5 Best Pull Up Alternative Exercises

You don't have to lift a plate loaded barbell to test your strength. In fact, the pull up is one of the best true tests of raw physical strength, just by simply using your own bodyweight. Pull ups are one of the most effective body weight back exercises that can help build more strength and muscle mass. But pulls up are a challenging movement. And without some significant upper body strength, you’ll have a difficult time adding this exercise into your strength training routine. We’re going to talk about the best pull up alternative exercises that are just as effective as the pull up, to help you enhance your training and help you progress into the strict pull up.

What Are Pull Ups 

Pull ups are a compound strength training movement, performed using a fixed pull up bar and just your body weight as the tension. Compound movements stimulate several muscles and joints at the same time, which can help build raw functional strength.

Pull Up Muscles Worked

What’s great about the pull up is that it contracts several primary and secondary muscles simultaneously, primarily in your back and biceps.

As you pull, the trapezius, infraspinatus, and brachialis muscles are most active at the beginning of the pull-up; the latissimus dorsi, teres major, and biceps brachii reach peak activity during the middle of the movement, and the triceps brachii and subscapularis experienced maximum activity at the top of the movement.

Best Pull Up Alternative Exercises

1. Single Arm Row 

One of the best pull up alternatives is the single arm dumbbell row. The single arm dumbbell row is what’s known as a unilateral isotonic exercise; meaning only one side of the body is used in order to produce muscle contraction. Traditionally, the single arm dumbbell row is performed kneeling with one knee on a bench, however you can also bend with one arm resting on your knee while you row as well. The single-arm dumbbell row performed on a bench row will provide more stabilization to lift heavier loads by providing optimal core and spinal stabilization.

Another alternative is the single-arm cable row, which is also an effective movement to help with more time under tension and constant muscle contraction.

The main targeted muscle group during a single arm dumbbell row is the latissimus dorsi, or the “lats”, however it does also recruit the biceps and teres major.

How To Single Arm Row

  • Place your knee on the bench, with your opposing foot firmly planted into the ground, and your back at a 90-degree angle.
  • Grab the dumbbell with your hand opposite of the knee on the bench.
  • Place your opposing hand on the bench gripping the side outside of our knee
  • Look straight ahead and let the dumbbell hand, stretching your lat and shoulders.
  • Pull the weight back, with your hand placed firmly on the handle and pull keeping your elbow tight and tucked close to your body, keeping your back straight avoiding any additional movement.
  • Squeeze your shoulder blade and contract, holding for 1-2 seconds.
  • Return the dumbbell slowly with control, until you feel a stretch in your lat, and shoulder keeping your back straight, then repeat.

2. Lat Pulldown 

If you frequent the gym, then the lat pull down is a fantastic pull up alternative. The Lat Pulldown is one of the most popular cable back exercises and for good reason. Studies have shown that the lat pulldown is extremely effective at targeting and isolating the latissimus dorsi to enhance muscular development and strength. The lat pulldown is not a compound exercise by traditional standards, however like many other exercises it does stimulate some secondary muscles such as the biceps, deltoids, rhomboids, and stabilizers such as the rotator cuff [R]. Lat pulldown provides a wide variety of benefits and can widen your back for a full physique and should definitely be part of your back day training split.

How To Lat Pulldown

  • First, adjust the lat pulldown machine to fit your body, with the seat just above the knees under the pads.
  • Adjust the pads, so that your knees are placed securely below with your feet flat on the floor and the hips and knees at a 90° angle.
  • Reach up and grasp the bar slightly wider than shoulder width.
  • Brace your core, tightening your muscles for better spinal stability.
  • Slightly lean back your torso 20°- 30° to match the line of the pull down with your latissimus dorsi.
  • Keep your spine in a neutral position and avoid excess lumbar extension.
  • Pull the bar down to your chest, bringing your elbows back focusing on your scapulae retraction/depression (squeezing your shoulder blades together).
  • Descend the bar until you feel a slight stretch in the pectorals and your lats fully contract your scapulae retract together.
  • As you let the weight raise back up, keep your trunk and core stabilized and avoid swinging through the movements, keeping good posture and fluid motion throughout the lift.
  • Maintain full control over the bar and weight when allowing the bar to rise, to enable an ideal eccentric muscle contraction.

3. Bent Over Row

Electromyography (EMG) and nerve conduction studies have shown that the bent over row is in fact the most effective back day training exercise. Nerves send out electrical signals to make your muscles react in certain ways. As your muscles react, they give off these signals, which can then be measured through EMG.

The bent over row elicits more muscle activation from the upper to lower back, resulting in more muscle activation and strength, than other back exercises [R]. Although the bent over row provides more muscle activation, I would not recommend it to those that have previous back injuries, as it does induce a larger spinal load, than other variations such as the inverted row and seated cable row.

Start with a lower weight and gradually work your weigh up with heavier weight.

How To Do Bent Over Row

  • Slightly bend your knees, bend down and grab two dumbbells’ palms facing toward you.
  • Bend over at 45 degrees, with your back straight.
  • Brace your core, take a deep breath in and slowly lift both dumbbells, keeping your elbows close to your sides.
  • As you contract, slightly rotate the wrists and dumbbells away from you to capture maximum range of motion, bringing your elbows all the way back.
  • Slowly reverse the movement and come back to hanging position.
  • Repeat for prescribed number of reps.

4. Upright or Vertical Row

The upright or vertical row emphasizes the upper traps and deltoids as well as the rhomboids. This movement is performed in isolation within bodybuilding programs and resistance training protocols and is a great exercise to stimulate the trapezius or traps. Not only is the vertical row a great movement as a pullup alternative, is can also help translate more strength in compound movements such as the dumbbell snatch and the barbell snatch often performed in high intensity functional training programs.

How To Upright Row

  • Grab an ez bar with an overhand and close grip with your palms facing toward you.
  • Roll your shoulders back and brace your core to isolate your traps and top of the deltoids.
  • Slowly inhale and bring the bar straight up, like a string is attached to the top of your hands pulling them all the way up along and close to your body, as if you were a puppet.
  • When you get to the top of the movement, your elbows should be flared out, contracting your traps.
  • Hold, then release back to starting position.

5. Inverted Row

The inverted row, much like the bent over row is a great pull up alternative and all-around back exercise. The inverted row is a bodyweight strength training movement, that can help you in your pull up progression. As opposed to lifting the weight toward your body, the inverted row is quite the opposite, in which you pull yourself toward the bar.

How To Do Inverted Row 

  • Using a smith machine or set up rings, set up bar at desired height or rope pulleys
  • Lay under the bar/rings and grasp the bar with an overhand grip slightly wider than should width.
  • Bring your feet out so that your body is in a straight line with your core engaged and hips up.
  • Retract your shoulder blades and pull your lower chest up to the bar. Pause for one second.
  • Then slowly lower yourself back to starting position.
  • Repeat for the prescribed number of reps.

Pull Up Alternatives: Takeaway

Whether you're trying to increase strength and eventually progress into strict pull ups, or just looking for back training exercises that can provide similar benefits as the pull up, the exercises listed above will help you improve your performance and functional strength. Add a few movements into your training plan and start building the strength for your pull ups!  

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