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December 11, 2021 9 min read

If you want a wide upper back and broader shoulders, lat pulldowns are the way to go. Nothing targets the latissimus dorsi quite the same way. Best of all, a lat pulldown machine isn’t required for this exercise.

Read this guide to find out what makes the lat pulldown so effective and how you can include it in your home workouts without investing in an exercise machine.

What is the Latissimus Dorsi?

The widest muscle in the upper body, the lats stretch from the mid- to low-back out to either side, wrap around the torso, and continue up beneath the armpits to the upper arm bone beneath the biceps. The trapezius muscle partly covers it while the pectoralis major and teres major are on either side of the higher part of the latissimus dorsi.

This is a superficial muscle, which means you can sculpt it and get visible results.

The  lats’ primary functions are to move the thoracic (middle) region of the spine and to move the arm. Together with the teres major and pectoralis major, the lats move the upper arm toward the body’s midline and rotate it inward when the elbow is at a 90-degree angle.

Lats also extend that upper arm bone, which is what happens when your arms swing behind you. Whenever your torso moves forward and upward while your arms are overhead, the lats are at work. Climbing and exercises like pull-ups are good examples of this sort of movement.

Muscles Worked in Lat Pulldowns

The lats aren’t the only muscle worked in lat pulldowns. Naming every single muscle in this compound exercise is challenging because it occurs across so many joints.

But for our fitness purposes, it’s enough to know the following muscles are worked in a lat pulldown:

  • Teres Major: Located near the bottom of the shoulder blades, the teres major helps move the upper arm in toward the torso, which happens as you bring the bar down and again in reverse on the way up during a lat pulldown.
  • Rear Deltoid: It never hurts to have a good rear delts exercise in your lineup. The function of the posterior section of the deltoid muscle is to help rotate the upper arm away from the torso, help the arm swing back when you’re walking, and act with the latissimus dorsi, traps, and rhomboid to pull your shoulder blades back.
  • Trapezius: The trap muscle helps tilt the head up as well as rotate the neck. In addition, it stabilizes the shoulder blade as well as retracts and rotates it, which are both  integral parts of a throwing motion.
  • Rhomboids: Rhomboids hold the shoulder blade in place and pull it toward the shoulder column. So when you pull your shoulder blades together, that’s the rhomboid at work. This is also a vital muscle for posture, particularly if you have rounded shoulders and well-developed chest muscles.
  • Levator Scapulae: Together with the serratus anterior and posterior and rhomboids, the levator scapulae help to raise the shoulder blades. They also power neck flexion and stabilize the spine. These muscles are located on both sides of the back of the neck.
  • Biceps Brachii: This favorite target of bodybuilders and gym goers is for more than just aesthetic appeal. It powers supination of the forearm, which is what happens when your arm rotates so that your palms face upward. The biceps also extend the elbow and help raise your shoulders.
  • Triceps Brachii: On the flipside of the humerus bone, the triceps help keep your arm in the shoulder socket. The long head of the triceps helps move the arm both up and toward the body’s midline from the shoulder joint.
  • Rotator Cuff: During arm movement, the muscles of the rotator cuff help rotate the humerus at the shoulder and hold it in place there. Developing the rotator cuff is helpful for flexibility and mobility and vital for injury prevention and functional strength.
  • Brachialis & Brachioradialis: These two forearm muscles stabilize the elbow in tandem with the biceps. Anytime you straighten out your arm at the elbow and pull it in again, you’re using these two muscles.
  • Latissimus Dorsi: We’ve mentioned it in depth already, but it bears repeating that the lats are the single most-targeted muscle in this pulldown exercise. Virtually every part of the motion includes a movement that the latissimus dorsi muscles are partly responsible for powering.

Impact of Lat Pulldowns

The lat pulldown is incredibly useful for building strength and muscle mass in various back muscles. In addition to pull-ups and chin-ups, they’re some of the best exercises for lat activation. Not only that, but they help increase the range of motion at two key joints: the shoulders and the elbows. Functional strength as well as sculpted muscle mass result from lat pulldowns.

Many beginners use this exercise to build up to their first pull-up, while more seasoned bodybuilders use lat pulldowns at higher weight levels to overcome plateaus in their pull-up count. It’s also a very versatile exercise in terms of the muscles you can target. Simply changing up your grip width can change how the stress of the weight hits different muscle groups.

A wide grip  causes greater lat activation during the eccentric phase, which is the second half of the exercise when you’re returning the bar to the starting position. A medium or close grip targets the biceps more. All in all, you’d be hard-pressed to get a ripped barn-door back without including the lat pulldown in your workout routine. But what if you don’t have a lat machine or a cable machine? Let’s take a look at some great lat pulldown variations you can use instead. 

5 Best Lat Pulldown Variations You Can Do At Home

1. Resistance Band Lat Pulldown

The closest you can get to a regular lat pulldown exercise without a machine is this banded version. All you need is a high anchor point and a resistance band to replicate the pulley system on a cable machine. Tube bands with handles are the most convenient but therapy bands and loop bands work as well. You won’t be able to increase the difficulty with weight plates, but you can advance to a more resistant band.

For an anchor point, one of the easiest for most people is to close the resistance band in a door near the top of the frame. You can also buy specific attachments that allow you to slam part of the resistance band in a door. Hooks, pull-up bars, and vertical bars also make great anchor points.

Here’s how you can perform resistance band lat pulldowns at home:

  • Establish your anchor point. The higher you can get it, the better. Overhead anchor points work as long as you have enough room to back away from it and get the band taut. 
  • Once you have your band attached to the anchor point, take the handles (or grab the band if it doesn’t have handles) and then step back until there is tension in the band.
  • Get down on one knee and scoot your forward foot a bit further forward. Your arms should be completely extended shoulder-width apart above your head aimed at your anchor point. 
  • Pull your shoulder blades together and think about pulling with your lats. Don’t let your biceps take over as you pull the band straight back from the anchor point. Pull until your fists are even with your ears. 
  • Slowly return to the starting position to complete one rep. Try to get to 15 reps of these in each set and do 2 - 3 sets with a brief rest in between each one.

    2. Lying Down Lat Pulldown

      If you don’t have a way to establish an anchor point or you’re worried about the band breaking loose, you can perform nearly the same exercise lying down. You’ll still need to find a strong bar to wrap the resistance band around. The leg of a heavy piece of furniture like a couch should work just fine. Some people do this exercise lying on their back while others lie on their stomachs.

      For the  sake of variation, we recommend alternating between the two throughout your routine or even between sets. 

      Follow these steps to do lying lat pulldowns:

      • Wrap your resistance band around a low or vertical bar or the leg of a sturdy piece of furniture. Step back far enough from the anchor point of the band to be taut. 
      • Get down on your knees if you’re going to lie on your stomach or sit with your back facing the anchor point if you’ll be lying on your back. 
      • Lie down far enough away that you can have your arms fully outstretched above your head with the band in both hands and no slack in the band. You want to have a light overhand grip on the handles to isolate your lats and keep your biceps out of the picture.
      • As much as possible, pull your shoulders and elbows back. Pull the band down and raise your elbows slightly to accommodate the movement. 
      • Pull until the handles are even with your shoulders. Slowly return to the starting position to complete one rep. Run through 10 per set and 3 sets per workout.

        3. Dumbbell Pullovers

          You only really need one single piece of equipment for this exercise. Any kind of freeweight, be it a dumbbell, kettlebell, or even a small medicine ball works fine. This is more of a lat pulldown alternative than a variation, but it still hits the lats and triceps while also showing your pecs some love.

          Some research indicates that it  targets the pectoralis major more, so don’t over-rely on it if your goal is to build strong lats.

          Here’s how to execute dumbbell pullovers at home:

          • Grab a kettlebell, medicine ball, or single dumbbell. Lie on your back with the soles of your feet flat on the floor and hold your weight of choice aloft directly above your chest. This is the starting position.
          • Pass the weight slowly in front of your face and then down to the ground without bending your elbows. It should feel like you’re trying to put the weight behind your head. 
          • Once you’ve gotten the weight just above the ground, slowly bring it back to the starting position to complete one rep. Do 15 rep sets and do 3 - 4 of them depending on what you can handle. 

            4. Banded Face Pulls

              Many lifters love this pulldown alternative exercise that they use it more frequently than the real thing.

              But be careful - although  face pulls work the rear deltoids, rhombus, and the middle traps, the latissimus dorsi doesn’t do nearly as much with this exercise as it will in a pulldown. Still, it’s a nice back exercise that you can easily execute from any home gym setup. If you can establish a low pulley system with a resistance band, you don’t even need the home gym setup. Just make sure you have a heavy-duty band that won’t snap or disconnect from your anchor point. 

              Follow these steps to do banded face pulls at home:

              • Wrap a loop band around a bar, a table leg, or a door handle. Grab onto the middle of the loop and step back until the band is taut. Make sure your arms are  completely straight at shoulder height.
              • Pull the band back and widen your hands slightly so that your elbows are at a right angle and your hands are even with your head. That’s the furthest point in the exercise. Slowly return to the starting position and run through 9 more reps for a complete set. Do as many sets as you’re comfortable with. 

                5. Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

                  Target your lats, rhomboid, traps, erector spinae, and biceps with this move. All you really need is a set of dumbbells. The form is a bit trickier with this exercise, but it’s well worth learning how to do, especially if you want a ripped back and can’t hit the gym too often. 

                  Follow these steps to do bent-over dumbbell rows:

                  • Find a flat bench, chair, or stool that you can bend over in front of and lean on with your free hand for support.
                  • Stand in front of the bench and hinge forward at the hips like you were about to sink down to pick up the barbell in a deadlift. Put one hand flat on the bench and bend your knee to accommodate the position. Your hips should be just a bit more elevated than your hips - you could experience lower back pain if your hips are higher.
                  • Pick up a dumbbell with your free hand and hold it with your arm fully extended. Keep your head neutral and neck relaxed as you lift the dumbbell.
                  • Your elbow should stay tucked into your side as you bring the dumbbell level with your torso. Lower it back to the starting position to complete one rep. Do 11 - 14 more to complete a set and three sets total.

                  Build A Ripped Back With These Lat Pulldown Variations

                  If you want a full-body workout, you’ll have to have plenty of  hard-hitting back exercises in your arsenal. With these lat pulldown variations and alternatives, you won’t have to rely on expensive gym equipment to bulk out your wing muscles and build unstoppable power in your back muscles.