5 Lat Pulldown Alternatives Without Machines

January 11, 2022

The lat pulldown is one of the best back exercises to pack on muscle mass. It places the lats under immense stretch with load, creating greater mechanical tension and inducing more muscle growth.

Further, unlike the pull-up or chin-up, you can do it for very high reps to maximize the metabolic stress response (aka the burn). Again, increasing your potential for muscle growth of the back. But if you train at home or a CrossFit gym, you likely won’t have access to a lat pulldown machine.

So, I will give you the best lat pulldown exercises you can do without a machine to get a similar exercise stimulus. That means there will be no rowing variations in this article. Rows don’t put the lats under immense stretch as the lat pulldown does. But first, what muscles do the lat pulldown work, so we know what to target?

What Muscles Does The Lat Pulldown Work?

Lat Pulldown Alternative

The lat pulldown is the ultimate lat builder. It primarily targets the latissimus dorsi muscles (aka, the lats) to build a wider back. While the pull-up displays the most significant activation of the lats, the lat pulldown is not far behind [1].

But that’s not all. The middle and lower traps and the rhomboids take a good beating too. The biceps also have some involvement, but we want to minimize this as much as possible by predominantly using a pronated hand position and a false grip (thumb over the bar).

The pronated position places the biceps in a disadvantageous position, so they can’t contribute as much to the exercise. The lats can then perform more of the work. The false grip reduces the involvement of the arms, so they act like hooks instead of vice grips.

5 Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives Without A Machine

There aren’t many options to replace the lat pulldown as vertical pulling movements usually require some equipment. But give these five alternatives a go so you can get the most out of your back training.

Resistance Band Lat Pulldowns

This is the closest to the lat pulldown exercise you’ll find without a machine. There are three ways to do this. You can use a PVC pipe of wooden dowel with two bands (or more) looped around it like in the above video. You can hold both bands in your hands. Or you can use one band and hold either side of it.

The only issue with the band lat pulldown is the strength curve. You get an intense stretch at the top with the machine, where the movement is the hardest. With the bands, tension decreases as you extend your arms.

However, if you’re able to use strong enough bands, you may overcome this. Depending on how high your attachment is, you can either sit on the floor or a box. Here’s how to do it:

  • Tie both bands to a rig or pull-up bar. Place a wooden dowel through the loops or hold the bands in your hand.
  • Sit on the floor or a box depending on the height of the attachment. The easiest way to gauge this is by the stretch you feel in the extended position. Be aware that you won’t be able to have loads of tension as it will pull you off the floor or box.
  • Use a medium-width grip and pull to your collarbones. You’ll need to create a big chest as you pull down.
  • Slowly return to the stretched position.

Band Assisted Pull-Ups

The pull-up itself is an excellent lat pulldown alternative. It works the same muscles and the same movement pattern. But if you’re looking to substitute the lat pulldown, you’re likely after an exercise that you can do for high reps.

Using a band to assist your pull-up is the best way to modify the bodyweight pull-up so you can crank out sets of 10+ reps. For those of you who can’t yet perform ten strict bodyweight pull-ups, the assisted pull-up will lead to even greater lat activation [1].

Here’s how to do it:

  • Tie a band to the pull-up bar.
  • Place either your knee or foot through the band. This will depend on how long your band is and how high your box is to stand on when getting set up.
  • Hang with a pronated grip so the band can support some of your bodyweight.
  • Perform the pull-up as you would without the band. The band will make the bottom position easier, and you’ll be able to do more reps.

Band Assisted Chin-Ups

The only difference between the band-assisted chin-up and pull-up is the hand position. The chin-up will use a supinated grip (palms towards), whereas the pull-up will use a pronated grip (palms away). You can also do the chin-up with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) which is my personal favorite.

I would highly recommend using a neutral grip if you can. You’ll get a better stretch in the shoulders and lats. You’ll perform these the same way as the band-assisted pull-up.

Barbell Pullover

While the pullover isn’t a vertical pulling movement, you get an unreal loaded stretch of the lats. Not many other back exercises will give you this feeling. If you have access to an EZ bar, this is often a better option as it feels more comfortable on your shoulders, elbows, and wrists.

Here’s how to do it:

  • Start with the barbell just above your chest like you are close grip bench pressing.
  • Hold the barbell with a false grip. Lower the barbell slowly behind your head while keeping your elbows at the same angle.
  • Stop once you feel the stretch become uncomfortable.
  • Pull your elbows back to the starting position.

Dumbbell Pullover

I prefer the dumbbell pullover compared to the barbell pullover. It’s much more comfortable on the shoulders, elbows, and wrists. You also get a better stretch on the lats, in my experience. Especially if you have relatively tight shoulders. Here’s how to do it:

  • Hold the dumbbell with the handle falling between your hands. Your palms and fingers will be supporting the end of the dumbbell.
  • With your arms slightly bent, lower the dumbbell behind your head.
  • Stop once you feel the stretch become uncomfortable.
  • Pull the dumbbell back, so it’s just behind eye level. This will keep the tension on your lats.

Summary

When you’re lifting at home or a CrossFit gym, you don’t have the same luxuries as a commercial gym with access to multiple machines. These lat pulldown exercises are great alternatives you can use without a machine to build massive lats and insane upper body pulling strength.

Piecing these exercises together into a training program would look something like this:

A1) Pull-Up 4 x 5-8

B1) Band Assisted Chin-Up OR Band Lat Pulldown 4 x 10-15

C1) Dumbbell Pullover 3 x 10-15

References

1. Hewit, J. K., Jaffe, D. A., & Crowder, T. (2018). A comparison of muscle activation during the pull-up and three alternative pulling exercises. J. Phys. Fitness, Med. Treat. Sport5(4), 1-7.

About the Author

I am a professional strength & conditioning coach that works with professional and international teams and athletes. I am a published scientific researcher and have completed my Masters in Sport & Exercise Science. I've combined my knowledge of research and experience to bring you the most practical bites to be applied to your training.

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