If you ever spend any time in a mainstream gym, you will no doubt have noticed many people using the lat pull-down machines rather than the actually doing pull-ups which may cause you to think that machines are the best way to train the movement pattern of pulling down with the lats and other muscles of the middle back.
On the other side of things, calisthenic fans are quick to dispose of anything not bodyweight which is going a bit far, lat pull-downs have been a staple movement in gyms for decades and for good reason but which one should be priority in your training? Let’s take a look at both side by side.
A big part of what makes bodyweight strength training so appealing is that you can do it anywhere, it is now really easy to find a public park with a pull-up bar or to even install one in your own home. Outside of gym though, you are very unlikely to come across a pull-down machine.
Whereas even if you can’t get access to a pull-up bar, you can still improvise by performing pull-ups on other surfaces such as ledges, street signs or door frames. If you are relying on a pull-down machine to work your lats, they will be out of commission any time you can’t goto the gym.
Also, if your program states pull-downs and the gym’s cable machine is occupied on a busy evening then you will have no choice but to wait. But if you are looking to do pull-ups, you can do them on dedicated bars, neutral-grip bars, the side of a power rack or rings. Many gyms have pull-up bars built-into the squat racks and various machines, you do have options with this.
I am positive that any able-bodied person has the potential to do lots of pull-ups but unfortunately, many people have yet to tap into that potential. This may seem disappointing but many gym goers are incapable of doing even one clean pull-up.
There are bodyweight regressions that a beginner can use to help towards a pull-up (flex hangs, negative pull-ups etc.), it can be more encouraging for a beginner to start out with a pull-down machine, it is less of shot to the ego and you can jump right in and begin with a full range of motion from day one.
Heavier folks do tend to have a harder time with pull-ups. The more you weigh, the more resistance you will have to overcome. I would also like to point out that long limbs will make leverage less favorable regardless of your exercise modality, heavier people will find the pull-down more accessible, especially if they are trying to work within the rep range of 10-15 reps generally recommended for hypertrophy.
Without a doubt, pull-ups overall build the most strength pound for pound compared to pull-downs. Pull-downs are great for beginners and heavy-set individuals, but pull-ups will keep you honest about real-world functional strength. No matter what size you are, the pull-up provides an objective assessment of your strength to weight ratio.
The pull-down machine can provide potentially more overall resistance if you use the whole weight stack, there are so many variations of the pull-up that you can always find a more challenging progression without the need for additional weight.
Are normal pull-ups getting too easy for you? Maybe it is time to start working towards a one-arm pull-up or building a higher number of reps.
Pull-down machines typically come with handles that can be swapped out for other handles, allowing you to use various grips and hand widths, the pull-up is in a league of its own when it comes to variety though.
The pull-up is such a versatile exercise that there are literally whole tournaments dedicated to showcasing the constantly evolving number of freestyle pull-up variations. On the other hand, the pull-down machine makes it easy to adjust and monitor how much weight you are lifting. Since you can’t control your body weight as quickly and easily as you can move a pin father down a weight stack. The pull-down can be advantageous for things such as dropsets, percentage-based training and high-rep training.
With these two different aspects of adaptability in mind, I would say they both tie in this respect.
I have found that pull-ups not only gives tremendous activation of the lats, traps and other upper-back musculature, but also activates the abdominals more than any other conventional ab exercise like sit-ups and crunches.
A pull-down on the other hand, intentionally removes the muscles of the core from the equation by having the practitioner seated with their legs fastened securely underneath a harness.
So to work as many muscles as possible in an efficient and cohesive manner, there is no question that the pull-up gives you more bang for your buck than the pull-down machine.
The pull-up is the obvious winner here. If you are no novice and only going to do one of these moves, make it the pull-up. Make pull-ups a goal if you can’t do them right now, being able to do a strong chin-up is a game-changer and many people agree, not something that is usually said about the pull-down.
You don’t just have to choose one either, both pull-ups and pull-downs can be put into the same workout. Pull-downs can be used to warm you up prior to pull-ups or to burn yourself out on after you are too fatigued to do any more pull-ups, try different methods and let your own first-hand experience be your guide.
With strong pull-ups being the clear winner you should start to integrate these into your workout much more often, especially with some pull-downs to help supplement them.
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