For many, the bodyweight pull-up will forever be the bane of their fitness efforts. Body weight and upper body strength are the main culprits but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to accomplish close to the same thing.
These pull-up alternatives offer options for pretty much anyone to get similar benefits.
Not to mention, they will help to build the muscles that are used to perform a proper bodyweight pull-up.
What Is A Pull-up?
Even before we put together this list of best pull-up alternatives, we had to consider everything that makes the pull-up what it is.
Mostly everyone who hasn’t been living under a rock knows that a pull-up is when you pull yourself up using an overhead bar.
However, they may also use the term pull-up to describe a chin-up. But there is a difference.
The pull-up is performed using a pronated or overhand grip.
The chin-up is performed using a supinated or underhand grip.
Due to the difference in hand position, the body mechanics seem to change when it comes to performing either one.
For example, have you ever tried to do a very close grip pull-up using an overhand grip? It’s probably very uncomfortable and many times impossible (not always though).
But doing super close grip chin-ups with the hands touching on the bar is easy peasy.
This is probably due to the fact that when the palms are facing away from you, the biceps are at a mechanical disadvantage.
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Similarly, you couldn’t do a very wide chin-up whereas you could, using an overhand pull-up grip.
The pull-up and chin-up work all of the same muscles, however, a little differently.
For example, using a wide, overhand grip for the pull-up actually incorporates more of the teres major, due to its location (below the armpit) and function.
The teres major is a shoulder muscle that functions to pull the upper arm back into extension and rotate it toward medially or inward towards the trunk.
Normally, the lats take over as the dominant muscle when performing pull-ups using a close and medium grip. But when using a wider grip, this smaller muscle takes on more responsibility.
This may also be explained by the fact that it’s harder to do pull-ups with the hands positioned farther apart than shoulder-width.
Choosing The Best Pull-up Alternatives
In making our pull-up alternative exercise selections, there were a few essential criteria.
For instance, all exercises must work the back muscles. While the biceps and forearms do get heavy engagement when performing pull-ups, I think we can all agree that the primary focus is the muscles of the rear.
Therefore, not all of these exercises involve using your grip to pull but most of the alternatives that you’ll find on this list do.
The only other thing we considered was offering options for everyone. You certainly do not need to be able to perform a single pull-up to do many of these.
However, if you simply want an alternative to the bodyweight bar pull-up, then we included some of those too like the chin-up, door pull-up, and inverted row variations.
1. Cable pulldown
One of the more popular back exercises, the cable pulldown is the pull-up in reverse.
One advantage the cable pulldown has over machines and even the pull-up is you have lots of different attachment options.
You can work the same muscles using a long bar or lat attachment, EZ-bar, individual handles, double D handle rope, and more.
You can also lift super heavy and then perform multiple drop sets. Umm, you can’t really do that with the pull-up, can you?
Well, maybe with a pull-up assist machine you could.
But if you have no interest in doing pull-ups anyway, the cable pulldown and its variations are great lat exercises that many will choose any day over trying to pull themselves up to a bar, even if assisted.
2. Inverted row
In fact, it’s probably what the knee push-up is to a full, proper push-up.
That’s because it removes a percentage of your body weight resistance which makes it easier to do.
And, like with push-ups, you can position your upper body more upright and this makes it possible to do even for those with very little upper body strength.
There are so many different variations of the inverted row. Here’s a list of the different things you can use.
- Smith machine bar
- Sturdy table
- Recreational park bars
- Barbell supported by a rack
- Mop handle and chairs or kitchen counters
- TRX or suspension trainer
3. Suspension pull-up
Suspension trainers have become very popular training tools that use your own body weight as resistance.
Now, it may be a little more difficult to do pull-ups using a suspension trainer because the straps are not stable like a bar. Consequently, you also have to be careful because of the instability.
But the great thing about this training system is that you can adjust the straps and your body position according to your level of training experience.
You can find some of the best suspension trainer back exercises and pull-up alternatives in this guide.
Many actually prefer the chin-up over the pull-up and for good reason.
And because it’s essentially a bodyweight biceps curl, the chin-up is an exceptional biceps exercise when done right.
If you cannot do a full bodyweight chin-up, no worries, there are easier variations.
You could use a Smith machine or something similar and perform chin-ups by hanging your body from underneath as you would the inverted row.
Since your body is angled and your heels are kept on the ground, this will remove a percentage of your body weight.
Also check out: The Chin-Ups For Size and Strength Guide
5. Door pull-up
Not having a pull-up bar is no excuse for not being able to do pull-ups. Although, this could certainly depend on your living situation and how strong the doors are.
But you could place a towel or something soft at the top of the door and do pull-ups.
It may not be as comfortable since the front side of your body will be sliding against the door but it’s really not too bad.
6. Reverse elbow push-up
If you have absolutely no equipment and need a way to work your back muscles, this is it. Although, you can also use two chairs or benches and place yourself in between them for a larger range of exercise motion.
But you’re pretty much doing a reverse push-up as the name suggests and instead of using your arms, you’re driving your elbows into the floor to lift your torso off the ground.
It’s not easy, which is good because you need a challenge to overload your muscles and therefore, build muscle and strength.
To do it:
- Lie on your back with your elbows out at a roughly 45-degree angle to your body.
- Drive your elbows into the ground to lift your upper body. Hold for a second or two.
- Slowly return to the starting position and repeat for the desired number of reps.
You can also make this exercise easier by bending your knees or doing it using a wall. Simply face away from the wall, place your elbows against and push into it. It’s the same idea.
Here’s a video example of the reverse elbow push-up on the floor…
7. Front lever raise
This bodyweight gymnastics movement is even more challenging than the pull-up, therefore, you’ll need to be of an advanced fitness level to do it.
It requires total body strength and skill and while it doesn’t replicate the pull-up motion, it is a killer lats and overall back movement.
Learn all about the front lever raise in this guide.
8. Negatives from a bar
These are great for building pull-up strength. Grab onto the bar, jump yourself up as high as you can and then fight against your bodyweight trying to pull you back down. You can use a chair, bench, stool, or anything to help you up.
One common mistake that people make when doing negatives is they get impatient and drop down too quickly even if they have the strength to hold themselves up for a little longer.
By trying to hold yourself up longer you’ll not only develop more physical strength but mental strength as well and this plays a big role when it comes to getting the most from pull-ups.
Most probably don’t realize it but doing complete pull-ups challenges mental fortitude.
If you want to build an amazing back, then rows are a must-have in our opinion.
There are so many different variations too, which means you’ll never get bored training your back and if you don’t like a specific row exercise, well, there are tons of others to choose from.
- Barbell bent-over row
- Dumbbell bent-over row
- Cable row variations
- Yates row
- Inverted row (already mentioned but it is a row variation)
- Pendlay row
- Kroc row
- Seal row
- Renegade row
- Machine row
- Landmine row
- Doorway row/pull-up
We’re not referring to the Romanian deadlift, stiff-legged deadlift, or any other hip hinge exercise other than a conventional deadlift.
Having to pull heavy weight from the ground requires a different level of effort and maximally engages your upper body pulling muscles.
There’s a reason you can lift more pulling weight from the ground and why the conventional deadlift is a contested lift in powerlifting, and part of Strongman, weightlifting, and CrossFit performance.
The deadlift is an amazing back and total body exercise.
What Muscles Does The Pull-up Work?
It takes several muscle groups working together to perform a pull-up.
The pull-up works all back muscles, although, some more than others.
How exactly do we know that?
Well, there was a study by ACE research that tested the pull-up against other common back exercises. Researchers found that the pull-up elicited superior activation of the latissimus dorsi (lats) muscles compared to all of the other exercises, including the chin-up, pulldown, seated row, and bent-over row to name a few.
That doesn’t mean other exercises aren’t good for working the lats but the pull-up may be a little better.
But that’s why we also like to incorporate variety in our training regimes. We can utilize different exercises to hit the muscles from various angles and therefore, maximize the recruitment of specific muscle groups.
Anyhow, the pull-up works all of the back muscles which include the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, erector spinae, and more.
While these muscles can have the same function, they have different roles.
Commonly called lats for short, the latissimus dorsi is a broad muscle that spans a large portion of the mid and lower back. You may have seen bodybuilders that look like they have wings under their armpits… yep! those are their lats.
The lats have a few different functions.
They help to adduct and medially rotate the humerus or upper arm bone, assist in extension of the humerus, and move the trunk when arms are positioned overhead.
The rhomboids, located on the upper back and deep to the trapezius, consist of two muscles: major and minor.
Along with other nearby muscles, the rhomboids help form the shoulder girdle. As a result, these muscles help to retract, elevate, and rotate the scapula or shoulder blades.
The rhomboids are also involved in pulling, throwing, and overhead arm movements.
The trapezius (traps) muscles, located across the upper back and lower neck, are responsible for elevation, retraction, and depression of the scapula or shoulder blades.
There are three sections of fibers that make up the traps; upper, middle, and lower.
The upper fibers elevate the scapula, while the middle fibers retract or pull the shoulder blades back, and the lower fibers depress or pull the scapula downward.
The erector spinae is actually a group of back muscles and tendons located along the spinal column from the hips to the base of the skull.
Because of its location, and function as a back extensor (standing up straight and bending backward), the erector spinae is also considered a core muscle.
The erector spinae is also involved in side-to-side rotation.
Deltoid posterior or rear delts
The rear delts could be considered a back muscle since it is located on the rear and in a place that you cannot see it looking head-on in a mirror.
However, it’s a shoulder muscle nonetheless and actually one of the three heads that make up the delts.
Underdeveloped rear delts are the worst not just because they can make you look aesthetically unbalanced, but it can affect posture and your lifting progress.
The rear delts work with other back muscles such as the scapular retractors, rhomboids, and traps, to pull your shoulders back. This is important for lifting posture and normal, everyday posture.
The rear delts also help stabilize the arm so that the lateral head of the deltoids can raise the arm.
The biceps brachii (biceps for short) could very well be the most famous muscle of the human body.
Why is that?
Because muscular arms are one of the very first body parts people notice. A good pair of biceps are usually very visible in a short sleeve shirt or otherwise. And even if you have other well-developed body parts, they may go unnoticed unless accompanied by an impressive pair of guns.
Powerful arms have come to be the ultimate symbol of fitness.
OK, now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about the anatomy of this iconic muscle.
Because the biceps crosses both the elbow and shoulder joint, it helps facilitate flexion at both ends. But the primary function of the biceps is supination (rotating the forearm to a palms-up position). The biceps is actually not as strong of an elbow flexor.
Pull-ups, while they may not be quite as effective for working the biceps as chin-ups, you’ll still get lots of stimulation.
Any pulling exercise includes the brachialis. This muscle is located beneath the outer biceps and when well-developed, starts to push out against the biceps and can be visible on its own.
This muscle gives width to the upper arms and is primarily responsible for elbow flexion. Although when the forearm is both supinated and flexed, the brachialis is at a mechanical disadvantage to the biceps.
Pull-ups require a lot of forearm strength seeing as your grip has to be strong enough to support your body weight.
The forearms include the muscles that run from the elbow to the wrist. Of these muscles, you have the anterior or flexors and posterior or extensors.
These muscles work together to move the forearm, elbow, wrists, and digits of the hand.
The brachioradialis, a muscle of the forearm, flexes the elbow and also supinates and pronates the forearm. This muscle adds a lot to the appearance of muscular arms and gets a lot of work when doing any pulling movements.
While it’s not the aim of the pull-up to work the core muscles, they do play a role in stabilizing the trunk during this movement.
The abdominals or six-pack muscles, deep core muscles, obliques, and erector spinae, help to keep the midsection rigid and strong.
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Build a Roadmap Back With These Pull-Up Alternatives
If you were looking for the best pull-up alternatives, you’ve come to the right place.
It doesn’t matter what your level of fitness is or whether or not you can do a bodyweight pull-up, there are options for everyone.
We chose what we believe to be several of the most effective back builders and while some require training tools and equipment, others require very minimal to nothing to build an impressive back.