Level Up Your Pull Ups: Can Lat Pulldowns Boost Your Results?

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Lat pulldowns, much like pull ups, will certainly train the lats, biceps, rear deltoids, rhomboids, and traps. However, there also happens to be a huge amount of core activation during pull ups, which is significantly reduced during lat pulldowns. A better alternative would be to do kneeling lat pulldowns (as opposed to seated), which activates the core to far greater effect.

Lat Pulldowns Will Develop the Same Muscles Used in Pull Ups

A Muscular Man Performing Lat Pulldowns

I guess the main reason that many of us turn to lat pulldowns as a way to help with pull ups is because the movements closely resemble each other.

Furthermore, both exercises seem to work the same muscle groups.

These include:

  • Lats
  • Biceps
  • Rear Deltoids
  • Rhomboids
  • Traps

So, you would think the better and stronger you get at lat pulldowns the closer you’ll be to achieving your first pull up (or more pull ups).

“Lat pulldowns can be a valuable tool to help people progress towards pull-ups. By building overall back strength and improving grip strength, lat pulldowns can make the transition to pull-ups much easier.”

Bret Contreras, PhD (Strength & Conditioning Coach)

Once you’re able to perform a few reps of lat pulldowns with a weight equivalent to your own body weight you should in effect be closer to performing a few reps of pull ups.

However, for anyone who’s followed this methodology, they’ll know that this is far from the truth.

Yes, you may well be working many of the same major muscle groups that are used in pull ups.

But, you are missing out on potentially the most important muscle group.

According to a 2018 study conducted by the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment, it’s actually the core muscles which are activated and involved most during pull ups.

I bet that comes as a huge surprise to you.

I’ve actually written more about this and included details of the study in my article discussing sore abs from pull ups.

Believe it or not, weak core muscles could hold you back from performing pull ups just as much as weak lats or biceps.

And even though lat pulldowns train and develop most of the same muscles as pull ups, core activation is significantly reduced.

A Better Lat Pulldown Alternative

The study conducted by the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine and Treatment actually used a number of exercises in order to ascertain and compare muscle activation.

The exercises tested other than pull ups and seated lat pulldowns were machine assisted pull ups and kneeling lat pulldowns.

Now, you would automatically assume that machine assisted pull ups would be the best alternative.

However, much the same as seated lat pulldowns, core activation was dramatically reduced during machine assisted pull ups.

So, once again, all the “conventional” muscle groups were worked, but there was very little core involvement.

With that being said, it was kneeling lat pulldown that provided the most core activation and involvement.

This actually makes a lot of sense to me.

Firstly, being on your knees removes the ability to cheat and use momentum through your legs.

Secondly, you’ll have to stabilize and activate the core as a way to protect your lower back.

And finally, the starting position is very similar to that of the cable ab crunch exercise.

Therefore, there’s a lot of ab and core work going on here.

So realistically, kneeling lat pulldowns will help much more with pull ups than the traditional seated variety.

Try Negatives & Weighted Negatives

I always say that if you want to get better at a specific skill then you have to practice that skill more often.

However, when it comes to pull ups, if you’re struggling to do more than 1 or 2 reps then this could be a problem.

With that being said, there is a way to simply train 1-2 reps at a time and get better at pull ups, and I’ll explain how in just a moment.

But, for now the nearest you can get to practicing actual pull ups is through negatives.

Basically, the microscopic muscle tears which occur during exercise (which is how they get bigger and stronger) typically happens during the negative phase of the movement.

So, when it comes to pull ups it isn’t actually the “pulling up” part that builds muscle and strength, but rather the “lowering” part.

This means that you can actually just train the lowering part (negative) of the pull up and get stronger.

“Negatives are a great way to overload the muscles and force them to adapt. With weighted negatives, you can challenge your back muscles beyond what you can currently handle in a full pull-up.”

Mike Mentzer (Bodybuilder & Trainer)

Your muscles will develop from doing this, plus you’ll also be using your core during negatives.

There are a couple of ways in which you can perform negatives.

Firstly, you can simply jump up to the bar for each “rep” and start in the top position of the pull up, or you could stand on a box that allows you to start in the top position.

However, either way you will want to lower yourself extremely slowly.

Do not simply drop into the bottom full-hang position, as this will do little for muscle growth, and could even cause a shoulder injury.

You can either lower yourself in stages and hold each position for 3-4 seconds, or simply take up to 10 seconds to lower yourself.

You’ll actually find this very difficult to start off with, but this is the ideal way to train negatives.

Plus, the longer you take to lower yourself over subsequent workouts is a sure sign that you’re progressing and getting stronger.

You can actually get to the stage where you can add weight and perform weighted negatives.

This will dramatically improve your ability to perform full pull ups.

Try “Grease the Groove” Pull Ups

I spoke a moment ago about being able to actually improve your pull ups by simply performing 1-2 pull ups at a time (if that is all you can currently manage).

There is a method of improving and increasing pull ups known as “Grease the Groove”.

The method and the phrase was first coined by Pavel Tstaouline, fitness instructor and founder of StrongFirst.

“Grease the Groove is a technique where you perform a submaximal number of repetitions of a difficult exercise throughout the day, with a strong focus on perfect form. This is a great way to improve your pull-up performance.”

Pavel Tsatsouline (Strength Coach & Author)

Basically, the method involves ensuring that you are completely rested before you perform any subsequent sets.

Pavel actually utilizes the “Russian Fighter Pull Up Program”, which incorporates the same methodology.

This involves performing 5 sets of pull ups (below maximum effort) throughout the day.

So, in effect, you could be “resting” 2-3 hours between sets.

Obviously, you will need to have access to a pull up bar throughout the day, but you can use this system to improve and increase your pull ups even if you can only manage one or two reps.

You can read more about the method in my article about The Russian Fighter Pull Up Program.

Key Learning Points

  • Lat pulldowns do work many of the same muscles as pull ups, so they can definitely help.
  • Pull ups will activate the core muscles significntly more than lat pulldowns.
  • A better variation, which will mimic the same type of core activation as pull ups, is the kneeling lat pulldown.
  • An even better option is to perform negatives and weight negative pull ups.
  • It is the negative part of any movement, not just pull ups, that is mainly responsible for increases in strength and size.
  • Practice “Grrease the Groove” and “The Russian Pull Up Program” to increase pull ups, generally over a 30-day period.

Want to pack on muscle, get stronger, and lose body fat over the next 12 weeks? Then you have to try the Massthetic Muscle workout program.

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