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The Vertical Pull Exercise Guide

Vertical pull exercises – have you tried them out yet? Whether you're hitting the gym or building a back routine at home, professionals highly recommend these workouts as an essential component of every regimen. In this guide, we'll dive into why they're a must-try.

A Comprehensive Guide to Vertical Pull Exercises

Vertical pull exercises are a great way to develop a stronger back and build your physique. You can perform them at the gym or at home using back machines, cables, free weights, or your body weight. These exercises work on your lats, traps, rear delts, biceps, and other lower/mid back muscles.

Understanding Vertical and Horizontal Pull Exercises

We can classify human movements into seven or eight basic classes depending on which expert you ask. They’re the pull, push, squat, hinge, lunge, gait, and rotation movements. When active, we all do these in some way daily. So, for example, some experts count lunges as squat movements; others make anti-rotation movements a separate class to make the number eight.

Functional strength training is a way to use resistance, like weight, to improve your strength in these movements. This helps to make everyday life activities easier to carry out. Pull exercises are an aspect of functional training that uses the pull movement pattern. They typically involve pulling weight toward your body and working on your back, biceps, forearms, and shoulders. Pull exercises can be vertical pull exercises or horizontal pull exercises.

What Are Vertical Pull Exercises?

Vertical pull exercises involve pulling weight from the floor or overhead using your elbow and shoulder joints. Classic versions of this exercise include pull-ups and lat pulldowns. Vertical pull exercises are a great way to build a more muscular back. In addition, these types of exercises are best for making your frame wider.

What Are Horizontal Pulling Exercises?

Rows are another name for horizontal pulls. Rows have many different exercise variations: barbell rows, cable rows, dumbbell rows, and various different types of machines rows. These exercises focus on pulling weight toward your torso horizontally and help to build your upper back and shoulders. While vertical pulls help improves your V-taper — a wide upper body with a narrow waist — horizontal exercises help add thickness to your back.

Why Are Both Types of Pull Exercises Important?

As mentioned, pull exercises help strengthen your entire body and make daily activities easier. They allow you to build strong back muscles, like the latissimus dorsi, which support other essential movements that you do to keep healthy. Pull exercises are also crucial for your balance and are necessary to maintain a good posture. All training programs should have both vertical and horizontal pulling exercises.

Muscles Worked by Vertical Pull Exercises

Below is a breakdown of every muscle you can target when doing vertical pull exercises.

Primary Muscles

Vertical pull exercises typically work on the large muscle groups of your back — the lats (latissimus dorsi) and traps. Your lats are the largest muscle group in your back, on the sides of your upper back. The traps are diamond shaped and cover your upper back.

Secondary Muscles

Secondary muscles that vertical pull exercises target include your upper back muscles and upper arms — the posterior delt, biceps, rhomboids, and core.

Our Top 4 Vertical Pull Exercises

Below are the top four vertical pull movements to incorporate into your workout plan. These are the best exercises to help you build a strong back.

  1. Lat Pulldowns
  2. Straight Arm Pulldowns
  3. Pull Ups
  4. Single Arm Cable Pulldowns


1. Lat Pulldowns

Lat pull downs are great vertical pulling exercises that target your shoulders and back. For the best way to do lat pulldowns, you will need access to a high cable pulley or anchor point. The best piece of equipment to use would be a lat pulldown machine.

Secondary, you'd be able to do some variation of a lat pulldown with any functional trainer or cable machine. If you don't have a cable machine, Lat pulldown alternatives would include using resistance bands with a high anchor point like a pull up bar.

Lat pull-downs can be done with a close grip, wide grip, middle-distance, neutral grip, overhand, or underhand grip. Changing your grips while doing the lat pulldown can change the muscles that this routine emphasizes. For example, a close grip emphasizes your forearms, the middle-distance recruits your biceps strongly, while a wider grip targets your back muscles more (1). You can also change your grip to supinated, pronated or neutral grip.

How to

  1. Sit on the pulldown seat, ensuring your feet are flat on the floor. The bar should be high with your arms extended to reach it while still comfortably seated.

  2. Hold the bar with the type of grip you choose, then pull it until it’s leveled with your chin. You can lean back slightly to let it get to your collarbone. Ensure your feet remain flat on the ground and you engage your abs.

  3. Exhale while pulling down and stop when your elbows cannot go down anymore without going backward. Squeeze your shoulder blades.

  4. Inhale while slowly returning the bar to starting position with control.

Why it works

Lat pulldowns are a gold standard vertical pull exercise that builds strong back muscles and posterior deltoids. Your lats, traps, biceps, and other muscles are involved in the up-and-down movement of your arms. Doing that with some form of resistance recruits them and makes them stronger.

2. Straight-Arm Pulldowns

The straight-arm pulldown is one of the best vertical pull exercises to target your back. Most people do this exercise standing using a straight bar, rope, and a cable machine system. You can also do this routine with resistance bands at home.

How to

  1. To get started, attach the bar or rope (or resistance band) to the top of the cable machine. Then grab your attachment and step back to establish tension.

  2. Bend your torso slightly forward until you can feel your lats stretch. Keep the inside of your upper arm facing your torso to keep your shoulder externally rotated.

  3. Pull the attachment towards your body while keeping your arms mostly straight. Depressing your shoulders, then bring your arms down and back. The extension should touch or be adjacent to your upper thighs.

  4. Return your attachment to starting position in a slow and controlled manner to complete the rep.

Why it works

Keeping proper form - a neutral spine and your arms as straight as possible - helps to isolate the lats and work them, thereby building those muscles.

3. Pull Ups

Pull-ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises you can do. Variations like the banded pull-up are a great introduction that beginners can try.

How to

  1. To get started, hang from the pull-up bar with a slightly wider grip than shoulder width. Your palms should face you in an overhand grip, and your feet must be clear off the floor.

  2. Engage your core and abs, then put your shoulders down and back.

  3. Drive your elbows down and back, bend your arms, and then pull your chest toward the pull-up bar.

  4. Lower yourself down slowly and smoothly with control to complete the rep.

Why it works

Using your body weight as resistance in the pulling motion helps build the back muscles. Keeping your elbows back will also help to contract your back, engaging the muscles even more.

Regression: If you cannot do body weight pull-ups and have access to commercial gym, look for a weight assisted pull-up machine. These machines use a weight stack to offset your bodyweight and make the movement easier. You can work on proper form at a light weight and progress to be able to do your first pull-up unassisted.

4. Single Arm Cable Pulldowns

Single-arm cable pulldowns are an effective vertical pull exercise because they put your shoulders through a vast range of motion. With most pulling routines, you must stop when your shoulder blades touch each other. However, you can continue doing one arm at a time, thus working your lats more effectively.

Single-arm cable pulldowns are a variation of the lat pulldown. To perform them, you need a lat pulldown machine, rope, or a resistance band for this routine.

How to

  1. To start with this movement, you should adjust the weight to a load you can use for multiple reps. Ensure the knee pad is properly against your thighs as you sit down. You should also be able to reach the attachment while seated with your arms straight.

  2. Reach up, grab the attachment, and sit securely under the knee pad with your thighs.

  3. Pull the attachment down until you can feel the tension in your back. Keep your elbow in line with your torso, and don’t allow it to go behind your body.

  4. Pause for a moment and then slowly return the attachment to the starting position to complete the rep.

Why it works

The lats in your back play a vital role in the flexing and extending your arms. The single-arm cable pulldown activates this muscle by flexing and stretching your arm during a pull. In addition, doing each arm separately helps you establish a better mind-muscle connection, working your muscles even more. Plus, alternating your arms helps address any strength imbalances you have.

Performing Vertical Pull Exercises at Home

Exercising at home usually means no access to the gym equipment used for workouts, such as the lat pulldown machine. However, performing vertical pull exercises and working on your functional movements is still possible. Below are some effective workouts that you could try out.

No Equipment?

Doing vertical pulling movements at home with no equipment is really difficult. One thing you can try: lie facedown on a mat, lift your chest and head above the ground, extend your arms overhead, bend your elbows, and pull towards your torso. You will really have to focus on contracting your back muscles to get any benefit. Unfortunately, vertical pull movements mostly require at least a set of resistance bands.

Use a Pull up Bar

You can do almost all vertical pull exercises with a pull-up bar and added resistance bands at home. Some examples of vertical pull exercises you can do include banded lat pulldowns, banded pull-ups, banded shrugs, and banded chin ups.

Use A Cable Machine

While having a single use piece of equipment like lat pulldown is a luxury for more home gym owners, many do have some form of versatile cable machine in their gym. You can do your vertical pull exercises with it, too, such as seated lat pulldowns and kneeling bar chin-ups.

Tips for Performing Vertical Pulling Exercises

Below are some ways to ensure you carry out your vertical pull exercises effectively.

Engage Your Shoulder Blades

After finishing a rep, ensure you pull your shoulder blades back into position before starting a new one. This will help improve your ability to target your muscles as it draws attention to your action.

Pull Your Elbows Back

Pulling your elbows back takes the focus from your hands to your back. This will make it easier to squeeze the muscles you’re targeting.

Focus on Muscle Contraction

Contact your target muscles as you go through the pulling movement to improve your mind-muscle connection. This study shows that increasing your mind-muscle connection enhances the activation of your muscles (2).

Start Light

Starting light helps you focus on your form and adequately engage your muscles. You can increase the load once you become great at doing the routine.



When it comes to enhancing strength and physical appearance, vertical pull exercises are an excellent option, and they can be accomplished with minimal equipment. This flexibility makes them a great addition to any workout routine.

Why Include Vertical Pulling Exercises In Your Routine?

Adding vertical pulling exercises to your routine can strengthen your back muscles, particularly your lats, and widen your frame. Not only do they make everyday activities easier, but they’re also functional exercises that have carryover to everyday life, such as opening a door. Furthermore, strengthening the muscles used for vertical pulling can aid in completing other exercises that require pulling, like the barbell deadlift, and can reduce the risk of injury.


Shop Our Top Lat Pulldown Machines

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  1. Andersen, V., Fimland, M. S., Wiik, E., Skoglund, A., & Saeterbakken, A. H. (2014). Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 28(4), 1135–1142.

  2. Calatayud, J., Vinstrup, J., Jakobsen, M. D., Sundstrup, E., Brandt, M., Jay, K., Colado, J. C., & Andersen, L. L. (2016). Importance of mind-muscle connection during progressive resistance training. European journal of applied physiology, 116(3), 527–533.

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