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, manoeuvring your head above the bar before lowering yourself back down.
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 to do Pull ups at Home
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-ups Exercises at Home 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.
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).
What are the Benefits of a Strong Back?
The muscles that comprise your back are extremely vital to your overall wellbeing. 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.
- Zero Low Back Pain: 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…
Steps to Take If You Can’t Do Pull Ups
If you’re still struggling with traditional pull-ups then we have several alternatives that can be carried out to target key muscle groups.
These are 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).
Australian pulls are perfect substitutions for pull-ups, so give them a try on your next back day.
Towel/Resistance Bands 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 resistance bands 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, 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.
Here is an exercise pulled from the depths of some creative person’s mind.
The great aspect about this particular exercise (and the last two exercises as well) is that they require nothing but the floor.
For the later two, you can put down a yoga mat to help protect your hands or elbows, but for this movement, you’ll need a slick surface like hardwood floor or linoleum.
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, contracting your back and keeping your lower body limp. 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 muscles an Australian pull and towel chin-up 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.
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 LATs like none other. Start by lying on the floor, face up. 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.
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.
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!