Will lat pulldowns help with pull-ups?
Yes. Lat pulldowns can be beneficial to one’s pull-up performance because they strengthen the lats, the upper back, the rear deltoids and the arm flexors – the primary movers in pull-ups and chin-ups.
The lat pulldown comes with a great technical advantage too – it’s a scalable exercise that allows beginners to do light “pump” sets endorsing proper recruitment of the lats during vertical pulling movements.
As you become more proficient at pull-ups, the carryover of lat pulldowns to pull-ups and chin-ups drops significantly.
Building a Mind-muscle Connection with the Lats with Lat Pulldowns
I seldom see novices even try to do a proper pull-up at the local playgrounds. More often than not, they don’t start the movement from a dead hang and keep the elbows flexed in-between repetitions. Why? To get more reps and impress the strangers around them who couldn’t care less about another man’s pull-up strength and endurance.
Conversely, lat pulldowns come with a lower incentive to cheat as they aren’t a competitive lift. This property and the ability to decrease and increase the load incrementally make the lift a good tool for teaching people where their lats are.
How do you do that?
There are different methods, but I like the following best.
Step 1: Select a light weight.
Step 2: Use a rope attachment, a V-bar, or another handle with a close grip.
The goal is to stretch the lats by performing the lat pulldown with a close grip. Contrary to popular belief, the close grip variations work the lats harder and over a longer range of motion than the wide grip options. The lat stretch at the top of the movement is also greater with a close grip.
Step 3: Allow the machine to pull your arms all the way up. Don’t lock your shoulders. Let them shrug upwards.
Step 5: Without bending your elbows, bring your shoulders down and push your chest out. This is a scapular lat pulldown designed to activate the lats.
Finish the movement while arching the back and keeping the shoulders back. You should feel an intense lat contraction even with a light weight.
Step 6: Return to starting position under control.
Step 7: Do a few sets of 8-12 repetitions to get a pump.
Getting acquainted with the lats’ operation during a vertical pull is arguably the ultimate benefit that the lat pulldown provides during a pull-up progression.
Can the Lat Pulldown Build the Necessary Strength to Perform a Pull-up?
In theory, a lat pulldown with around 90% of one’s bodyweight should equal a pull-up. The number is 90% rather than 100% because you’re not lifting your forearms and hands during pull-ups.
However, I’ve heard reports of people who’d gone beyond 90% BW lat pulldowns without successfully performing a pull-up.
This isn’t strange. The lat pulldown trains the muscles involved in a pull-up and is also a vertical pull, but the motor patterns of the exercises are still different.
Hence why beginners should also include some pull-up specific exercises such as:
Bodyweight rows/Australian rows. This is a horizontal bodyweight pull with a very positive effect on the upper back and pull-up performance.
Jackknife pull-ups. The jackknife pull-up is one step closer to a regular pull-up because the motion is upward. The exercise is a great movement in and of itself. It targets the upper back and the lats while eliminating all kipping.
Assisted pull-ups. This is a classic that gets you as close as possible to a pull-up motion. The three most common ways to do it are:
Machine assistance. Some gyms have special machines assisting you during pull-ups by providing counterweight upward pressure during the lift. This is one of the best options for people trying to get a pull-up, but only big commercial gyms have it.
Elastic bands. Bands are the poor man’s pull-up machine. They are simple and work.
Chair assisted pull-ups. You can place one or both of your feet on a chair or another stable and high object to assist yourself during pull-ups.
Eccentric pull-ups. Eccentric training or negatives represent the lowering part of the pull-up. You can perform negatives by going to a low pull-up bar, assuming the top pull-up position and then descending slowly.
Negatives can definitely get you to a pull-up, but they put high stress on the elbows and don’t teach you how to recruit your lats.
Another movement that will help you develop the necessary mind-muscle connection with the lats during pull-ups are scapular pull-ups.
Example Routine that Could Get You from Zero to a Pull-up/Chin-up
Duration: 3-4 weeks | Frequency: 2-3 times a week
Horizontal bodyweight rows – 3xF
Do three sets to failure but without reaching form breakdown. Try to add reps whenever possible
This movement is more difficult than it looks because it’s dependent on small upper back muscles (e.g., rhomboids) that are traditionally weak.
Lat pulldowns – 3×8-12 (get a huge pump in the lats)
Start with a weight allowing you to do 8 reps of medium difficulty. Once you can do 3 sets of 12 reps with that weight, increase the load as little as possible.
Bar hangs – Do 2 sets for time. Don’t reach failure as it will burn you mentally. Just hang for a while.
Duration: 3-6 weeks |Frequency: 2-3 times a week
Horizontal bodyweight rows – 2xF
Jackknife pull-ups – 2xF
Lat pulldowns – 3×8-12
Scapular pull-ups – 2×5-10
Keep doing this routine for 3-6 weeks. Then, after two days of rest, try to do a pull-up or a chin-up to see where you stand. Chances are you’ll get it.
Note: You can use many other programs to reach a pull-up. This routine is just an example.
Should I keep doing lat pulldowns once I can do pull-ups?
They are beneficial for getting extra “lat volume”, but you don’t have to do them if you don’t want to.
Besides, a man can reach his natural lat potential with pull-ups and chin-ups alone.
What’s better for growth? Lat pulldowns or pull-ups?
Both exercises can bring up your lats.
The main advantages of the lat pulldown are its scalability and the opportunity to amass volume.
Sadly, the pull-up does not have some mythical muscle-building properties regardless of what the sellers of hope may want you to think, but it does win in the cool features category.
Pull-ups are hot and can be done everywhere. They produce more satisfaction too. Pulling yourself over the bar like a ninja while the fatsos walking their dogs and smoking cigarettes look at you with a mixture of envy and despise is priceless.
I can do many pull-ups, but I’m not that strong on the lat pulldown machine. Why?
Specificity. In order for an exercise to have carryover to another one, you should be doing both at the same time. When that condition is not met, assistance work loses some of its value.
For example, you cannot expect to become a great bench presser by just doing weighted dips. The dip can strengthen your chest and triceps to epic degrees, but if benching heavy weights is your goal, you’ll have to bench.
Is it true that lat pulldowns are less functional than pull-ups?
On the surface, the pull-up is a more practical exercise. You’re more likely to have to propel yourself upward than pull something really heavy from the roof.
Furthermore, the pull-up is a fundamental exercise in gymnastics, calisthenics, rock climbing, and free running and encourages you to stay lean and aesthetic. Good luck finding a fat pull-up master.
Having said that, many people are often generating ridiculous scenarios to paint an exercise as functional.
A long time ago, I read an article in which someone was hyping up the pull-up by imposing the following provocative enquiry: “If you’re chased by a bear, what are you going to do? Pull-ups will help you climb the nearest tree.”
A cool statement, but the truth is that most of us will never be chased by a bear. And if it ever happens, training “tree climbing” would have a greater carryover to bear evasion.
Truth be told, if you’re exercising primarily to develop your musculature, it doesn’t matter how functional an exercise is in theory. If you want “function”, you would be better off training specific skills rather than counting on basic strength and hypertrophy movements to turn you into a ninja. Your goal determines how functional an exercise is.