One of the most common questions we get is how to do lat pulldowns without a lat pulldown machine. People are training at home with either a barbell or dumbbells, and they aren’t sure how to replace the lat pulldown exercise with free weights. And, truth is, there’s no perfect replacement for it. We need to replace it with a similar exercise, not an identical one.
The movement that best mimics the overhand lat pulldown is the pull-up, and that’s great for people who have a pull-up bar and are strong enough to do them, but even then, it can still create problems. Lat pulldowns are often programmed in moderate rep ranges of 8–15 reps, but it takes quite a lot of upper-body strength to bust out that many pull-ups, especially when trying to use a full range of motion, bringing our chests all the way up to the bar. Plus, lat pulldowns are often programmed after heavy sets of chin-ups and pull-ups.
So what’s the best free-weight alternative to the lat pulldown?
What Muscles Does the Lat Pulldown Work?
There are a couple different ways of doing lat pulldowns. If you use an underhand, shoulder-width grip, it’s similar to a chin-up. It’s a bigger lift that works both your biceps and upper back. The more popular way of doing lat pulldowns is with a wider, overhand grip, though, like so:
When you use an overhand grip, it prevents your biceps from fully engaging, and when you use a wider grip, it emphasizes your lats over your other upper-back muscles. It’s a lat lift, hence the name: the lat pulldown.
Even so, as much as the lat pulldown works our lats, it’s still a compound lift, and it still works a wide variety of other muscles, ranging from your rear delts to your abs to your forearms. It will even work the long head of your triceps a little bit, since they help to pull your elbows closer to your body.
What that lat pulldown is best at, though, is bulking up your lats. It starts with your lats in a deep stretch, works them through a full range of motion, and our performance is limited by our strength. The strength curve isn’t ideal, since the lift is easiest where our lats are strongest (in a deep stretch), but it still works them hard through a full range of motion. This gives us a great lat exercise.
So, ideally, we’d find a substitute that works our arms and upper back, but the main thing we’re looking for is an exercise that works your lats hard through a large range of motion.
Lat Pulldown Alternative with a Barbell Home Gym
If you’ve got a barbell home gym, chances are you’ve got a squat rack that has a chin-up bar. That gives you a near-perfect alternative to the lat pulldown. In fact, if anything, chin-ups and pull-ups are better than lat pulldowns for building muscle in our biceps and upper back.
Thing is, the minimum weight you can use is your bodyweight, and so it can become hard to venture into higher rep ranges, especially if you’re still relatively new to lifting weights. Plus, lat pulldowns are often used as an assistance lift for the chin-up. Your workout sheet probably looks like this:
- Chin-ups: 4 sets of 6–8 reps to work the upper back and biceps.
- Lat pulldowns: 3 sets of 10–12 reps to give your lats some extra love.
So you can’t exactly replace the lat pulldown with chin-ups or pull-ups. You’ve already done those, you’re already tired, and the whole point is to add extra exercise variety and to use a higher rep ranges.
On the note of higher rep ranges, the research shows that it’s quite a bit easier to build muscle when doing sets of 6–20 reps, with the middle of that range often being the most convenient. That’s why you’ll often see lat pulldowns programmed for those 10–12 rep sets, and that’s why we need to find a substitute that lets you do enough reps.
Still, let’s start with the heavy hitters.
The pull-up is super similar to the lat pulldown. In fact, if you had to pick between the two, the pull-up is the better lift. It works the lats just as hard, we’re often slightly stronger at it, and it does a great job of engaging our abs.
The only problem with the pull-up, as mentioned above, is that you need to be quite strong, and you’re probably already doing them anyway.
The chin-up is perhaps the very best upper-body pulling exercise. It challenges all of the muscles in our upper backs except for our spinal erectors. And since our spinal erectors are hit so hard by the deadlift and barbell row, it can be a great lift for bringing up the rest of our upper-back muscles.
If you’re not strong enough to do moderate-rep sets of pull-ups, you might be strong enough to do moderate-rep sets of chin-ups. After all, when we’re doing chin-ups, we’ve got our biceps and other upper-back muscles firing in full force. If you can do 3–4 pull-ups, maybe you can squeeze out 6–8 chin-ups. Those couple extra reps bring your sets into the hypertrophy rep range, allowing you to stimulate a little bit more muscle growth per set.
But chin-ups still suffer from the same problem as pull-ups. You’re probably already doing them, and you probable want something a bit lighter.
The Barbell Pullover
The barbell pullover can be done with a straight barbell, but if you have one, a curl-bar (aka EZ-Bar) might feel a bit more comfortable on your elbows. It’s done by lying flat on a bench and lowering your arms back behind your head, like so:
You can do it lying on the bench (as shown above) or lying crosswise against it, with your butt in the air. You can rest your head on the bench or have it hanging off the end (as shown above). All of those variations are fine, and they all allow you to train our lats equally well, so just choose the one that feels best.
The idea is to bring the barbell down as far as your shoulder mobility allows, giving your lats a nice, deep stretch. You can let your elbows bend a bit, and that might make the lift a bit easier on your triceps, but it will work both your triceps and your lats either way. Again, do what feels best.
If you’re trying to build bigger lats, the barbell pullover is arguably the best barbell replacement for the lat pulldown, and here’s why:
- You get a deep stretch on your lats at the bottom of the lift, meaning that you’re training our lats through the most important part of the range of motion—the deep part.
- The pullover has a fantastic strength curve. It’s hardest where our lats are strongest—when they’re stretched—which means more mechanical tension, and thus better muscle growth.
- Our lats are the limiting factor. Unlike a lot of other back lifts, the pullover lets us focus on working our lats. The long head of our triceps will pitch in, too, similar to a skullcrusher, and that’s fine, but our lats get a chance to be the limiting factor.
- You can use whatever load you want, lift in any rep range, and progressively overload it.
Lat Pulldown Alternative with a Dumbbell Home Gym
If you’re training at home with just dumbbells, our approach is almost identical. Ideally, you’d have a chin-up bar that allows you to do chin-ups and pull-ups for your heavy sets, but you might not. You might need to use the dumbbell row as your main upper-back lift, and that’s fine.
Whatever you’re using as your main upper-back lift, you can use the dumbbell pullover as the replacement for the lat pulldown.
The Dumbbell Pullover
The dumbbell pullover can be done by cradling a dumbbell in your palms, and then once you grow too strong for that, by holding a dumbbell in each hand. It’s done by lying on a bench and lowering your arms back behind your head, like so:
As with the barbell pullover, you can have your head and butt on the bench or in the air—whatever is more comfortable. The main idea is to bring your arms back as far as you can manage, giving your lats a good stretch. Feel free to let your elbows bend a little bit if it makes the lift feel more comfortable, or if it stops your triceps from limiting your performance. Since we’re using the pullover to replace the lat pulldown, we want to use it as a lat exercise, not as a pseudo-skullcrusher.
Similar to the barbell pullover, the dumbbell pullover is an amazing lat exercise, and a worthy replacement for the lat pulldown:
- You get a great stretch on your lats at the bottom of the lift, allowing you to train them through a huge range of motion.
- The pullover has an awesome strength curve. It’s toughest where our lats are strongest—when they’re stretched—putting more mechanical tension on them, and thus stimulating more muscle growth.
- Our lats are the limiting factor. The long head of our triceps will pitch in, too, similar to a skullcrusher, and that’s fine, but our lats get a chance to be the limiting factor. That means that we can bring our lats close enough to failure to stimulate an optimal amount of muscle growth.
- You can use whatever load you want, lift in any rep range, and progressively overload it. And if you ever get too strong for a single dumbbell, try holding a dumbbell in each hand.
The Dumbbell Row
The dumbbell row isn’t a perfect substitute for the lat pulldown. The range of motion isn’t as big, and it doesn’t work our lats under a deep stretch. It’s a rather different lift. However, it does work our lats, and if we think of driving our elbows back, rowing low towards our stomachs, we can get a lift that emphasizes our lats.
One of the big issues with replacing lat pulldowns is variety. We don’t want to just be doing chin-ups, chin-ups, pullovers, and pullovers. Better to add some other lifts into the mix. That’s where rows come in. They let us use a mix of vertical and horizontal pulling to develop more versatile strength, more balanced musculature, and a bigger upper back.
Sample Free-Weight Back Workout
When you’re training at a gym, you’ll probably be using a few different lifts to train your upper back, and some of those might be done on exercise machines, like so:
- Conventional or Romanian Deadlifts: 3 sets of 5 repetitions (3×5) for your spinal erectors and upper traps.
- (Weighted) Chin-Ups: 4×6 for your biceps and upper back.
- T-Bar Rows: 3×10 for your upper back without taxing your spinal erectors.
- Lat Pulldowns: 3×12 to make sure that you’re working your lats hard enough to bulk them up. (And again, the spinal erectors get a bit of a break.)
You might use different lifts, and that’s fine. That’s just an example. And these lifts aren’t necessarily done one after another on a Pull Day, they’re just done over the course of the week, maybe as part of a few different full-body workouts. Still, these are a common mix of lifts that people use to build bigger upper backs.
If we’re swapping out the exercise machines for barbell lifts, we get something like this:
- Conventional or Romanian Deadlifts: 3×5 for your spinal erectors and upper traps.
- (Weighted) Chin-Ups: 4×6 for your biceps and upper back.
- Barbell Rows: 3×15 for your upper back and spinal erectors.
- Barbell Pullovers: 3×12 to challenge your lats under a deep stretch, and to make sure they get a chance to be the limiting factor on a lift.
If you’re using dumbbells:
- Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts: 3×10+ for your spinal erectors and upper traps.
- (Weighted) Chin-Ups: 4×6 for your biceps and upper back.
- Dumbbell Rows: 3×10–15 for your upper back without taxing your spinal erectors.
- Dumbbell Pullovers: 3×12 to challenge your lats under a deep stretch, and to make sure they get a chance to be the limiting factor on a lift.
And if you don’t have a chin-up bar, then you can build your back by mixing together deadlifts, dumbbell rows, and pullovers. That’s not a lot of exercise variety, but it will still do the trick!
The lat pulldown is a good exercise for working our entire upper backs, and it even gives our biceps, triceps, and forearms a bit of stimulation. It’s main purpose, though, is to help us build bigger lats. So when looking for a barbell or dumbbell alternative, we want to look for exercises that help us build bigger lats.
The best way to build bigger lats is to use exercises that allow us to:
- Work our lats through a large range of motion, allowing us to fully stimulate them.
- Challenge our lats in a deep stretch, allowing us to put more mechanical tension on them, speeding up muscle growth.
- Be limited by the strength of our lats, so that we can guarantee that we’re working them hard enough.
That gives us a few good alternatives to the lat pulldown:
- The pull-up: this exercise works our lats in a near-identical way to the lat pulldown. The problem is, you may not be strong enough to do 6–20 pull-ups in a row, and you might already be doing them.
- The chin-up: the chin-up works our lats just as hard as the pull-up and lat pulldown, but it also engages our biceps and other upper-back muscles, making it a bigger compound lift. Because we have more muscles working, we’re often able to do more repetitions. This makes chin-ups somewhat more versatile, even if they aren’t as good at isolating the lats.
- Barbell and dumbbell rows: these aren’t a perfect replacement for chin-ups, pull-ups, and lat pulldowns, since they don’t work our lats through as large of a range of motion, but they’re still pretty good! Even with limited equipment, you can build fearsome lats with just rows.
- The pullover: these can be done with either a barbell or dumbbells, they work our lats through a large range of motion, they challenge our lats in a deep stretch, and our lats are the limiting factor. This makes pullovers a great lat isolation exercise that can be done at home, perhaps doing the best job of replacing the lat pulldown.
The trick is to build your workout routine around the heavier lifts, such as deadlifts and chin-ups, and then to use the lighter lifts afterwards, such as rows and pullovers. If you can do that, you can build a huge upper back without needing to rely on exercise machines.
And, as always, if you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. We also have our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program and Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program for skinny and skinny-fat beginners. If you liked this article, you’ll love our full programs.