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.
Don’t have a pull-up bar? Can’t pull yourself up even if you did? Maybe you want some new exercises to try out… These are some of the very best alternatives to train your back and biceps!
- What Is A Pull-up?
- Choosing The Best Pull Up Alternatives
- What Muscles Does The Pull-up Work?
- Build a Roadmap Back With These Pull-Up Alternatives
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. This is one of the best pull up alternatives.
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, then reverse elbow push up is a good pull up alternative. 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 back is put together by several muscles between the neck and torso. Here’s a brief summary of the muscles involved in pull-ups to help you place your focus accordingly.
Latissimus dorsi likely benefits the most from pull-ups according to research. As a matter of fact, a study by the American Council on Exercise put this to the test by comparing back muscle activation using various movements. (1). Well, the pull-up blew away the competition when it came to activating the lat muscles.
Lats are the wing-like muscles that cover both the upper and lower back and connect the upper extremities to the vertebral column on the back. These muscles are involved in movements where the arms are positioned overhead like during a pull-up. However, any back exercise will involve the lats.
Rhomboids are upper back muscles made of a major and minor that help us to move the upper limbs and stabilize the shoulder girdle and shoulder blades with aid of the trunk. We need rhomboids to perform all pulling movements.
Trapezius are the muscles we focus on when performing shrugs. However, pull training sessions are going to stimulate the traps too. Traps are split into three sections – upper, middle and lower fibers.
Upper fibers push the scapula up, middle fibers pull it back and lower fibers draw it down.
Pull-ups aren’t seen as a shoulder exercise. However, anytime you pull your arms behind your body, the posterior head of the deltoids will come to life. Being a typically underdeveloped muscle, this is a good thing.
You can kill two birds with one stone by incorporating pull-ups in your workouts. You’ll get an amazing back workout while building your biceps muscles. The biceps are two heads on the front of the upper arm that flexes when you make a muscle. It’s role is to flex the elbow and turn the forearm left and right depending on its position. Biceps also cross the shoulder joint but don’t do a lot at the upper end of the humerus (upper arm).
A significant muscle in the upper arm and forearm, the brachialis sits behind the outer biceps and shoots down through the the elbow joint. It’s the strongest elbow flexor and adds mass to the upper arm too.
There are many forearm muscles that help to operate the lower arm. The brachioradialis is one of the most important aesthetic forearm muscles located on the lateral and upper forearm. It’s also an elbow flexor.
The core is more important than we realize. In fact, during every full body exercise it’s working to keep us stable and strong to allow the lower and upper limbs to do their thing. These muscles include abdominals, obliques, and even the back muscles that line the length of the spine.
However, pull-ups are not an ab focused exercise.
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Build a Roadmap Back With These Pull-Up Alternatives
If you were looking for the top 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.