6 Best Vertical Pull Exercises To Build Back Strength

Lat pulldowns rank as one of the best exercises for widening and strengthening your upper back muscles, particularly the latissimus dorsi.

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However, if you don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine or you’re simply looking to diversify your strength training routine, there are several other vertical pull exercises you can do to effectively target and enhance your back muscles.

In this article, we’ll recommend some of the best vertical pull exercises, including how to perform them with proper form with some exercise options you can do at home. 

Let’s get started on enhancing your back workout with vertical pull movements.

What Are Vertical Pulling Exercises

Vertical pulling exercises are movements where you pull weight towards your body from above, such as lat pull-downs, or you pull your bodyweight towards a bar, such as chin ups.  

wide grip chin up

A vertical pulling movement primarily target muscles of your upper body, focusing on strengthening your upper back, shoulders, and arms. 

By incorporating vertical pull exercises in your training program, you’ll recruit several key muscle groups like the latissimus dorsi, biceps, and lower traps.  

Whether you’re using gym equipment such as a lat pulldown machine or relying on body weight with a pull-up bar, vertical pulling exercises can make a significant difference in your upper back development.  

Vertical Pulling VS Horizontal Pulling Exercises

The main difference between vertical pulling and horizontal pulling exercises are the movement patterns involved.  

As mentioned, a vertical pull movement involves pulling weight from above in a vertical plane.  

Conversely, horizontal pull exercises involve pulling weight from immediately in front of your body and towards you but in a horizontal plane.   

Whether it’s vertically or horizontally, as both are pulling movements they’re going to work the same muscle groups.  


However, depending on your grip could impact whether the focus is more on back width or back thickness.  

If you perform a lat-pulldown which, as we know, is a pull exercise utilizing a medium to wide grip this will encourage back width.  

On the other hand, if you want to increase your back thickness, then executing rowing movements, such as barbell rows or rows on a cable machine, will provide better results.  

What Grip Is Best For Horizontal Pull Exercises

If your main goal is to improve the width of your back to develop a good V taper, it’s important to know that grip position will determine how much lat activation you can achieve with vertical pull exercises.  

Studies show that adopting a pronated grip (overhand) is much better for muscle engagement when compared to pulling with a supinated grip (underhand grip). 

What’s more, it’s always been assumed that pulling exercises with a wider grip compared to a close grip are better for firing up the lats and increasing back width .  

However, further studies indicate that a medium grip width will illicit better muscle activation of your lats while working more of your biceps.  

It’s worth mentioning that the results between the grip options were not hugely significant.  

Essentially, to make your upper back as wide as possible you should adopt an overhand grip to a medium grip width at around 1.5 times shoulder width.  

Vertical Pull Exercises In The Gym

Now that we know more about grip types and how they can impact how a movement works the muscle, let’s look at some of the best vertical pull exercises for developing overall back size.  

Lat pulldowns primarily target the latissimus dorsi, which can help to widen and create definition to your upper back.  

This is a very popular pull exercise and great for those who are working up to doing pull-ups or looking develop a stronger back.

Woman uses cable  machine for lat pulldown

How to Do It:

  1. Take a seat at a lat pulldown machine and adjust the knee pad to lock your legs into place giving you some stability.
  2. Take hold of a lat pulldown bar with a wide grip, and start with your arms fully extended.  
  3. Lean back slightly, and pull the bar down to your chest, keeping your elbows pointed straight down throughout the movement.
  4. Squeeze your shoulder blades together for better muscle contraction then slowly let the bar rise back to the starting position, making sure to control the ascent.  

Bodyweight pullups work the entire upper body, including the back, arms, and shoulders, increasing both strength and muscle mass making them a hugely effective vertical pull exercise.  

It’s one of the more challenging exercises but is a great way of progressing machine-assisted pull-ups.  

Chin up to work the back muscles

How to Do It:

  1. Grab the pull-up bar with your hands shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from you.
  2. Hang freely with your arms fully extended.  Cross your ankles over one another to prevent your lower body from swinging as you perform the exercise.  
  3. From this starting point, pull yourself up until your chin is at or just above the bar, focusing on squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  4. Lower back to the starting position. Do this slowly for increased muscle hypertrophy.  

Chin ups are very similar to pull-ups but are performed with your palms facing toward you in a supinated grip as opposed to a pronated grip.  

Chin-ups place more emphasis on the biceps while still engaging the upper back muscles.  

Underhand chin up

How to Do It:

  1. Grip the bar with your hands keeping them shoulder-width apart with your palms facing you.
  2. Start from a dead hang, so that your arms are fully extended.
  3. Brace your core and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar, keeping your body stable throughout the exercise.
  4. Lower yourself back down to the starting position using control.  

Get yourself a set of resistance bands and you can mimic the lat pulldown machine and target the lats without needing heavy gym equipment.  

This makes this vertical pull exercise perfect for doing at home.  

How to Do It:

  1. Secure a resistance band overhead to a stable anchor point (the top of a door is ideal).
  2. Kneel or sit just below the band, grabbing it with both hands overhead.
  3. Keeping your arms straight, brace your core and pull the bands down towards your hips
  4. Slowly return to the starting position, maintaining tension on the band with your elbows locked out throughout. 

Reverse shrugs primarily target the lower traps and rhomboids, helping to improve scapular retraction and stability, which is important for good posture and shoulder health.  

The traditional shrug exercise is carried out by holding a barbell or pair of dumbbells at the top of your legs and shrugging your shoulders towards your ears.  

However, reverse shrugs are a different variation which is a subtle movement performed on a lat pulldown machine. 

How to Do It:

  1. Sitting at a pulldown machine, grab hold of a lat pulldown bar with a wide, overhand grip. 
  2. Externally rotate your shoulders, this is your starting position.
  3. ​Keeping your arms fully extended at all times, shrug your shoulders down slightly squeezing at the bottom.  
  4. Return your shoulders back to the start and repeat.  It’s important not to allow your shoulders to move towards your ears.

Straight-arm pulldowns will target the lats, engaging them from a different angle when compared to traditional pulldowns.

This exercise also works the shoulders and triceps, promoting upper body stability and strength.

straight arm cable pushdown

How to Do It:

  1. Attach a straight bar to the high pulley on a cable machine.
  2. Stand facing the machine with feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent.
  3. Grab the bar with an overhand grip, arms fully extended overhead.
  4. Keeping your arms straight, pull the bar down towards your thighs, focusing on using your lats to initiate the movement.
  5. Slowly return to the starting position, controlling the weight’s ascent.

Adding these exercises to your vertical pulling routine can provide additional variation and target different muscles in the back and upper body, contributing to a well-rounded and effective workout.

What Are The Benefits Of Vertical Pull Exercises

By incorporating a variety of different exercises that emphasize vertical pulls into your workout routine offers several significant advantages.

Here are a few notable ones:

Engaging and strengthening the muscles of the back, especially your upper and mid back muscles, by performing different vertical pull exercises can help to counteract the forward hunch from sitting too much or working at a desk.  

In time, this can improve your posture and even help to minimize low back pain.  

Our recommended vertical pull exercises are effective for developing overall back, shoulder, and arm strength, enhancing overall upper body power.  

This can make daily activities easier. 

Regularly performing vertical pull exercises will not only increase muscle mass but also help to define and sculpt your back muscles, leading to a visibly more toned and defined back.

The act of pulling is a key movement in many everyday activities and sports.  

When you strengthen the muscles involved in these motions through vertical pull exercises, this can enhance your functional fitness, improving your ability to perform tasks ranging from recreational sports to everyday activities like lifting and carrying groceries with ease and efficiency.

By targeting the shoulder stabilizers and the rotator cuff muscles, vertical pulling exercises contribute to stronger, more resilient shoulders.  

This can improve your mobility, stability and range of motion leading to stronger and healthier shoulders while minimizing the chance of injury. 

What Muscles Do Vertical Pull Exercises Work

When you perform a vertical pull exercise, as well as working your upper back muscles, you will also be recruiting muscles of the shoulders and arms in combination to complete the full range of motion.  

These muscles include the following:

The latissimus dorsi muscles, or lats as they’re more commonly known, are responsible for the majority of any pulling motion.  

They work to bring the arms down towards the body while also contributing to shoulder extension and adduction.

Your rear delts (back of your shoulders) are activated to help stabilize and assist in the movement during vertical pull exercises, especially when pulling the elbow joints back and down.

While your biceps aren’t the primary movers in vertical pulling exercises, they are recruited as synergists (opposing muscles) to assist the lats and other back muscles helping to initiate and complete the exercise.  

They also contribute to elbow flexion during the pulling motion, bringing the hands towards the body.  

Your forearms become engaged isometrically helping you to maintain grip strength and wrist stability while holding onto the bar or handles during vertical pull exercises.  

They play an important role in maintaining control throughout the movement ensuring it’s done with proper form.  

Your lower traps are recruited to help stabilize and retract the shoulder blades during vertical pulling movements.  

They help to maintain proper shoulder mechanics and posture, preventing excessive elevation of the shoulders and promoting basic movement patterns.  

​Wrapping Up

Adding vertical pull exercises into your back training workouts offers a well-rounded approach to improving back strength.  

With that in mind, it’s important to keep things varied so your muscle or strength gains don’t hit a plateau.  

Before you go, why not have a read of our article which covers everything to do with horizontal pulling exercises giving you even more options for developing a broader and thicker back.  

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