The pull-up is one of the most all-around effective exercises in existence. It works out a variety of upper body muscle groups. It relies on multiple metrics of serve. It can serve as a general metric for overall physical fitness. In fact, there is only one real downside to the pull-up.
It requires a bar. You may want to reap the full benefit of this workout but lack the bar a fully stocked gym has. Your gym may only have one or two bars that seem to always be in use. You may simply want to switch up your exercise in order to avoid hitting a plateau.
Whatever your reason, the end result is that you need workouts that don’t require a pull-up bar. Olivers is going to provide exactly that.
What Do Pull-Ups Target?
Before getting into the exercise alternatives themselves, we’re going to take a moment to focus on what pull-ups do. Knowing what muscle groups and skills it targets helps us to focus on effective replacement exercises. It may even inspire athletes to try activities they previously might not have.
Pull-ups most obviously target your back muscles. These include your lats, traps, thoracic erector spinae, and infraspinatus. These are collectively essential for torso support, flexibility, and extensions in your upper body. They also positively impact your arms and shoulder muscles overall.
The last significant effect that pull-ups have is to improve your grip strength. This is a critical aid when lifting weights and benefits countless athletic pursuits.
Grip strength isn’t a tangibly visible factor as body musculature tends to be. Despite this invisible quality, it benefits professional and casual athletes alike. It also has remarkable health implications. Higher grip strength has been linked to a longer lifespan, independent of other factors like weight or general health.
This first exercise uses a fundamentally similar motion to the pull-up but from a standing position. It requires a lat pull-down machine, easily found in most gyms. Take a wide grip of the pull-down bar, lower it between neck and chest height, and gently raise it back.
This exercise targets many of the same essential muscles as the standard pull-up but with differing intensity. Despite this, there is one strict advantage the exercise has over pull-ups.
Unadjusted pull-ups are bodyweight exercises. The machines used in this workout can easily be adjusted for weight. This can make it easy to lower your weight during a recovery session or increase it for greater intensity.
Even when a pull-up bar is available, this exercise has a variety of benefits that make it competitive. For a pure lat exercise, this comes the closest to replicating the effects of a pull-up.
For other muscle groups, we have these other exercises:
This uses the same machine for a subtly different workout. Grab the pull-down bar with a closer grip than you did before. Take a step back from the machine, so you can pull the bar as far down as possible. Your arms should be straight while doing this.
Like the previous exercise, lat push-downs develop the shoulder and back muscles. They also target ab muscles while being less focused on other muscles. This makes them not a 1-to-1 substitution but a viable additional exercise nonetheless.
Row exercises, in general, make for an excellent alternative when you lack a pull-up bar. These can be done with countless gym machines or utilizing some sturdy personal items. For bodyweight rows in a pinch, grab either a towel or find a sturdy table or other easily gripped surfaces.
For the table method of bodyweight rows, get underneath the object in question and hold onto it with your hands. You should be slightly diagonal to the ground, with your feet firmly planted and your body slightly upward. Pull on the object, lift your torso upwards, then lower your body down.
For the towel method, grab a towel or other durable object and find a piece to use as a fulcrum. This can be a stationary pole or other items. Lean backward, following the same principles, and slowly raise your body.
These two methods are easy to replicate with gym equipment, using relevant bars and other pieces. Bodyweight rows target your back and shoulder muscles while providing benefits for grip strength.
Overhead Dumbbell Press
Grab your favorite dumbbell set, and get ready for an intense arm workout with overhead dumbbell presses. Your arms should be bent and slightly to the side, holding the dumbbells up and parallel to the floor. Lift them up, straightening your arms above your head, and hold for a second. Bring your arms down, and repeat the motion.
This exercise works out your arms, shoulders, and upper back. It also works on your chest to a degree. You’ll need an additional workout to effectively target your lower back, but this provides coverage beyond what pull-ups normally provide.
Back Bridge Push-Ups
The next exercise we propose as an alternative requires no equipment whatsoever. All it requires is a bit of space and a bit of flexibility. The most complex part of doing a back bridge push-up is getting into the proper position for it. Lay on your back, with your feet flat on the ground facing forward and your hands facing the same direction.
Push up, alternating between your body flat on your back and in an upright, “pushed-up” position. This exercise works best over the course of long sets to develop your back, shoulders, and arm muscles. The unique position of bridges also helps them work as a mobility exercise.
A kettlebell swing is an effective exercise for the availability of kettlebells and a wide variety of targeted muscle groups. Multiple groups as high as your shoulders and as low as your quads are focused in kettlebell swings. The off-center of gravity of a bell further improves grip strength and balance as your body is newly challenged.
To perform a proper swing, hold the kettlebell in both hands, centered between your legs. Assume a stance slightly wider than shoulder length apart. Swing the bell back slightly to build momentum, then perform a controlled swing upwards. The apex of the swing should have the bell held, weighted side up, above your head.
Bring the bell down, and continue the process. Weight can easily be adjusted to match the difficulty desired. Though it targets many muscle groups, it would be best paired with another exercise that specifically targets your back muscles.
Resistance Band Pulls
Most of the best pull-up alternatives require some form of equipment. Even the towels and tables listed above require proper stability for leverage. It turns out that one of the most effective alternatives just requires equipment that’s small enough to be pocket-sized. We are, of course, discussing the validity of resistance bands.
If you haven’t utilized them before, you should consider integrating resistance bands into your workouts. They can be used for pre-workout stretches or in the workout itself. As a pull-up alternative, you can use resistance bands to simulate pull-downs in a variety of ways.
One basic version is done by holding the resistance band above your head in a wide grip. Lower your arms slowly, behind your head, while stretching the band. This should impact your lats as in a traditional pull-down.
Consider looking elsewhere for bodyweight rows. Going to your local park can help you uncover an incredibly effective method for integrating resistance bands.
Find a tree, and wrap the center of the resistance band around it. Walk as far away as you can comfortably, holding each end of the band. Lean back, holding the band, until your body is back and your ankles remain on the ground. Pull yourself forward, then slowly release your body back with careful, deliberate motion.
The above exercises can be modulated with varying levels of slack to adjust the intensity of the workout. This quality is part of what makes resistance bands so effective when it comes to both intense athletics and therapy.
Maximizing Your Workout, With or Without a Bar
Pull-ups are a great exercise, but there are countless alternatives for those in need of something else. Even so, no two exercises hit the same muscle groups in exactly the same way. Choose a single option from the ones above, or pair a mix of them for a more robust routine.
Once you’re ready to renew your workout, the only question that remains is context. Do you plan on working out in the comfort of your own home? Are you going to bring your regimen outdoors to soak up sunlight and embrace your natural environment?
Olivers knows that the human body and spirit can’t be constrained. The drive for excellence and growth permeates all factors of life, or at least we hope it does for you. For this reason, we’ve created the above guide and will continue providing you fitness posts for those who yearn for improvements.