Best Pull Up Alternative Exercises To Build A Strong Upper Body

Do you know what the best exercise is by far for building a beastly back?

Assuming you read the title, the answer would be pull-ups.

While the pull-up reigns supreme on calisthenics back exercises, it's not always the most available movement.

What I mean by that is you don't have access to a pull-up bar 24/7. Or, if you do, pull-ups start to get stale and repetitive.

You want to spice things up for your back workouts.

Whether it's to elevate the difficulty or to give you an option or two when a pull-up bar isn't in the calisthenics cards, there are alternatives to the traditional pull-up.

In this article, I'll give you the rundown of why a strong back is critical to your overall physique, how to do pull-ups without a bar at home, and a list of variations to upgrade your fitness routine.

Let's get started!

What Is a Pull-Up?

First things first, what is a pull-up?

A pull-up is a compound exercise that targets muscle in your upper-body meaning both back and arm strength is important.

There are now numerous variations of the traditional pull up, many of which we will cover in this guide. Pulls ups, also known as chin ups are performed by gripping a bar above your head and then using your upper body muscles to 'pull' yourself upwards, maneuvering your head above the bar before lowering yourself back down.

How to do Pull-ups at Home

table pull-ups

The best thing about pull ups is that they can be performed almost anywhere.

The ongoing Coronavirus outbreak now means many of us are having to transfer our workouts from the gym to our homes. If you find yourself in a similar situation, then the pull up should be an essential exercise in keeping fit.

The easiest way to start performing pull ups at home is to install an indoor or outdoor pull up bar or workstation. The outdoor stations can easily fit within a private yard without taking up too much space.

If you have a bar in place but are still struggling to perform pull ups then try to incorporate several other pull workouts in to your at home regime to improve strength in key muscle groups required for pull ups.

How to Perform Pull-up Exercises Without a Bar

If you still want to get your pull-ups in from home and you don't have a pull-up bar, We've also got you covered.

There are ways to utilize the things in your home to mimic the feel and strain of a standard pull-up.

Pull-ups are tough because they are one of the few bodyweight exercises that require equipment - a horizontal bar overhead. Sadly, not every home has such a thing built in.

Unless you have a staircase with an above ceiling ledge or a low-hanging balcony with rungs, you're out of luck.

Thankfully, there are many different ways you can pull your body through a plane and get the desired effects (i.e., muscle soreness and growth).

Pull-Ups Exercises Without a Pull-up Bar

No pull-up bar? No problem. Here are a few pull-up alternatives that you can do using playground equipment or things around the house.

Australian Pulls

Also known as the inverted row or bodyweight row, this alternative exercise is the closest you can get to doing pull-ups without actually doing pull-ups.

The name implies where you are for the movement; essentially, you get "down under" a ledge or bar, grab it with your hands and, suspended in space with your feet on the floor, pull your upper body upwards.

As for the ledge or bar above you, you can use a ton of different objects in your house: Tables, chairs, bookcases...get creative. (But stay safe - you don't want things falling on you!)

The trick is to find something low enough to have your feet be on the ground as you perform your pulls.

When these get too simple, elevate your feet. The higher your lower body is, the more you're lifting your upper body (a.k.a., adding weight to the exercise).

When doing an inverted row, using an overhand grip will help target the back muscles as primary movers. Shifting to an underhand grip (like a chin-up) will engage the biceps and shoulders more. They're both great workouts, but an overhand grip is a must if you're targeting the back muscles.

Australian pulls are perfect substitutions for pull-ups, so give them a try on your next back day.

Towel/Resistance Band Pull-ups

Forget spending hard-earned money on a doorway pull-up system. You can recreate pull-ups with simple household items.

The easiest way to do this is by using an old towel or rag. Make sure it's a sturdy towel - like a bath towel or something equivalent - before you attempt this movement.

Or, if you happen to have a resistance band at home, select the ones with the most resistance and throw them over a bar or edge above you.

If your only option is a door handle or something low to the ground, beginners can do a seated pull-up and skilled athletes can level up and do L-sit pull-ups.

You still lift your entire body, with the added bonus of an abdominal hold.

This makes for another amazing alternative to pull-ups. They aren't exactly the same - the towel or bands cause your arms to be close together, creating a chin-up feel - but it's really close.

You can also do a towel row to replicate ring rows if you don't have access to gymnastic rings or a suspension trainer. The towel row is easy to modify by altering your stance, making it easier or more challenging depending on your fitness level.

Floor Pulls

Here is an exercise pulled from the depths of some creative person's mind, and one you might want to try while you're home alone.

The great aspect about this particular pull up alternative exercise is that they require nothing but your body weight and the floor.

Start by laying flat on the floor, facing down.

Place your arms in front so they're out past your head at shoulder width.

With your palms securely gripping the ground, pull yourself forward, focusing on scapular retraction and keeping your lower body inactive- your upper body muscles should be doing all the work here. Push back to complete the rep.

This is what you would call a horizontal pull-up, which is really cool because it helps you hit the angles and secondary muscles an Australian pull and towel row cannot.

It has your hands and arms placed in the exact same way you would a traditional pull-up, plus if you're flat on the floor you're moving through one plane.

For best results, contract hard. You're only pulling the lower half of your body, with gravity aiding you a little bit.

Therefore, the load isn't as taxing as a regular pull-up. Bump those reps up and make each one count to build upper body strength.

A word of caution: you might want a towel or slider to reduce the friction between your body and the floor.

Elbow Push-ups

Another intriguing and unique exercise to replace your pull-ups.

The elbow push-up acts like the end of a seated row, except you're on the ground and you're pushing rather than pulling.

These activate your latissimus dorsi like no other. Start by lying on the floor, facing foward. Lift your forearms into the sky so that your elbows remain on the floor.

Contract your entire body so that it will remain rigid.

Then, bring your upper body off the ground by contracting your back, swiveling your shoulders, and maintaining contact with the ground with your elbows.

It helps to tighten your hands into fists, so that everything from your glutes to your hamstrings to your core to your back remain flexed.

You can do these either as repetitions or as a hold, like a plank.

Don't let the simplicity fool you - these are tough. Work up to repping or holding this pose and your back will gain massive amounts of strength.

Plank Up-Downs

This exercise not only aids in strengthening your entire back, it teaches you to contract your core through movement.

Plank up-downs are more of a shoulder exercise and abdominal buster.

Nevertheless, they are simple to do, easy to perform at home with a yoga mat or on the floor, and works wonders for multiple body parts.

Begin in a plank position, hands on the floor. Choose one arm to start with; bring it down to the elbow so that your whole forearm is on the floor.

Do the same with the other arm. Now you're in a low plank position.

Return back to the original position by moving the first arm back to fully extended, then the second arm. Get into a rhythm, then on the next set switch your starter arm.

Again, this instructs you to engage your core while moving your shoulders multiple times. A strong core equals a strong back, especially lower- and mid-back.

All of these exercises are worth a shot. A few might even find their way into your normal routine.

But in a pinch, these at-home pull-up substitutes do the trick.

Pull up benefits

Alternative Pull-Up Exercise Progressions

So what if the reason you're looking for a pull-up alternative is the inability to do pull-ups? Here are a few progression exercises to help build upper body strength so you can accomplish this classic bodyweight exercise.

Negatives

Negatives are the quintessential training exercise for progressing to a pull-up. Adding these to your workout routine will help you target the primary and secondary muscles that make pull-ups possible.

Start by grabbing a pull-up bar with a wide grip. Use a box or jump to get yourself over the bar, ideally with the bar landing at shoulder height. Then, focus on scapular retraction as you slowly lower yourself down to a full straight arm extension.

Beginners should aim for a three-second negative, progressing over time. You can also use a resistance band for extra support.

Scapular Pull-Ups

The scapular pull-up focuses on activating and strengthening the shoulder muscles. This bodyweight exercise is great as both an active part of your workout routine or as a warm-up.

Hang from a pull-up bar, gymnastic rings, or a suspension trainer with hands in an overhand position at shoulder width. Maintaining a straight arm position, focus on drawing each shoulder blade toward each other. As you focus on scapular retraction, your chest and shoulders will shrug upward. Pause and squeeze for one second, then release.

In addition to improving your upper body strength, the scapular pull-up can improve your grip strength as well.

Dead Hangs

pull up bar

For the absolute beginner, adding dead hangs to your workout routine is a must. This simple-yet-effective exercise won't build a beastly back or shoulders, but it will provide the grip strength and control you need to do pull-ups.

After all, if you can't support your body weight on the bar, you definitely can't lift it to shoulder height.

Grab a bar with a neutral grip, lift your feet, and hang out for a while. Start by trying to hang for 30 second sprints, then scale up over time.

What are the Benefits of a Strong Back?

Back exercises

The muscles that comprise your back are extremely vital to your overall well-being. The stronger your back is, the stronger your body as a whole is.

Here are just a few of the numerous benefits having a powerfully built back gives you:

Proper Posture

The spine and stomach are supported by the muscles in your back. When your back is weak, this leads to an inability to maintain upright posture. Plus, you can't hold in your stomach. With a strong back, it will be easier to maintain solid posture well throughout the day.

Less Low Back Pain

Did you know that low back pain is a bit of an epidemic? According to the World Health Organization, "the lifetime prevalence of non-specific (common) low back pain is estimated at 60% to 70% in industrialized countries."

Your entire back is connected from top to bottom. Build a sturdy upper back and your lower back will follow suit. The same goes for your lower back. Pull-ups and pull-up variations improve your strength mostly in the upper back, but simply hanging from a bar will tremendously affect your lower back health too.

Extra Power

Not only is your back connected to itself, it has a role to play with your chest, abdominals, shoulders, and neck. Having a strong back allows you to lift harder and heavier for these muscles as well. Doing compound back movements are basically helping you with bench press (or push-ups) and overhead presses (or handstand push-ups). A strong upper back also lets you swing and throw harder for sports purposes.

Leaner Midsection & V-Shaped Torso

The goal of having an elite physique is to look good. Period. With well-developed back muscles, your upper body begins to form into the letter V, which is scientifically known to be incredibly attractive. Compound back exercises build up your upper back, slim down your waistline, and create that taper from your shoulders to your hips.

Better Balance

Everybody loves doing chest and shoulder day because they are push movements. Nobody wants to do the heavy pulling. If you throw the ego to the side and give your back and biceps the attention they deserve, you will be more equipped to handle more load on your push exercises. That's because your body will have unparalleled balance with a strong back, strong front, and strong core.

As you can see, the benefits are well worth the reps. But like I said before, what if you don't have a pull-up bar?

Or, what if you've plateaued on them and want something new to challenge your back?

Thankfully, there are alternatives.

Pull-Up Alternative Exercise FAQs

Still have a few questions about pull-up alternatives and building a strong back? Here are the answers to some commonly asked questions.

What muscles are involved in pull-ups?

Pull ups target your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, oblique, and biceps muscles, which makes it a fantastic compound movement.

How many pull-ups is considered "good?"

Let's not downplay the celebration of being able to get your first strict pull-up! The first one is the hardest.

Pull-up standards are based on your sex, body weight, and skill level. 

The general standards for males are:

  • Novice - 4
  • Intermediate - 13
  • Advanced - 24
  • Elite - 36

For females, the general standards are:

  • Novice - 1
  • Intermediate - 6
  • Advanced - 14
  • Elite - 24

However, the standards get into the minutia of your body weight. You can plug in your measurements here to see where you should fall.  

Are there pull-up alternatives that use gym equipment?

There are plenty of pull-up alternative exercises that hit both the primary and secondary muscles without ever replicating the pull-up movement. Some of these exercises include:

  • Dumbbell rows
  • Lat pulldown
  • Barbell row
  • Dumbbell lat pull-overs
  • Resistance band pull aparts
  • Resistance band or cable face pulls
  • Seated cable machine rows
  • Ring rows

The theme: lots of rowing and pulling. If you're not interested in ever doing pull-ups, add these movements to your workout routine to build a big back. 

Build Your Back Without Pull-ups

While the pull-up will forever remain king, that doesn't mean you shouldn't try the kingdom of back exercises.

The benefits of a strong back are loud and clear. Yet if you can't perform traditional pull-ups, you need a "back"-up plan.

This list of alternative calisthenics movements will make it tougher to skip your back day from home.

Give one or more of these anywhere exercises a go and tell us how it hurts!

Jake Lyda

Jake Lyda

I'm a freelance fitness and nutrition writer who loves to travel, train, and play team sports. I'm a true workout nerd and love to educate people about their bodies and how to optimize their physique.

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