Pull ups are one of the best bodyweight exercises for the upper body, point blank period. However, we do believe your training should include variety of exercises in order to make continuous progress. That’s where pull up alternative exercises come into play. Whether you can do a pull up or not, it’s important to train using a mixture of exercises. In the post we’ll cover 13 of the best alternatives to pull ups that work similar muscles, helping you to build a strong back and eventually become a pull up professional.
The pull up is one of the quintessential bodyweight exercises that can tell you a lot about your fitness level with regards to your upper body strength. A pull up refers to a closed chain movement where you start in a dead hang on a bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away) then you pull your body up until your chin is above the bar and your elbows are by your torso.
People are often confused about what the difference is between pull ups and chin ups. And still to this day, depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer. For example, if you ask us, Guinness Book of World Records or countless other trainers in the fitness industry they’ll say that pull ups are done with a pronated grip while chin ups are done with a supinated grip (palms facing towards you). However, if you speak with the Us Marine Corps or the World Pull up Organization, they’ll consider both grips as pull ups.
To keep everyone on the same page, from here on out we’ll consider pull ups using an overhand or pronated grip while chin ups use a supinated or underhand grip.
Pull ups are an important exercise because it’s a bodyweight exercise that demands you lift your entire body mass upwards. Pull ups strengthen multiple muscle groups in one exercise making it an efficient and effective exercise to help build functional power in the upper body.
We’ve all seen movies where the character is struggling to hang on to a ledge, bridge or landing gear of a helicopter. Now imagine yourself in a situation like that, would you be able to pull yourself up if you needed to? If you can’t do a pull up yet, pull up alternatives will help get you to that point. If you can already do pull ups then exercise alternatives to pull ups can help you do more and/or build up more upper body strength.
There are no exact formula regarding how many pull ups you should be able to do but we can look at the averages for different groups of people below:
Pull ups are one of the best upper body exercises around and shouldn’t be replaced but there are a number of pull up alternatives that should be added to your workout plan. In reality, pull ups should be done in conjunction with other horizontal and vertical pulling exercises if you really want to build up your back.
We recommend that if you can do pull ups you should do them. However, not all people can perform full unassisted pull ups. Don’t worry we have you covered, we summarize a pull up progression plan that will get you on the right track to performing pull ups on your own.
Yes, you can train your back without a pull up bar with a variety of exercises and equipment. Resistance bands offer a range of back exercises that will work back muscles like a pull up would. You can also use other traditional gym equipment to train your back such as the cable machine for lat pull downs or the Smith machine for bent over rows, dumbbells for single arm rows, barbells for Yates rows and even towels for row variations.
There are plenty of ways to train your back without a pull up bar. So, if you don’t have a pull up bar or can't do a pull up then you should definitely be working on some of the pull up alternatives that we cover later on.
Pull ups work a variety of muscles in the upper body including:
Primary muscles (movers):
Latissimus Dorsi: This is the largest muscle in your back. This paired broad, flat triangular muscle stretches across the width of your mid and lower back. Commonly referred to as the lats, the scientific name in fact comes from Latin latissimus meaning “broadest” and dorsum meaning “back”. A well-built lats creates the tapered V look.
The main functions of the lats is adduction, extension, transverse extension, flexion from an extended position and medial rotation of the shoulder joint. The lats also have other functions in the body but for the sake of this post we’ll focus on how it functions when it comes to pull ups. The lats attach directly to the spine so when the arms are in a fixed position overhead the lats are primarily responsible for pulling the trunk upward and forward.
Biceps Brachii: This two headed muscle is comprised of the long head and short head that act on both the elbow and the shoulder joint. In the case of pull up the biceps help turn the forearm out so that your can grip the bar with a pronated grip. It also helps the lats pull us upwards. The narrower the pull up grip the more your biceps will be engaged.
Brachioradialis and brachialis (forearms): These muscles found in the forearms play a role in pull ups. The brachioradialis is a forearm flexor when the forearm is semi-pronated, or when the palm is perpendicular to the ground like in a pull up position. The brachialis and the brachioradialis work in concert with the biceps to flex the forearm at the elbow.
Infraspinatus: This is a rotator cuff muscle that acts as a stabilizer of the glenohumeral joint during shoulder abduction.
Lower Trapezius: The traps are a large triangular muscle in the upper back that stretches from the base of the skull to the lower thoracic vertebrae of the spine and laterally to the spine of the scapula. Retracting the scapula is the main function of the traps. The lower lat muscle fibers assist in depressing the scapular which is the opposite movement of shoulder shrugs.
Rear Deltoid: This muscle found on the back of the shoulder helps to pull our shoulders back during pull ups. At the bottom of a pull up it’s important to release the tension and come to a dead hang so that the rear delts and shoulders have to work harder to generate the momentum to lift your body upwards.
Rhomboids: This back muscle found in the middle of the upper back between the shoulder blades is vitally important in providing stability to the shoulder girdle and with arm movements. They help to pull the scapula back during a pull up.
Levator scapulae: This long slender muscle starts at the top of the spine and runs down the sides of the neck to the scapula. The main function is to elevate the scapulae.
Pectoralis Major/Minor: These muscles that form the chest primarily help with pushing or pressing movements. However, when performing pull ups the pecs help to assist the lats as you pull up towards the bar.
Rotator Cuff Muscles: (infraspinatus, supraspinatus, subscapularis and teres minor): These muscles work to stabilize the shoulder joint while doing pull ups.
Triceps: This three headed muscle on the back of the upper arms is responsible for extension of the elbow. While doing pull ups the long head of the triceps help pull your body towards the bar.
Obliques: Located along the side of the rectus abdominis in the abdomen area. These muscles help with bending and twisting of the trunk. Hanging from a bar while doing a pull up engages the obliques.
Erector Spinae: This is a collection of muscles; the iliocostalis, longissimus, and spinalis located in the center of the back that are centered around the spine. The primary function is trunk extension, think of deadlifts or back extensions. While doing pull ups these muscles help to keep the body using proper posture.
The point of the post is to highlight pull up alternatives which will also have the similar benefits of pull ups. Below is a sampling of the positive effects of doing pull ups.
Build Strong Back: The primary movers in pull ups are the back muscles especially the lats. A strong back can help improve your posture and make every day tasks easier to complete. Plus a well-built back looks great on both men and women.
Work Multiple Muscles: Pull ups are one of the best compound exercises that you can do. This bodyweight compound exercise activates many muscles in order to complete the movement. Besides the major back muscles, pull ups also work the shoulders, core and arms. Working multiple muscles in unison will result in better coordination and more strength overall. If you’re in a rush and want to get an effective upper body workout in then pull ups can be a staple exercise in your arsenal.
Boost Grip Strength: Holding your bodyweight up on a bar then performing a pull up requires you to have a grip that’s strong enough so you don’t slip and fall. Building grip strength is one of the most important and most neglected parts of many people’s training programs.
The old saying, “you’re only as strong as your grip” is true. Most people’s grip will give out before the main muscles they’re training. For example, with deadlifts you’ll see that many people can’t do them without wrist straps because of weak grip. All your upper body lifts will improve if your grip strength does.
Burn Calories: Pull ups are a compound exercise where many muscles are engaged which requires more oxygen and calories to be burned. Your lungs and heart work harder which will improve your cardiovascular capability. Also, because pull ups are a great exercise to build lean muscle mass, you will boost your metabolism. The more muscle mass you have the more energy they require even at rest.
Versatility: Pull ups can be done with only two things; your bodyweight and a bar. Not all exercises are created alike, pull ups have some amazing health benefits and you can do them or similar exercises that work the same muscles by doing pull up alternatives.
In short, everyone should be performing pull up alternatives whether or not they can do a regular pull up. The key to building strong functional muscles is to use variety in terms of reps and sets, load, grip, body positioning, equipment used and tempo. The pull up alternatives in we provide in this post give you a range of exercises that can be done at home or the gym.
There could be a number of reasons why you can’t currently do a pull up. Let’s remember that pull ups are a hard exercise but with the right work ethic and training plan you will be able to do pull ups in a few months. Here’s a few common reasons why you might not be able to do a pull up.
For some of you that are reading this, you’re here because you want to learn pull up alternatives but others might want to know how to work their way up to doing a pull up. If you’re part of the latter then you can check out our full post on Pull Up Progression.
To summarize how to follow a 9+ week pull up progression plan:
Practice Australian pull ups or bodyweight inverted rows
Continue working on the inverted rows
Add dead hangs to the mix (3 grips-close, normal, wide).
Add shoulder depressions
Band assisted pull ups (start with heavy resistance band and work your way down to light resistance)
Add Negatives (start with chin over the bar then lower to dead hang as slow as possible)
Try unassisted pull ups
The following 13 pull up alternative exercises and variations will hit your lats plus a handful of other muscles that are also involved with executing a perfect pull up. You'll also see we included pull up alternatives that can be done at home with no pull up bar or other equipment.
This bodyweight exercise is a perfect pull up alternative because it uses the same muscles as a pull up. There’s a reason why the inverted row is part of the pull up progression plan. All you need is a low bar, railing or even a sturdy table to perform this exercise if you’re not at the gym.
The beauty of inverted row is that they’re easier to do compared with a pull up. They also allow for multiple tweaks to make the exercise easier or harder. You can readjust your body positioning to change difficulty and the angle in which you target the lats. Standing up taller with a taller bar makes it easier while the more you bring your feet out under the bar coming closer to parallel with the floor, the harder it gets. You can also place your feet on a raised platform to make it more difficult.
Note: Keep your body in a straight line throughout the movement, don't let your hips sag.
This exercise is the same as the above except for the fact you will be forced to use more stabilizer muscles to pull your body upwards.
The lat pull down mimics how a pull up works but instead of pulling weight up with your lats you’ll be pulling it down. Lat pull downs are great to get extra volume in this range of motion even after you’re fatigued from pull ups. You can really focus on contracting and squeezing your lats when doing lat pull downs. Also, for people who can’t yet do an unassisted pull up, the lat pull down is perfect because you can set the weight or resistance at an amount that’s manageable.
Note: Keep your core engaged and head forward throughout the movement and try to control the bar on the up back up in a 2-3 second timeframe to get maximum eccentric contraction and longer time under tension.
There are numerous variations of rows but the bent over row takes the cake for building muscle and adding size to the back. You can perform bent over rows with either an overhand or underhand grip. With the overhand grip you’ll be hitting the upper back muscles more like the rhomboids and the traps. With underhand grip your emphasize the mid back and lats more.
Note: Engage your core and maintian a neutral back throughout the movement.
This is the same exercise as above but you'll be able to focus more on your lats as you're reomving some need for stabiliziing muscles to work due to the fixed movement on the machine.
Related: Best Smith Machine Exercises
The lat pushdown is an exercise that works the lats without elbow flexion. This exercise will also hit the posterior deltoid, teres major and a little of the triceps.
Note: Make sure to focus on using your lats to drive the bar down rather than your triceps.
This is a great unilateral exercise that works the lats and other muscles involved in pull ups. You can really get a good stretch in the lats with this one plus work the lower lats more.
By doing single arm exercises like this you’ll be able to notice if there’s any weakness on one side vs the other. If you do spot a muscle imbalance on one side then you can work on improving it until both sides are equally strong. This exercise allows for a complete range of motion which can help stimulate new muscle growth.
Note: Change up your grip to overhand for more emphasis on the upper back or underhand to target the lower lats more.
This is a simalal exercise to the single arm lat pulldown but you'll get more of a stretch in this version due to the wide grip positioning.
This lat pull down variation requires a neutral grip that forces your elbows to be drawn down and tucked to your sides. This movement leads to greater shoulder extension. You’ll also be leaning back slightly so that you can pull more weight which can lead to building stronger lats, making the V bar pull up a great alternative exercise.
Note: Don’t round your back to pull the weight down, keep your chest up as you pull down.
With the close grip chin up you’ll use the same muscles as you would for a pull up but you’ll redirect some of the tension to the arms. In this movement you’ll hit your lower lats and biceps more. This exercise should be easier to pull off compared to a traditional pull up making it a great pull up alternative.
Note: Remember to keep your head straight throughout the movement to avoid straining your neck.
Assisted pull up are exactly what the name suggests, pull ups that are done with some type of assistance. Assisted pull ups are great for beginners who can’t complete a pull up or can’t do enough pull ups to get a good workout in. You can do assisted pull ups in three ways; with a machine, with bands or with a partner.
Let’s take a brief look at each of these options:
With the pull up assist machine you should first determine what a good starting weight to choose in the weight stack. For example, if you set the weight at 50lbs then it will take 50lbs off your bodyweight. The amount of weight you choose will be largely dependent on how close you are to being able to do an unassisted pull up. If you’re far away then you will probably start somewhere with the weight around half your bodyweight or more.
Try doing a set of 6-12 reps and if it’s too easy/hard then make necessary adjustments. Over time you should gradually lower the amount of counter weight until you’re able to do unassisted pull ups. You should be able to do at least 5 reps of unassisted pull ups before you move one from the assisted versions.
The second way of performing an assisted pull up is with the help of loop resistance bands. Loop resistance bands are a great tool to assist with pull ups because there’s the capability to change the amount of assistance by using different bands or band combos. Bands are also nice because you can carry them with you to use at the gym, at home or even outside at a park.
Start with a heavier resistance band then work your way down to the lighter resistance band as you progress. Overall, the resistance band pull up is a perfect alternative for beginners.
This version of the assisted pull up requires you to have an extra set of hands. You can use this pull up alternative if you don’t have a pull up assist machine or bands at your disposal. You just need someone willing to hold your legs as you perform the pull ups.
The pullover is good for stretching the lats while the shoulders are extended. This exercise is a hybrid that will work your lats and your chest. The first part of the lift targets the lats while your pecs become involved as the weight moves past your head. Your triceps with also get a nice workout with this one without having to constantly press down and extend at the elbows like most triceps exercises.
**You can position your body two ways with this exercise(fully lying on the bench or perpendicular to the bench with only your upper back in contact)
Note: Keep your arms stationary without movement in your elbows.
This exercise is great for the lats as it mimics the bent over row. The big difference here is that you’re in a seated position which removes the lower back muscles from assisting with the lift. This means you can really hone in on using your lats to lift the weight. This variation of the seated row can be executed with multiple grips and equipment.
Note: Keep your back straight and dont rock your bodyweight to pull the weight, focus on using your lats.
The renegade row is a fantastic pull up alternative with dumbbells. This full body exercise works some of the same muscles of a pull up including the obliques, rhomboids, lats and triceps. An added benefit of this exercise is that while building upper body strength you’re also improving balance and stabilization in the core and shoulders.
Note: Spreading your legs out further with make this exercise easier by giving you a wider base. Try to use hex dumbbells so the dumbbells don’t shift.
This exercise is also called the single arm row is perfect to move your lats through a wide range of motion. Because you're only using one arm at a time you can really focus on the mind-muscle connection. This unilateral exercise will also work the core as you will have to stabilize yourself throughout the motion.
Note: Keep your hips forward and core engaged throughout the movement.
Follow the same cues from above except for the set up below:
The towel row is a great at home pull up alternative because you don’t need anything except for yourself, a towel and a sturdy anchor point. With this no bar pull up alternative make sure you have a good grip on the towel, a longer towel will enable you to move through a larger range of motion.
Note: You can also do this exercise on a vertical column for the anchor point. To make the exercise more difficult you should anchor the towel lower and lean back more.
This version of the towel row will work one side of the body at a time but you'll follow the same cues as above. The biggest difference here is that it will be more difficult to perform becuase you're using one arm. You'll also need to focus on anti-rotation to keep your body aligned without having your inactive side leaning back.
With the bent over towel row you will execute with the same body positioning as the bent over row. The key focus point here is to apply force and contraction to the muscles as you pull your hands away from each other and pull your elbow upwards. Constant tension is needed to reap the beneifts of this because not weight is being moved.
This workout consists of pull up alternative exercises that work your back and other major upper body muscles through a range of motions and with different grips. We based this workoutu around the idea that you're looking to gain muscle size.
Note: Take 60-90 seconds rest between sets.
In general, you should target major muscle groups twice a week. This also pertains to pull up alternative exercises. You should have at least 24 hours rest between workout sessions. Depending on what your end goal is, your sets and reps will change. Go for lower reps higher weight of 1-5 reps for strength and power. Use a rep range of 6-12 for hypertropy and strength gains and 12-20 for muscle gain and endurance. As we mentioned before it's beneficial to mix up rep and sets ranges to keep the workouts fresh and your muscles responding to new stimuli.
Crossfit makes a few recommendations for pull up alternatives including jumping pull ups, negatives, ring rows, pull-downs and assisted pull ups. Regardless of the exercise you choose, make sure you follow the proper form to get the most from the exercise.
Pull up alternative exercises can help you to build strength and muscle. Use some of these exercises in your training program and you're sure to see your pull up ability improve. No more excuses, even if you don't have a pull up bar or you're working out at home without access to a cable machine or barbells/dumbells you can still do some pull up alternatives. Grab some bands or a towel and get to work!
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