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Lat Pulldown Vs Pull-Up | Differences, Muscles Worked, and Which Is Better

If you’re trying to build your lats and upper back, then there’s a good chance you’re regularly performing lat pulldowns and pull-ups. Both of these exercises can be awesome tools for building your upper body.

From a coaching context, I’m regularly asked about my thoughts on the pull-up versus the lat pulldown. The topics I’m most frequently asked about revolve around which exercise is better for hypertrophy, strength, and the list goes on.

In my lat pulldown versus pull-up article, I’ll share my programming and coaching thoughts on using both of these exercises to build more strength and upper body mass.

Generally speaking, the lat pulldown can be a better option compared to a pull-up for hypertrophy because it requires less skill and there are fewer areas on the body that will fatigue before the lats and upper back muscles are taken to task failure.

Lat Pulldown Versus Pull-Up

Lat Pulldown Vs Pull-Up Takeaways

Takeaway 1

When programming for hypertrophy, the name of the game is efficiently taking the muscles we’re targeting close to task failure. In exercises like the pull-up, things like grip, forearm strength, and skill level can limit hypertrophy potential.

Takeaway 2

When working to build the lats and specific upper back muscles, it’s a good idea to select exercises that allow you to get more granular with your approach. Generally, the lat pulldown can be an easier exercise to modify for this intent.

Takeaway 3

For newer lifters and intermediates, both exercises will result in a lot of growth, and in many cases, you can’t really go wrong with either. Your lat pulldown and pull-up usage should get more selective as you narrow the scope of your training goals.

Lat Pulldown Versus Pull-Up Differences

When programming lat pulldowns and pull-ups I try to remind myself of their key differences as this helps drive better and more strategic programming based on mine and my client’s goals.

Difference 1: Type of Resistance

The first major difference to keep in mind between the lat pulldown versus the pull-up is the type of resistance you’ll be working with. In the lat pulldown, you’re working with external resistance whereas in the pull-up your resistance is your body weight.

It’s easier to scale “how much” you’re lifting with the lat pulldown which can be great for making smaller and more strategic jumps versus the pull-up. Plus, we have to consider that we all have different body weights and this can dramatically shift pull-up effort requirements.

Chin-Up Vs Pull Up for Upper Body Mass

In general, lat pulldowns can be a little more beginner-friendly and easier to perform at higher volumes because of the resistance they use. They can also be easier to program towards the end of workouts when a lifter is already feeling fatigued which is an area where the pull-up can be limited.

Difference 2: Skill and Form Requirements

Another major difference to keep in mind with the pull-up and lat pulldown is how much skill is required and needed to perform each. A pull-up is much more technical than a lat pulldown and there are more areas where form can break down during a set.

For example, when performing sets of pull-ups and lat pulldowns, you’ll find that a pull-up quickly turns much more into a “full body” exercise as fatigue sets in. You not only have to pull yourself up, but you also have to stabilize the body from swinging.

Lat Pulldown for Hypertrophy

Typically speaking, you’ll want to perform pull-ups further up in a program to ensure you have enough energy to execute them properly to get the most out of them, whereas lat pulldowns can be performed at really any point in a workout.

On top of this, the pull-up will have more “performance limiters” compared to the lat pulldown. Aspects like grip and core strength can influence your ability to perform strong pull-up reps which is why pull-up programming often needs more strategy than lat pulldowns.

Lat Pulldown for Back Growth

In the lat pulldown, you have constraints like the machine to produce more stability and you’re more stationary with the ability to adjust load easier and your torso position. The culmination of these variables makes this exercise much easier to perform for everyone.

Lat Pulldown Versus Pull-Up for Hypertrophy

More than likely, if you’re looking up the differences between lat pulldowns and pull-ups then you’re interested in which exercise will be better for hypertrophy.

Unless you have a really strong pull-up and can perform them at high volumes, the lat pulldown will typically be the better exercise from a hypertrophy context, especially when your goals revolve around building specific muscles.

To facilitate muscular hypertrophy, we need to be able to take muscle(s) close to mechanical and task failure. This means that we need to be able to push our muscles close to points of failure to challenge them and recruit more muscle fibers in the process.

Lat Pulldown for Lats

The recruitment and working of more muscle fibers will generally result in a greater hypertrophy response of muscle fibers as they’ll be repaired to accommodate greater thresholds in the future.

All that said, the pull-up can absolutely work for hypertrophy, however, since it has more limiters like grip and core strength along with a greater skill component it can typically be tougher for lifters to use them for isolating specific muscles.

In the lat pulldown, you can more easily adjust positioning and load which is great when you’re wanting to push muscles close to failure without spending a ton of effort on the skill of the exercise.

Chin-Up Vs Pull Up for Strength

For hypertrophy programming, I typically prefer exercises that require less thought from a skilled context because it allows us to spend more effort and energy on taking sets close to failure. Basically, I want your focus on the task at hand and that’s blasting the muscles we’re after.

Lat Pulldown Vs Pull-Up for Hypertrophy Takeaways

  1. In general, lat pulldowns can be a better option for hypertrophy for a wider range of lifters because they require less skill, have more constraints, and can adjust their loading easier.
  2. Pull-ups can be awesome if you can perform them well and you want a lot of “bang for your buck” regarding hitting multiple muscle groups at the same time.
  3. If you’re doing both exercises in a hypertrophy-focused workout, program pull-ups before lat pulldowns.

Coaching Note: This section can be variable from coach to coach so you read this section, please keep in mind that this is my coaching opinion of these exercises, and as I grow as a coach so does my point of view on these exercises.

Lat Pulldown Versus Pull-Up for Strength

In the context of building vertical pulling strength, the pull-up and lat pulldown can both be awesome options for building the lats, upper back, and grip strength through this movement pattern.

Lat Pulldown vs pull up for strength gains

In many ways and for lifters on the quest of building their pull-up abilities, the lat pulldown can be programmed as a means to an end for building the muscles required to perform strong pull-ups.

The lat pulldown and pull-up will both have a ton of carryover regarding the muscles they’re training. However, the pull-up will have more of an impact on the obliques and core muscles as they’ll be working to stabilize the torso throughout reps.

Lat Pulldown Vs Pull-Up Muscles Worked

Lat Pulldown Versus Pull-Up Muscles Worked

Pull-Up Muscles Woked

Pull-Up Muscles Used

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Biceps Brachii
  • Infraspinatus
  • Lower Trapezius
  • Pectoralis Major
  • Erector Spinae
  • External Oblique

*bolded indicates a higher degree of involvement

Lat Pulldown Muscles Worked

Lat Pulldown Muscles Used

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Biceps Brachii
  • Infraspinatus
  • Lower Trapezius
  • Pectoralis Major

*bolded indicates a higher degree of involvement

I like the lat pulldown and pull-up for building strength because they both work to build handfuls of muscles. Plus, the pull-up can have direct sports and real-life carryover for things like rock climbing and CrossFit.

Lat Pulldown Vs Pull-Up for Strength Takeaways

  1. Both exercises can be great for building strength and the lat pulldown has a lower bar to entry for strength building.
  2. The pull-up will also passively build some core strength and there’s a case to be made for them that they’re more “functional” in the context of climbing and strength sports carryover.
  3. Outside of muscular strength, the pull-up can also be great for building mental strength as it can be a milestone for newer lifters.

In my coaching opinion, I would plug and play with both exercises to see which you respond best to. You may find that you respond really to heavy lat pulldowns versus weight pull-ups, for example.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q:
Is lat pulldowns better than pull-ups?

A:
The lat pulldown isn't necessarily better than a pull-up and a lot of their effectiveness revolve around your goals. For example, for beginners and hypertrophy, the lat pulldown can sometimes be better because it requires less skill and has more constraints to utilize but this is not an all the time case.

Q:
Can I replace pull-ups with lat pulldowns?

A:
Pull-ups can be replaced by lat pulldowns if the goal is building vertical pulling strength and training the muscles used in this movement pattern. If the goal is mastering the pull-up, though, then the lat pulldown can only replace a pull-up by so much as the pull-up is a skill.

Q:
Do lat pulldowns work the same muscles as pullups?

A:
For the most part, you'll train a lot of same muscles with the lat pulldown and pull-up. Both exercises will train the biceps brachii, brachioradialis, lats, infraspinatus, posterior delts, pec major, and traps. The pull-up will also train the core and obliques.

Takeaway Thoughts

The lat pulldown and pull-up are great exercises for building vertical pulling strength and the muscles associated with this movement pattern. In the context of which is “better”, as always, it depends.

It depends on things like your goals and needs. Once you can establish these variables then you can really answer which exercise is “better” as you need context to properly label one as being more effective than the other.

If you have additional questions about the lat pulldown versus pull-up, drop a comment below or reach out to me personally via Instagram (@jake_boly or @that_fit_friend).

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly, CSCS, MS Sports Science

Jake Boly is the Founder and Editor-In-Chief of That Fit Friend. He's often regarded to as a go-to resource in various performance shoe communities. He’s been formally reviewing shoes and training gear for over 7 years and has hand-tested over 400 pairs of shoes. Jake is known on the internet and YouTube for blending his review process with his educational, strength sports, and personal training background.

Jake has a Masters in Sports Science, a Bachelors in Exercise Science, a CSCS, and he's been personal training for over 10 years helping hundreds of clients get stronger, lose weight, and accomplish their goals. He uses his exercise science brain and personal training background to make curated and thoughtful review content on the fitness gear he's testing.

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