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Avoiding the pull-ups? If you’re looking for some great pull-up alternatives, then we’re here to help you out.
Ideally, you’d want to include pull-ups into your routine. It is one of the best bodyweight exercises you can do, because it incorporates multiple muscles into your routine, including your traps, rhomboids, lats, shoulders, and arms.
However, not everyone can do them – and it’s perfectly understandable.
Whether you’re not strong or confident enough (don’t worry, you’ll build the confidence to go after pull-ups with these exercises), or you’re looking to switch things up, or you’re simply limited by an injury, then looking for pull-up alternatives makes sense.
What Do Pull-Ups Work?
Before we dive into the pull-up alternatives, we should stop and consider what muscles pull-ups work for a moment. That’ll give you a better understanding of why these alternatives make sense.
Here are the muscles that pull-ups work:
- Pectoralis major and minor (chest)
- Rotator cuff
That’s a helluva lot of muscle!
That’s why it’s damn hard to replace the pull-up with just one single exercise. Looking at this list, there’s no surprise why pull-ups have been such a big part throughout many decades of physical training – it was always a huge part of military training, even during WW2!
But, it is possible to replace pull-ups with multiple pull-up alternatives. If you combine several of these exercises that we’ll mention now, you’ll give yourself a great chance of effectively replacing the pull-up – and then some.
The X Best Pull-Up Alternatives
Here are the best alternatives to the pull-ups.
1. Inverted Rows
Have a pull-up bar somewhere at home and can’t do pull-ups? Do this exercise instead. You can even do it with a couple of chairs and a broomstick – be careful not to break it, though. 🙂
It’s a great pull-up alternative because it works similar muscles as pull-ups do – lats, traps, biceps, triceps, and even chest and shoulders to an extent, as well as some rotator cuff muscles.
And you can also do this exercise wherever you might be. But the best of all is that this exercise is suitable for every strength level out there. If you’re a beginner, you can put the bar slightly higher and make it a bit easier for yourself. You can then progress and put the bar lower as you get stronger, making you ready for pull-ups, eventually.
- Put the bar into a low position – below your hips if you’re more advanced, or slightly higher if you’re a beginner
- Grab the bar with an overhand grip and put your body under the bar
Ideally, your legs should be fully extended as should your entire body – but
- keep your core and back tight as you do the exercise
- Pull upwards and come back down slowly. Repeat
Here’s how to do it with a bar or pull-up bar.
You can even do something like this if you don’t have the equipment – just make sure the stick is strong enough to support you.
2. Single-Arm Dumbbell Rows
The single-arm dumbbell row is one of the best pull-up alternatives you can do with dumbbells. Essentially, you work almost the same muscles as you do with pull-ups – with a few exceptions such as your core and biceps.
But for targeting your lats and traps, this exercise is a must. It’s also a very common exercise in many back workout routines, regardless of whether you include pull-ups or not.
Mastering the form here is the key. You’ll want to keep your back straight but also follow through the entire range of motion. Here’s how to do this exercise.
- Grab a dumbbell that you feel comfortable with. Dumbbell rows can either be done with or without a bench
- If you do it without a bench, bend your upper body slightly, but keep your back straight and your chin up
- If you opt for the bench, then rest the opposite knee and arm onto the bench, while you keep your working arm and the same leg straight
- Let your scapula to protract at the bottom, and let your arm drop down until it’s straight
- As you row upwards, make sure you don’t swing too much and instead keep your core engaged
3. Lat Pulldowns
If you have a lat pulldown machine at your disposal, then you certainly can’t ignore this exercise as a pull-up alternative. It’s such a great exercise if done correctly, as it will target practically the same muscles as pull-ups would.
The crucial thing here is the grip – you’ll want to use a wide grip because that puts a bit more focus on your lats. It’s also an easy exercise to overload progressively – you can just change the weight on the cable machine in a few seconds, and you’re ready.
If you have a compromised shoulder though, you’d want to avoid this movement (especially the overhead pulldowns if you want to do it that way).
- Grip the bar with a wide grip before you sit down, and pull the bar slightly towards you
- Keep your elbows in line with your hips and body and engage your scapulas
- Start pulling the bar down, but don’t sway your body – only try and use your back to bring the bar down
Here are some important tips for performing lat pulldowns correctly – and the 3 key tips for doing the exercise right.
4. Barbell Rows
Barbell rows can be complicated technically, but once you get the form right, it’s one of the most effective exercises for building a wider and thicker back.
In some aspects, barbell rows can be even more effective than pull-ups for building traps and some other muscles, according to this study. It also comes quite close when it comes to activation of your lats, so it’s certainly a worthy alternative for pull-ups.
Another huge benefit of barbell rows is that you can add quite a lot of weight to the bar. Once you progress, you’ll be able to load up this move and form a thicker and wider back. Perhaps you won’t build your arms as much as you do with pull-ups, but as a back-building exercise, barbell rows are up there with the best.
- Keep your barbell in front of you, and bend your knees slightly, but keep your back straight as you bend over
- Then, grab the bar and activate your core and scapulas before you do the rows
- Start performing the rows and move the bar all the way upwards to your body
- Don’t move your upper body as you do the rows – instead, only your arms should be moving, supported by your strong back muscles
5. Seated Cable Rows
Seated wide grip cable rows are also a great alternative for pull-ups. It works the same muscles as barbell rows, although the movement is slightly more comfortable here. But if you do the exercise correctly, you’ll be able to replace the pull-ups with this move effectively.
The wider the grip with this exercise, the more you’ll target your lats. When you put the arms closer together, you’ll target your middle back a bit more. So it depends on what you’re looking to target.
Here’s how to do it.
- On the cable machine, attach a straight bar and have it in the lower position
- Seat yourself so that your legs are slightly bent, and your back straight
- Pull the cable attachment backward while keeping your back straight. You can use your body’s movement to make the exercise a bit easier
6. Negative Pull-Ups
Now, this exercise is for everyone not feeling comfortable with pull-ups yet. If you can’t perform three pull-ups in a row, then you might want to focus on this movement instead at first.
You’ll need a pull-up bar at minimum, though. The good news is that pull-up bars are easily accessible nowadays.
To do negative pull-ups, you’ll help yourself come up onto the bar. Your focus on this move will be on the downward movement. You’ll want to come down as slowly as possible in order to really develop your lats and back muscles so that they’ll be ready for real pull-ups eventually.
You’ll need a platform underneath the pull-up bar that will help you come up onto the bar. This can simply be a chair, or a box, or something you can place under your feet.
- Step onto the platform and pull yourself upwards onto the bar until your chin is over the bar
- Then, start lowering yourself slowly. Notice how you’ll feel your back muscles at work here
- Keep your core tight
- If you can’t handle the movement anymore, simply lower yourself down
- Repeat until you can do a regular pull-up!
7. Chin Ups
If you’re almost comfortable with pull-ups, but you’re not quite confident yet, you can do chin-ups instead. The main difference here is that chin-ups will focus on your biceps a bit more, while pull-ups work your back more.
Chin-ups are a bit easier to do – but that doesn’t mean they’re any less effective! A wider grip of pull-ups means that you’ll have to rely on your lats more, while with chin-ups, you have a narrower grip, which puts a bit more focus on your arms.
You can do chin-ups for a while, and once you’re completely comfortable, move onto pull-ups. You can even combine the two once you’re comfortable with both!
- Grab the bar with a supinated grip, and grip it a bit narrower as you would with pull-ups
- Engage your core and back, and start pulling yourself upwards
- Pull until your head is above the bar
- Come down slowly until your arms are completely stretched, and repeat
8. Towel Rows
If you really don’t have any sort of equipment at home, then this exercise is for you. There are no excuses here!
You’ll only need a towel, a sheet, or even a shirt. As long as you have a pole or a door, you’ll be able to do this movement. This movement is relatively similar to inverted rows, only that you’ll use the equipment you find around yourself.
A great thing about this exercise is that you can even make it more challenging. If you want to make it harder, simply grab the sheet a bit lower and start from a lower position. Otherwise, there are no real downsides to this exercise.
- Use a sheet or a towel (sheet works better for this method) and place it on top of your doors
- Then, close the door and grab the sheet with both of your hands
- While grabbing the sheet, start pulling yourself upwards, but keep your legs and upper body straight
- The lower you go, the tougher it will be
Here’s how to do it with a sheet.
And here’s how to do it with a towel and a pole:
9. Back Bridge Pull-Ups
This is a slightly more challenging move for those who don’t have the flexibility to do a bridge. However, with some practice and trial-and-error, you should be able to master it – some time!
But if you are able to do a bridge and you already have a decent strength level, you’ll be able to benefit from this move massively. It’s a great exercise for targeting your back, but also your shoulders and arms.
Beware, though – this exercise is not for everyone, especially not for beginners. If you’re already strong though, and you want to try something new, you can do it. But you can also develop enough strength over time, even if you’re a beginner – just take it slowly.
- Lie down on the ground, and bend your knees
- Support yourself with your legs as you lift your butt off the ground
- Place your hands behind your head and try to lift your body from the ground completely
- Move back and forward with your hands supporting you as if you’re performing a pull-up
Here’s a step-by-step tutorial on how to master this move.