Updated: Jan 24, 2022
When it comes to back training, pull ups and lat pulldowns are both extremely effective exercises when it comes to building muscle.
They're a staple in almost any hypertrophy focused weight training program, and are definitely staples in ours.
But is one exercise better than the other? Which one leads to more muscle gain?
These are quite commonly asked questions, and we're here to answer them for you in this post.
We'll compare the advantages of each exercise, draw a conclusion, then look into how we can incorporate these exercises into our programs, and finish off with a sample hypertrophy driven 'pull' day workout for you guys to either try as it is or modify to suit your preferences.
Advantages of Pull Ups
Minimal Equipment Required
When it comes to the necessary equipment to perform each exercise, the pull up easily wins over the lat pulldown.
Whether you're out at a park or training at home, there are countless places you could perform pull ups effectively on.
A strong home pull up bar for $30, a thick tree branch, a street sign, you name it. Wherever you go, chances are there's a place for you to do pull ups on.
Now compare this to a lat pulldown, where you need the actual machine in order to be able to perform the exercise at all.
Outside of a gym, the chances of you having access to a lat pulldown machine are very, very slim. Whereas with pull ups, you can practically do them anywhere you see fit.
There will also come times when you're in a busy gym, and all the lat pulldown machines are taken.
In that case, you'd likely have to wait upwards of 5-10 minutes for anybody to be finished with the machine.
However with pull ups, there are likely going to be dedicated bars for them, as well as several other opportunities to perform them.
Many squat and power racks will have pull up bars, otherwise you could even do them on a high-racked barbell or smith machine bar!
Basically what we're saying is, even when you can pretty much only find lat pulldown machines in the gym, there are more opportunities to do pull ups than there are for lat pulldowns.
Pull ups also require just your bodyweight, with no external resistance to be effective.
And for the majority of the population, a set of 12-15 bodyweight pull ups is far more than enough to get close to or reach muscular failure.
Even for advanced trainees, pull ups can be modified or swapped for alternatives to make them more challenging, and continue to stimulate great muscle growth.
Lastly it's also much cheaper to get into performing pull ups if you're training at home. A stable, reliable pull up bar/stand will cost you somewhere around $80-120, but a standard lat pulldown machine without weights will generally cost you upwards of $400, with an extra couple hundred if you want to add weight.
Which we assume you do.
Overall this is definitely a huge advantage of pull ups, and makes it a much better exercise in terms of its simplicity to get going.
More Muscle Engagement
Pull ups also naturally elicit more overall muscle activation throughout the body, due to the lack of stability when performing this exercise.
You'll find that when you do pull ups, you finish each set far more tired than you after a set of lat pulldowns.
This is because your stabilizing muscles have to work much harder to keep your body in control.
Your biceps, forearms, spinal erectors, shoulders and abs will all have to work significantly harder to keep your body stable, resulting in more taxing of the central nervous system, but much more overall muscle engagement in the upper body.
This may mean that the pull up is the better exercise for building a more proportionate body, and helping create that all-round physique by not neglecting the stabilizing muscles.
However if you do dedicate exercises towards those muscles, you will still develop that overall well-built physique doing lat pulldowns over pull ups if you prefer.
Studies such as this one by Jennifer K Hewit and colleagues found that "the RA was the most active muscle group for all participants when performing the PU."
Note that RA stands for the Rectus Abdominis muscle group, and PU stands for pull up. Other studies have shown higher activation for the biceps, shoulders, forearms and abs as well.
However one downside to this higher muscle activation would be the higher recovery cost, so it's important that you factor the pull up into your program properly, and don't cause any subsequent exercises to suffer because you went hard out on this exercise.
So in terms of engaging the most muscle mass possible, the pull up does also reign king.
Better For Strength Gain
When it comes to building functional strength, the pull up does also win here. The pull up helps you assess your overall strength to weight ratio, and it'll also help keep you honest to yourself about your true strength.
No matter what you weigh, a set of maximum pull ups is going to be a far better indicator of your functional and relative strength than the lat pulldown.
The pull up strength gains will also roll over into your other free weight exercises better, due to the increased engagement of stabilizing muscles, which we know play a huge part in the main free weight exercises.
The gains will roll over better into your bench pressing, deadlifting, barbell rowing, and more. Essentially, pull ups will likely be the better choice for you if your goal is to get stronger on your compound lifting.
You Can Be More Creative
The last advantage of the pull up is that you can be far more creative with them. With a lat pulldown, you can really only increase the weight, maybe switch up the grip and do them rocking side to side.
But that's about.
However with pull ups, you can do the archer pull up variation, typewriter, L-sit pull ups, single arm, clap pull ups and even transition into a muscle up if you're strong enough to engage the rest of the upper body!
When it comes to variation and being creative, pull ups are far better than the lat pulldown. This ability to modify the exercise in so many different ways helps keep things fresh, and make your workout sessions that much more enjoyable.
You'll see many dedicated calisthenics athletes doing crazy looking tricks like Chris Heria does in this video (just watch for 15-20 seconds), and it's obviously not only enjoyable to him, but to the others who watch him do it.
Now compare that to a lat pulldown, and you'd probably realize just how much more creative you can be with the pull up.
Advantages of The Lat Pulldown
More Beginner Friendly
When it comes to the first time doing each of these exercise, it's no question that the lat pulldown is more beginner friendly.
It requires less stabilizing, and less strength to even perform the exercise. I tallows for the ability to jump right in and go through a full range of motion immediately.
You can start at just one plate, or even no weight at all if your machine allows for it. And this just makes it much easier to get started with back training utilizing the lat pulldown than it is utilizing the pull up.
And while there are ways you can modify the pull up to make it more suitable for beginners such as using resistance bands or assisted pull up machines, it is much easier to just start out on a machine that has literally the same range of motion, just a different approach.
Plus it's less daunting for beginners to use a machine than it might be for them to perform assisted pull ups in the middle of the gym.
Many beginners fear the public embarrassment of being a beginner in the gym, and it's definitely less of a hit to the ego, which we know has caused people to quit the gym early on in their journey.
Adaptability and suitability are definitely huge advantages of the lat pulldown.
When it comes to building hypertrophy, your muscles only understand tension.
They don't understand whether you're placing tension on them through pull ups or lat pulldowns.
And when it comes to solely building muscle in the lats, the lat pulldown will likely be the better option of the two.
Due to the increased stability, you don't have to spend too much extra energy keeping yourself stable, and it becomes much, much easier for you to focus solely on using the lats to drive the weight up.
Remember your biceps, forearms, shoulders and spinal erectors and abs won't be engaged to the same level as they are during pull ups, and so you can really prioritize the lats in this movement.
Plus, you'll likely be able to place more load and tension onto the lats due to the lesser need for stabilization, and this will likely lead to better muscle gains specifically in the lats.
So if your primary goal is building muscle in the lats, and you're not so worried about any other factors, then the lat pulldown would be the better choice for you.
However it is still recommended that you train the other parts of your body to help round out your physique.
Easier to Progressively Overload
Another major advantage of the lat pulldown and free weights in general is the more straightforward progression for overloading the muscles.
To keep increasing difficulty, you simply have to add more weight onto the bar, or onto the stack or plates.
With a lat pulldown, you can simply add a plate every one-three weeks, and very effectively apply progressive overloading onto your muscles, for continued hypertrophy.
It's no use doing the same weight for the same number of reps again and again, as it won't lead to any new muscle gains.
However with pull ups, you do have to be more creative.
If you're a stronger individual who can do sets of 15+ pull ups without too much difficulty, doing pull ups to failure essentially becomes more of an endurance exercise than a strength and muscle building focused exercise.
You'd likely have to invest in a dip belt, or find harder variations to do. Both of these methods are effective, but it's definitely not as straightforward as simply adding a plate onto the lat pulldown stack.
Dip belts can also be quite costly, and a high quality one will usually cost you over $60.
If you are using different variations, you could also find yourself stuck at plateaus quite often between two variations, and finding it hard to keep progressing.
With a lat pulldown, you can add a 1.25kg or 2.5lb plate for much smaller increases, and continued progressive overload.
Less Taxing on The Body
The last advantage of the lat pulldown would be the lower recovery cost when compared to pull ups. Since there's less stabilization needed, you're engaging less overall muscle mass. You'll preserve more energy doing each set, and be able to perform more total volume for throughout your sessions.
Your central nervous system won't take as much of a hit, and you'll be able to keep training efficiently for your subsequent exercises, sets and sessions.
This makes the lat pulldown potentially the better choice for high-frequency training splits, such as upper/lower splits three times a week, or high frequency full-body splits.
This might also mean that lat pulldowns are better than pull ups for athletes, who might train twice a day, and need to be fully recovered before their next training sessions.
This is definitely a huge advantage for lat pulldowns, as they help keep you training more effectively for your other exercises, whilst essentially going through the same range of motion and hitting the same muscles.
So Which Is Better?
Well, we'd have to say the overall winner would be the pull up. It's got great muscle activation throughout the body, still elicits great growth in the lats, and is better for building overall strength that rolls over to other important free weight exercises like the deadlift and bench press.
So unless you're a dedicated bodybuilder just looking to build muscle, or a beginner who's not yet strong enough to perform pull ups with good form, the pull up is the better choice out of the two.
However we'd recommend that you still include both exercises into your program, to get the best of both worlds.
Both exercises have their own advantages over the other, and you should look to perform both if you can to improve your overall training.
Incorporating These Exercises Into Your Program
If you are going to include both exercises into your training program, we'd recommend either including both exercises into the same 'back' or 'pull' workout, or alternating them between sessions, as you generally do work each muscle group twice a week.
Pull ups should always be done before lat pulldowns, due to their bodyweight and more free-moving nature.
Remember as a general rule of thumb, free weight and bodyweight movements come before machine exercises, unless you have a specific purpose for doing otherwise.
We recommend doing pull ups in the heavier rep ranges, generally 3-4 sets of 6-8 reps, and lat pulldowns in the lighter rep ranges of 3-4 sets of 10-15 reps.
However remember that form should always come first, and that you should refrain from cheating or using bad technique in order to hit a rep range.
Slight cheating on the last rep of each set is fine, but anything more than that too commonly likely means you need to drop the weight.
Sample 'Pull' Workout
5-15 Minute Warmup
Bodyweight/Weighted Pull Ups - 3 x 6-8
Pendlay Rows - 3 x 6-10
Unilateral Lat Pulldowns - 4 x 10-12
Chest Supported Rows - 2 x 12
Face Pulls - 2 x 10
Single Arm Cable Curls - 3 x 10-12
Stretch and Foam Rolling
Both the pull up and lat pulldown are superb back exercises that can be used effectively to drive massive amounts of growth and results in the mirror.
Ideally you should look to include both exercises into your workout program to reap the benefits of both these movements.
However, just picking one to do is fine as well if you're smart about your decisions and really take the time to weigh everything before making a choice.
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