Lat Pulldown Alternatives: How to Do Them With Free Weights

The lat pulldown is one of the most popular exercise machines. There are several reasons for this, chief among them being how impressive a well-developed set of lats are.

This is a muscle that is quite difficult to build, and this machine is the best way to start developing it, which is why it’s so popular. 

Another factor is that the lat pulldown is a compound exercise and one of the best ones to target the upper body.

This exercise hits several different muscle groups in the forearm, upper arm, back, shoulder, and lat so it’s no surprise that this is one of the busiest machines at the gym.

Lat Pulldown Alternatives How to Do Them With Free Weights

The lat pulldown is quite a specialized piece of equipment, however.

This means that it’s a great idea to have several alternative exercises that can replace the lat pulldown quickly and easily, to help maintain your pump and give you as much flexibility and control over your workout as possible. 

One of the best things about having some alternative lat exercises is that they can be done at home with very little equipment, and working out at home is definitely becoming more popular.

Whether you want to be able to build your lats at home or the pulldown machine is being hogged, there are plenty of alternative exercises, some of which are actually better than the lat pulldown machine.

Which muscles does the Lat Pulldown Target?


The Lat pulldown hits several different muscles, and this can be altered and controlled by making slight adjustments to your positioning and technique.

Using an underhanded grip around shoulder width will closely mimic the movement of a chin-up, which is one of the best upper body exercises you can do.

This style works the upper back as well as the biceps, however, there are other techniques.

An overhand shoulder-width grip is very popular, and probably the most common way people use the lat pulldown machine.

This is a very similar movement to a pull-up and works the same muscles. 

The key thing to remember is that it’s the wide grip that actually targets and develops the lateral muscles.

Some lifters prefer closer grip pulldowns, however, these tend to target the arms more effectively, and while the lats do get a workout it isn’t the optimal way to focus the lats themselves.

There are a lot of different muscles that are targeted by this exercise, regardless of the actual technique you use. All this does is vary where the main power is focused during the movement.

Almost all variations of the lat pulldown will target the forearms, biceps, rear deltoids, traps, lats, and even your abs and oblique muscles.

This indicates why the lat pulldown is a compound exercise and why it’s important to be able to use this in your workout regime, even if you don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine.

Alternative Lat Exercises with a Pull-up Bar

As we touched on before, one of the best ways to target the lats is with the humble pull-up. If anything, pull-ups and chin-ups may actually be better for building muscle and fitness when compared to other lat pulldown exercises.

This is because chin-ups force you to start improving your strength to weight ratio, and is also a great workout for your abs and other connective tissues and supporting muscles.

Pull-up Bar

If you are lucky enough to have a pull-up bar available then you should try to emulate a similar grip to the lat pulldown in order to focus your lats.

A wider grip will take some of the strain from your arms and back helping you to really target the lats themselves.

Alternative Lat Exercises with Free Weights

If you don’t have access to a pull-up bar at home or the gym has one which is always busy, then there are still options open to you.

Most of these alternatives are various free weight exercises that are able to target the same muscles in slightly different ways.

Some of these exercises won’t be as good as the pull-up in terms of exact replication of the pulldown movement, however, they are still excellent replacements and will allow you to continue making progress thanks to the ease of use and availability of free weights.

In this list, we’re going to look at both barbell and dumbbell exercises because they are technically both free weights.

However, it’s worth noting that there are a few specific benefits and disadvantages to using barbells and dumbbells.

Barbells allow you to use a large amount of weight in a single exercise which can have a great benefit for your stabilizing muscles and providing overload.

The disadvantage of using a barbell is that your dominant side of your body will be doing a little bit more of the work than your weaker side, taking more of the strain. This can result in uneven progress and development over the long term.

Dumbbells on the other hand are much better at creating an even progression as dumbbell workouts force both your dominant and weaker side to carry the same amount of weight. 

The Barbell Pullover

The barbell pullover can be done using any type of barbell, including a straight bar, EZ bar, or an Olympic bar if need be.

The key is to use a barbell with enough width to allow you to engage your lats effectively. 

Ideally, you’ll need a flat surface or a bench to lie back on to do this exercise. When you’re in position, lying on your back, you hold your weight out in front of you with your arms fairly wide.

You then lower the weight back over your head keeping your elbows in a stable position but not totally locked.

You lower the weight back over the top of your head, going as far as your shoulders will comfortably allow.

This will allow for a nice full stretch and a full range of motion which is key to getting the most out of each repetition. 

Allow your elbows to bend a little at full stretch if you’re finding it very uncomfortable.

Then you simply raise the weight back up over your head using the same movement, keeping your elbows stable but not locked.

If you prefer you can also lie across your bench or whatever surface you’re using, resting your upper back/shoulders on the surface and using your legs to keep your body stable and in position.

Some find this more comfortable than lying directly on the bench, we recommend you try both to see which works out best for you.

This exercise is one of the best lat workouts due to its large range of motion and the ease with which it can be made easier or harder.

Bentover Rows

The barbell row is another exercise you can use to hit your lats. Primarily used as a back exercise, you can get a great workout on your lateral muscles if you use a wider grip when performing this exercise. 

Simply place a good amount of weight on the barbell and stand over the bar, gripping it a little wider than shoulder-width. 

Bentover Rows

Keep your legs straight with your knees bent just a little, and pick up the bar, keeping your upper body bent forward.

With the weight hanging down near your shins, simply lift the bar up towards your chest to perform a repetition. 

This is a great exercise as it doesn’t require a bench or any other equipment and can be easily overloaded and altered to focus more on the back if required.

The Dumbbell Pullover

The dumbbell pullover is the dumbbell variant of the barbell pullover, and uses much of the same technique, slightly altered to make use of a dumbbell. 

The main difference in this exercise is how you choose to grip the dumbbell itself.

Some prefer to grip the dumbbell by the handle, while others like to wrap their hands around the bar with their open palms cradling the upper plates.

Similar to the barbell pullover, you simply lie back on a bench or a flat surface and raise the weight over your head with both arms outstretched.

You then lower the weight in a wide arc over your head until you start to feel your shoulders limiting the range of motion. Then you raise the weight back up. If the exercise is uncomfortable don’t be afraid to bend your elbows a small amount. 

The great thing about the dumbbell version of this workout is that you can start quite light if you’re a beginner but can really pile the weight on and even use two dumbbells in either hand to target your lats individually.

The Dumbbell Row

The dumbbell row is another relatively simple exercise that can be done at home or at the gym.

While it may not be a perfect substitute for the lat pulldown, this exercise can add some variety to your routine and can be useful if you want to add a bit more weight to your lat workout. 

The reason it isn’t as good a replacement as some other exercises is that the range of motion is relatively low.

This means that your lats aren’t necessarily getting a full workout through the full range of motion.

The key to working the lat with this exercise is to drop the weight as low as possible and really drive the elbow up to engage the lats as much as possible.

While it’s similar in principle to the barbell row it is quite different in terms of technique. 

To do a dumbbell row you need to lean forward, ideally using your off-hand to stabilize yourself on a bench or flat surface.

You may bend your knees a little, and hold the dumbbell low and perpendicular to your body.

Then you simply pull the weight up to your chest/torso, as if you’re starting a very stiff motor. As you raise the weight, focus on really using your lat as your elbow elevates.

The benefit of this exercise is actually tied to one of its weaknesses.

The fact that this exercise does inevitably use a lot of your back muscles to drive the movement, you can load up the weight which can really help fill out your lats and build your overall strength.

Incline Dumbbell Rows

This is another way to vary the dumbbell row and take some of the supporting muscles out of the equation. 

This is a bit more of an isolation exercise in that it takes a lot of the weight off your core and legs, meaning you can focus more on engaging your back and lateral muscles with each repetition. 

To do this exercise you really need a bench that’s capable of being adjusted to an incline setup.

Once the bench is in place, you can sit on it so that your chest is resting on the backrest. Ideally, you should be lying at around a 45-degree angle. 

Once comfortable you can grab your dumbbells, which should be dangling in your hands just above the floor as you grip them.

Your body should be pretty much flat, as if you’re in a plank position, with your toes supporting your lower body and preventing slippage and movement.

Simply lift the dumbbells up towards your ribs, in a similar motion to the normal dumbbell row.

Decline Dumbbell Pullovers


While this exercise is often seen as a chest or tricep-focused movement, it can be used to target the lats when done correctly.

Of course, in order to do this, you’ll need a decline bench which may not always be available, however, you can retrofit one by using a flat bench propped up on a step-up box. 

Simply lie back on the bench and raise the weight over your head as you would with the other pullover variants.

Lower the weight down in a wide arc over your head and then when you raise it back up focus on keeping your elbows pointed out as much as you can.

This will force your lats to squeeze together as you bring the weight back to the starting position.

Summary

While the lat pulldown is the king when trying to build your lats, it’s great to have various options to keep you from getting bored and to work your muscles in different ways to ensure they keep adapting.

A lot of the best exercises in this list use a large range of motion to mimic the benefits of the pulldown, great examples of this include the pullover and the chin-up.

However some of the more focused exercises offer unique benefits, and varying these will help you keep overloading your muscles and speed up your overall progress when used correctly.

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