How To Do Lat Pulldowns With Dumbbells for a Strong Back

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How To Do Lat Pulldowns With Dumbbells

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there’s no good explanation on how to do lat pulldowns with dumbbells.

Simply because they don’t exist, since you can’t pull the dumbbells downwards from above (you’d have to be upside down).

This would be considered an overhead press (gravity PUSHES against your arms).

Even if you focused on engaging your latissimus dorsi muscles during the negative ROM the stimulation achieved wouldn’t be worthwhile.

Fortunately, the dumbbell pullover is a splendid alternative and one of multiple I’ll portray in this article.

Key Takeaways:

  • DB pulldowns may not effectively target the lats due to a lack of tension and deltoid takeover.
  • There are many DB lat-dominant exercises that will provide ampler results.
  • To train the lats, perform 10-20 working sets per week, making gradual increases in intensity.

Why the Dumbbell Lat Pulldown Isn’t Possible

Understanding the biomechanics of the latissimus dorsi (lats) is the first step when choosing the right exercise to grow this muscle.

They are prime movers in glenohumeral extension (moving the arms behind the body), and downward scapular rotation and retraction.

Along with shoulder adduction (moving your arms toward the body).

These movements are majorly involved during the pulling portion of lat pulldowns on a cable machine.

And the tension is hardest during the contraction (pulling), rather than the eccentric (releasing) phase.

However, when using dumbbells there will be much more tension in the pushing phase, causing the deltoids to takeover (blame gravity, anatomy, and strength curves).

This makes putting a maximum load on the lats during the lowering phase extremely hard.

Plus, there’s no stretch reflex in your lats from pressing upward, since unlike a pulley system, the free weights won’t supply the necessary eccentric mechanical tension.

You’d have to stay very light to isolate them and really prioritize scapular retraction and depression in the negatives.

This makes progressive overload nearly impossible as you get stronger.

Watch Me Attempt It

I’m going to put my money where my mouth is and actually attempt to do the lat pulldown with dumbbells.

I’ll try it using a pressing motion and an arching motion (similar to a lateral raise).

In the video, I’ll also explain why these are not as practical as vertical and horizontal pulling exercises for the lat muscles.

Related: Resistance band lat pulldown variations

8 Best Lat Pulldown Alternatives Using Dumbbells

1. Dumbbell Pullover

For dumbbell pullovers, you will need a DB (dumbbell) and something to lay on.

A flat bench or sturdy end table should do the trick.

  1. Lay with your upper back on the elevated surface of your choosing (if using a bench lay perpendicular to it).
  2. Position your feet flat on the ground with the legs bent so there’s a straight line between your thighs and upper body.
  3. Grab one end of the dumbbell with your palms facing up.
  4. Hold it with straight arms above your chest.
  5. Tuck your elbows in and inhale while lowering the weight behind your head.
  6. Simultaneously drop your glutes until they’re 2-3 inches above the ground.
  7. Once you feel a stretch through your entire lat, exhale, reverse the dumbbell, and raise your glutes back to their starting position.

Dumbbell pullovers are an amazing alternative to the lat pulldown because:

  • There’s peak lat activation in the stretched range of motion.
  • They’re effective for isolating and overloading.

Modification: These can also be done on the ground if you don’t have anything to lay on.

Pause once you feel the dumbbell touch the floor behind your head, then pull it back over your chest.

2. Bent-Over Dumbbell Row

Bent-over dumbbell rows only require a set of DBs.

  1. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  2. Hinge your hips and bend your upper body to just above parallel to the floor.
  3. Pick up the dumbbells using a neutral grip.
  4. Keep a neutral spine and look straight ahead.
  5. Row the dumbbells until your elbows reach hip height.
  6. Squeeze your upper back muscles at the top.
  7. Extend toward the ground without letting the weights touch.

This is one of the more popular rowing exercises to target the lats and upper back.

Although not as good for isolating the lats as the former, it boasts:

  • Isometric contractions on the spinal erectors.
  • Efficient progressive overload.

Modification: To increase power output and perfect your form try doing the dead-stop version.

At the bottom of every rep, you’d let the dumbbells come to a complete halt on the floor before pulling with an explosive tempo.

Be sure to use light weights to mitigate cheating.

3. Single Arm Dumbbell Row

The single-arm row utilizes a single dumbbell.

  1. Assume a staggered stance with the left foot in front.
  2. Lean forward so your torso is parallel with the floor.
  3. Prop your nonworking hand on the front knee.
  4. Grab the dumbbell in your right hand with a neutral grip.
  5. Pull the weight up until your elbow is past your waistline.
  6. Return to the starting position and repeat for reps.
  7. Switch to the opposite arm.

This one-arm dumbbell row is similar to the previous version, the better news is that it’s unilateral so you can:

  • Fix muscular imbalances.
  • Prevent muscle wasting during an injury by rowing with the uninjured side.

Modification: The Kroc row is an advanced technique that can substantially increase thickness in the upper back.

It’s performed with the torso bent at 15 degrees rather than parallel which deepens the range of motion.

Using explosiveness and heavier loads with lifting straps is acceptable and encouraged.

4. Weighted Pull-Up

Weighted pull-ups are gonna need either a solid door or an overhead bar/beam, along with the DB.

You’ll also want to set up a box that you can step on when getting up to the bar (avoid jumping to grab it).

Space the box far enough away so your legs aren’t hitting it during the movement.

  1. Pin the dumbbell between your upper thighs.
  2. Grab the bar with a pronated shoulder-width grip.
  3. Step off from the box so your body is in a dead hang.
  4. Engage your glutes and core.
  5. Stick your chest out as you pull your chin over the bar while exhaling.
  6. Inhale and slowly lower your arms until they’re fully extended.

I currently have a love-hate relationship with the weighted pull-up.

I do them on a weekly basis as the benefits are worth the agony (I hope):

  • A tremendous range of motion.
  • Heavily stimulates the lats in their lengthened position.
  • Varied grip options for training the whole back.
  • Easy to wrap a DB between your legs, rather than needing to buy a dip belt and plates.

Modification: If you want to focus more on other muscles like the chest and biceps, or need an easier approach to get started, try using an underhand grip.

Otherwise known as a chin-up.

5. Chest Supported Row

For this exercise, you’re going to need a pair of dumbbells and an adjustable bench.

  1. Adjust your bench to 45 degrees.
  2. Lie prone with your chest puffed to create a small arch in the lower back.
  3. Extend your legs straight back with the toes planted on the floor.
  4. Grab your weights with your palms facing each other.
  5. Row the dumbbells toward your hips while squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  6. Ensure your elbows remain tucked close to your sides.
  7. Hold once the arms are bent at 90 degrees.
  8. Reverse to the starting position and repeat.

The chest-supported row:

  • Removes lower back fatigue.
  • Doesn’t require you to maintain a hip hinge (unlike number 2).
  • Less likely to make biomechanical errors.

Modification: Stimulate better muscle growth in the upper back by flaring your elbows to 75 degrees in relation to your lateral torso.

6. Bird Dog Row

You can do the bird dog row on a bench or the floor with one DB.

There will be a greater range of motion when using a bench.

  1. Take a tabletop position on a flat surface.
  2. Grab the dumbbell in your left hand with your palm facing inward.
  3. Kick your right leg back until it’s straight in line with your torso, and be sure to brace your core and glutes.
  4. Pull the weight to your side whilst holding the leg in this extended position.
  5. Lower the DB to feel a nice stretch in your lat.
  6. Repeat.

Bird dog rows are perfect for a full-body workout at home as they:

  • Build core stability.
  • Require you to use lightweight and hone in on the proper technique.
  • Improve functional performance and limb mobility.

Modification: You can remove the static leg kick from the equation and still get a good amount of core activation by performing the plank row instead.

To do it you’d assume a push-up position with a DB in each hand.

Then, drive either elbow toward the ceiling until the arm’s bent at 90.

Return to the floor and alternate.

7. Seal Row

The seal row requires a tall flat box or a bench, along with two DBs.

You can stack the bench on plates to enhance the range of motion.

  1. Lay prone on your selected surface with the legs together and extended straight back, off the ground.
  2. Grab the DBs with a neutral or overhand grip.
  3. Flex your glutes and drive the weights up.
  4. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top.
  5. Slowly lower until you reach full elbow extension and relax the shoulders down.

Seal rows are a great exercise to practice for:

  • Improving your bench press since they work a large chunk of the antagonist back muscles used while benching.
  • Isolating the back without having to balance on your feet.
  • Preventing harm to the lumbar region with support from the bench.

Modification: Let’s say you aren’t able to get a deep enough stretch with seal rows due to your bench being too short.

A good alternative is the Helms row.

You’d set a bench to an angle that allows you to bend your torso to 90 degrees relative to the hips.

Stand facing the edge and lean forward to rest on your nipple line.

Grip the dumbbells with your hands neutral.

Sweep them up and back, engaging your scapula as you go.

Release your arms into scapular protraction and repeat.

8. Dumbbell Deadlift

Dumbbell deadlifts are a prominent exercise to attain a thick back while merely needing DBs.

  1. Hold a dumbbell in each hand with your arms at your sides.
  2. Stand with your feet spaced hip-width.
  3. Flex your back muscles by retracting/depressing your scapula.
  4. Hinge your hips and lean your torso forward.
  5. Once the hamstrings begin to stretch, bend your knees until they’re angled at 90.
  6. Reverse the sequence and return to standing.

Deadlifts are an OG, and by adding DBs into the mix you get a versatile and straightforward exercise that:

  • Provides a total-body workout.
  • Was born to be progressively overloaded.
  • Is less restricted compared to doing them with a barbell.

Modification: Try these from a seated position to hone in on back isolation and remove the glutes and hamstrings from the equation.

Target Muscle Groups During Pulldowns and Rows

Latissimus Dorsi

Often coined as the lats in gym bro lingo, they’re a large, superficial muscle that covers the middle and lower back, lateral torso, and upper arm bone.

Mid & Lower Trapezius

The middle trapezius enables scapular retraction while the lower portion engages during depression.

Rear Delts

The rear delts are the small posterior portion of the shoulder muscle.

They assist in shoulder stability and external rotation while pulling.


Unsurprisingly the rhomboids are another prime mover for shoulder retraction.

This is their primary role during these movements.

Biceps & Forearms

Everyone’s favorite B word is activated in the downward portion of the pulldown to flex the elbow while your forearms make sure the bar doesn’t slip from your silky smooth hands.


The core is involved to a lesser degree during the lat pulldown exercise to stabilize the spine.

Conversely, it’s heavily recruited during rowing exercises that require isometric bending at the waist.

For the aforementioned lat exercises, performing 1-4 of them with a frequency of twice per week for a TOTAL volume of 10-20 working sets is great!

These three factors will vary depending on your fitness level, experience with the movement(s), and time available to train.

If your primary intention is gaining strength then the 1-6 rep range is ideal, but if your goal is to gain muscle mass then 6-12 reps per set tends to be recommended.

Don’t shy away from doing some work in both of these rep ranges, along with higher ones of 12-15 or 15-20 (endurance).

Just ensure that the majority of your effort is done utilizing the range best suited for accomplishing your goal.

Progressive Overload Tips

Progressive overload is defined as gradual increases in either training intensity or volume (or both).

The muscles have to get slightly bigger and stronger to adapt to each new level of stress.

For example, let’s say you’re following a 4-week plan.

During week one you might do lat pulldowns for 3 sets of 12 reps using 60 Lbs.

In week two, you’d increase the load to 62.5 and use the same set/rep scheme.

You’d continue doing this for four weeks or until progress is stalled.

Then you’d do a deload to allow the body time to recover before the next hard training phase.

Sample Dumbbell Lat Workout

Below is a sample pull workout routine that’s meant to be implemented in a weekly Push/Pull/Legs program.

To specify, push days would be on Mondays and Thursdays, pull days on Tuesdays and Fridays, and leg days on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Sundays are the day of rest.

The Warm-Up

  • 5 minutes of low-intensity cardio (preferably a rower or an elliptical machine)
  • External/Internal Rotations (Can use dumbbells, bands, or cables)
    • 2×15 each
  • Shoulder squeezes (hold each rep for a 2 count)
    • 2×5

Tuesday’s Pull Session

ExerciseWarm-Up SetsWorking SetsReps
Dumbbell Pullovers136-12
Upright Rows2212-15
Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows146-12
Prone Back Extensions038-10
Hammer Curls0215-20

Friday’s Pull Session

ExerciseWarm-Up SetsWorking SetsReps
Weighted Pull-Ups124-10
Dumbbell Pullovers1310-15
Prone Back Extensions038-10
Alternating Curls0212-15

FAQ for Lat Pull Downs

What Exercise Can Replace the Lat Pulldown?

An effective exercise that can replace the traditional lat pulldown is the dumbbell pullover.

You’d begin by holding one end of a single dumbbell in both hands over your chest and lying supine on the floor or bench.

With your arms straight, stretch the weight behind your head.

Rinse and repeat.

How Do You Do Lateral Pulldowns Without a Machine?

To do lateral pulldowns without a machine you can use a resistance band.

1. Secure the band overhead.
2. Grab the handles and sit on the floor or a weight bench to increase the tension.
3. With your arms straight, pull the resistance toward your chest.
4. Stop once your arms are bent at 45 degrees.
5. Reextend to the eccentric phase and repeat.

How Can I Mimic My Lat Pulldown at Home?

A great exercise that can mimic your lat pulldown at home is the resistance band lat pulldown.

You can attach either a loop or handle band to a closed-door frame or pull-up bar.

Then, grasp it using a pronated grip and sit on your butt or kneel before you begin pulling.

What Are Some Common Mistakes People Make in a Lat Pulldown?

A few common mistakes people make in a lat pulldown are:

– Squeezing the handle too hard and fatiguing the arms before the back muscles.
– Going too heavy and using too much momentum.
– Not retracting the shoulder blades while contracting.
– Not sitting tight against the leg/torso pad.

How Do You Do a Proper Lat Pulldown?

To do a proper lat pulldown attach a long curved bar to your pulley system.

Sit with your legs and lower torso tight against the pads and feet flat on the floor.

Assume an overhand grip on the bar slightly past your shoulders.

With your arms extended overhead, pull your elbows down, aiming them at your hips, while simultaneously retracting your scapula, and leaning slightly back.

Stop once the bar touches or is 1-2 inches above your chest and return to the start.

Where Should Your Feet Be When Doing a Lat Pulldown?

When doing the lat pulldown machine your feet should be flat on the floor at roughly hip width apart.

The knees should be flexed at 90 degrees.

Does It Matter What Grip You Use for a Lat Pulldown?

It does matter what grip you use for a lat pulldown.

Pronated, medium, and wide grip lat pulldowns target more of the lats, while an underhand, or narrower grip engages more of the biceps.

Whilst a neutral grip tends to hit the lats and upper back mostly and is less strainful for people with wrist problems.

Should You Feel Your Triceps During the Lat Pulldown?

You should feel your triceps long head slightly involved during the lat pulldown, especially in the concentric phase.

This is because they act as synergists during shoulder extension, which is utilized in the downward portion of this exercise.

The Verdict: Don’t Waste Your Time

Hopefully, you’re convinced now as to why the standard lat pulldown motion can’t be replicated as a dumbbell exercise.

Thankfully, the desired muscle groups can be stimulated with a DB lat pulldown alternative, such as the eight mentioned above.

Nonetheless, if there’s any confusion surrounding my explanation please don’t hesitate to reach out.


Eric De Cremer
Eric De Cremer

Eric is an NCCA-accredited Certified Personal Trainer and competitively trained powerlifter. Feel free to contact him anytime at!