Endlessly pulling down on a lat machine can be a great way to build strength in your back – but did you know that lat pulldown alternatives are essential to your strength development?
Strength works through a variety of principles, but the most important is overload.
Overload describes a system by which you continuously load the muscle with a variable stimulus – a fancy way of saying you lift heavier and complete more complex movements.
Getting stuck on a lat pulldown machine could hinder your success due to a lack of overload.
Instead, diversify your back program with the best lat pulldown alternatives you can do at home, with a barbell and with a dumbbell.
Here are 9 alternatives to lat pulldowns to strengthen your back.
Free Weight Lat Pulldown Alternatives
Free weights are any dumbbell, kettlebell or resistance device that can be moved through space freely. In many cases, the free weight section is where most people spend their time when they are working out.
In order to find great lat pulldown alternatives with a free weight, we need to isolate the back into pulling movements like rows, reverse fly and extension exercises.
Check out our top 3 favourite free weight lat pulldown alternatives:
#1 Quadruped Birddog Single Arm Dumbbell Row
This is probably the hardest exercise to get right, but the most effective exercise for developing total body strength and balance. You don’t need to go heavy on this exercise but you do need to create a near-perfect form on each rep to strengthen your back muscle groups.
Imagine a plank combined with a row. The quadruped single-arm dumbbell row should be performed on a strong and sturdy surface.
Line yourself up so that you extend your hip and row the weight in with the opposite arm.
Squeeze and hold your top starting position, maintain extension at the hip, and lower the dumbbell down for a rep. Nice job, that’s 1 rep! Now complete 8-12 with each arm.
#2 Alternating Rows (Renegade Rows)
The perfect exercise for building rotational strength while you condition the body.
While alternating dumbbell rows or renegade rows may not be the best exercise for developing strength (like lat pulldowns would) it is perfect for building power-endurance.
Power endurance is a type of strength where you exert your energy over a long period of time. Think of this as cardio training, but with resistance or free weights.
Top Tip: Instead of counting reps on this exercise, set a timer and try to maintain perfect form throughout the duration of the time. Your goal should be to maintain a consistent rep speed and focus on holding a strong hip hinge.
Start with 20 seconds and 20lbp dumbbells (in each arm) and increase the weight or duration of time as you grow stronger.
#3 Bent-Over Reverse Fly
Largely forgotten by the bros in the gym, the bent-over reverse fly isn’t exactly a glory exercise – but they are essential to your strength development.
Most gym-goers will only be able to do about 10 pounds to start with.
This does not mean you are weak, but rather the main muscles being trained (rhomboids, scapula retractors) are not well developed in conventional workout programs.
Periodization Guidance: For those of you who are trying to strengthen your upper back with lat pulldown alternatives, you may want to try this exercise sitting down. Sit at the front of a bench and bring your torso between your legs, hanging your arms down in front of you. In this way, you will not have to hold a hip-hinge (while standing) and you can load more weight on – faster.
Free weights aren’t your style?
You want to lift something heavier – we completely understand.
All the barbell bros in the room should check out the list of barbell alternatives below.
Barbell Lat Pulldown Alternatives
There is something truly primal about lifting a bunch of weight from the ground. Barbells afford you the luxury of lifting heavy while providing a versatile tool for great lat pulldown alternatives.
Train the same muscles, strengthen your back and improve your strength variability with our three carefully selected lat pulldown alternatives with a barbell.
#1 Barbell Row
If the pullup is the king of back exercises, the barbell row is the prince.
The barbell row is a great exercise for developing strength in the back – especially when you need to develop a strong hip-hinge for advanced exercises like cleans and jerks.
Your focus when completing a barbell row should be to start the bar on the ground and with your back nearly parallel to the ground, pull the bar straight into your belly.
This method may seem a little old-school, but it is the most effective for developing the latissimus Dorsi muscle (the V-Taper muscle).
Have fun, this is an exercise where you can lift heavy with lower rep schemes. Try a 5×5 method and move into heavier lifts from there.
#2 Barbell Rack Pulls
The lat pulldown is a great exercise for developing the lat muscle and some of the scapular retractors, but developing the back as an entire system is essential and comes from rack pulls.
Note: This exercise does require you to have a squat rack
This can be a hard exercise to get right. Sometimes locking down an exercise requires you to have a connection from the mind to the muscle.
Standing with your feet at shoulder width (or wherever your deadlift stance is) bring the barbell directly into your thigh. Your mental cue is to push your hips forward as you stand – not pull back.
Have a friend record you while you complete this exercise and make sure you are not leaning back but instead pushing your hips forward when you stand up.
#3 Decline Barbell Pullovers
Sometimes seen as a chest-dominant exercise, the decline barbell pullover is a great lat pulldown alternative. This exercise goes down in the books as one of the favourite exercises from the legendary Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This exercise is all about creating a stretch in the muscle and developing strength through a complete range of motion. Unlike the barbell rack pull – which has a small range of motion – the barbell pullover requires a massive range of motion overhead.
Work into this exercise slowly with an 8×3 or 12×3 rep scheme.
If you’re like me – you might like bodyweight exercises more. They feel more natural and most people will recover faster when paired with a complete nutrition program.
Keep reading to learn about our favourite bodyweight lat pulldown alternatives.
Bodyweight Lat Pulldown Alternatives
Bodyweight strength is essential for all athletes. No, we’re not saying you should be like those crazy bar-star athletes, but having control of your own body weight is important to strength and athletic development.
From a practical standpoint, relative strength (lifting your own bodyweight) is more important than absolute strength (lifting as much weight as possible).
Check out three of our favourite lat pulldown alternatives using only bodyweight:
The king of all lat pulldown alternatives. The pullup is not an easy exercise, but a very rewarding exercise to complete when you get it right.
With a wide assortment of hand positions like pronated, neutral and supinated – the pull-up will help you to strengthen your back and gives you a great lat pulldown alternative.
Most people who complete a pull-up think about getting their heads over the bar. If you want to develop strength in the back (through a complete range of motion) your goal should be to pull the bar across your clavicle (upper chest).
Imagine pulling your elbows to your hip and raising your chest to the bar – trust us, you’ll feel the latissimus muscle working overtime with this cue!
#2 TRX Row
Most gyms have access to suspension trainers and they are a great tool for developing a wide assortment of strength but are especially great at developing strength in the back.
The TRX row can be performed at any strength level by lengthening the straps or by moving your feet closer to the attachment point.
Expert tip: For those of you that find a conventional TRX row to be too easy – grab yourself a chair or a box and place it underneath the TRX. This way you can elevate your feet and use more of your body weight on each row, making the exercise more difficult and increasing the strength in your back through each repetition.
#3 Tucked Front Lever
Perhaps the hardest exercise on this list, the tucked front lever is an advanced bodyweight exercise that builds dynamic strength around the scapula.
Those looking for a challenge need to look no further.
Starting Guide: Beginners should start this exercise by performing a static hold. Try to hold a tucked position for about 5-10 seconds at a time (this will be challenging enough).
If you can progress to holding the tucked lever for 30 seconds you can start to progress into one set of reps-to-failure – alternating through 2 workouts a week (static holds or reps to failure).
Although the tucked front lever does not simulate the same movement pattern as lat pulldown, it is a great alternative and is sure to increase the thickness of your back.
Conclusion: Building Your Back
Strengthening your back will take a smart approach to workout training and a wide assortment of lat pulldown alternatives. Don’t get stuck on the lat machine – move into different areas of the gym, (or your home gym) and complete different exercises to create overload stress on the muscle tissue.
Make the most of your back workouts with these essential elements:
a) Train 2-3x Each Week
Creating a strong back will require you to train your back using multiple workouts each week.
Note: 4 workouts a week is too much as you will not allow enough time for it to recover.
Try your best to hit the back 2-3x a week.
b) Roll the Muscles
Modern life tends to make us slouch, developing poor posture and tight/stiff back muscles. Take time to roll your muscles (using a foam roller) before and after each workout.
You can even try to incorporate this into your morning routine!
c) Focus on Rotational Mobility
d) Build Posture
Posture is essential to strength. Make sure you are using this list of lat pulldown alternatives with exercises that build posture.
Your workout program should have around 5-7 different back exercises that you rotate through every week.
The best exercises for posture are face pulls, glute bridges, overhead squat holds, internal and external rotation drills and the Cuban press.
The Emperor of all back strengthening exercises is the deadlift.
Learn the fundamentals of a deadlift and use a FREE sample program to build back strength and size with our Deadlift Program.
What is the Best Single Arm Lat Pulldown Alternative?
The single-arm supported bench row or the quadruped row are great exercises for building strength in the back and simulate the same movement as a one-arm lat pulldown.
These exercises are great alternatives because you can load the dumbbell heavy and build massive strength.
How Can I Create a Lat Pulldown Alternative with Dumbbells?
Creating a lat pulldown alternative with dumbbells can be done by using a reverse fly and row exercise. Both a row and reverse fly exercise will help to strengthen the back and create a similar motion as the lat pulldown machine.
What is the Best Close/Wide Grip Lat Pulldown Alternative Exercises?
Pull-ups will always be the best and most complete way to source an alternative to a lat pulldown when you need multiple grips like a close or wide grip.
For those that cannot complete a standard pull-up be sure to use assistive strength bands or a supported pull-up machine.
It should take you about 3-5 seconds to lower your body weight and lengthen your arms. Complete 5-8 reps by 2-3 sets.
CSEP – CPT, Expert in Exercise Physiology
Gabriello is a writer and strength expert best known for his science-based and practical approach to Exercise Physiology, Nutrition and Strength. After serving in a directors position for The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology Gabriello moved towards writing to help more people understand the importance of living a healthy life. Gabriello’s writings have been published in several languages on some of the largest health and fitness websites helping people learn, grow and understand the complex components of optimizing human performance in a simplistic way.
Gabriello also takes on specialized, high-performance athletes who are in need of strength, mobility and conditioning programming to optimize their fitness through his Earned Fitness program.