Alternatives to Pull Up Exercises

Tamsen Butler
Man doing pull ups

Pull-ups can be challenging, yet are so beneficial to muscles of the upper body including the back, chest, arms, and hands. Even if you can't yet do a proper pull-up, you can derive similar benefits from other exercises designed to work the same muscle groups.

Farmer's Carry

Pull-ups are not just about chest and arm strength; it also takes grip strength to do a complete, controlled pull-up. A favorite among body builders to increase grip strength, the farmer's carry simply involves carrying heavy weights from one point to another.

  1. Grasp a heavy weight in each hand (kettlebells work well for this). Choose a weight that feels so heavy you wouldn't try to curl it, but not so heavy that you can't carry it.
  2. Your arms should hang straight down your sides, fully extended and holding the weights.
  3. Relaxing your shoulders and standing tall, walk across the room (or gym) and then back for a total of around 60 seconds or longer.

Assisted Pull-Up

Using a pull-up machine or resistance bands, you can do a pull-up with a little help. This is an excellent option for those who want to work toward doing an unassisted pull-up eventually as it promotes the neuro-muscular memory of the move.

  1. If using a machine, kneel onto the platform and set the weight to the amount you'll need - the heavier the weight, the more assistance you'll get.
  2. If using bands tied onto bars, place your shins on the bands as you assume a kneeling position.
  3. Grasp the bars above with an overhand grip.
  4. Use your arms to pull you upward, controlling the motion as you ascend. Your knees will stay bent.
  5. As you move upward, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  6. Pause at the top of the movement before slowly descending in a slow, controlled manner.
  7. Repeat, doing up to three sets of 10-12. It's fine to rest in between each set if needed.

Overhead Press

Using a similar motion as a pull-up, an overhead press is most beneficial when the exerciser focuses on squeezing the back muscles on the descent of the weights.

  1. Stand with your feet around hip-width apart, with your knees soft and shoulders relaxed.
  2. Grasping a hand weight in each hand, make a "goal post" shape with your arms to where the elbows are at shoulder height.
  3. Push the weights straight up until your arms are fully extended.
  4. As you allow the weights to descend, allow the elbows to move outward, away from your torso as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
  5. Throughout this movement, focus on squeezing the muscles of your back in a controlled manner.
  6. Repeat, doing up to three sets of 10-12. Rest in between sets if needed.

Lat Pull-Down Machine

A lat pull-down machine is a great choice for people who want to strengthen their back muscles without pull-ups.

  1. Sit on the bench of the machine and adjust the height and holds to where your legs feel secure and comfortable.
  2. Adjust the weight on the machine; the heavier the weight, the more challenging it will be.
  3. With an overhand grip, grasp the bar above.
  4. Pull down on the bar, keeping your chest upright and your back straight.
  5. Hold at the bottom for a brief pause before taking the bar back up in a controlled manner, resisting the ascent.
  6. Repeat, doing up to three sets of 10-12. Rest between sets if needed.

Renegade Row

Though this exercise doesn't necessarily mimic the movement of pull-ups, it does target the lats effectively. If this move proves too difficult, try doing it on your knees.

  1. Assume a high plank position with a hand weight in each hand.
  2. Without allowing your hips to swivel to the side, pull the right elbow up and the weight off the ground - this is a dumbbell row.
  3. Drop the right weight back down to the floor, controlling the descent.
  4. Repeat on the left side.
  5. Do each side for up to three sets of 10-12. If you need a rest, drop down briefly into child's pose.

Practice Makes Perfect

If you can strengthen the muscles used in a pull-up, you increase your odds of eventually being able to successfully do one unassisted. The good news is you don't absolutely have to do pull ups to have a strong upper body.

Alternatives to Pull Up Exercises