10 Killer Pull Up Alternatives To Chisel Your Upper Body

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Are you looking to add some variety to your routine? Maybe you want to find new ways to work your arms, back and shoulders. Pull ups are great, but don’t let your workout regimen get stagnant.

There are many effective pull up alternatives that work the same muscle groups. Some of them require no equipment and actually give a better workout than pull ups.

Check out these awesome pull up alternatives.

10 Alternatives To Pull Ups

Here are 10 great exercises that you can do instead of pull ups, while working the same muscle groups and even some extra ones. They all give you an upper body workout, and should be considered for any full-body or split workout, but I’ll highlight the main muscle groups that each exercise focuses on.

1 – Renegade Rows

  • Works triceps, shoulders, chest and core
  • Trains you to engage your core during workouts
  • Requires only a pair of hex dumbbells
  • Beginner to intermediate

Can you hold a plank? Then you can do this one. It involves supporting your weight in a pushup position for an extended period of time. Place your hex dumbbells about shoulder-width apart on the floor. Establish a firm grip on them while kneeling. Then extend your legs and use your toes as your fulcrum.

Hold this position, with your arms fully extended, for 20 seconds. Then take to your knees for a 15-second rest and repeat for a total of three reps.

2 – Kneeling Lat Pull Down

  • Works lats and biceps
  • Easy to progress by using tougher bands
  • Requires resistance bands and an anchor point
  • Beginner to advanced

This pull up variation is really good for anyone who gets discouraged because they feel like they can’t do enough pull ups. These pull downs closely approximate the workout you get from pull ups, but they can make it easier for beginners to get a good lat and bicep session without becoming exhausted too easily.

There are several ways to get setup for this. We’ll go with the simplest and most basic way. Loop your band around a sturdy overhead anchor. This can be an actual band anchor, a bar or even a sturdy hook in the wall. You kneel while doing this exercise, so keep that in mind when getting set up.

Beginners should use from 60 to 100 pounds of resistance. Intermediate is 100 to 140 and advanced is up to 200 or more.

The ends of your bands should be at about head-level. They should be at a shoulder’s width apart, or wider if you want the shoulder-ripping benefits of wide grip pull ups.

Grab an end of each band in each hand. Smoothly pull down to about chest-level, then slowly raise your hands until all tension is off the bands. Do five to ten reps, take a 20-second rest and repeat twice more.

3 – Inverted Rows

  • Works back, traps and biceps
  • Requires barbell and bench
  • Can progress by adding weight to barbell
  • Beginner to intermediate

This kind of row works all the muscles that pull ups do, and it strengthens your stabilizing muscles. That’s one area where this one has pull ups beat.

Set your rack at about waist height. Add some weight for stabilization of the bar. Position yourself under the bar, flat on your back with your heels on the ground. Grab the bar with your hands about shoulder’s width apart. Flex your elbows to raise your chest to the bar. Hold this position for a moment, then slowly lower yourself to your starting position.

Do seven reps per set, with a 10-second rest between sets. Try three sets per workout.

4 – Wide Grip Lat Pull Downs

  • Great alternative for wide grip pull ups and working lats
  • Allows beginners a good, easy place to start
  • Seasoned exercisers can progress easily
  • Pull down machine required
  • Beginner to advanced

Set up your pull down machine for a workout. Grab the bar with a wide grip, just wider than shoulder-width. Pull down, engaging your lats. Keep your shoulders back and your chest extended. Each pull down and return should take a total of three seconds.

A good place to start is eight reps per set, but go for 12 if you can. With a 15-second rest between, try three sets per workout.

If you don’t have a pull down machine, the kneeling lat pull down described above will give you a similar workout.

5 – Half-Kneel Single Arm Cable Lat Pull Down

  • Works biceps, triceps and lats
  • Requires cable machine or resistance bands
  • Beginner to advanced

If you have a cable machine, set it up for a single arm pull down that you can comfortably do in a half-kneel. Power racks with cable attachments are great for this. If you don’t have a cable setup, you can rig a resistance band to an overhead anchor point for this.

Get into a sturdy half-kneel with your front knee bent at 90 degrees. Grab your cable handle with your weaker arm, your palm facing out. As you pull down, slowly twist your grip so your palm is facing your body when it meets your shoulder. Hold for a moment before returning to the starting position.

Shoot for eight to 12 reps per arm, then do the other arm to complete one set. Take a 15-second rest between sets, and try for three sets per session.

6 – Negative Pull Ups

  • Works the biceps, lats and shoulders
  • Only a pull up bar is needed
  • Beginner to intermediate

Although good for just about anyone, negative pull ups are great for beginners who can’t do many standard pull ups.

Position a bench or something under your bar so your chest is at about bar-level when you stand on it. Grip the bar as you would with a normal pull up, with your hands about shoulder-width apart. Tense your arms to support your weight, then bend your knees and lower yourself as slowly as you can until your knees come to rest on the bench. This is one rep.

Aim for five to eight reps per set, with 15 to 20 seconds of rest between sets. Three sets at a time is a good goal.

7 – Isometric Holds

  • Works biceps, shoulders and lats
  • A pull up bar is all that’s needed
  • Beginner to intermediate

This is just as good for beginners as it is for more seasoned folks. Set up your bar and bench as you would for the negative pull ups we talked about above. The difference here is that you’re holding yourself up, not slowly letting yourself down. Before you lift your knees, be sure that your shoulders are back and your elbows are tucked in. Focus on these two things as you hold yourself steady throughout the exercise.

Hold yourself as long as possible, give yourself a 15-second rest, and then repeat. Twice is good, but you can shoot for three or four if you’re able to.

8 – Elbow Push Ups

  • Works shoulders, triceps, lats and core
  • Good for muscle groups that are largely ignored by pull ups
  • Intermediate to advanced

Pull ups work your core more as stabilizing muscles than anything else, but elbow push ups really engage your abs and obliques. You can also consider this one a good alternative to chin ups.

Start in a plank with your elbows on the floor, using your toes as a fulcrum. Push up onto your palms while keeping your chest and core engaged. Hold for a couple seconds, then lower yourself back down.

The number of reps you should do depends on your upper body and tricep strength. Go for your max, which will probably be from two to eight. Taking ten or fifteen seconds of rest between sets, go for two or three sets per workout.

9 – Towel Row

  • Works back muscles, biceps and triceps
  • All you need is a long towel
  • Beginner to advanced

This workout is harder than it may seem. Are you up for it? Grab a long towel and give it a try.

Wrap your towel around a support pole, power rack or any solid, immovable object, standing about two feet from it. Holding an end of the towel tightly in either hand, lean back and bend at your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. This is your starting position. To do a rep, slowly pull yourself up straight and lower yourself back to the starting position. Go 10 reps, two or three sets per workout with a 10-second rest between sets.

10 – Bicep Plank

  • Works upper back and biceps
  • No equipment needed
  • Beginner to advanced

It’s easy to make proper form a habit here, and it’s pretty quick to master. But this exercise works the involved muscle groups so thoroughly that it’s good for those who have advanced past standard pull ups.

Get into a high plank, but have your hands situated so your fingers are pointing outward away from your body. Hold the position until you fail. Repeat this one as many times as you can with a 20-second rests between reps.

Pull-up Alternative FAQs

Here are a few questions that people ask us the most about exercises to replace pull ups.

What can I substitute for pull ups in Crossfit?

These modified pull ups are some of the best to work into your Crossfit routine.

  • Lat pull downs
  • Upright row
  • Banded arm adduction
  • Prone overhead press

We went over a couple lat pull down variations here, and here is a good video that describes some more substitutes for pull ups that are good for Crossfit.

How can I Train My Back Without A Pull Up Bar?

Inverted rows, pull downs and towel rows are good for working your back, and they don’t require a pull up bar.

How does a beginner do pull ups?

It depends on what kind of shape you’re in. If you are in decent shape and can actually do a few, start with basic pull ups. Then you can work your way into more difficult modifications if you want to. But some people can’t do a single pull up. If that’s your case, try starting with negative pull ups, move on to isometric holds and then progress on to regular pull ups or some of the alternatives listed here.

Pull-up Alternatives In-A-Nutshell

If I had to pick a winner here, I would have to go with the wide grip lat pull down. It gives me a great upper body workout that’s very similar to pull ups. If you don’t have a pull down machine, you can do half-kneel single arm cable lat pull downs with a totally affordable set of resistance bands.

Why not try as many of these pull up alternatives as you can over the next few weeks and let us know below what you think?

Jeff Carpenter

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