Strength training machines have come a very long way in the last 100 years. Where they used to be big, clunky, uncomfortable, and barely effective, they are now state-of-the-art and allow you to target your muscles with laser-like precision.
Whatever muscle group you want to train, there is a machine to do it – from your calves to your neck and everything in between!
One of the most popular and important strength training machines is the lat pulldown. With this exercise, you can work your back and biceps in comfort and safety.
But, what can you do instead? After all, if you only ever do lat pulldowns, your back muscles will soon become accustomed to this exercise. Also, unless you have a VERY well-equipped home gym, you might not even be able to do this exercise.
Thankfully, there are plenty of lat pulldown alternative exercises you can use in your workouts to build the back of your dreams.
Lat Pulldowns 101
Before we delve into the best lat pulldown alternative exercises, let’s hit pause and discuss what it is that makes this machine so effective and popular.
Suitable for all levels of exerciser – most lat pulldowns have a selectorized weight stack, making it easy to change the weights. It doesn’t matter how strong (or how weak) you are; you should be able to do this exercise. In contrast, some bodyweight exercises are simply too hard for most beginners.
Perfect for drop sets – take your back development to a new level by incorporating drop sets into your workouts. Drop sets are a training system where you reduce the weight as you near fatigue. This allows you to train beyond muscular failure, triggering greater muscle growth. Lat pulldowns are PERFECT for drop sets.
Lat pulldowns work lots of muscles – lat pulldowns are a compound exercise, and as such, they involve lots of muscles working together. The main muscles trained during lat pulldowns are the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, forearms, lower trapezius, middle trapezius, rhomboids, posterior deltoids, and pectoralis minor. This makes lat pulldowns a very time-efficient exercise.
Lots of variations available – there are lots of different ways you can do lat pulldowns. All this variety is good for muscle building and can also prevent stagnation and boredom. Some of the most common variations are:
- Shoulder-width overhand grip
- Wide overhand grip
- Narrow underhand grip
- Shoulder-width parallel grip
- Narrow parallel grip
- Single arm
- Behind the neck*
Easy to learn – a lot of strength exercises are hard to master; squats and deadlifts, for example. Lat pulldowns are not really that complicated, and even a newbie should be able to pick them up quickly. While it can be gratifying to learn a new exercise, it’s also nice to be able to get to grips with one after just a few minutes of use.
A good primer for pull-ups – lots of workouts call for pull-ups and chin-ups, which are two of the best bodyweight lat exercises you can do. But, as these exercises involve lifting your entire body using just your arms, they can be hard to learn and master. Lat pulldowns work the same muscles, so they’re a useful steppingstone toward doing pull-ups and chin-ups.
Very easy on your lower back – when it comes to lat exercises, there are two main movement patterns; horizontal pulls (rows) and vertical pulls (pull-ups and pulldowns). A lot of rowing exercises involve leaning forward at the waist, which can put a lot of stress on your lower back. For some exercisers, this stress is a problem. Lat pulldowns place very little pressure on your lower back and can even help stretch and decompress your spine. In short, lat pulldowns are very lower back-friendly.
The TEN best Lat Pulldown Alternative Exercises
No lat pulldown machine at your gym? Do you work out at home? Are you bored with lat pulldowns and need a replacement? Here are ten lat pulldown alternative exercises to try!
1. Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups
Pull-ups, which are done with an overhand grip, and chin-ups, which use an underhand grip, work the same muscles as pulldowns. But, instead of lifting actual weight, you have to lift your bodyweight.
While these exercises ARE ideal for home exercisers, they’re also hard to do, especially if you are a beginner or a big guy. And, of course, you’ll need somewhere to do this exercise – like a home pull-up bar, a tree branch, or a monkey gym bar.
That said, if you can do pull-ups or chin-ups, they are both great lat pulldown alternative exercises. They can also be modified to better suit beginners, e.g., band-assisted pull-ups.
Read also Pull-ups vs. Chin-ups.
2. Single Arm Lat Pulldowns
The basic lat pulldown is a bilateral exercise, which means it works your left and right arm at the same time. There is nothing wrong with this, but, for variety, it’s sometimes useful to train one side at a time – a unilateral exercise. While this is more of a variation than an alternative, it’s still a valid exercise.
To do single-arm lat pulldowns, simply replace your usual bar with a D-shaped handle. Not only can you work one side of your lats at a time, but you can also rotate your wrist as you train, which can help take stress off your elbow joint and may prevent elbow pain.
How to do it:
- Attach a single D-shaped handle to the lat pulldown machine. Grip the handle in one hand and sit down.
- Keeping your torso upright, bend your arm, and, leading with your elbow, pull the handle down to the front of your shoulder. Allow your wrist to rotate naturally or use a pronated, supinated, or neutral hand position as preferred.
- Extend your arm and repeat.
- Do the same number of reps on both sides.
3. Resistance Band Lat Pulldowns
You can also perform the lat pulldown using resistance bands; all you need is a suitable anchor point. You’ll need to fix your band overhead, but that’s easy to do. Just loop it over a roof joist or tree branch, or tie a knot in your band and shut it in a door.
There are also special anchors you can buy that you can bolt to your ceiling. However you do them, resistance band lat pulldowns are perfect for home exercisers and, if you take your bands with you, are ideal for travelers, too.
4. Dumbbell Pullovers
Dumbbell pullovers don’t look anything like lat pulldowns, but they’re still a useful lat pulldown alternative. They work your lats like pulldowns but involve your pecs too. While there are pullover machines you can use, not every gym has one, and the dumbbell version is pretty effective anyway. You can also do this exercise with a barbell if you prefer.
How to do it:
- Lie on a flat exercise bench with a single dumbbell in your hands. Hold the weight above your chest, arms straight but not locked.
- Lower the dumbbell backward and over your head until your upper arms are close to your ears. Stretch back as far as your mobility allows, but do not hyperextend your shoulders.
- Pull the weight back up and over your chest and repeat.
- You can also do this exercise with a dumbbell in each hand. This may be easier on your shoulders as it allows for a more accommodating shoulder action.
Read more about Dumbbell Pullover: How-To, Benefits, and Variations.
5. Bent Over Rows
Your lats, which are the target muscles in lat pulldowns, has two primary functions: shoulder adduction and shoulder extension. Where most lat pulldown variations involve shoulder adduction, most rowing exercises feature more shoulder extension. As both movements use your lats, rows are an acceptable lat pulldown alternative.
Bent-over rows, done with a barbell, dumbbells, or a resistance band, are all good for your lats, but you should also take care not to round your back as doing so could cause injury.
Read more about bent over rows.
6. Seated Cable Rows
While we have a lot of love for all types of bent-over rows, there is no escaping the fact that they can be hard on your lower back. Seated cable rows, another useful lat pulldown alternative, put a lot less stress on your back while working the exact same muscles.
You can do this exercise with a wide, narrow, underhand, or overhand grip and also using a V-shaped handle. But, to avoid back strain, do not allow your lumbar spine to round when doing this exercise.
No seated cable row machine? No problem! You can also sit on the floor and loop a resistance band over your feet.
7. Single Arm Dumbbell Rows
If rowing exercises have a drawback, it is that they place a lot of pressure on your lower back. Using one dumbbell means you have an arm free to support your upper body.
This takes most of the stress off your lower back and also allows you to work one side at a time, so you can identify and fix any left to right strength imbalances. Training one side at a time is also great for improving core stabilization too.
Read more about bent over dumbbell row.
8. Inverted Rows
This lat pulldown alternative is ideal for home exercisers. All you need is something like a TRX suspension trainer, some gymnastic rings, or just a waist-high bar that’s strong enough to hold your bodyweight. This rowing exercise is easy on your lower back and engages your glutes and core, making it very functional and time-efficient.
Make this exercise easier raising whatever handle you are using or harder by elevating your feet. You can also wear a weighted vest or rest a weight plate on your hips/lap.
Read more about inverted row.
9. T-bar Rows
Of all the rowing exercises you can use as lat pulldown alternative, T-bar rows are probably the most popular. With T-bar rows, you can use different hand positions to hit your lats from a variety of angles, and your back is under a lot less stress because you can sit back into this exercise without worrying about falling over. Just try doing that with barbell rows; we have, and it REALLY doesn’t work!
The T-bar row is a cornerstone exercise for many bodybuilders and is an excellent way to build back width and thickness. It’s not the easiest exercise to master, but it is a very rewarding one.
10. Renegade Rows
If lat pulldowns have a downside, it is that they only really work your upper body. Yes, they are an upper-body compound exercise, which means they use lots of muscle at the same time, but your legs and core are not heavily involved.
Renegade rows are a much more full-body exercise than pulldowns and work your lats along with almost every other muscle in your body.
This is NOT an easy exercise to do, even if you use very light weights. But, if you persevere, it will build strength throughout your body and teach you how to generate full-body tension, improving almost every athletic activity.
The Best Lat Pulldown Alternative Exercises – Wrapping Up
Whether you want to build muscle, get stronger, or just get fit, lat pulldowns can help. They’re very scalable, so beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercisers can all enjoy the benefits this exercise has to offer. There are also plenty of variations you can use to keep your workouts fresh and interesting. Just change your hand position.
But, because it’s a machine, you may find yourself unable to do this exercise or just plain bored with it. That’s ok because there are lots of lat pulldown alternative exercises you can use to train the same muscles.
Whatever your training goal is, use these ten lat pulldown alternatives to build a back you can be proud of!