A pull-up is one of the best overall exercises for building upper body strength. But not everyone can do one right away (in fact, most can’t!).
Pull-ups differ from chin-ups because your palms face away from you as you grip the pull-up bar. With a chin-up, your palms face toward you. This is much more challenging than a chin-up, making it an advanced exercise.
To get to your first pull-up, we will take you through some of the best pull-up alternatives to do on your way. Let’s get started.
What muscles do pull ups target?
The most significant set of muscles pull-ups target is your back. This includes:
- The latissimus dorsi. The largest upper back muscle, stretching from the middle of the back up towards the shoulder blade and below the armpits.
- The trapezium. These run from the neck out to the shoulders.
- The thoracic erector spinae. These are three muscles that run down the back parallel to the spine.
- The infraspinatus. Spans behind each shoulder blade.
Together, these muscles make up the bulk of the back muscles and are all worked by the pull-up motion.
Next, pull-ups also strengthen the muscles from one’s arm to the shoulder, hitting the forearm, biceps, triceps, and shoulder muscles.
Can You Do Pull-Ups Without a Pull-Up Bar?
Yes, there are a few means to do pull-ups without a bar.
Using a jungle gym, swing set, or monkey bars
The most straightforward alternative to having a dedicated pull-up bar at home is finding a playground with a bar that you can use. Some parks have even started putting in pull-up bars themselves.
Another single outdoor possibility is using a sturdy tree branch. It can be a bit tough to find one low enough to the ground and yet strong enough to support your weight, but if you can find one, their variations in girth can help vary up your exercise.
Using a door
Open your door at an angle that you have room to grip the top. Next, wedge a doorstop or towel underneath the door once it’s in position to keep it from moving. Now, throw a towel over the top of it and then form a wide grip over the towel. You can do your pull-ups from this position.
Just be sure the door is strong enough to support your weight.
A popular alternative is to invest in a pull-up bar made to fit your door frame. These usually have some cushioning and are relatively inexpensive. The way they grip the doorframe also doesn’t require any hardware, making for an easy install.
Using pull-up alternatives
Finally, you can do the pull-up alternatives we are about to go through, many of which don’t require a pull-up bar. These are exercises in their own right and you don’t have to think of them as lesser pull-ups. They are stepping stones to the ultimate goal.
The best pullup alternative options
Table Bodyweight Row
A kind of pull-up done down very low to the ground, the table bodyweight row lets you ease upwards towards a full pull-up by mimicking some of the motions but with a more distributed bodyweight.
In particular, a table bodyweight row hits your lats (back muscles), biceps, and forearms.
You’ll need a sturdy table or low bar to do this exercise. In addition, there needs to be space underneath it to do the movement.
Here’s how to do the exercise:
- Lay down underneath the table with about your mid-chest lined up with the table’s edge.
- Grip the table with both hands.
- Pull your body upwards towards the tabletop, leaving your heels touching the ground but getting your chest as close to the underside as possible.
- Then, pull yourself about halfway back down and repeat for a whole set.
A towel row uses a long towel to hold the body up and provide a range of motion for a kind of lateral pull-up.
It trains your lats (back muscles), biceps, and shoulder muscles.
For a towel row, you’ll need a sturdy pole or pillar to wrap your towel around. Once in position, it’s a super simple exercise with minimal equipment.
Here’s how to do it:
- Wrap your towel around the pole and grip each end.
- Your feet should be planted near the pole as you lean your body back holding onto the towel. Your knees should be bent and posterior dropped down slightly.
- Then, pull yourself up by the towel, straightening your body as you pull forwards and upwards.
- Once your hands reach your chest in the pull, start easing your way back down again.
- Repeat as many times as needed for your set.
Kneeling Resistance Lat Band Pulldown
This one requires an exercise band and an anchor point, the simplest of which is simply securing it in the top of a door frame by closing the door on it.
The exercise will work your lats (back muscles) and biceps.
One of the nice things about it is the ability to simply increase the band’s resistance to increase the intensity. It’s also easy to carry around the band for a exercise on the go.
Here’s how you do it:
- Grip either end of the resistance band after securing it to its anchor point.
- While kneeling, lift your hands above your head and keep the resistance band at a fairly easy to hold level.
- Now, pull your hands back to nearly your shoulders, then let them go upwards again.
- Repeat as many times as necessary for the set.
Dumbbell Lat Pulldown
For this exercise, you’ll need two dumbbells. It is very similar to an overhead press but easier to achieve at home with less risk. It is one of the most common pull-up preparation exercises.
It trains the lats (back muscles), shoulder muscles, and biceps.
Here’s the rundown:
- Lift a dumbbell up overhead, one in each hand.
- Then, slowly bring each dumbbell back downwards to waist height, curving your arms outward as you do it.
- Bringing them back upwards, repeat this sequence as many times as necessary for a set.
If you can master the dumbbell row, you’ll essentially be exercising the same muscles as you would be with a pull-up. You’ll need a flat bench or equivalent and a dumbbell.
It’ll train your lats (back muscles), traps, rhomboid (upper back muscles), biceps, and forearms.
Here’s how to do it:
- Lift one knee onto the bench leaving the other leg planted on the floor, about shoulder-width apart.
- Place the hand on the same side as the kneeling leg on the bench in front of it.
- Remain in a tabletop position with your back straight and parallel to the bench.
- In your other hand, lift a dumbbell so that it forms a 90 degree angle with your elbow.
- Then, lower the dumbbell again until the arm is just about straightened out.
- Repeat as necessary to complete the set.
Door Band Pulldown
This is another easy one to get started on that directly prepares you for pull-ups. All you need to begin is a pull-up assist band and a door.
It trains the lateral muscles on your back.
Here’s how to do it:
- Secure the pull-up assist band over the top of a door.
- Next, kneel in front of the end of the door, grabbing the two ends of the assist band.
- Pull down to shoulder height before letting your ups back up again.
- Repeat as necessary to finish your set.
Resistance Band Pull Apart
A sort of complement to the above pulldown, the pull-apart targets the middle back more with a similar exercise.
Overall, it targets the shoulders and middle back.
Like with other resistance band exercises, you can increase the resistance to make for a more challenging workout. You can also try holding the pull apart or pulldown positions for longer.
Here’s how to do it:
- Fold the resistance band in a loop, gripping both ends out in front of you, feet shoulder-width apart.
- Now pull the band apart, stretching your arms to either side until you are in a T-position.
- Then, let the band pull back until you are in the original position again.
- Repeat as needed to complete a set.
Back Bridge Pull Ups
One that requires absolutely no equipment, a back bridge pull-up is not easy. It exercises just about every muscle in the body and is great for improving posture.
Compared to others on this list, it hits your legs and lower body in a way they don’t. This is one you’re unlikely to be able to pull off your first try, so make sure you’ve tried some of the others on the list first.
Overall, it targets your shoulders, traps (upper back muscles), erector spinae (runs down the spine), glutes, and hamstrings (leg muscles).
This is how to do it:
- First, you’re going to get into a back bridge.
- To do this, lie down with your knees up, feet touching the ground.
- Then, place your hands palms down above your shoulders, fingers pointing up past the top of your head, then lift your whole body.
- This should form a kind of ‘bridge’ shape with your body.
- Now, to perform the pull-up, simply lower your body back down and then push up as high as you can again, maintaining the bridge shape throughout.
- Repeat as necessary to complete a set.
An inverted row is similar to the table bodyweight row, but uses a bar set to waist-height to perform the pull. These two are great for building the mid-back muscles, which typically begin a bit weaker.
The inverted row will train the lats (back muscles), traps (upper back muscles), abs, biceps, and shoulders.
Here’s how to perform them:
- First, set-up a bar at waist height.
- Then, lie down flat under the bar, grabbing the bar with both hands at elbow distance apart.
- Now, pull up towards the bar, really engaging the chest muscles. If you notice your hips coming up first, you are doing it wrong.
- Lower yourself back down to near lying position and repeat.
- Do this as many times as needed for a set.
How to get your first pull up
Now that we have some options for building the muscles needed for your first pull-up, we can move into two very close cousins to the full pull-up, assisted and negative.
Assisted Pull Ups
An assisted pull-up is just like a regular pull-up except some of your bodyweight is passed over to an object or person that assists you. There are two standard ways of doing this, person-assisted or chair-assisted.
For the person-assisted, get into a pull-up position and begin a pull-up as normal. Your partner can then assist from behind you by helping to lift your body as you perform the exercise.
The chair-assisted is even easier. Simply place a chair under your pull-up position so that your legs begin the pull-up in a squat position. At the height of the pull-up, you should end up in a standing position.
Negative pull ups
A negative pull up provides assistance for the elevation part by allowing you to jump off of a chair or stool in the upward motion. Then, you’ll lower yourself down slowly. It’s named as it is because it focuses on the ‘negative’ motion of lowering.
To perform one:
- Use an overhand grip and get into the pull-up position.
- Stand on a chair or stool.
- Jump and use your grip to raise your chin above the bar.
- Now, lower yourself slowly back down to the chair or stool.
- Repeat as needed to complete a set.
Performing a pull-up is one of the big goals of many work out enthusiasts. Once you are able to do a few, you’ll be able to target the upper back muscles with extraordinary power, but the difficulty for many is getting there.
That’s why we wrote this article, to help you get started with easy, at-home exercises to build your way up to a pull-up.