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While I agree that a compound movement with free weights against gravity must recruit more muscles (and in a more balanced way) than a forced path on an isolation machine, I cannot understand certain extremes like the hatred towards the lat pulldown machine, an object so easily found in nearly every gym and so easy to use.

A small internet search shows literally hundreds of variations of the same question: "I cannot do pullups, what should I do?" because it is a very usual situation many of us face. And, while I understand that the lat pulldown machine is not the same exact thing as a pullup, I think the similarity is striking, and I really cannot believe that someone who achieves a decent mark in the pulldown machine is unable to do pullups:

From workoutlabs.com

Moreover, the bar hangs from a cable in the pulldown machine, so that the path it follows in space during the repetitions is quite unconstrained, very similar to a free weight unlike other machines. And you can build up very gradually by increasing the load in very small steps from nearly zero resistance.

Instead, people give all sort of weird recommendations: negative pullups (dangerously taxing on the grip, joints and tendons in general of untrained and probably overweight novices), band-assisted pullups (where resistance is difficult to adjust and impossible to tune finely), surrogate exercises like the inverted row (the method I am using, but I hold some doubts because it is obviously not the same pulling direction) and so on.

Is there a reasonable and objective reason to avoid the lat pulldown machine? (besides simply "it is not the same thing"). I expect either an answer related to something real that can be understood (directions of forces, names of muscles, I don't know) or perhaps some reference to a scholar paper where two groups of training athletes were compared.

  • The main reason I can give is simply that with pulldown machines, you can vary the weights being lifted. A lot of people performing it won't be able to pull their body weight with good form. This doesn't help you with pullups as the base weight you need to lift is your whole body :). – Kneel-Before-ZOD Mar 16 '15 at 13:48
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    @Kneel-Before-ZOD Well, that is exactly why there is the need for surrogate things that help build up strength towards being able to lift your whole body. That is why there is the lat pulldown machine... Just because you need to do the same movement but using a smaller weight that you can progressively increase. – Mephisto Mar 16 '15 at 18:21
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I'm not convinced that people "hate" it. I think what you're seeing is probably exasperation with how popular the machine is in disproportion to its usefulness.

negative pullups...band-assisted pullups...surrogate exercises like the inverted row...

These are all solid ways to progress to pull-ups and to develop pulling strength generally. So, too, can the pulldown machine. Each can be used improperly or recommended inappropriately.

One of the major concerns with the pulldown machine is that people who are fully capable of achieving pull-ups stall on the machine. This happens with other methods as well, but machines seem to be the place where more people get stuck and never move on to more challenging movements. For whatever reason, machines are one of the places where people lose sight of the main goal, which is progressing towards more general, more useful movements.

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Short answer, there are a lot of ways to do a lat pulldown incorrectly. With some supervision, or awareness of one's form, it's not a bad exercise, but it's an exercise where it's easy to fall into bad habits that can hurt you (putting too much pressure on the spine or rotator cuffs) or simply not do you much good (using your stronger muscles to compensate for the weak ones you're really trying to exercise).

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  • But there are equally a lot of ways to do pullups themselves incorrectly. For instance by doing too much kipping with poor form, many clients from a very well known fitness company I don't want to mention explicitely have got many shoulder SLAP injuries! – Mephisto Mar 16 '15 at 18:31
  • @Mephisto: I'm not formally educated in fitness lore, so I can't quote statistics to you, but the impression I've gotten is that, at the least, it's a lot harder to "cheat" your workout with pullups than it is with the lat pulldown. If nothing else, if you cheat your pullups, you know that you cheated, while it's possible for someone to be doing the pulldown wrong for years without realizing. – Sean Duggan Mar 16 '15 at 18:54
  • @Mephisto - Why don't you want to name a "well known" fitness company? Vagueposting doesn't really benefit anyone. – JohnP Mar 17 '15 at 14:36
  • @JohnP Crossfit and the stupid kipping pullups. – Mephisto Mar 17 '15 at 20:54
  • @Mephisto: Ah. Yes, that's one example of doing workouts badly. That said, jerking down on a lat pulldown bar is also going to get you into trouble, and I have a sneaking suspicion that CrossFit people are probably just as negligent there (or feel that the added risk of injury offers some benefit). – Sean Duggan Mar 17 '15 at 20:57
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I don't have any papers, and I don't hate pulldown machines. The main difference is core activation. In a proper pullup, you brace your abs, you contract your glutes and keep your spine in a complete stiff position. Where in a pulldown machine, unfortunately this is very hard to do.

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    And how is it that the core activation is so important for pullups? Let's say you try to do a pullup while maintaining your core fully relaxed. Would it be much more difficult? – Mephisto Mar 15 '15 at 15:41
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    @Mephisto Do you perform pullups? If you do, then, you'll easily realize that your whole core needs to be braced to effectively lift yourself off the ground. If in doubt, try it :). – Kneel-Before-ZOD Mar 16 '15 at 13:45
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    I think the core activation is sort of like having a solid base to pull against. The plane you're pulling against is the plane through your torso, so the plane becomes rigid to give your lats something to anchor against to transfer force from your upper back into the rest of your body. If that makes any sense... (Note: I can only do a (single) pullup on a good day when my lats are fresh, so my experience is really limited.) – Tyler Mar 16 '15 at 20:01
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    @Mephisto Yet again, this is a situation where your real question is a lot more interesting and answerable than the one you posted. Go ahead and add a set or two of lat pull-downs after you do your ring rows. Maintain strict form and increase the weight every time. If there's an assisted pull-up machine, use that instead. – Dave Liepmann Mar 16 '15 at 23:46
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    One method I use when I can't pick between two overlapping exercise is to split the volume: instead of 3x5 with A, I do 2x5 with A and 1x5 or 2x5 with B. And overtraining doesn't happen muscle-by-muscle or all of a sudden. The goal is to stress your muscle groups and other soft tissues, that's why you're doing these exercises – Dave Liepmann Mar 17 '15 at 0:53

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