The pull-up is great, but it’s not always possible – and you need to train those upper back muscles somehow.

Today we’re discussing the pull-up and lat pulldown. They’re competitors for your time in the gym and they’re often compared as direct competitors.

Stick with us – we’re going to break down this rivalry in a way that actually helps your training!

Why do the Pulldown and Pull-Up Compete?

The obvious reason that these exercises are framed as competitors is because they’re working the same muscles. They’re specifically targeting the lats and the muscles of the scapula.

The movements for these exercises are relatively similar through the upper body, though are definitely significant differences in the rest of the body.

The lat pulldown is definitely designed to replicate the pull-up. The problem is that it has significant pros and cons that make it different to the pull-up which make it more or less specific to your goals and needs.

These are going to be the key things you focus on when deciding which exercise to perform…

What are the Pros and Cons of the Lat Pulldown?

The lat pulldown is a weight-adjusted cable exercise that replicates the vertical pulling-down motion that we see with the pull-up. It’s a seated version of the exercise that takes out the difficulty of using your own bodyweight.

Benefits of Using the Lat Pulldown:

  • Weight-Adjusted: the lat pulldown can be as heavy or light as you want it to be and is easily adjusted. This is a great way of building strength as a beginner, when you need to train these muscles but can’t lift your whole bodyweight yet.
  • Reduced muscle use: this is a pro and a con. The reduction of the core and scap-control demands inherent in a lat pulldown make it an easier and more manageable exercise for beginners. This takes out a serious amount of the difficulty and removes the common limiting factor.
  • Cable-loaded: we really like cable machines. They provide consistent tension, and this makes for great isometric movements. The bottom of a lat pulldown is a great time to really squeeze into position and strengthen the “tucked shoulders” position that you’ll need to improve your upper back size, strength, and control for pull-ups.
  • Drop sets: this is a result of the weight-adjustments you can use in a lat pulldown. When you’re struggling to get out more reps, you can simply lower the weight and keep going. This is a great way to keep training and building volume while fatigued. Pull-ups don’t lend themselves to this kind of training.

Drawbacks of Using the Lat Pulldown:

  • Less muscles: the reduced requirement and recruitment of the core and stabiliser muscles can make a serious difference if you’re training for gymnastic strength or calisthenics. You need to develop complete control. A lat pulldown is not going to build the foundation for a muscle up by itself.
  • Lighter loading?: the loading in a lat pulldown isn’t likely to have the upward range that a pull-up or chin up would. You’re going to max out around 200lbs, which is not nearly as much as a weighted chin or pull-up, for most people.

The clear point here is that the lat pulldown is a more accessible exercise, but it has fewer applications to gymnastics and advanced calisthenics.

This makes the lat pulldown an excellent exercise to build muscular strength and size, though it does play a secondary role to the pull-up for specificity and the muscle-patterns you need to strengthen.

What are the Pros and Cons of the Pull-Up?

The pull-up is a key exercise – the deadlift of the upper body. It works so many muscles in such important ways that it should be a goal and key exercise for any fitness or strength enthusiast.

The pull-up is often the goal and the method for achieving other goals. It’s a key movement and it should never be replaced by the lat pulldown if possible, though the two can play together well.

Benefits of Training with Pull Ups:

  • Specificity: the pull-up is the foundation for almost every other gymnastic/calisthenics skill that involves pulling. Whether its horizontal or vertical pulling, the pull-up is an excellent training tool. It lays down the key strength and control components for almost every single advanced bodyweight training exercise.
  • Loading: the loading of a pull-up is inherently pretty heavy. You can’t reduce your bodyweight very easily, so you’re going to need to be strong. However, this can be a great ay of accelerating gains in strength and size when you can do even one pull-up. It’s less accessible, but definitely more effective than a lat pulldown on a rep-for-rep basis.
  • Control and core: there is a huge increase in the core demands and training of a pull-up. It involves a prohibitively large amount of core work, but this is another area of improved training-effect that you won’t get from a lat-pulldown. The difficulty of the pull-up continues to be the greatest benefit and challenge!
  • Progressions: despite the difficulty, the pull-up has a series of progressions that you can be used to develop from beginner to proficient. These are useful by themselves, but also reduce the overall difficulty of the movement and make it a reasonable choice for anyone, regardless of strength or experience.

Drawbacks of Using Pull Ups:

  • Difficulty: simple, if you can’t do a pull-up then they’re not much use. The extra strength required to gain another pull-up is enormous during the early days of training, which might make the pull-up totally inappropriate for your training by itself.
  • Isolations: the pull-up cannot be loaded or controlled in the same way that the lat pulldown is. It has a reduced effectiveness for fatigued workouts, where there’s no way to lower the weight and continue. This makes it a real challenge to progress if you’re not smart about your training.
  • Stabiliser demands: again, the difficulty and fatigue-sensitivity of the pull-up are key. The stabiliser demands required for a good pull-up mean that you may well lose the effectiveness of a pull-up and its specificity if you’re too tired to perform it properly. This is an example of ingraining bad pattern, which may not help training as much as switching to a lower-demand exercise.

The best and worst parts of a pull-up come from how difficult and demanding it can be for beginners. These challenges make the pull-up an amazingly diverse and important exercise, but also make it impenetrable for beginners who can’t perform a single pull-up.

Fortunately, we have put together a complete guide on getting your first pull-up. However, it’s clear that this is a slow process and you’re going to be limited and need to train with the appropriate exercises.

Final Thoughts: Do the Lat Pulldown and Pull-up Need to Compete?

The clear outcome of this article is a simple one: there’s a time and place for each exercise.

The pull-up is more difficult and provides a significantly greater challenge and stimulus. This makes it an essential, specific, but limited exercise for many beginners and intermediates.

The best approach for you during these early days is to train pull-ups when you can, and lat pulldowns when you can’t. The lat pulldown works best as an assistance exercise for your pull-up: it can build the muscles and movements that you need with lighter weights while fatigued.

For example, training pull-ups for 4 sets ‘to failure’, followed by 4 sets of 12 at maximum possible weight on the lat pulldown offers a way of getting the benefits of both exercises. During the latter, you’ll be developing strength and joint-conditioning despite the serious difficulty – maybe even impossibility – of squeezing out another pull-up.

These exercises don’t need to compete if you’re smart about your training. Prioritise the pull-up, but if you’re unable to perform one, or you’re trying to build additional pulling strength after your pull-up sets, the lat pulldown offers an amazing alternative for adding volume and building muscle and strength! When it comes to pull ups, there's no better training tool than consistent, frequent training. You can make this possible by getting your own complete, in-home calisthenics workout solution. The Pull Up Mate - and Pull Up Mate 2 - are comprehensive pull up bars for any home that offer a wide variety of bodyweight training options.

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