Of all the different exercises that you can do to build your upper body strength, pull ups are the absolute best, beyond a shadow of a doubt, without question. That’s because they work three key sets of muscles in the upper body: the trapezoid, back, and lateral muscle bodies.
Despite the unquestionable benefits they provide, however, sometimes pull-ups just aren’t an option. Super tall people and those who are just starting out on the workout journey and have yet to establish upper body strength, for example, can find pull ups really challenging.
Even if you’re of “average” stature and you do have the upper body strength that would allow you to easily pull off pull ups – and they’re a regular part of your workout routine – sometimes, you just need to switch things up. Fortunately, there are some great alternatives to pull ups that you might want to consider trying.
Interested in learning more? Keep on reading!
What’s a Pull Up, Anyway?
Before we jump in and explore some effective alternatives to pull ups, we want to take a moment to discuss what pull ups actually are.
Pull ups are one of the most classic of all bodyweight exercises. Not only do they help you build your strength, but they can also communicate a lot about your current upper body strength. This exercise is considered a “closed chain” movement.
You use a pronated grip (that’s a fancy way to say your palms are facing away from you) to grab onto and suspend yourself from a bar. Once you’ve established a good grip, you use your upper arm strength to draw your body upward until your chin reaches above the bar. Your elbows should be positioned by your torso.
A lot of men and women confuse pull ups with chin ups. In fact, depending on who you ask what the difference between the two upper body strengthening exercises is, you’ll get a different answer.
For instance, lots of trainers, as well as the Guinness Book of World Records, define pull ups as being completed in a pronated grip, while chin ups are completed using a supinated (a fancy way to say “palms facing toward you”) grip.
If you ask the United States Marine Corp and the World Pull Up Organization, they’ll tell you that pull ups can be done with both a pronated and supinated grip. We define pull ups as being done with a pronated – an overhand – grip.
The Importance of Pull Ups
If you’re trying to build your strength, pull ups are an invaluable exercise for building a bulging back, as you need to lift all of your body mass in an upwards fashion. This motion uses and in turn, strengthens, several muscle groups in the upper body, some of which include:
- Biceps brachii, the upper arm muscles
- Latissimus dorsi, the largest back muscle
- Brachioradialis and brachialis, the muscles in the forearms
- Lower trapezius, upper back muscle
- Infraspinatus, which is in the rotator cuff
- Rear deltoids, which are located in the back of the shoulders
- Pectoralis minor and major, which lie in the upper chest
If you go to a mainstream fitness chain there are probably pull up bars galore. If however you don’t have access to a big public gym there are various home-pull up bar solutions that can accommodate just about every type of living situation including doorway-mounted bars, free-standing platforms, and wall-mounted bars.
Why Can’t I Do Pull Ups?
While pull ups are undeniably the best and most effective exercise you can do to build your upper body strength, sometimes, they just aren’t feasible. The following are some of the reasons why you might not be able to engage in this exercise:
- You’ve suffered an injury, while attempting to do a pull up or for some other reason.
- You’re overweight and are having a hard time lifting your body mass up through the full range of motion.
- You don’t have a strong grip, which is vital for performing pull ups.
- Your back muscles have yet to be built up enough to complete the action of a pull up.
The Best Pull Up Alternatives
Whether one of the above applies to you or you’re just growing tired of doing pull ups and you want to switch things up, you’ll be glad to know that there are several pull up alternatives. The following bodyweight exercises work several of the muscles in the upper body and will help to build your upper body strength.
This exercise uses the same muscles that are used to do pull ups, making it a perfect alternative. To do this exercise, you’ll need a low bar or a railing, or even a sturdy table, and the following steps:
- Sit underneath the bar, reach up and grab it with both hands in an overhand grip so that your hands are slightly wider than your shoulders
- Bring your feet out so that they’re in a straight line with your core
- Retract your shoulder blades and use your upper body strength to draw your lower chest up to the bar
- Slowly lower back to your starting position
Wide Grip Lat Pull Down
This alternative is done on a weight stack machine. It’s a great alternative because it mimics how a pull up works, except rather than pulling weight up with your lats, you’ll be pulling the weight down. Obviously, you’ll need weights to do this exercise.
- Sit on the bench and select the desired weight
- Grab the bar the overhead bar with an overhand grip. Your hands should be positioned wider than your shoulder width.
- Pull down on the bar while holding your back straight and keeping your chest up until your elbows are at your sides and the bar reaches your upper chest.
- Slowly return the bar to the starting position.
Bent Over Rows
The bent over row is great for working out the muscles in the back. It can be performed in either an over- or an underhand grip.
- Position the feet so that they’re under your shoulders and bend over slightly at the needs so that your torso is over the bar.
- With a neutral back, use an underhand grip to grab the bar with your hands so that they’re shoulder width apart.
- Hold the bent form, pull up through your elbows until the bar reaches your abdomen.
- Slowly lower the bar to the starting position so that your arms are fully extended.
Avoid Kippings At All Cost
Kipping pull-ups, popularized by Crossfit, are a form of pull-up wherein you swing your body and use momentum to complete the motion. This removes exertion from the muscle bodies you are trying to target and is ultimately a compromised exercise.
Furthermore, the whipping motion of kipping pull-ups can cause injury to your back because of the weight being rapidly and violently alternated between a curved and arched spine. Avoid these and stick to regular pull ups, and if you aren’t strong enough for regular pull ups use an assistance machine or start with lat pulldowns instead.