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9 Effective Pull Up Alternatives at Home & for Beginners

A lot of people aren’t strong enough to do a full pull up or don’t have access to a pull up bar.

However, there are pull up alternatives that can allow you to work the same muscles. This is a slightly different article to most because the vast majority of similar articles just offer back exercises – not legitimate alternatives to pull ups. 

As a weightlifting coach for almost two decades, I’ve helped hundreds of beginners to perform full pull ups. I’ve also found a ton of ways to perform similar exercises to a pull up without a bar. 

I’m going to show you legit pull up alternatives that will train your muscles in the same way. These act as a progressive program to help you perform full pull ups.

So if you don’t have the strength to do pull ups or you don’t have a pull up bar, this article is for you.

What’s the problem with back exercises as a pull up alternative?

In human movement, we talk about ‘planes of movement’. These help us to categorize movements and exercises.

Pull-ups are a ‘sagittal plane’ movement, which divides the body into front and back. To effectively replicate it you have to follow the same movement pattern, which in the case of a pull up is a vertical pull. 

Most articles will (lazily) suggest you switch a pull up with exercises such as a bent-over row. The problem here though is that a bent-over row is a horizontal pull, not a vertical pull. Therefore, it challenges the muscles in a different way.

Muscle recruitment, technique and movement patterns are all very different, so horizontal pulls aren’t an effective alternative.

Effective pull up alternatives have to be vertical pulling movements.

Which muscles are trained by pull ups?

In order to effectively replicate the effects of the pull up, you have to understand what body parts you are training. Here are the muscles that are targeted with pull ups…

According to research average EMG muscle activation values maximum voluntary isometric contraction (%MVIC) were as follows (taken directly from the study)… 

  • Latissimus dorsi (117-130%)
  • biceps brachii (78-96%)
  • Infraspinatus (71-79%)
  • Lower trapezius (45-56%)
  • Pectoralis major (44-57%)
  • Erector spinae (39-41%)
  • External obliques (31-35%)

The pectoralis major and biceps brachii had significantly higher EMG activation during the chin-up than during the pull-up, whereas the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up.

This is interesting because it proves there’s much more core and back activation in the movement. There is significantly less posterior deltoid (back shoulder muscle) recruitment than many coaches would have you believe.

By using vertical pull variations to practice pull ups, you’ll recruit the same muscles at similar levels.

This is why I think your pull up alternatives should always bias vertical pulls.

How to replicate vertical pulls when you don’t have the strength

You may ask “how do I perform a vertical pull if I can’t do a pull up?”

The answer lies in generating mechanical advantages for yourself using these methods…

1. Off-loading weight

When you perform a pull from a seated position or kneeling, you’re either lifting a weight (as in the case of a lat pulldown), or you’re only lifting a percentage of your body weight.

This makes performing a vertical pull easier.

It’s also a very effective way of learning the pull up technique and can be easily adjusted to mean you’re lifting more of your body weight over time. We know from research that a kneeling pull is a good way of replicating the movement patterns and muscle recruitment of a pull up.

2. Using a resistance band

As a personal trainer, one of my favorite ways to get people performing vertical pulls is by using a resistance band to help them with pull up exercises.

The resistance bands help in two ways – they take some of the weight of the person, so make the exercise easier. They also offer a little ‘catapult’ to the lifter, meaning they’ve got some assistance on the pull. You can use different strengths of resistance bands to make the exercise easier or harder.

3. Using a lat pulldown machine

This is probably my least favorite, but still effective way of replicating the vertical pull. The reason it’s my least favorite is that it doesn’t include the technique element of the other two.

It’s a good way of training the muscles utilized in a pull up though, so should feature ahead of other pulling movements. 

Accessory exercises that help to build back strength

You might not be interested in ever doing a pull up, but had heard pull ups were great for building a strong back. 

If that’s the case and you’re simply looking for effective back exercises, here are a few options to choose from…

4. Inverted rows 

Inverted rows are great because you can play with your grip, mixing between close and wide grip. You can also go overhand (pronated) or underhand (supinated). For a new challenge, you can also try doing them with a TRX, rings or even a battle rope.

Equipment needed for inverted rows:

  • Barbell
  • Squat Rack
  • Table (variation)
  • Suspension trainer/ Rings (variation)
  • Towel shut in a door (variation)

How to do an inverted row:

  1. Place a barbell on a squat rack around hip height.
  2. Grip the bar around shoulder width apart with your thumbs wrapped around the bar. 
  3. Straighten your legs out in front of you and make sure your body is straight like a plank. 
  4. Pull your chest up to the bar until it touches the barbell 
  5. Lower yourself down with a straight body and repeat

Inverted rows muscles worked:

  • Upper back
  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Biceps

5. Single Arm Row

Single arm rows are very effective because they force each side to work independently. They require shoulder and trunk stability to maintain good torso position throughout the lift too. They’re harder than they look!

Equipment needed for single arm rows:

How to do a single arm row:

  1. Place a hand and knee on a bench, with the other leg on the floor for stability.
  2. Hold the dumbbell in the free hand, with your arm straight down. 
  3. Pull the dumbbell up to the rib cage, bending the elbow behind you as you do.
  4. Once the dumbbell is at rib height, pause and lower to the start position.

Single arm rows muscles worked:

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Biceps
  • Upper back (rhomboids and trapezius)
  • Obliques
  • Posterior deltoids

6. Barbell Rows

Barbell rows are another exercise that can be tweaked for different results. You can adjust the grip, weight and type of bar for different results. These are a go-to back exercise to so many for good reason.

Equipment needed for single arm rows:

How to do a barbell row:

  1. Keeping your back straight, bend your knees slightly and tilt forward at the hip
  2. Hold the barbell with an overhand or underhand grip, shoulder width apart
  3. Pull the barbell up to the rib cage, squeezing the shoulder blades together 
  4. Once the barbell is at rib height, pause and lower to the start position

Barbell row muscles worked:

  • Latissimus Dorsi
  • Biceps
  • Upper back (rhomboids and trapezius)
  • Forearms

7. Snatch Pulls

I like the snatch pull because it’s an exercise that involves the traps and erectors – muscles that are used in the pull up extensively. It also involves scapula (shoulder blade) movement and control that are also a part of the pull up movement. They’re an excellent upper back exercise.

Equipment needed for snatch pulls:

How to do a snatch pull:

  1. Keeping your back upright and straight, squat next to the bar
  2. Hold the barbell with a wide overhand grip, almost to the ends of the barbell
  3. Stand up by driving the feet into the floor, maintaining a straight back throughout
  4. Once the barbell is at hip height, aggressively pull the bar to the chest
  5. Lower the bar to the hips, then to the floor and repeat the movement

Snatch pull muscles worked:

  • Legs
  • Glutes
  • Upper back (rhomboids and trapezius)
  • Lower back
  • Erectors

8. Lat Pulldowns

Many people will automatically think of these as a go-to back exercise, but given I’d mentioned them earlier in the article I put them lower down. Play with grip and form for best results.

Equipment needed for lat pulldowns:

How to do a lat pulldown:

  1. Keeping your back upright and straight, hold the bar at arm’s length
  2. Hold the barbell with a the grip that suits – wide overhand grip for the lats, underhand close grip for mid back and biceps, close overhand grip for a general back workout
  3. Lean slightly back, maintain the position and pull the bar into your chest, squeezing your shoulder blades together.
  4. Once the barbell is at chest height, pause and slowly return the bar to the start position

Lat pulldown muscles worked:

  • Latisimus dorsi
  • Biceps
  • Back

9. Deadlifts

Deadlifts are known as the king of exercises to many. They’re excellent for building strength, but there are better muscle-building exercises out there. They’re not a particularly useful exercise for building pull up strength either.

As an overall training staple though, go for it!

However, Some people either have a back problem or don’t have the mobility to perform these. If that’s the case for you then check out our deadlift alternative article for more ideas.

Equipment needed for deadlifts:

How to do a deadlift:

  1. Keeping your back upright and straight, squat next to the bar
  2. Hold the barbell with an overhand or alternating grip, just wider than shoulder width
  3. Stand up by driving the feet into the floor, maintaining a straight back throughout
  4. Once the barbell is at hip height, push the hips through
  5. Lower the bar to the floor and repeat the movement

Deadlift muscles worked:

  • Legs
  • Glutes
  • Lower back
  • Erectors

These are just some of the literally hundreds of back exercises that will help you build a strong, muscular back and core. 

I think it’s important to mix them up and in particular, perform exercises that make each side work individually. By performing exercises that work both sides you iron out any strength imbalances and build a stronger back that will be more functionally fitter and injury resistant.

Variations on traditional pull ups

If you want to perform pull up variations, there’s a couple of middle ground exercises. They’re not as tough as a full pull up, but they follow the same movement pattern and they’re tougher than the first vertical pull movements I suggested earlier.

Jumping pull ups are an easier version of a pull up. You use the momentum of the jump to start the movement, so your time under tension is reduced and the amount of weight your body is lifting is also reduced.

It’s a good middle-ground for someone who is nearly able to perform full pull ups. They’re certainly not easy though, so don’t expect to be able to do them without previous training.

Chin ups are pull ups with a supinated (palms facing you) grip. The supine nature makes them easier because you get more bicep and trapezius activation, which lightens the overall load. There’s also a slightly reduced range of movement, making the exercise easier.

A chin up is still a very effective vertical pull exercise and has a lot of benefits, so even if you can do pull ups, still mix chin ups into your workout regularly too. 

Pull Up alternatives – concluded

I started the article by saying back exercises aren’t a suitable alternative to pull ups and I hope my explanation as to why makes sense. Good pull up alternatives have to maintain many of the qualities of a pull up in terms of movement patterns and muscle recruitment.

Replacing vertical pulls with horizontal pulls isn’t effective and if anything, it’s lazy uninformed coaching.  

If you came here unable to do pull ups but didn’t know other back exercises, hopefully, you’ve got some great ideas. If you simply want a strong, muscular back, all of the alternative exercises here will do the exact same job.

If pull ups are a goal of yours, aim to achieve it using the exercises here. Like anything, start with the basics and progress in terms of weights, sets, reps and intensity and you’ll soon manage your first pull up.

Your back is one of the most injury-prone areas in the entire body. If you injure your back it can affect your whole workout. Check out our lat pulldown alternatives or T bar row alternatives for some more exercises to work your back muscles safely.

by Steve Hoyles
Hi! My name is Steve Hoyles. I’m a personal trainer, gym owner and fitness copywriter. Since graduating with my Sports Science degree in 2004 I’ve worked in the fitness industry, helping thousands of people reach their health and fitness goals. My writing has been read by millions of people in over 200 countries.

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