Now that I’ve looked at the two most obvious exercises, that being the squat and the deadlift, and pitted them against the leg press and the sumo deadlift respectively, it makes sense to me to continue the logical progression and look at what I would consider the third exercise in the most important exercise triumvirate: the pull up. The writers here at L&S debated the importance of the above exercises recently, and today, as I have been doing lately, I will question the value of the pulldown vs the pull up.
The pull-up, or the upper body squat as it is sometimes called, is considered the ultimate upper body exercise. Both the pull up and the pulldown recruit the latissimus dorsi, which is the largest muscle in the back. Assistance muscles required to complete both of these exercises include the trapezius, the rhomboids, the deltoids, the biceps and the serratus anterior. Pull ups also need assistance from the transverse abdominus and the obliques in order to resist the swinging of your body back and forth throughout the movement. If we were to look at the muscles that are recruited to successfully complete each exercise then the pull up wins. If we are looking at which exercise best develops specific muscles, then we have more to look at before we can draw a conclusion that best suits our individual goals.
Let me point out that this article is not including the crossfit version of the pull-up, which is basically one big swinging motion with very little pulling involved. This article is sticking to the traditional version of both exercises, meaning the wildly swinging pulldown is also not part of this conversation as the entire focus of the muscles involved changes when the upper body is not held stable in both exercises.
The lats are an extremely important muscle as far as function is concerned. Their role is to help you drag heavy objects toward you, to pull things down from overhead (pulldowns) or to pull your self up (pull ups). As mentioned above the latissimus dorsi is the largest muscle of the back and the primary muscle involved in both movements. The lats start at just under your shoulder blades and go all the way down to our lower back. This muscle is very important not only functionally but aesthetically as well. The v-taper that we all work towards is greatly accented by the literal v-shape create by developed, flaring lats. This means that if aesthetics is your concern, we need to know which exercise best develops this muscle.
This can be answered partially in the same manner that we used to determine which is better, the squat or the leg press and that is body type. Those best suited to taking full advantage of all that the pull-up has to offer tend to be light. I don’t mean ridiculously so as there are many well muscled individuals who excel at pull-ups, but I have yet to see an extremely heavily muscled person, or just an extremely heavy person, perform a good set of pull ups – ever. The pull down is much better suited to the heavier weight lifter or the beginner in most cases. The weight stack offers the advantage of choosing a challenging weight that can be completed with proper form. The pull up does not offer such an advantage.
In my search for a clear-cut winner as to which exercise contracts the muscles of the lats better I came up empty-handed. I guess no one wanted to stick electrodes to some bodybuilders and have them perform each exercise to see which one recruits more latissimus dorsi. I’m actually shocked at this. If anyone reading this knows of any study on this please forward it to me, I would really appreciate it.
The best way to answer this question (without science) is to look at the pull up as a true multi-joint, compound exercise and the pulldown as more of an isolation exercise. I know personally I can basically remove all assistance muscles when performing pulldowns but I rely on all of my available strength to perform a clean set of pull ups. This partially answers my question as a good isolation exercise can be very effective in building mass for the advanced trainer just as a compound movement can build mass for the beginner or intermediate lifter. Which leaves us where?
Well, lets look at pull ups just as we would squats or deadlifts. They both are fantastic general mass builders, as is the pull up. We can look at the pulldown much in the same way as we would the leg press or the Romanian deadlift. The leg press can better isolate the quads (due to removing the necessary low back strength and balance needed to correctly squat) and the Romanian deadlift can better isolate the hamstrings (it’s a much more true hamstring and glute builder than is the back building deadlift), similarly the pulldown can better isolate the lats.
This means what to me, you ask? The choice is clear. Do both. If you are looking to generally build upper body mass and strength then the pull up is for you. If you want to add more lat size and etch more detail into your back, then the pulldown is the exercise I suggest you focus on. Not to mention your body type as well as your lifting experience will also help to determine the best course of action for you to take. Personally I flip-flop between these two exercises focusing more on one or the other at different times. Like all things in life and bodybuilding, variety is key to both muscular development and keeping things fresh. Until next time my friends,