manner as the lat pull-down. As such, it has reduced effectiveness, especially for fatiguing workouts. There is no way to lower the weight and still proceed with your training.
- Difficulty training by yourself. During your training, you will need extra strength to do another pull-up. And this presents a challenge if you train by yourself.
Pulldown vs. Pull-up: The Differences
The lat pulldown and pull-up are great exercises if your goal is to target back muscles. But as to, one major difference is that the lat pulldown exercise is open-chained, while the other is closed-chained.
An open chain exercise is where the feet or hands are not with an immobile object in a fixed position. The force applied by the individual doing the training is already good enough to overcome resistance, such as dumbbells, barbells, or other selectorized strength-training gym equipment.
In contrast, the closed chain exercise is where the feet or hands are positioned on an immobile surface, like the fixed anchor point or the ground. Even if the individual applies a force, it cannot overcome the immobile surface. The result is that the body simply moves in accordance.
Research has demonstrated that closed-chain exercises activate more muscle fibers than open-chain exercises. In addition, a comparative study published in Sports Biomechanics concluded that chin-ups are a “more functional” workout than lat-pulldown.
So, Why are Lats Pulldown Harder Than Pull-Ups? [7 Reasons]
1. You’re not stuck in your weight
One of the reasons why lats pulldown is harder than pull-ups is because you’re not stuck in your weight. With pull-ups, you rely on your body weight as your pull up against a horizontal bar fixed above your head.
Of course, you can add more weight through a weight vest or belt to add more weight. Weighted pull-ups make the workout more challenging. Still, you can’t immediately lower the weight you pull up.
On the other hand, you can increase lat pulldown weight to develop a wider muscular back without fatiguing your entire body, as pull-ups do. This is because your muscles are more relaxed while stationed on the pulldown equipment.
2. You can train your muscle past failure
Training your muscle to failure means choosing a weight stack that is heavy enough, so the previous rep taxes your muscles. So much so that you struggle to complete it. This workout may sound like a self-defeating goal, but not always.
See, in bodybuilding, training your muscles to failure results in most possible muscle growth.
Muscle failure happens when lactic acid builds up in the muscle or muscles use up their supply of adenosine triphosphate. ATP is the biochemical way to use and store energy. The benefit of training your muscle past failure is it increases your mass and muscle strength faster. It also breaks through experienced weightlifters’ plateau.
The drawback, on the other hand, is it may hinder growth for some individuals. It can lead to overtraining if you do it often or use poor workout form. Overall, this training is ideal for someone who has been training for multiple years and does so with proper technique.
3. Many intensity techniques are available
You can do several intensity techniques with lat pulldowns. These techniques include extended sets, super high reps, and drop sets.
There are also other variations of the lat pulldown workout that are effective for targeting many muscles of the arms and back. These variations are the neutral-grip pulldown, reverse grip pulldown or supination, wide grip pulldown, behind-the-neck lat pulldown, and close-grip pulldown.
4. The bar is harder to control and stabilize
The lat pulldown may be similar to the pull-up strength training exercise, but the former is harder. That’s because, with pull downs, the bar is in motion, making it more difficult to control and stabilize. Plus, nothing keeps your body in place when doing the pulldown.
With pull-ups, you are held stable by the overhead bar you’re gripping. Additionally, an improper technique in pulldowns lead to difficulty with movement.
5. It isolates your lats
Another reason lat pulldown is harder than pull-ups is that it often isolates your lats muscle. Pull-ups allow you to use your core, forearms, and biceps, depending on your grip. So, a pulldown is more complex because you are not used to isolation.
6. Too much friction
The problem may be with the lat pulldown you are using. It could be because it’s new or old that there is too much friction between the machine’s rope and the pulleys. You may need to do some maintenance with the machine if it’s yours, or try greasing the slide post.
7. Too much range of motion
Range of motion refers to how far you can stretch or move a part of the body, like a muscle or a joint.
The problem with many exercises is that people don’t get enough range of motion. That’s not the case with lat pulldown, which is why people find it challenging to exercise. Not everyone can pull the bar down to their chest unless they are flexible enough.
In a properly formed lateral pulldown, you must pull your shoulder blades together and bring your elbows to your sides. Furthermore, make sure your body is stable.
Does this mean lat pulldown is better than pull-up?
Certainly not. Both exercises are effective at targeting the back and shoulder muscles. In fact, pull-ups tend to be better for developing strength. It’s just that pull-downs are more versatile because you adjust the weight.
Lat Pull-down vs. Pull-up: Which is Best for You?
Lateral pull downs and lat pull-ups are both great back-building workouts. In a battle between the two, there’s no clear winner.
Both exercises affect the same muscles and involve almost similar movements. In many ways, the two exercises are practically interchangeable. So, just do the workout you prefer best.
Pull-up is generally the best back-building workout to improve overall strength. On the other hand, pulldown is excellent if your goal is long-term progression. Lat pulldown makes your training more productive and varied. The lat pulldown offers an excellent alternative for building muscle and strength and adding volume.
A good workout rule applied by many fitness enthusiasts is to perform lat pull downs first until their strength increases to move over to pull-ups. Combining both exercises into your routine using different rep schemes, intensity techniques, angles, and grips will likely result in broader and bigger lats.
Good luck with your training! For your safety, please remember that the number of reps you do in any workout should depend on individual strength, your experience level, and the amount of weight used.
For access to more exercise and fitness articles, lifestyle tips, celebrity workouts, nutrition and health info, visit ExpertFitness.org.
Nathan Lloyd, MSc
LICENSED PERSONAL TRAINER
I’m a personal trainer, based in Boulder, Colorado.
I service clients physically in the Boulder area, mainly in the ONE Boulder Fitness Gym, but am also available for online consulting and coaching.
If you’re interested in my personal coaching programs, please contact me via the contact page.