Try These 5 Pull-Up Alternative Exercises to Work Up to the Real Thing

You may not be able to do a strict pull-up — yet — but these exercises can help you build strength in all the relevant muscle groups.

Pull-Up Alternatives
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The pull-up is a classic for a reason: The bodyweight exercise strengthens your entire upper body, improves your posture, works your core, and builds your grip strength (just to name a few benefits). But, like most exercises that have great potential to improve your fitness, pull-ups are also one of the most difficult moves to perform without assistance.

"Something that is entirely misunderstood is how hard a bodyweight pull-up or chin-up really is," explains Rae Reichlin, a NASM-certified personal trainer and founder of Ladies Who Lift, a women's strength training program. "A pull-up or chin-up requires that you lift your entire body weight with just your upper body. And while you do utilize a lot of muscles in your arms, shoulders, and back, your lower body and torso make up a great deal of your body and body weight." Translation: You're asking your upper body to lift a ton and resist the forces of gravity in the process.

If you have yet to master the pull-up exercise, don't give up. Instead, start training with pull-up alternative moves that target the same muscle groups — lats, biceps, deltoids, rhomboids, and core — until you're strong enough for the real thing. "I would also incorporate exercises that train the smaller and supporting muscle groups of the pull-up (biceps, deltoids, rhomboids, and core) with exercises such as dead bugs, hollow body holds, biceps curls, reverse flys, Y raises, lateral raises, and face pulls," adds Reichlin.

And pro tip: If nailing the pull-up is a big goal of yours, you'll have to make sure you're training in a smart, strategic manner, says Reichlin. "When anyone is working towards a specific goal, it is always going to be more beneficial to follow a program designed to help accomplish that goal than do a random workout every time you enter the gym," she explains. "Specific goals require specific protocols, and in strength training, that's called the 'principle of specificity.'" So TL;DR: Achieving a pull-up requires a dedicated training program.

How it works: How you'll use these exercises for pull-ups depends on how often you work out per week (and if you're following a specific workout split). If you train four days a week, use these pull-up exercises as a standalone workout for your back and biceps day. If you train three days a week or less and do mostly total-body workouts, include at least three or four of these exercises in your training throughout the week. In either scenario, aim for 3 sets of 8-12 reps per exercise.

You'll need: A TRX, a pull-up bar, a lat pulldown machine (or a resistance band with handles), and a long resistance loop.

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TRX Seated Pull-Ups

Why it works: By starting in a seated position on the floor for these pull-up alternatives, you lessen the workload for your upper body. Make sure you're not using your legs to push yourself up; instead, focus on using your upper body only.

A. Sit directly under a TRX strap with straps adjusted so that arms are fully extended while in a seated position, legs bent at 45-degree angle and heels on floor. Grasp the handles with palms facing each other.

B. Keeping back flat and core engaged, squeeze shoulder blades down and back, engage lats, and use the handles to pull torso up until hands reach chest.

C. Slowly and with control, extend arms long until butt touches the ground.

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Hanging Scapular Retractions

Why it works: Scapular retractions may be subtle, but this tiny move has big pay-offs as a pull-up alternative. The squeezing of your shoulder blades is the first movement you'll do in an actual pull-up, so isolating and practicing this exercise for pull-ups is a functional, specific part of training.

A. Start in a full hanging position from a pull-up bar, arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing out in a pronated (overhand) grip.

B. Squeeze shoulder blades back and down without moving any other part of body. This movement will lift your body up slightly toward the pull-up bar. Hold for one breath.

C. Slowly and with control, relax shoulder blades forward and up to return to starting position.

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Lat Pulldown

Why it works: The lats are a key muscle group in developing pull-ups, and the lat pulldown allows you to scale the movement while seated. Pro tip: If you don't have access to a lat pulldown machine, loop a resistance band with handles over a pull-up bar and use that (in a kneeling or sitting position) instead.

A. Sit facing the bar. If necessary, adjust the seat height and/or the knee pad to allow knees to bend at 90 degrees while keeping feet flat on the floor.

B. Extend arms to reach overhead and grasp the bar with hands slightly wider than shoulder-width, palms facing away from you. This is the starting position.

C. Lean torso slightly back and pull the bar toward chest (just below collarbone) during an exhale. Think of pulling elbows and shoulder blades down and back as you pull the bar.

D. Slowly return the bar by raising and extending arms overhead and abducting shoulders on an inhale.

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Eccentric Bodyweight Chin-Up

Why it works: Even if you can't pull yourself up yet, you're probably able to lower yourself down from a pull-up position. "Eccentric," in this pull-up alternative, means a movement that lengthens the muscle fibers (rather than contracting them, as you would when actually pulling your body up to the bar). By focusing on this portion of the exercise, you'll build the muscles needed to do the concentric movement down the line.

A. Step onto a plyo box, bench, or chair placed under the pull-up bar. Grasp the pull-up bar with palms facing your, hands shoulder-width apart.

B. Using the box for support, jump up to chin-up position, with chin over bar, biceps fully contracted, and elbows tucked in to sides.

C. Hold for a breath, then slowly and with control, lower down toward the ground by fully extending both arms.

D. Step back onto the box and repeat.

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Banded Chin-Up

Why it works: The resistance loop supports some of your body weight, allowing you to practice the motion of the pull-up without having to lift quite as much. Plus, mimicking the pull-up exercise and practicing the motion builds confidence as you get closer and closer to your pull-up goal. You can modify this exercise for pull-ups by stepping both feet into the band, or make it more difficult by using a lighter resistance band (which will support less of your weight).

A. Secure a long resistance band over a pull-up bar by looping the band over the bar and pulling one end through the other. Using a plyo box, bench, or chair as a platform, step into the bottom of the band with one foot. Grasp the pull-up bar, palms facing toward you, hands shoulder-width apart.

B. Contract lats, squeeze shoulder blades down and back, and engage core. Contract biceps to pull body up until chin hovers over the pull-up bar.

C. Hold for a breath, then slowly and with control, lower body toward ground by fully extending arms.

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