Pull-Up Alternatives

Pull-Ups are without a doubt one of the best exercises you can do to build back muscle and strength. However, you might not be able or like to do them! Whether it’s due to strength limitations, injury, mobility, or bodyweight, you might be looking to add alternatives into your routine.

This article will break down what to look for when picking a pull-up substitution and highlights some of our favorite alternatives.

woman doing pull ups

What Makes a Good Pull-Up Substitute?

Before diving into alternatives, we need to understand four criteria about the basic pull up to take into consideration when making our swap.

  1. Muscles targeted

Pull-ups mostly hit your lats, middle/lower traps, biceps and also your teres major/minor, infraspinatus, and rhomboids. To simplify, let’s focus on the lats because they are mostly responsible for taking your fully extended arms and driving your elbows down towards your hips (shoulder adduction).

 

  1. The plane of motion

Pull-ups are a vertical pull that occurs in the frontal plane of motion. If you want a direct swap for a pull-up, you wouldn’t want to do an exercise like a dumbbell row. While the row is also a great exercise that hits your lats, it’s a horizontal pull and it isn’t close enough to have the same carry-over as the alternatives we will list in this article.

 

  1. Equipment  

Exercise alternatives should include the same or similar equipment if the intention is to get comparable results to the original movement. Doing a barbell curl is a different stimulus than a resistance band curl. They use the same muscles, same motion, but the differing equipment allows you to use different loads and points of tension throughout the range of motion.

 

  1. Grip 

Hand positioning can impact which muscles you are placing emphasis on. When you do chin-ups with your palms facing you instead of away from your body, you incorporate your biceps a lot more. Alternatives closer to pull-ups would have palms facing outwards.

Best Pull-Up Alternatives

We are going to start from the closet to the actual movement down to regressions that you can use to help build up the pre-requisite strength to do regular pull-ups.

Eccentric Pull Ups

As a reminder, every lift has four parts. The beginning isometric start, the concentric, the second isometric, and the eccentric. In more laymen’s terms and using pull-ups as an example: You have the beginning hold with your arms extended, the raise to the bar (concentric), the very top, and then the lowering (eccentric). You have more eccentric strength than concentric strength. It’s much harder to pull yourself up than to slowly resist your bodyweight down to the starting position.

This is a fantastic pull-up alternative because it’s extremely difficult, works the same muscles, and uses the same grip and equipment. The only thing you are changing is jumping up to the top of the bar to skip the difficult concentric and only perform the negative.

Band-Assisted Pull-Ups

Band-Assisted Pull-Ups are a great alternative because of how easy it is to adjust the amount of assistance you are receiving. The thicker the band, the more assistance. 

You perform the pull-up with the exact same form except you place your feet onto a band that is anchored to the top of the bar which decreases your bodyweight at the bottom of the movement to make easier reps.

The only tricky part is that the band may cause you to swing a bit. Focus on bracing your core and use a partner to help steady you if necessary.

Assisted Pull-Up Machine

This exercise accomplishes the same thing as the band-assisted pull-up, but requires less stabilization since you are either standing or kneeling on a platform with a fixed path. It eliminates swinging and you are able to select how much weight assistance you need.

Assisted Pull-Up with Barbell

Most people have heard of inverted rows, but a great beginner regression for pull-ups is to keep your torso vertical with your legs out in front of you and perform pull-ups. The closer your feet are in towards your body, the easier the movement will be. Doing an inverted row is a horizontal movement so there won’t be as much carry-over as this one.

Lat Pulldown (Honorable Mention)

Lastly, the lat pull down. Lat pulldowns are a good pull-up alternative for beginners and a great overall back developer that we like to use as a complementary movement more-so than a true substitution (hence the honorable mention). Both belong in a well rounded program!

It’s not a bodyweight exercise. You aren’t hanging by a bar with your own body weight. You are seated and pulling the bar towards you using all of the same muscles, but it will not have the same carry-over effect. Again, if you are just after back exercises, this is a great one with a lot of its own variations and benefits!