September 23, 2023

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10 Lat Pulldown Alternatives for Building Your Back

10 Lat Pulldown Alternatives for Building Your Back

The lat pulldown is one of the most staple back exercises most people have in their workout routines. Whether you use it to train for strength or muscle mass, if your gym has a lat pulldown station (and it probably does), you’ve probably at least dabbled in it before.

The lat pulldown can increase muscular strength or hypertrophy in the biceps, lats and rear delts, true enough — but there are much better lat pulldown alternatives out there that can hit the lats in a better or different way. 

athlete using machine for lat pull down
Credit: martvisionlk / Shutterstock

With versatility in mind, here are the 10 best lat pulldown alternatives that you can try out instead. 

Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives

  1. Chest-Supported Pulldown
  2. Single-Arm Cable Pulldown
  3. Single-Arm Machine Row
  4. Lat-Biased Dumbbell Row
  5. Underhand Cable Row
  6. Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Pulldown
  7. Machine Chest-Supported Pulldown
  8. Thoracic Lat Pull-Around
  9. Iliac Lat Pull-Around
  10. Straight-Arm Pulldown

Chest-Supported Pulldown

The chest-supported pulldown is a better variation to the traditional lat pulldown. You will need to use the combination of a lat pulldown or cable machine as well as a weight bench that can be set up to an upright position.

When to Use It

You should use the chest-supported pulldown if you are someone who either cheats in the lat pulldown by swinging your torso, if you overextend your lower back, or even if you have trouble establishing a mind-muscle connection with your upper back. 

How To Do It

Set an adjustable bench to an upright position and move it in front of a cable attachment, with the column handle fixed just above the height of the top of your bench. Sit “backwards” on the bench such that you can grab the cable handles. Pull the handles down and back until your elbows are aligned with your torso. 

Benefits of the Chest-Supported Pulldown

  • Provides extra support to ensure you maintain proper technique.
  • The chest pad prevents you from using momentum to “cheat” the exercise. 

Single-Arm Cable Pulldown

The single-arm cable pulldown is a great variation that trains one side of your back at a time. You can perform this movement seated in a traditional lat pulldown machine, provided you have the right handle. 

When to Use It

The single-arm cable pulldown is best used when you are looking to ensure that each side of your back is trained equally. 

It is also good for improving shoulder stability, making it particularly useful for athletes like Olympic lifters who often train and compete in overhead-based movements. 

How to Do It

Attach a single-handle cable attachment to the top of a lat pulldown machine. You can either sit facing into the machine or face sideways with the active arm on the outside of the machine. Hold onto the cable handle and keep your back flat with your abs tight. 

Pull the cable handle down, leading with your elbows down toward the side of your hip. Slowly return the cable handle back up to the top and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Benefits of the Single-Arm Cable Pulldown

  • Allows you to target and correct muscular imbalances.
  • May afford a greater range of motion than you’d get with the standard pulldown.

Single-Arm Machine Row

The single-arm machine row is a great alternative to the lat pulldown, provided you have a usable machine in your gym. 

The design of the machine row allows you to train your entire upper back, but performing it one arm at a time can help you zone in specifically on your lats for targeted growth. 

When to Use It

The single-arm machine row is best used if you want to incorporate a bit more engagement with your upper and lower trapezius muscle fibers too. The unilateral element of this exercise makes it useful for improving any imbalances you may have between your left and right side.

How to Do It

Set the height of the seat so your chest is properly supported by the pad and make sure the pad is lengthened properly so you can row through a full range of motion. 

Grab onto both handles of the machine, but row only with one arm at a time, focusing on pulling down and back. You can alternate arms, or perform all your reps on one side before beginning the other. 

Benefits of the Single-Arm Machine Row

  • Allows you to focus on applying the most effort rather than having to stabilize the weight.
  • Lets you dial in on any imbalances in your back development.
  • Works your middle back and trapezius to some degree as well. 

Lat-Biased Dumbbell Row

The lat-biased dumbbell row is a great free weight alternative to the lat pulldown. It is a variation of the standard dumbbell row wherein you slightly adjust your posture and setup to dramatically increase the work your lats perform.

When to Use It

The lat-biased dumbbell row is a useful one to have if you do not have access to any seated row, pulldown station, or cable machine, especially if you train at home. 

How to Do It

Set up for a standard dumbbell row on a flat bench, with the leg of your working arm planted firmly on the floor for stability.

Grab onto a dumbbell and slightly tilt your working shoulder away from the floor, instead of maintaining a perpendicular trunk. From here, allow your arm to fall across your torso and “hang” down before performing the row. 

Drive your elbow up and back and allow it to pass your torso if possible. 

Benefits of the Lat-Biased Dumbbell Row

  • Allows you to target your lats directly without relying on ultra-heavy weights.
  • Lets you work your back one side at a time to address muscular imbalances.
  • Challenges your core stability. 

Underhand Cable Row

The underhand cable row with a forward lean is a variation of the seated cable row where the grip and postural position is set up to help target the lats more and train them through a longer muscle length.

You can go back to the cables to build your lats, but you don’t have to do pulldowns. The underhand cable row is specifically designed to target your lats and train them through their full range of motion with consistent tension throughout. 

When To Use It

You ideally want to use the underhand cable row near the start of your workout when you have plenty of energy to focus on controlling your posture. If you are someone who is often very tight in the upper back, this is a great exercise to do to help loosen things up as well.

How to Do It

Set up a straight or cambered bar to a horizontal seated row station. Grip the handles with an underhand grip and sit upright with nearly-straightened legs. Lean your torso forward so you’re slightly bowed toward the weight stack, while maintaining a flat lumbar spine. 

Row the handles toward your body, maintaining that same torso lean and keeping your elbows tucked to your sides. 

Benefits of the Underhand Cable Row 

  • The exercise simultaneously targets just about every muscle in your upper back, as well as involves your biceps and forearms. 
  • You can bias different muscles in your back by slightly tweaking the angle of your torso or the height to which you pull the handle. 

Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Pulldown

The half-kneeling single-arm pulldown is another good alternative to the lat pulldown that uses a cable machine and a single arm handle. 

Specifically, the kneeling posture offers you the ability to loosen up your back from neck to hip and get some extra core training in as well.

When to Use It

You can use this exercise if you can’t access the lat pulldown station but do have an adjustable cable tree available. The movement requires you to not only row with your back, but also to maintain control over your posture and properly brace your trunk and hips simultaneously.

This is a great choice if you don’t like to lift very heavy or want to identify — and address — asymmetries or imbalances. 

How To Do It

Take a half-kneeling position (your “down’ leg should correspond to the arm you’re working) in front of a cable handle fixed higher than your head. You should be able to pull the cable at a 45-degree angle. 

Assume a flat back and “square” your hips to the cable tree, don’t tilt or lean to either side. Grab the handle with your working arm and pull, driving your elbow down and back toward your obliques. 

Benefits of the Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Pulldown

  • Loosens up your back and hips simultaneously.
  • Teaches you to work your back without the stability of both feet planted on the floor.
  • Lets you target your upper back one side at a time.

Machine Chest-Supported Pulldown

The machine chest-supported pulldown is a similar alternative to the lat pulldown, but instead of using a cable, the machine chest-supported pulldown uses levers, which changes and fixes the movement path. There is a chest support which can help you stretch your lats out at the top too.

When to Use It

The machine chest-supported pulldown is a great option if you’re dialed in on serious muscle growth or strength gains, since you can train hard and heavy with limited risk. It’s also a great compound substitution movement for the barbell row if you want to give your posterior chain a break. 

How to Do It

Adjust the thigh pad so that it keeps your legs down and your chest is set firmly against the chest pad. Select the appropriate weight and hold onto the handle with an underhand grip. 

Keep your eyes forward and chest down so that your back is flat. Drive your elbows down towards the side of your hips and slowly return the weight back up. 

Benefits of the Machine Chest-Supported Pulldown

  • Lets you train your lats through their full range of motion with very heavy weights if desired.
  • Allows you to focus more on applying the most effort possible for high-intensity training.
  • Suitable as the final exercise in your back workout to ensure you really fatigue every last muscle fiber.

Thoracic Lat Pull-Around

The pull-around movement is an unorthodox, but effective, way to isolate and develop your upper back through a unique range of motion you may not have experienced before. To dabble in new methods of muscle growth, all you need is a cable tree. 

When to Use It

If you’re a physique competitor or advanced trainee who needs to finely sculpt their upper back, pull-around movements are right for you. 

This niche exercise is highly customizable and allows you to line up your bodily structure so the resistance is applied right where you want it to be. 

How to Do It

Set a single-arm cable handle at a low height, around shin-level. Stand a few feet away with the handle in your working arm, your “off” arm supporting your balance, and your torso turned slightly away from the cable tree.

Your working arm should be drawn forward and across your torso. From here, pull the handle back and across your body, tucking your elbow down and back and squeezing your lat hard. 

Benefits of the Thoracic Lat Pull-Around

  • The cross-body pulling motion lets you involve just the lat you’re working in the exercise.
  • May be effective at isolating certain fibers in your back more than others. 

Iliac Lat Pull-Around

The iliac lat pull around is another example of a cross-body pull. The iliac lat pull around is set up so that you are pulling a cable handle horizontally and across your body from the other side.

When to Use It

The iliac lat pull around is best used if you want to focus on the lower lats a bit more and avoid training the upper traps in the process of training your lats. 

It’s also a great exercise to have if you are someone who struggles to fully bring their chin above the bar in pull ups or chin ups, since the movement replicates a similar range of motion.

How to Do It

Set a cable handle at a high position and grab it with your working arm. Turn your torso such that your working arm is further away from the cable than your non-working arm. 

From here, pull the handle down and across your torso and attempt to drive your elbow down into your hip, squeezing the lat hard as you do. You can brace yourself on the cable tree or kneel on a weight bench for stability. 

Benefits of the Iliac Lat Pull-Around

  • Great for targeting the lower portion of your lats.
  • Allows you to effectively train your back without using heavy free weights. 

Straight-Arm Pulldown

Your lats both retract and extend your shoulder. If you want to isolate the latter function, you can turn to a movement like the straight-arm pulldown, as long as you have access to a cable station. 

When to Use It

The straight-arm pulldown is your go-to lat isolation movement if you want to completely remove your arms and traps from the equation. It’s also a good way to help establish a mind-muscle connection with a range of motion you may not be accustomed to loading. 

How to Do It

Set a cable to about shoulder height with a straight or cambered bar attached. Stand two or three feet away such that you can hold the bar with straight arms. From here, drive the bar downward toward your thighs without excessively bending your elbows.

Your arms should end up tucked tightly to your sides with the handle pressed against your lower body. 

Benefits of the Straight-Arm Pulldown

  • Provides consistent tension to your back from start to finish.
  • Lets you apply muscular tension to your lats without involving your arms or traps.

Attack the Back 

The lat pulldown is a phenomenal back-builder, and if you have it in your workout routine, you’re certainly not doing any harm.

However, no movement is mandatory in the weight room. If the lat pulldown is broken, constantly occupied, or you’re just flat-out bored of it, you can turn your gaze elsewhere and build your back just fine. Try out one of these alternatives and reap the benefits that follow. 

Featured Image: Thomsond / Shutterstock