August 11, 2021 10 min read

So you want pull-up strength gains but you don’t have a bar? Never fear.

There are a handful of exercises that activate the same muscle groups and lead to the same toned muscles when used correctly. It’s all about understanding how pull-ups work and what kind of gains you can expect from them.

You can also use these pull-up alternatives to build strength and increase your pull-up count. If you hit a plateau, turn to one of the five exercises in this guide to kick your hypertrophy into high gear and get stacked.

Are Pull-Ups a Good Exercise?

Why is everyone so fixated on pull-ups? Sure, they’re challenging, but they’re still just a bodyweight exercise at the end of the day. Pull-ups are no match for strength training exercises like bench presses, are they?

athlete doing pull-up on horizontal bar.Mans fitness at the stadium

Actually, when it comes to the muscles in your back, the pull-up reigns supreme. They’re inarguably the best of the bodyweight exercises and they’re comparable to the machine exercises you’d likely see at the gym.

Pull-ups are such a great exercise for building strength in your arms, back, and shoulders because there’s no way to cheat and successfully complete them. When you’re lifting your body weight toward, the pull-up bar, you can’t rely on your lower body muscles to help you up.

Achieving Your First Pull-Up

Because there is such a reliance on the muscles in your upper body, many people find it difficult or even impossible to complete a single pull-up. If that’s your situation, don’t fret. Even people who have worked out regularly for a long time and have toned muscles can’t necessarily do a pull-up.

It doesn’t help that more muscle mass gives you more weight to lift. You’ll have more power to lift but also more weight to lift. If the mass and the power aren’t increasing in tandem, you might even see your pull-up count decrease.

Some of the alternative exercises in this guide will be familiar to anyone who has ever put effort toward achieving their first pull-up or increasing their pull-up count. They target the same muscles and help build strength without the all-or-nothing stakes of traditional pull-ups.

Muscles Worked in a Pull-Up

Pull-ups are performed by several muscles and muscle groups in the upper back, shoulders, arms, and chest. They’re the same ones your body uses to pull anything toward you, plus a few others in your forearm that create grip strength.

Here’s a brief list of the muscles at work during a traditional pull-up exercise:

Latissimus Dorsi

Your lats are the largest back muscle. If you’ve ever seen a bodybuilder with a ripped back, that V-shaped wing beneath and around the shoulder blades is the lat muscle.

The main function of your lats is to stabilize the spine. They also create shoulder and back strength, so it’s no wonder they play a huge role when your body has to pull any kind of weight. Your deltoids and triceps commonly work together with the lats to accomplish this sort of task.

Biceps Brachii

One of the more well-known muscles in the human body, the biceps is also a favorite target for gym rats and weightlifters everywhere. Who hasn’t seen a dedicated lifter rapidly lifting a dumbbell as they crush through some biceps curls?

Sure, the pumped-up feeling you get from biceps curls is one of the reasons we like to hit the gym so much. But the biceps is also important for functional upper body strength. The two heads of the biceps brachii move the elbow, arm, and shoulder. Without defined biceps, upper body movement of any significance becomes impossible.

Trapezius

Your traps are located very near your lats on the upper part of your back and your neck. The trapezius's main function is to move your scapula, or shoulder blades. They also stabilize the shoulder blades when you’re holding weight or moving your arms.

Bending sideways, turning your head, rotating your arm toward the body, and moving the shoulders up and down are just a few of the movements that are powered by the trapezius muscle.

Deltoids

The muscle that covers the round top of the shoulder is called the deltoid muscle. It helps move the shoulder away from the body and also prevents the humerus - the upper arm bone - from dislocating out of the shoulder joint. This is particularly necessary when there is a significant amount of weight on the shoulder, such as when the arm is holding something.

Erector Spinae

The erector spinae is a muscle group made up of three muscles that have cumbersome names we’ll skip over in the interest of brevity. What’s important to know about the erector spinae is that they move the spine and maintain good posture, especially when you walk.

Since the erector spinae stabilize your spine on top of your pelvis, they’re important during pulling actions. Try something simple like pulling a table toward you and you’ll feel the muscles around your spine activate to protect the spinal column.

Rectus Abdominis

A long muscle on your abdomen around where your abs are, the rectus abdominis is responsible for moving the lower part of the front of your torso. If you want a cut six-pack, you need to focus on the rectus abdominis.

Certain types of pull-ups can work out your core muscles (including the rectus abdominis) but you should try some other exercises if you want to isolate your core. Forearm planks are a great example of an ab isolation exercise that will greatly strengthen the rectus abdominis over time.

5 No-Bar Pull-Up Alternatives

Several back exercises simulate pull-up strength gains when performed the right way as part of a comprehensive workout routine. You can also use some of these alternatives to target muscles that pull-ups don’t, such as the rhomboids, which are commonly overshadowed in favor of the latissimus dorsi. Try these five no-bar pull-up alternatives in your workout routine to increase your pull-up count and get a chiseled back without the bar.

1. Towel Rows

Combining a towel with a back-boosting exercise is sure to give you a ripped back. It will also build strength in your shoulders, core, and upper arms. If you already know how to perform dumbbell rows, you’re a step ahead. For those who don’t, here’s a step-by-step guide to towel rows:

  • Wrap a small towel around the handle of a dumbbell and use an overhand grip on both ends of the towel in one hand.
  • Hinge at the waist and use your free hand to steady yourself on a bench, bar, or chair.
  • Engage your back muscles and pull the weight up by the towel, making sure to keep the dumbbell parallel with the ground. Your elbow should move to a 90° angle.
  • Lower the dumbbell without letting it rest on the ground. That’s one rep.

The purpose of the towel in this dumbbell row variation is to improve your grip and build strength in key forearm muscles. Increasing grip force will help you stay on the pull-up bar longer.

Keeping the dumbbell balanced on the towel requires some attention, but doing so will help prevent you from going through this exercise too fast. Rushing can lead to form mistakes and rob you of potential gains as well as cause injuries

If you’re at the gym, you can also wrap a towel around one end of a barbell and grip it with two hands to perform a towel barbell row.

2. Lat Pulldowns

If you want to target the latissimus dorsi, lat pulldowns can’t be beat. You can perform these with a cable machine or invest in a resistance band if you want to include this exercise in a home workout.

Lat pulldowns are the closest thing to the pulling motion of a regular pull-up. They aren’t exactly the same, but they can still give you well-defined lats and a stellar back.

Follow these steps to execute a banded lat pulldown. If you have access to a lat pulldown machine, the form is the same but you don’t have to bother with the setup steps.

  • Find a doorway or a similarly high anchor point for the resistance band. Attach one end and then kneel on both knees with either end of the band in your hands. A loop band or a tube band with handles will be the best type of resistance band for this exercise.
  • When you’re in position, the band should be taut and your hands should be shoulder-width apart.
  • Slowly engage the muscles around your shoulder blades and pull the resistance band back until your hands are at your chest. Return slowly to the starting position to complete one rep.

Since there’s no risk of falling from a pull-up bar, banded lat pulldowns are a safe way to expand your grip repertoire. Experiment with a wide grip, narrow grip, and both underhand grip and overhand grip styles.

3. Bodyweight Row

If the bodyweight row isn’t already a part of your home workout routine, it needs to be. You can use a horizontal bar or you can simply slide underneath a sturdy table. As long as there’s enough room for you to dead hang with straight arms, you can do bodyweight rows.

Also called inverted rows, bodyweight rows are just upside-down push-ups. You’ll be pulling your chest up to the bar (or sturdy table) just like you would during a regular pull-up, but you’ll be able to have some support from your lower body.

Here’s how you can execute a perfect bodyweight row no matter where you are:

  • Find a low horizontal bar or a sturdy table. Slide underneath it and take hold of it with both hands.
  • Lift your body so that your lower back and legs are off the ground. Your heels or the soles of your feet should be the only parts of your body that make contact with the ground.
  • Make sure you’re in a dead hang with straight arms. This is the proper starting position. There should be a straight line running from your heels to your head, just like you would have if you were doing a push-up.
  • Pull your chest up to the bar or table and then slowly reverse back to the starting position to complete one rep.

You’ll work your core, back, shoulders, arms, and forearms, as well as increase your overall grip strength. If you regularly do bodyweight rows, you’ll start to see comparable results to pull-ups in a short while.

4. Renegade Row

Another pull-up warm-up exercise that borrows heavily from traditional push-ups is the renegade row. You’ll need a dumbbell to successfully perform this move, but that’s all. It’s still perfectly suitable for a home gym workout or morning warm-up routine.

Fit man doing renegade rows on a beach

This is a unilateral move, which means you’re going to focus on one arm at a time. For people who have strength discrepancies or need to balance out their dominant arms, it’s a great exercise. It will also help you build up the core strength you need to position yourself properly during a pull-up.

Here’s what you need to do to perform a flawless renegade row:

  • Get into a standard push-up position. Make sure your wrists are stacked - keep them directly underneath your shoulders and keep your hands beneath your wrists.
  • In either hand, take an overhand grip on a small dumbbell.
  • Maintain the plank push-up position so that your core continues to get a workout.
  • Rather than bending your elbows as you would in a push-up, lift the dumbbell. It should reach your body just next to the hip.
  • Slowly return it to the ground to complete your first renegade row. Repeat as many times as you need to complete a set.

This is a great row exercise because it will still work your biceps and back but it doesn’t have the same high injury risk that flyes and rows on a bench do. Your lats will get a lot of exercise with this move as well.

5. Bridge Push-Ups

Another great exercise for people who need bodyweight exercises to fill out their home gym routines or get in a workout at the office, bridge push-ups are straightforward once you understand how to get into the rather unique starting position.

This exercise will also target your glutes and hamstrings in addition to the upper body muscles that pull-ups activate. A secondary advantage is the increased flexibility that accompanies a sufficient number of bridge push-ups.

Go through these steps to execute a bridge push-up:

  • Lie on the ground with your back flat and the soles of your feet on the ground. It should feel similar to the starting position for a crunch or a sit-up.
  • Place the palms of both hands on either side of your head. You have to bend your elbows to accomplish this - it will feel strange at first, but with enough practice you’ll get the hang of it.
  • Push yourself up by extending your arms. Your body should make almost an upside-down U shape.
  • Hold that position for an isometric pause. Depending on your current strength level, you might be able to do it for 10 to 15 seconds. Lower back to the starting position when complete. Repeat until your set is finished.

Like some of the other exercises in this guide, you can experiment with hand distance during a bridge push-up. That and the workout they give the majority of your upper body and posterior chain make the bridge push-up ideal preparation for regular pull-ups.

Pull-Up Prep With a Bar

There are a few ways people increase their pull-up power when there is some kind of horizontal bar available. One method is the negative pull-up, in which you start from the highest position of a regular pull-up and then drop into a dead hang.

Another way is an assisted pull-up with either a spotter or a resistance band. One warning about banded pull-ups, though. They aren’t such great prep after all.

The band kicks in its resistance at the lowest part of the pull-up. As you lift your body toward the bar, the band gets more and more slack. So when you need support to complete a pull-up, the band is useless.

This is counter-intuitive if you want to increase your pull-up count. It could also mess up the way you perform pull-ups and actively work against your intended goal.

Conclusion

Pull-ups are a great calisthenic exercise that builds tons of strength in your back. Although they’re usually done with a horizontal bar, there are plenty of exercises you can do to mimic the benefits of a pull-up with little to no equipment at all.

Whether you’re going through a quick warm-up or you’re hitting the gym for a full routine, toss in the pull-up alternatives in this guide for some killer back muscles.

You can also target your core and important lower body muscle groups with some of them. Your pull-up count will increase and you can build a barn door back if you stay dedicated to your goals with, the exercises in this guide.


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