5 Alternatives to Pull-Ups

Pull-ups are one of the best all-around strength exercises for your upper-body and your upper-back muscles in particular. But what do you do if your pull-up strength has hit a plateau or if you don’t have enough strength to perform even a single repetition?

Using alternatives to pull-ups are important can help you to improve your upper-body strength and build muscle. Traditional pull-ups can be particularly challenging for young lifters and female athletes. Just look at the bench press as a comparison.


When first introduced to the bench press, you probably used a weight that was significantly less than your bodyweight. By using a lighter weight, you could perform more reps, which helped increase muscle size and strength.

With pull-ups, your entire bodyweight is the resistance. If you can’t lift yourself up, it obviously makes it difficult to get the needed reps to build muscle and strength. Even advanced athletes with significant body mass may struggle with the exercise because of their weight.

There are two exercises that use the same movement as pull-ups. Lat pulldowns and band assisted pull-ups use almost the exact same movement as traditional pull-ups but allow you to unload some of your weight, which makes it easier for you.

Bent rows, band pull aparts, and seated cable rows are examples of exercises that use different muscles than pull-ups, but are still good substitutes because they use many of the same muscles.

These 4 alternatives to pull-ups are great whether you are trying to perform your first true pull-up or are an experienced lifter looking for some variety to build strength.

Machine Lat Pulldowns

Machine lat pulldowns are probably the most commonly used alternative to pull-ups.  These are a great substitute because it is the same generally movement, even though you are in a seated position on a machine, rather than hanging from a pull-up bar.

They are often the first exercise prescribed for new lifters because they allow you to vary the resistance greatly to build strength. Beginners can start without a conservative weight, which allows them to perform many reps of a strict movement that focuses on the target muscles.

Band Assisted Pull-Ups

Band assisted pull-ups are a great substitute because they allow you to perform the exact same exercise, but allow you to lessen the resistance. These are pretty much the most specific alternative without technically doing a body weight pull-up.

You can use bands of different strength by wrapping them around the bar and the other end around your knees. Beginners may need to use multiple heavier bands as a way to allow them to perform the movement.

Barbell Bent Rows

While these are a different movement, they are great for building upper-body strength. They use many of the same muscles and can be are great muscle builder. Using heavy weight on bent rows, with fewer reps can really accelerate strength gains.

Band Pull Aparts

This is an exercise where you grab a band, hold it out in front of your chest, and pull it apart. These sound easy and simple, but really challenge your upper-back muscles, even with a light band. These can be performed with higher reps. Try starting with 3 sets of 15 reps to begin with.

Seated Cable Rows

This is another common back exercises that uses a machine, and is nearly as popular as lat pulldowns. This is great for beginners to build strength in an easy and convenient manner.

Upper-back strength training can be tricky. Many athletes will do their back exercises without really ever using or “activating” their back. Instead, they are able to move the weight using only arm muscles. For this reason, it is important to mentally focus on using the back muscles. This is called the mind-muscle connection. You need to actually feel the target muscles working.

Building upper-back strength can be challenging for both novice and advanced lifters. Using alternatives to pull-ups can allow you to improve that lift even if you aren’t able to perform many/any reps by using the same muscles. If you are a new lifter, it is important to just build your overall upper-body strength, which will help take your pull-up game to the next level.

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