A quick look about at most modern gyms reveals an unhealthy dependence on machines. When it comes to functional strength, there are very few machines worth your time. Anything a machine can do, your body and free-weights can do better.
I recently had a discussion with someone (I will not name them or the gym at which they work) who said, “Well, pull-ups and pull-downs are the same thing. The movement is the same and they both hit your back the same way.” To this, I replied, “Really? What makes you say that?” To this, they replied, “Those are just the biomechanics of the movement, bro. It’s science.”
Broscience, maybe. Science, no.
A Matter of Perspective
In this person’s defense, however, I admit that for the average gym-goer what he said is more or less true. Both exercises will give similar results, at least in terms of aesthetics. But we’re not just aiming for looks here. We’re after functionality and peak performance.
Training by definition should make us more capable and its benefits should extend beyond the weight-room. That is why athletes, even with resistance training, try to mimic the movements and muscle activation required during an actual performance. You become more proficient at what you repeatedly do.
The reason I no longer encourage most traditional bodybuilding movements, especially with machines, is because they make you proficient through a very closed and limited range of motion. For the most part, the benefits gained do not carry over to real world applications or even to similar exercises. Your primary mover-muscles may have become stronger, but the new (yet similar) movement still feels awkward.
Anyone who bench presses using a smith machine (or even barbells) and suddenly switches to dumb-bells will experience this. Machines isolate muscles and thereby cause instability under the illusion of ease and safety. Whenever possible, stick to free-weights.
Which is Better?
A recent study titled Kinematic and electromyographic comparisons between chin-ups and lat-pull down exercises sets the record straight. The researchers found that pull-ups (they use the term chin-ups) and pull-downs showed similar muscle activity for lats (with pull-ups being slightly better), but pull-ups showed much greater muscle activity for biceps and erector spinae. What does this mean in plain English?
Pull-ups are just as good as pull-downs for lats, if not better, and significantly better for biceps and erector spinae. Whereas a pull-down, for the sake of ease and comfort, is predominantly a lat exercise, a pull-up is a lat-and-your-whole-back exercise. The winner seems clear to me.
Demand More from Your Exercises
If it doesn’t to you, the researchers conducting the study had this to say, “The greater level of muscle activity found for biceps brachii and erector spinae demonstrates that chin-ups are more functional in nature. Hence, chin-ups may be more effective than lat pull-down exercises for sports such as gymnastics and rock climbing, which require the athletes to stabilize their body whilst hanging from their hands.”
So let’s do a quick recap. Pull-ups are just as good as machine pull-downs for lat development and way better for bicep and overall back development. The benefits of performing pull-ups also carry over to real world applications such as rock climbing and scaling trees to escape grizzly bears. What more do you need?
Take stock of your exercises and demand as much from them as you do from your body.