Lat Pulldowns Vs Pull Ups – What’s The Difference?

Lat pulldowns and pull ups are great options to increase strength or build muscle in the upper back – particularly in the lats, which are important for propulsion in sports such as swimming.

This is a guide to the differences between each exercise, reasons for programming them and how to effectively programme these exercises.

Lat pulldown vs pull up

The main difference between a lat pulldown and a pull up is that the lat pull down is completed from a seated position and involves pulling down a bar connected to a cable or a band, whereas the pull ups involve hanging from a fixed bar and pulling your body weight up until your chin is over the bar, which can be done supported by a band or completed eccentrically.

We’ll break that down in more detail below:

How to perform a lat pulldown:

The lat pulldown is performed on a cable machine, where you are seated with a thigh pad securing your legs down. From here, raise your arms fully above your head before gripping the bar. Brace your core before pulling the bar straight down to chest level. Control the assent of the bar back up until your arms are fully straight again.

How to perform a pull up:

To perform the pull up using a fixed pull up bar, have your arms straight above your head gripping the bar with an overhand grip. Then, pull your body up until your eyes are level with the bar. Control your descent until your arms are straight above your head again.

Differences in movement pattern

The lat pull down is an open kinetic chain movement, meaning that the body part completing the movement is free to move i.e. the bar may be moved freely by the upper body.

In comparison, pull ups are a closed kinetic chain movement, meaning that the body part completing the movement is fixed about a point i.e. the upper body is fixed about the pull up bar.

Differences in loading demands

The pull up recruits the biceps more than the lat pull down does due to the pull up being a more unstable movement. The pull up also recruits the erector spinae muscles (lower back) in order to stabilise the trunk and prevent swaying. This can make the pull up useful for encouraging control of posture which is important for swimmers who have to maintain posture in a long body position.

Muscles worked during a lat pulldown

The main muscles worked during the lat pull down include:

  • Lats – This is the main muscle working during the lat pull doww. The lats enable extension of the shoulder (arms move from above the body to beside the body)
  • Biceps – These are also one of the main muscles working during this exercise, but produce flexion (bending) of the elbow
  • Core – This works to stabilise the body. There is greater activation during the eccentric portion (upward phase of the movement) compared to pull ups – to control the ascent of the bar.

Muscles worked during a pull up

The main muscles worked during the pull up include:

  • LatsThis is the main muscled working during the pull up. The lats enable extension of the shoulder (arms move from above the body to beside the body)
  • Biceps – These work to pull the body up, but produce flexion (bending) of the elbow
  • Core – This works to stabilise the body alongside the lower back muscles
  • Lower back – These muscles prevent swaying of the body and legs when pulling up
Labelled diagram of muscles worked during lat pull downs vs pull ups
Labelled diagram of muscles worked during lat pull downs vs pull ups

Considerations when choosing between lat pulldown & pull ups

Considerations for strength

For sports that require strength through the lats and biceps such as swimming, both exercises are good options. For lat pulldowns, completing 1-6 reps at 80-100% 1 rep max, or for pull ups at a 7-10/10 effort level or feeling as if you could do 0-3 more reps. This is effective for developing strength.

Eccentric pull ups, where you control the descent for a set count of 1-5 seconds, are also a good option if access to a cable machine is limited and/or you cannot do regular pull ups. Prescribing 1-5 reps of these at an intensity of 100-120% of 1RM or at a weight above what you can do for a regular pull up is effective for building strength.

Considerations for power

Both the lat pull down and pull up can be used to produce power through shoulder extension (moving the arms from above or in front of the body to beside the body) which is important in sports such as swimming. Prescribing 1-5 reps at 60-80% 1RM (or feeling like you can do 3-5 more reps) with the intent to move quickly is effective for developing power.

Other training considerations

Assistance pull ups or eccentric pull ups are good ways to include variations of these exercises into a training programme for athletes that may struggle to do pull ups and limited access to a cable machine.

If you’re trying to activate your biceps more, then an underhand grip may be used. It is also not clear whether a wider grip activates the lats more.

Check out this link to read more about the differences between wide grip vs close grip pull-ups.

Commonly asked questions

Why can I do more lat pulldowns than pull-ups?

The lat pull down allows you to have your feet in contact with the floor when compared to the pull up, which provides more stability and therefore typically allows you to lift more.

Additionally, you have to pull your entire body weight for the pull up, whereas a lat pulldown can be done with less than your body weight making it easier.

Do pull ups and lat pull-downs work the same thing?

There are a lot of similarities between pull ups and lat pull downs, however, because a pull up is more unstable, the lower back is worked more to stabilise the body.

Both exercises recruit the lats and biceps as the main muscles, with the pull up utilising the biceps slightly more. Additionally, the core is used slightly more on the eccentric (upward) portion of a lat pulldown.

Can pull-ups build a wider back?

It is possible to increase the size of the back through pull ups, this is because pull ups recruit the lats as the prime mover. Generally using a rep range of 8-12 reps and an intensity of 60-80% 1RM can promote muscle growth. Depending on sport-specific training however, this can vary. Sprint swimming training may assist the building of a wide back whereas long-distance swim training is less likely to enable muscle growth.

Do you get bigger shoulders with pull-ups?

A rep range of 8-12 reps and an intensity of around 60-80% of 1RM is more likely to stimulate hypertrophy (increasing muscle size) around the shoulders. Training to failure and controlled eccentric exercises are also effective stimuli for muscle hypertrophy. 

For a distance swimmer for example, having bigger shoulders may be disadvantageous but for a sprint swimmer, larger shoulders can mean an increase in strength and power provided by the extra muscle. Using lower rep ranges such as 1-6 reps encourages the development of strength which can come from improved nervous system signaling to muscles instead of bigger muscles. 

Summary

Both lat pull downs and pull ups are effective for developing strength and/or power in the lats and biceps, for athletes, in particular swimmers. Greater instability in the pull up means the biceps and lower back are recruited more. Pull ups can be modified easily to suit less able athletes when a lat pulldown machine is not available so incorporating one of these exercises can be easily achieved!

Further Reading

Doma, Deakin & Ness (2013) – Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises

Leslie & Comfort ( 2013) – The Effect of Grip Width and Hand Orientation on Muscle Activity During Pull-ups and the Lat Pull-down

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Ollie Robinson, Sport Science Insider Profile
Ollie Robinson, BSc

Ollie is a Strength and Conditioning Coach at University of Leeds and an MSc Strength and Conditioning student at Leeds Beckett University.

Ollie has a diverse range of experiences within university sport, where he has provided strength and conditioning support for swimming, cricket and rowing teams at University of Leeds, as well as basketball and wrestling teams for an NCAA Division 1 university whilst on a 6-week placement in 2023.

Not only this, as part of Ollies BSc Sport and Exercise Science degree at University of Leeds, in 2021, Ollie immersed himself in a year-long placement at Colchest United, enhancing his knowledge and practical skills.