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.
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.
- 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.
- Your arms should hang straight down your sides, fully extended and holding the weights.
- Relaxing your shoulders and standing tall, walk across the room (or gym) and then back for a total of around 60 seconds or longer.
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.
- 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.
- If using bands tied onto bars, place your shins on the bands as you assume a kneeling position.
- Grasp the bars above with an overhand grip.
- Use your arms to pull you upward, controlling the motion as you ascend. Your knees will stay bent.
- As you move upward, squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Pause at the top of the movement before slowly descending in a slow, controlled manner.
- Repeat, doing up to three sets of 10-12. It's fine to rest in between each set if needed.
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.
- Stand with your feet around hip-width apart, with your knees soft and shoulders relaxed.
- Grasping a hand weight in each hand, make a "goal post" shape with your arms to where the elbows are at shoulder height.
- Push the weights straight up until your arms are fully extended.
- As you allow the weights to descend, allow the elbows to move outward, away from your torso as you squeeze your shoulder blades together.
- Throughout this movement, focus on squeezing the muscles of your back in a controlled manner.
- 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.
- Sit on the bench of the machine and adjust the height and holds to where your legs feel secure and comfortable.
- Adjust the weight on the machine; the heavier the weight, the more challenging it will be.
- With an overhand grip, grasp the bar above.
- Pull down on the bar, keeping your chest upright and your back straight.
- Hold at the bottom for a brief pause before taking the bar back up in a controlled manner, resisting the ascent.
- Repeat, doing up to three sets of 10-12. Rest between sets if needed.
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.
- Assume a high plank position with a hand weight in each hand.
- 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.
- Drop the right weight back down to the floor, controlling the descent.
- Repeat on the left side.
- 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.