Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.
The musculature of the back, when developed correctly, can give off the look of real, true strength. Wide, flaring lats, coiled and detailed rhomboids and teres muscles send the message of a true warrior in the gym. To get this wide look is a no-brainer – you have to perform some sort of pull down or pull-up move to stretch and strengthen this area for the absolute best results.
The age-old debate of whether lat pulldowns or pull-ups are superior for maximum back development has been going on for quite a while. With the new invasion of the functional philosophy quickly gaining its proverbial ground over the last few years, it would seem it is an easy choice. Of course this would not be a complete discussion without a thorough look at each of these common, yet effective moves in your arsenal for a better, stronger back.
So, which is best? Let’s drill down to the details.
The tried and true lat pulldown has been and will continue to be a staple in everyone’s tool box for a better back. Unfortunately, correct form and technique is about as rare as a yeti sighting. Grasp the bar with an overhand grip about six inches wider than your shoulders and sit on the seat in an upright position.
With your upper body stationary, pull the bar down toward your chest pulling with your elbows instead of your hands and attempting a “reverse shrug” motion with your shoulder girdle. This will shift the focus from your biceps to your lats. Squeeze at the bottom position for a count and return to the top without completely straightening your arms. Also, when lowering the weight you will shrug your shoulders back up and stretch the lats.
Pros: The lat pulldown is an excellent alternative to the pull-up especially if you cannot yet perform a substantial number of pull-ups. Also, pulldowns give you the opportunity to control the weight and more ability to stretch and squeeze your lats for multiple reps. In addition; it’s easy to perform such intensity techniques such as drop sets, super high reps and extended sets.
Cons: Suffice to say there are several downsides. First and foremost, equipment availability is a big one - everyone would rather do pulldowns than pull-ups. Form is a critical factor and most individuals refuse to assess their form resulting in stalled results. Lastly, the pulldown, when used over a long period of time, will never enable you to develop those all-important support muscles to give you real upper body strength and control.
Formerly relegated to the military, the pull-up has made a comeback into the functional movement as of late. As a true display of upper body strength, the pull-up is often referred to as the upper body squat. Many attempt but few succeed. For the traditional pull-up grasp the bar with an overhand grip about six inches or so beyond your shoulders.
Much like with the motion of the pulldown, you will be pulling with your elbows and performing a “reverse shrug” squeezing your shoulder blades back and attempting to reach your chest to the bar. Once your chest meets the bar, or close to it, lower your body in a slow and controlled manner without completely straightening your arms and extending your shoulder girdle up. Repeat for reps.
Pros: The list of advantages for the traditional pull-up can get quite long. More overall body control, core activation, increased upper body strength and just looking like a freaking superman are just a few. Pull-ups display real strength and provide an enormous amount of stress to the lats. Another great advantage is that the pull-up bar is usually available.
Cons: A correctly performed pull-up is just plain tough to do. Few have the real strength to execute a proper pull-up but this may be due to the lack of trying. Also, most never use good form leaving them kipping their way up the bar and only accomplishing a half rep in the process. They are hard and require a focused effort and continuous program to improve upon.
So which wins? As the old training protocol dictates; performing pulldowns until your strength increases so you can move over to pull-ups is still a good notion. However, integrating both into your routine using different intensity techniques, rep schemes, grips and angles will serve you well toward bigger and wider lats. Close-grip, wide-grip, reverse grip and parallel grip are just a few options at your disposal.
As the pull-up uses true upper body strength, the pulldown can better serve you when you want to do strip sets or continue the burn after a set of pull-ups. Using both movements either alternating between workouts or on the same day will only keep your body adapting and striving to get better, bigger lats.