Lat Pulldown Vs Pull Up (Muscle Building Comparison)

There are many different ways to build a strong body, but without a solid back, you won't have the necessary foundations in place. Lat pulldowns and pull ups are two great ways to start developing your upper body 

In this guide, we'll give you the full breakdown of lat pulldown vs pull up so you can decide which is most beneficial for you.  

A lat pulldown is a fairly simple exercise where you use your lats (lower back muscles) to pull weights down towards you. You’ll see lat pulldown machines in almost every gym, and they're popular with lifters because they can isolate some of the most important muscles in your body.  

To do a lat pulldown, you need to sit facing the machine with the bar in front and above you. Reach up and grab the bar, then pull it down until it reaches about chest height. Pause for a few seconds and then slowly raise it back up to the starting position. Aim to repeat this 8-12 times for a single set.  

There are several different lat pulldown variations you can do to target different muscle groups and challenge your body. Here are some suggestions: 

  • Single-Arm Lat Pull-Down  
    You’ll typically use both arms for a lat pulldown, but you can go for a single arm lift to help isolate one side of your body and really feel the squeeze at the bottom. It’s a great way to mix up your movements and to improve your mind muscle connection with your lower back.  
  • Wide-Grip Lat Pull-Down  
    In a standard lat pulldown, you'll have your arms around shoulder-width apart. If you widen your grip so your hands are nearer the edge of the bar, you can help to broaden your back and really improve your overall strength. By squeezing your shoulder blades and focusing on your lats, you can activate more of your back, maximizing the strength gains.  
  • Behind-The-Neck Lat Pull-Down  
    behind the neck lat pulldown involves pulling the bar down, so it stops just behind your neck and above your shoulder blades. Many people find this motion helps them build lean muscle, but it can be more difficult and may place strain on your upper back. There is a higher risk of injury here, so don't attempt this if you're new to lifting.  
  • V-Bar Pull-Down  
    V-bar pulldowns help focus the energy on the center of your back. You'll need to add a different connection to your bar, which allows you to move your hands much closer together. Pull downwards until the V-bar is at the center of your chest and then slowly release back upwards. This is an effective variation to target different areas of your back and improve overall strength.  
  • Reverse Close-Grip Lat Pull-Down  
    Typically, your hands will be facing away from you for a lat pulldown, but for this variation, you'll point them towards you and keep your hands right in the middle of the bar. When you pull the bar down, you’ll activate your central back and core muscles to help build strength in this area. This is a similar exercise to pull ups and chin ups and a great finisher at the end of a workout.  
Lat Pull Downs

Pros And Cons Of Doing Lat Pull Downs 

What We Like 

  • Isolates muscle groups 
  • Many variations 
  • Low risk of injury 
  • Adjustable weight 
  • Builds strong upper body 

Things We Don’t 

  • Specialist machine needed 
  • Less muscle engagement 

Pull Up (Overview + Variations) 

Pull ups are widely regarded as one of the most useful exercises and are often used to gauge overall fitness. Pull ups are particularly effective at strengthening your back but also activate muscles in your arms and core making them a great all-around exercise.  

Pull ups are designed for everyone, and you don't really need any specialist garage gym equipment. Start with a bar that's attached to a wall or frame above your head. Reach up with your hands a few inches further than shoulder-width apart and grip the bar. Engage your back and lift yourself up so that your head rises above the bar itself. Pause and then lower yourself down.  

Pull ups are used by anyone looking to build upper body strength. You can do them at home or in the gym and even add weight if you need more resistance. They really are well suited for everyone. Some options for doing pull ups include:

Here are a few pull up variations that some people try too: 

  • Wide-Grip Pull Up   
    This is often described as the king of pull ups and works your middle and upper back the most. You’ll find it’s a shorter range of motion, but that means you should aim for more reps to get the most from it. It’s brilliant to build a wide and strong back. 
  • Pull Up (Shoulder Width)   
    These are very challenging, and you might find it harder to do a full set of these. It engages pretty much your whole back and has a longer range of motion, so even your lower lats are engaged. This is not for newbies, and you'll need to build up to this.  
  • Kipping Pull Up  
    Kipping pull ups are similar to the cross fit motion you may have seen and focus more on the movement than building strength. These won’t give you as much in terms of strength gains and can reinforce lousy form, so use these with caution.  
  • Chin Ups   
    Chin ups provide a great workout for your biceps and your lower lats. You start with your hands facing towards you gripping the bar, and repeat the same motion as you would with a pull up. Once your chin is level with the bar, you can release and slowly lower yourself down. This is a great way to balance out your lower back and make sure you're building a complete upper body.  
  • Neutral Grip Pull Up   
    Neutral grip pull ups are similar to regular pull ups, but your hands are directly above your head. Start in a neutral position and slowly lift yourself upwards until your chest is reaching the bar. You can then slowly lower yourself down to the starting position. This is a challenging exercise that will activate your deltoids and help to build a wide, thick back. 
  • Towel Pull Up   
    Towel pull ups help to activate your whole back and build your forearms and wrists. Take a towel attachment and throw it over the pull up bar, one for each hand. Grab the bottom of the towel and perform the pull up motion, focusing on keeping your movement controlled and steady. This is an amazing way to build upper body strength and not an easy one to perform. 
Pull Up

Pros And Cons Of Doing Pull Ups 

What We Like 

  • Compound 
  • Strength Building 
  • Convenient 
  • Improve Your Body Shape 
  • Impressive 

Things We Don’t 

  • High Strength Requirements 
  • Potential Safety Concerns 

Lat Pulldown Vs Pull Up: Are They The Same? 

While lat pulldowns and pull ups engage similar muscle groups, there are some key differences. Pull ups rely entirely on bodyweight, whereas lat pulldowns use weights to provide resistance. To help you understand the differences, we've given a breakdown of some of the key factors: 

Strength Gains  

Pull ups are better pound for pound when it comes to strength building. They give you a better whole-body workout and functional strength, which will benefit you in the real world.

Lat pulldown machines can be loaded with more weight to help improve your strength, but you can switch through a variety of pull ups to keep on improving. Bodybuilders and those focused on strength will often prefer pull ups because it helps to define and strengthen your whole body. 

Muscle Activation 

Pull ups are designed to isolate your lats and remove the work from other areas like your core. Pull ups are a full body exercise that activates more muscle groups, making it better in this category.  

Flexibility  

Pull ups offer a great deal of flexibility in how you approach the exercise. There are a lot of variations to try and ways to challenge yourself more every time. Lat pulldowns are a bit more limited, and you won’t be able to do the same range of exercises.  

Simplicity 

Pull ups are fairly simple when you look at them but getting the form right can be complicated. Lat pulldowns are pretty much as simple as it gets and all you need to do is pull the bar down in the right way to feel the benefit. 

Approachability 

Lat pulldowns are suitable for beginners either at home or in the gym. Pull ups are, by comparison, a lot harder, and beginners may not even be able to do one. If you're just getting started, then a lat pulldown will be better for you.  

Adaptability 

Pull ups rely on your body weight, so you're a bit limited in how you can adapt to the exercise. Lat pulldown machines allow you to set the weight on the device and completely control the resistance level.  

Both exercises have their merits, but in our opinion, it's all about where you are on your exercise journey. Pull ups probably offer more benefits and are more accessible because you don't need much equipment, (you can even make your own DIY freestanding pull up bar), but pull ups are more challenging. 

Lat pulldowns are more suitable for beginners and will help you build your back in a controlled and safe way.

Also check out - Lat Pulldown Alternative Exercises

Lat Pulldown Vs Pull Up

People Also Ask (FAQs)

What is the difference between hammer strength lat pull vs lat pulldown? 

Hammer strength lat pulldowns use a full bar rather than a handle attached to a cable. This technique helps to activate your lower lats which can be a weak area for some people. 

Can you do a lat pulldown on a cable machine? 

Yes, you can do this by kneeling on the floor and pulling the cables from above you down to your chest and then back up again.  

When should you switch to assisted pull ups? 

Once you are starting to reach 60-70% of your body weight with a lat pulldown, then you should consider switching to assisted pull ups. This will allow you to keep growing and build up to a full pull up.  

Should I lean back during lat pulldown?  

You will need to lean back slightly to avoid the bar hitting your face as you pull it down but try to keep your body as straight as possible to get the most from the exercise.  


Conclusion

Pull ups and lat pulldowns each have their pros and cons. Pull ups are a better all-around exercise and are best if you’re trying to improve your overall strength.

However, pull ups are not easy to perform and aren’t suitable for beginners. If you’re just getting started, you should stick to lat pulldowns until you feel ready to do a full set of pull ups.   

Paul J