Lat Pulldown vs. Rows: Differences in Muscles Worked

What’s the difference between pulling movements such as pull-ups and lat pulldowns compared to rowing movements such as barbell rows, dumbbell rows, and cable rows?

This article will briefly examine the differences in terms of what muscles these exercises work.

If you’ve read my article on how to train your back muscles, you know that my favorite recipe for working all your back muscles is picking one exercise from each of the following three categories:

Back extension exercises mainly train your lower back and your glutes, but what about the two pulling movements? What’s the difference between vertical and horizontal pulling exercises?

Muscles Worked in Lat Pulldowns vs. Rows

Exercises like lat pulldowns and rows have more in common than not, but there are still some differences. These differences arise due to the different directions of pull. Since muscles contract by shortening, you can generally assume that the back muscles in line with your pulling but on the other side of the joint are the ones worked the most.

Lat pulldown pronated grip
Lat pulldown (a vertical pull)
Barbell row
Barbell row (a horizontal pull)

In the lat pulldown, your lats likely get a slightly better training effect than in rows because of how the lats’ origins and insertions are positioned. Vertical pulling allows your lats a greater range of motion and is more in line with the muscles’ attachment points.

Lats muscles
Your lats, and other back muscles.

But, your lats have a wide origin, which means that for optimal training, you should probably train your lats in more than just one direction of pull. That’s where doing both a vertical and a horizontal pulling movement comes in: they complement each other and together work more muscle fibers in your lats (and your back in general) than either one does on its own.

The same goes for your traps – lat pulldowns will work the lower muscle fibers in your traps, while rowing will work the middle and upper muscle fibers.

Deltoids? Rotator cuff? Rhomboids? Same story. Different lines of pull will work different muscle fibers on the opposing side of the working joints.

But What About Your Biceps?

While both lat pulldowns and rows work your biceps, lat pulldowns seem to be slightly more effective for biceps growth and strength. Actually, they seem to be on par with pure bicep exercises like barbell curls. At least in untrained beginners.1 2

Rows, on the other hand, only seem to grow your biceps about half (50%) as well as dumbbell curls. This, too, in untrained beginners.3

Take Away on Lat Pulldowns vs. Rows

Vertical and horizontal pulling exercises like lat pulldowns and rows both work many of the same muscles: your lats, traps, rhomboids, rear delts, rotator cuffs, and biceps.

Because of the difference in line of pull and because many of these muscles have a wide, fan-shaped origin, vertical and horizontal pulling movements will train slightly different fibers in these muscles. Therefore, it is a great idea to include one exercise of both types in your training program.

And for a complete back workout, choose one exercise each of these three kinds:

  1. Back extension. Examples: deadlift, Romanian deadlift, back extensions.
  2. Vertical pull. Examples: pull-up, lat pulldown, chin-up.
  3. Horizontal pull. Examples: barbell row, dumbbell row, cable row.

Thank you for reading!

Below are more resources on how to train different muscle groups mentioned in this article:

How to train your …

References

  1. Asian J Sports Med. 2015 Jun; 6(2): e24057. Single vs. Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises: Effects on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy.
  2. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2013 Mar;38(3):341-4. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2012-0176. Epub 2013 Mar 18. Effect of Adding Single-Joint Exercises to a Multi-Joint Exercise Resistance-Training Program on Strength and Hypertrophy in Untrained Subjects.
  3. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: July 01, 2019. Single-Joint Exercise Results in Higher Hypertrophy of Elbow Flexors Than Multijoint Exercise.
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Daniel Richter

Daniel has a decade of experience in powerlifting, is a certified personal trainer, and has a Master of Science degree in engineering. Besides competing in powerlifting himself, he coaches both beginners and lifters at the international level. Daniel lives in Lund, Sweden with his wife and three kids. On StrengthLog, Daniel geeks out about all things related to his lifelong passion of muscle and strength.