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If there was only one exercise for a strong, functional back, the pull-up would be among the top contenders.

Pull-ups can improve upper body strength and shoulder stability. They also foster impressive core and posterior chain control and endurance.

Being a closed kinetic chain pulling movement, pull-ups translate directly to many functional activities.

There’s only one problem: They’re damn hard!

While the calisthenics gods of social media make them look oh so easy, the fact is that pull-ups are inaccessible to many people.

Whether it’s lack of space, equipment, no gym membership, or just frustration with the difficulty of the exercise, there are many reasons you might be seeking pull up alternatives.

If this is you, this article is here to help.

Table of Contents:

  • Pull up preparation
  • Strengthening prime movers
  • Pull up regressions
  • Pull up alternative at home

18 of the Best Pull Up Alternatives

Pull Up Alternatives

These pull up substitute options are specifically divided into tailored sections.

The first section consists of exercises to build grip strength, scapular control, and strength in the core and deep shoulder muscles.

Many of these initial strength builders require minimal (or no) equipment, so they’re great home gym options, too.

Next, we’ll build the compound strength of the upper back muscles. 

These alternative exercises will allow anyone to develop the lats, traps, and accessory muscles, with options for a range of different equipment types.

Finally, we’ll take you through some exercise options which will use what you’ve built and progressively work towards the final goal: a powerful pull-up!

As a bonus, we’ve also included some more pull up alternatives at home using very cheap equipment or just items you may already have around the house.

Pull Up Alternatives: Pull Up Preparation 

1. Dead Hangs

The first obstacle for most people not being able to perform pull-ups is that they simply can’t support their body weight in a hanging position.

Hanging is a highly functional activity, as grip strength is directly correlated with our risk of mortality and disease.

Different studies have compared the efficacy of hanging for improving grip endurance, with intermittent periods (multiple sets) proving to be highly effective.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Pull up bar
  • Substitute: goal post, sturdy tree branch, safe ledge
  • Olympic rings (variation)
  • Training gloves (optional)
  • Chalk (optional)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Grip the hanging surface or bar with a strong, comfortable grip.
  • Keep the core engaged and the body straight if you have enough space, otherwise bend the knees to stay above the ground.
  • Lock the elbows straight and actively squeeze the bar.
  • Only hold until the grip starts to fail, then safely dismount.

Pro Tips: 

  • You can practice this skill with a variety of different grips, including underhand, overhand, close, wide, or one-handed.
  • Make sure to focus on the grip you intend to use for pull-ups, as your body will adapt to the positions you practice in.
  • Avoid crossing the feet over, as it’s more functional to keep the legs aligned with the hips.

2. Hanging Scapular Engagement

Once you can hang comfortably, the next step is to ensure you engage the muscles of scapular retraction and depression.

These muscles (traps, lats, rhomboids, etc.) can provide a much stronger base from which to pull, especially from an overhead position.

Exercise clinicians use a variety of scapular retraction exercises to strengthen these often weak muscles, and this hanging version is particularly useful for working towards pull-ups.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Pull up bar
  • Substitute: goal post, sturdy tree branch, safe ledge
  • Olympic rings (variation)
  • Training gloves (optional)
  • Chalk (optional)
  • Resistance band / towel (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Hang from the bar (or substitute) in the dead hang position above. 
  • From this starting position, lift the chest while keeping the elbows locked, actively squeezing the shoulder blades back and down.
  • Hold with the shoulder blades retracted and depressed for several seconds.
  • Slowly control back to the dead hang position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Once you progress from doing this exercise alone, it should become a staple of your pull up variations.
  • Before any pull-up (or pulldown) exercise, perform at least two sets of this exercise to engage these muscles and pull from a stronger position.

3. Hollow Body Hold

While pull-ups are recognized as one of the best exercises for the upper body, they are highly underrated as a core exercise.

Lack of core strength is also one of the biggest limiting factors in being able to perform a pull-up.

The hollow body hold doesn’t require equipment and is fundamental to building core strength for many bodyweight movements.

Research on this technique has found that hollowing significantly increases activation of the deep and superficial core muscles.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Comfortable floor surface

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Lay supine on the floor, with the arms extended in an overhead position.
  • Pull the belly button into the spine as you flatten the lower back onto the floor.
  • Tuck the chin into the chest.
  • Lift the hands and feet off the ground, keeping the arms alongside the ears.
  • Continue to draw the abs in as you breathe, holding the top position.
  • Revert to the starting position slowly, with control.

Pro Tips: 

  • There are many variations of this exercise depending on your strength and skill level.
  • Begin with bent knees or arms forward for an easier version.
  • Once you’ve mastered this position on the ground, you can combine the hollow body with the hanging exercises above.

4. Supermans

Another important focus area for improving our ability to perform pull-ups is lower back strength and trunk stabilization.

While the upper limbs perform a closed-chain pulling movement, a more stable trunk and lower body prevent energy from being wasted.

This exercise strengthens many of the smaller supporting muscles which can be overlooked in pull-up training.

One study found the superman exercise to be one of the most effective for increasing the contraction thickness of the lumbar spine musculature.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Comfortable floor surface

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Lie face down with the arms outstretched.
  • Keep the chin tucked and eyes facing down.
  • Contract the glutes and retract the shoulder blades.
  • Keep the entire body rigid as you lift the hands and feet off the floor.
  • Hold at the top for several seconds, and keep breathing.
  • Move back to the starting position slowly and with control.

Pro Tips: 

  • If the full superman is too difficult at first, you can perform just the upper or lower body portion.
  • Alternatively, you can raise the opposite arm and leg until you build the necessary strength.

5. Shoulder External Rotation

Another area that deals with a lot of tension in hanging positions is the rotator cuff. 

These deep shoulder muscles keep the arm in its socket, which is critical when hanging from the upper limbs.

External shoulder rotations are an amazing exercise for strengthening the muscles of the shoulder girdle

This exercise (or some variation of it) will strengthen the shoulders, help prevent injury, and add another strong link to your pull up chain.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Dumbbell
  • Rolled towel
  • Resistance band (variation)
  • Cable machine (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Lay on your side, supporting your head with the bottom arm.
  • Hold the dumbbell in the top hand, with the towel between the upper arm and the ribs.
  • Maintain a 90-degree bend in the elbow, with the forearm across the body.
  • Keep the upper arm close to your side as you lift the weight upward, focusing attention on the back of the shoulder.
  • Lift until before the point of leaning or rolling the arm backward.
  • Slowly lower the weight down to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • This exercise typically requires only light weights, so don’t overdo it.
  • Cables or bands can be used to perform different variations of external rotation movements.
  • Experiment with different positions of this exercise, such as standing or face down with the shoulder abducted.

Pull Up Alternatives: Strengthening Prime Movers

1. Inverted Rows

Now we’ve built a stable foundation, the following exercises will focus on strengthening the major muscle groups responsible for the pull up action.

The inverted row is an excellent compound pull exercise that targets the entire posterior chain and back.

This exercise is less challenging than a pull up, but still mimics many of the patterns of moving the body through space.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Bar approximately waist height
  • Bench to elevate feet

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Sit under the bar so you’re able to set up with a comfortable grip
  • Hold the bar and place the feet onto the bench.
  • Squeeze the bar as you lean back, driving the heels into the bench.
  • Contract the glutes to keep a straight body from the shoulders to the feet.
  • Pull your chest towards the bar, driving the elbows back and down.
  • Breathe out and hold at the top, with the chest touching the bar.
  • Return to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • For a less challenging exercise, see the suspended row below.
  • Experiment with grips to find a variation that works for you.
  • A home gym variation can be done with a barbell or sturdy rod placed between two chairs.

2. Dumbbell Pullovers

The act of pulling the arms down from an overhead position isn’t just critical for pull ups, it’s also a requirement for swimming, throwing, climbing, and many other activities.

The pullover is an effective movement for isolation of the latissimus dorsi muscle during this shoulder extension action.

This exercise is also one of the best for providing a stretch to the lats under tension, improving range of motion and strength at the same time.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Dumbbell
  • Bench

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Lie face-up on a weight bench, with the feet flat on the floor.
  • Hold a dumbbell at the chest with both hands.
  • Lift the weight above the chest, keeping the arms straight but not locked.
  • Slowly lower the arms into an overhead position, feeling a stretch in the lats.
  • Keep the core tight and breathe out as you extend at the shoulders to bring the weight back up to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • Try lying crossways over the bench to allow a greater range of back extension and stretch in the lats.
  • Find a way to grip the weight that feels comfortable for your wrists and shoulders.
  • Only bring the weight back up to eye level during the set to keep the tension on the muscles.

3. Suspension Rows

For those who have access to versatile gym equipment such as suspension training straps, this exercise can be a go-to pulling movement.

This exercise is similar to the inverted row but has the added benefit of being able to be done anywhere.

It is also an easier exercise to scale for difficulty, making it perfect for any fitness level.

Fitness Equipment Required: 

  • Suspension straps
  • Anchor point

How-To Perform Exercise: 

  • Holding the suspension handles, walk out until hanging with straight arms, taking up the slack.
  • Make a straight line from head to toe, at an appropriate difficulty level for you.
  • Maintaining a rigid trunk, pull the elbows down and back, keeping them close to the sides.
  • Push the chest up as you retract the shoulder blades strongly.
  • Hold briefly at the top, and control back to the starting position.

Pro Tips:

  • Unlike externally weighted exercises, you can adjust the difficulty mid-set – simply shift the feet forward or backward to add or decrease load on the fly.
  • Holding at the top of the movement is an effective inverted variation of the superman exercise.

4. Dumbbell Single-Arm Rows

While the pull up uses the body as the weight, it’s also useful to perform some open kinetic chain exercises in a back routine.

This anchors the body while moving an external weight through a full range of motion.

A safe and effective example of this type of back exercise is the single-arm row. It’s a great mid-back strengthening move that also works rotational control.

Research on back muscle activation found the one-arm row to recruit the middle trapezius to 79% of its maximum capacity.

Since this muscle helps pull the shoulders back, it’s also helpful for improving posture.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Dumbbell
  • Bench

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Set up by kneeling on the bench, with the hand placed on the bench in front of the knee.
  • For a variation without a bench, stand with one foot forward and the hand resting above the knee.
  • Holding the dumbbell in your working hand, arm hanging straight down, brace and straighten the back.
  • Push the foot into the floor and tighten the trunk, breathing out as you row the weight up to the side of the body.
  • Slowly control the weight down to the starting position, feeling a good stretch in the back muscles.

Pro Tips: 

  • Try a wider, pronated grip for more focus on the traps and rear delts.
  • A neutral grip pulling back more towards the hip will engage the lats more.

5. Cable Straight-Arm Pulldowns

An important aspect of resistance training is to challenge the muscle in different ranges of motion. 

If the pullover is the best exercise to strengthen the lats in a stretched position, the pulldown provides more stimulus in the contracted position.

This exercise is also an important step in working toward more advanced back exercises such as the muscle-up.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Cable machine
  • Straight or EZ bar handle
  • Resistance band (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Set the cable machine handle to the highest setting.
  • Stand facing the cable, with the hands shoulder-width apart on the bar.
  • Sit back into the heels slightly, leaning forward from the hips.
  • Engage the lats and breathe out as you pull the bar down to the thighs.
  • Keep the elbows straight, avoiding helping with the triceps.
  • Contract the entire back and core at the bottom, before slowly returning the bar to eye level.

Pro Tips: 

  • Try the resistance band version for an even better contraction at the bottom of the movement.
  • The resistance band pulldown can also be done anywhere, making it a more versatile exercise.

Pull Up Alternatives: Pull Up Regressions

1. Kneeling Lat Pulldown

Now we can put all the pieces together, to begin working toward a full pull up.

Kneeling lat pulldowns have a distinct advantage over their seated counterpart.

Compared with regular seated lat pulldowns, the kneeling variant more closely resembles the muscle activation patterns of the pull up, particularly regarding core muscle activation.

Again, a resistance band can be used in place of a cable machine if you’re working out at home.

Another great resource is our lat pulldown alternative guide if you find this exercise hard or don’t have access to a machine.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Cable machine
  • Wide handle
  • Resistance band (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Set the cable handle to a high setting that you can reach from a kneeling position.
  • Kneel in front of the handle, reaching up to hold the bar.
  • Squeeze your butt, push the hips forward slightly and lift the chest.
  • Start by performing the scapula setting movements practiced above.
  • Keeping the eyes up, pull the bar towards the top of the chest.
  • Hold the bar at the collarbone, contracting the entire posterior chain.
  • Slowly control the weight back to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • This exercise has a limit when the weight you’re able to lift becomes too much to keep yourself on the ground.
  • Luckily, at this point, it’s time to move on to the next exercises!

2. Machine Assisted Pull Ups

This exercise is a great transition from kneeling pulldowns to a pull up movement. 

Using the pin-loaded weights to counterbalance your body weight means that anyone can use this machine, even if pull ups seem impossible.

These machines are fairly common, so if you have access to one, definitely make the most of it!

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Assisted pull up machine
  • Standing assisted pull up machine (variation)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Set the weight to easily counterbalance your body weight.
  • Place your knees on the pad, holding on as you take up the slack.
  • As in the kneeling pulldown, squeeze the glutes and keep the body straight.
  • Slowly lower yourself until the arms are straight, then drive the chest up as you pull to the top.

Pro Tips: 

  • Use the principles from the dead hand and scapular engagement exercises to perform this pulling movement.
  • Keep the body straight and avoid sitting the hips back to cheat the pad up.
  • For those without access to the required machine, see the next exercise below.

3. Resistance Band Assisted Pull Ups

If your gym doesn’t have an assisted pull up machine – or if you prefer to work out at home – resistance band pull-ups are the next best thing.

You can start with heavy resistance to really assist you in the movement, and slowly progress through lighter bands as you improve.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Resistance band
  • Bar or similar place to tie band

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Loop the band through itself to anchor it to the bar.
  • Pull the band down, carefully placing one foot inside the loop.
  • Place the hands in the desired width and grip either side of the anchor point.
  • Straighten the leg inside the band until the feet are side by side.
  • Engage the shoulder blades and pull the chin over the bar.
  • Slowly lower yourself to full lockout at the bottom.

Pro Tips: 

  • Only let the band assist you as much as you need to perform the pull up yourself.
  • Take advantage of the band’s ability to give you extra range of motion at the top of the movement.

4. Negative Pull Ups

The next step to building pull up strength is to perform the negative, or eccentric, portion of the lift. 

Since muscles are stronger while lengthening than when contracting, you’ll be able to perform negatives even before getting your first full pull up.

Negatives are also a great way to create fatigue in the back muscles if muscle growth is your goal.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Pull up bar
  • Substitute: goal post, sturdy tree branch, safe ledge
  • Olympic rings (variation)
  • Training gloves (optional)
  • Chalk (optional)
  • Bench/step

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Using a step or other aid to help you, hold the bar and step or jump as you pull to the top position.
  • Bend the knees and start to slowly allow gravity to lower you down.
  • Take 3-5 seconds to lower down to a dead hang position.
  • Place the feet on the assistive surface, and come back to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • You can also perform an isometric hold at the top of the pull up to build strength in that range of motion.
  • Try adding in a scapular retraction after each negative, to transition to full pull-ups.

5. Chin Ups

The final pull-up alternative is a way to achieve a full bodyweight pulling movement, with the underhand grip putting the biceps in a more mechanically advantageous position.

This allows your arms to more effectively assist the back muscles in pulling you up to the bar. 

Using the combination of assistive exercise alternatives above along with chin ups will build the strength and endurance necessary to finally achieve the elusive pull-up.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Pull up bar
  • Substitute: goal post, sturdy tree branch, safe ledge
  • Olympic rings (variation)
  • Training gloves (optional)
  • Chalk (optional)
  • Bench/step

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Place the hands in a shoulder-width grip, palms facing toward you.
  • Assume a dead hang position and engage the scapulae.
  • Keep the hollow body position as you powerfully drive the elbows down and back.
  • Pull your shoulders to your hands at the bar and hold.
  • Slowly lower yourself to the starting position.

Pro Tips: 

  • When you build enough strength, you can lean back to emphasize the biceps even more.
  • Keep the eyes facing upward to avoid rounding the shoulders.
  • Keep building repetitions and keep periodically attempting overhand pull-ups until you can perform one. Then build from there!

Pull Up Alternative at Home 

1. Rope Climbing

One of the biggest benefits of exercises like pull ups is that they build our functional capacity.

Pulling our own bodies through space is one of the key goals with this type of movement, and another great way to achieve this (without a bar) is with the rope climb.

Whether you have a battle rope in your home gym, or just some regular sturdy rope already lying around the garage, give this functional exercise a try!

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Sturdy anchor point
  • Thick rope
  • Training gloves (optional)
  • Chalk (optional)

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Stand with the hands holding the rope, one over the other.
  • Hold the rope to support your body weight as you tuck the knees toward the chest.
  • Wrap the top foot around the rope and lock it in place with the other foot.
  • ‘Stand’ up, straighten the legs and keep your body close to the rope.
  • Reach up with one hand at a time and repeat.
  • Lower down by linking one hand over the other with the feet ready to lock if necessary.

Pro Tips: 

  • If you have any issue with heights, simply practice climbing and lowering just a couple of pulls at a time.
  • More advanced versions of the climb include not using the legs or climbing in an L-sit position.

2. Towel Pull Up

https://www.youtube.com/shorts/9qmlmRJUe7g

If you are not able to do pull-ups because you have absolutely nowhere overhead to hang from or tie something to, this exercise variation is for you.

Using just a towel and a doorway, you can get a great back strengthening workout at home.

Towel pulls can be done at any level of pull up, from easy rows to leg-assisted vertical pulls.

Using towels as handles is also an excellent way to train your grip strength.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Doorway
  • Towel

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Roll the towel halfway along its long edge and fold it over.
  • Place over the door and close the door towards you.
  • Hold either edge of the towel, finding a comfortable grip for you.
  • For rows, keep the feet on the ground close to the door and lean back.
  • For pull ups, kneel down then keep the knees bent as you pull yourself up.

Pro Tips: 

  • There are many variations with this exercise, so experiment with what works for your strength level.
  • You can practice other exercises like dead hangs and scapular retractions using this ‘equipment’ – with an extra focus on your grip.
  • You can also use two towels – one for each hand.

3. Elbow Plank

Building on the hollow body exercise mentioned above, the plank is a staple exercise for core strength.

This exercise requires absolutely no equipment, making it a must-include in most home exercise routines.

The elbow plank is also great for the serratus anterior muscles, which protract the shoulder blades and keep them safely tracking over the ribs.

Fitness Equipment Required:

  • Comfortable floor surface

How-To Perform Exercise:

  • Lay prone on the floor, placing the elbows directly beneath the shoulders.
  • Rise onto the knees or feet, with the four contact points on the floor.
  • Pull the stomach in and squeeze the glutes, while maintaining the breath.
  • Keep the chin tucked, maintaining a straight line from the head to the knees or feet.
  • Hold for the desired time, or as long as you can maintain good form.
  • Slowly lower yourself to the floor.

Pro Tips: 

  • Variations of the plank include the aforementioned knees or feet versions, as well as from the hands instead of the elbows.
  • Avoid sinking the hips down, but also raising them up and back.
  • Actively think of pulling your elbows and knees/feet toward each other to engage the core.

You Can Pull Through!

Feeling confident yet? We hope this article provided an achievable pathway for you. Use these pull-up alternatives until you can get over that final hurdle.

Let us know what you struggle with most with pull-ups in the comments. Hopefully, there is something on our list that can address the issue for you.

If you know anyone who is frustrated about not being able to do pull-ups and wants some effective alternatives, don’t hesitate to share this article to give them a helping hand.