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Pull-ups are one of the best exercises to strengthen your upper body. But what if you can’t do them, as everyone cannot lift their own body.
What if you are bored by doing pull-ups and want to try some different exercises which work the same muscles as pull up does.
So here you will find those powerful alternatives to pull-ups that will give the same effect and will strengthen your back to perform more pull-ups in the future.
Muscles Worked During Pull-ups
Pull up is a compound movement which works multiple muscles at the same time.
Here, not only your back muscles are working; your biceps, forearms, and many other stabilizers also called synergists will activate during pull-ups.
The primary muscles or agonists will be your lats, rhomboids, and teres major. These are the prime movers in most of the back exercises you do.
Now let’s talk about the exercises.
Alternatives To Pull Ups
1. Sliding Pull Ups
This exercise is similar to a pull-up. The only difference is that you are doing it on the floor. If you don’t have to pull up bars or can’t do pull-ups, then give this a try.
Targeted muscles- latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, traps, and lower back
How to do-
- Lay down on the floor with your chest facing down. Make sure the floor is slippery which allows you to slide. You can use a mat if you want.
- Place your hands up. Your hands should be placed away from each other.
- Start pulling your body up with the help of your hands and back. Keep your core tight and don’t bend your lower back.
- Stop when your hands reach the shoulder level and then repeat the movement.
You should not use too much lower back during the movement. You can avoid it by squeezing your glutes while you move.
Keep the tension on your lats all the time and always do the exercise with full focus and concentration.
2. Inverted Row
This is another great alternative to pull-ups. You can do this at home by keeping two chairs at a distance and placing a bar on them. Make sure that the bar doesn’t slide.
Muscles targeted- lats, rhomboids, teres major, abs
How to do
- Set up the rack with a bar at about your waist height.
- Get under the bar and grab it. Your grip should be slightly more than the shoulder-width apart.
- Keep your feet at the ground with your legs straight forward. Your hips should be tight.
- Start going up by squeezing your lats. Your lower back should not overarch and your abs should be tight.
- Touch your mid-chest at the top and then come down slowly to the starting position and repeat the movement.
3. Lat Pulldown
If you can’t do pull-ups, then this exercise is great for you. You can do lat pulldowns for some time.
As you progress with this exercise, slowly your strength will increase, and eventually, you would be able to perform the pull-ups easily.
Muscles targeted- latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, teres major
How to do
- Hold the bar of a lat pulldown machine. Sit down with your knees supported by the knee pads. Your grip should be wider than the shoulder width.
- Before moving the bar down, take your shoulders back and squeeze your lower trapezius muscle. Your elbow should be slightly bent.
- Now start going down by bending your elbows and take the bar to your chest. Your elbows should be facing down.
- Pause at the bottom position and then return slowly. Stretch at the top, then again start by depressing (shoulders moving down) and retracting your scapula.
If you are a beginner, then do shoulder-width lat pulldowns. Wide grip lat pulldowns will not be appropriate for beginners as it puts the shoulder in an unstable position which can lead to injuries if you are not experienced.
4. Prone Rows
I love this exercise because you can’t cheat during this exercise. It will be a great alternative to pull-ups as it targets the same muscles and is a great exercise to strengthen your back.
Muscles targeted- upper back, lats, rhomboids, traps
How to do
- Choose an elevated bench and place the rod under the bench. Add weights according to your strength.
- Lay down on a flat bench with your chest facing forward. Hold the barbell with your hands at a grip wider than the shoulders.
- Retract (shoulder going back) your shoulders and start lifting the barbell. The barbell should move straight.
- Pause at the top where the barbell is just below the chest. Then return to the starting position.
Keep in mind that your lower back should not overarch. You should feel the tension more on your upper back rather than the lower back.
5. Towel Pull ups
If you have already done a lot of pull-ups for so many years and if you want to make it harder, then this exercise is for you.
Here, you will need a lot of grip strength and core strength to lift your body. Try it out and you will love it.
Muscles targeted- Lats, rhomboids, forearms, abs
How to do
- Take two towels and roll them over the pull-up bar. Both the towels should be placed slightly away from the shoulder width.
- Now Grab the towel from your hands and start lifting your body. Your shoulder should be back and down. Keep your core tight and legs slightly forward.
- Pause at the top and squeeze your lats hard. Then return slowly and continue the rep.
If you cannot do pull-ups then this exercise is not for you. It’s for those people who already are good at pull-ups and want to make it more challenging.
6. Renegade Row
This exercise will work your core and back at the same time, just like pull-ups. I love this exercise because it can be done very easily and you don’t need any bench or machine for it.
Just buy some dumbbells and you can do it at home very easily. This will work your entire body so it can be used as a full-body exercise.
Muscles targeted- lats, rhomboids, lower back, and abs
How to do
- Get down on a plank position by holding both dumbbells placed on the ground. Your chest should be up and your shoulders should be rolled back. Keep your knees straight and back stable.
- Go down by flexing your elbows and squeeze the chest. Reach close to the floor and then push your hands to go up.
- Then perform the row by taking dumbbells up. Your elbows should be in while you are rowing. Repeat it with the other hand.
Your body should be facing the floor all the time. Choose the dumbbell according to your strength. Always do the exercise in a controlled way.
7. One-arm Dumbbell Row
If you have dumbbells at home, then it’s easy to do this exercise. All you need is a bed where you can place your hands and can start rowing while keeping your back straight.
Muscles targeted– lats, rhomboids and traps
How to do
- Place one knee on the bench and the other leg on the floor. Place the palm of your hands on the front part of the bench.
- Start lifting the dumbbell by rolling your shoulders back. Take dumbbells to the waist. Make sure to maintain a 90° angle at the elbow. Otherwise, you will put more tension on the biceps.
- Come down and fully stretch your back at the bottom. Your elbow should be in as you go up.
Make sure to keep your core tight during the movement. Always breathe out when you lift and breathe in on the way down.
You can use heavy dumbbells on this but make sure that you don’t round your back. You should not compromise your form to show off in the gym. One injury can take you down for months!
8. Assisted Pull ups
If you cannot do regular pull-ups, then this exercise is for you. Just find an assisted pull-up machine in the gym and follow the steps mentioned below.
Muscles targeted- lats, rhomboids, and teres major
How to do
- Set the weight according to your strength and step on a machine. The more weights you choose, the less difficult the exercise will become.
- Grab the bar with your grip at shoulders width apart. Now start going up by flexing your elbows. Your shoulder should be back and down before going up.
- Reach the top and then return slowly. Your elbow should face down as you move and your abs should be tight.
Your body should go straight up and down without rounding your back. You can reduce the weights slowly after some weeks.
Do this for a month and you will see much better results in your regular pull-ups.
9. Towel rows
This exercise is good for people who want to work out at home. The difficulty level of this exercise is low so the beginner can also try this.
Targeted muscles- lats, rhomboids (upper back)
How to do
- Take a long towel and roll it up around a pillar. Hold it with your hands and take your steps back.
- Bend your knees slightly and keep your hands straight. Your shoulder should be back and chest forward. This will be your starting position.
- Now start reaching forward by flexing your elbows and squeeze your back as you move. Your elbow should be in as you move forward.
- Pause at the top and then slowly return to the starting position.
You should do this exercise slowly to get the most out of this exercise. Always breathe out as you go forward and breathe in on the way back. This applies to all back exercises you do.
10. Bent Over Rows
This is one of the best exercises to build the strength and size of the back. It’s a very popular and effective exercise out there.
Targeted muscles- latissimus dorsi, traps, rhomboids
How to do
- Place your feet under the barbell. Bend down and hold the barbell with your hands. Your back should be straight. As you bend, take your hips back.
- Start deadlifting by lifting the barbell our hands and back straight. You can use both pronated and supinated grip.
- Now bend again by taking your hips back and stop when the barbell reaches the knee.
- From there, start pulling the weights up towards your stomach. Your lower back should not round during the movement.
- Get the barbell back to the knee position and repeat the exercise.
The overhand or pronated grip is good for lifting heavier weights. The underhand grip or duplicated grip will put more tension on the inner part of your back. Try both the grip and choose what works best for you.
What if you Cannot Do Pull-Ups!
Many people are struggling with pull-ups. I know you are eager to start doing pull-ups. But why can’t you do it?
You have to understand that pull-ups require a lot of stability and core strength to avoid swinging. It also requires grip strength to hang and lift yourself.
To make you do pull-ups, I have 3 exercises for you which you must do to increase your pull-ups.
1. Scapular Retraction and Depression
This exercise will not only help in improving your pull-ups but also will make your back in a stable position so that you can perform all other back exercises in a much effective way.
This is a basic movement pattern that should be known by all the lifters.
You can do this every day if you want. Make sure that you are doing at least 15 reps in each set. You don’t have to go heavy on this.
2. Inverted rows
This exercise I already mentioned above. You must do this exercise to build the pulling strength and stabilizing your core.
Make it easier by bending your knees and using your legs for support, as you go up. Do at least 2-3 sets of these every 2 days a week. This will increase your strength to perform more pull-ups with proper form.
3. Dead Hang
You cannot do pullups if you don’t have enough strength to hang on a bar. That’s why it’s important to have the grip strength to do pullups. This is a great exercise to build your grip strength. All you need to do is to hang on a bar with your hands straight up.
Do 3 sets of 20 seconds hold. Gradually, you can increase the duration of hold to 45 or even 60 seconds.
You can do this every day if you want. I would recommend you to do at least 4 days a week to improve your overall grip strength.
So by this, we can conclude that each exercise has its alternatives. It’s all about the art of a trainer or a coach to create different exercises to hit the same muscles. All these exercises discussed above will make your back strong and muscular as most of them are compound movements.
I hope you enjoyed reading this blog. If you know any other alternative exercises for pull ups, please share it down in the comment section.
Roshan Pillai is an ACSM Certified Personal Trainer with more than 6 years of experience in lifting weights and guiding people to get fit. He has worked as a personal trainer in gyms and is the owner and editor of fitnessproworkout.com. He is passionate about fitness and helping people to get in shape.