Pull-up Alternatives: Variations to Target the Same Muscles

Published by Debbie Luna
Last Updated: October 18, 2021

A pull-up is primarily a calisthenics type exercise utilizing your bodyweight as the primary stressor on the pull-function upper body muscle groups, such as your latissimus dorsi and twin bicep heads. The exact level of muscular tension each muscle group undergoes while performing this exercise depends on a variety of factors, such as grip position and the angle at which your torso is.

Pull-ups, unlike most kinds of calisthenic exercises, do require an elevated bar or ledge in order to perform properly. Apart from this, exercisers of certain ages or strength levels may find that even a single repetition of pull-ups is quite difficult, and as such often require this exercise be swapped out from their workout routine.

Fortunately, there are a large variety of alternate exercises if you desire to replace pull-ups in your exercise routine. Whether you wish to replicate the multi-muscle group compound movement of pull-ups or to simply target a single muscle in isolation that is normally activated by pull-ups, there are many options to choose from.

What Muscles Does the Pull-up Work?

The pull-up is a closed kinetic chain type exercise primarily focused on the back muscles and the pull-muscles of your arms.

Contrary to popular belief, the most activation does not come from the concentric portion of the pull-up wherein you are raising yourself upwards towards the bar, but in fact in the eccentric portion of the movement, as you are lowering yourself back to the ground. Thus, in order to accrue the most muscular activation, it is best to lower yourself more slowly than that of the speed at which you performed the concentric portion of the movement.

pull up

The muscles primarily worked by the pull-up exercise are the latissimus dorsi or “lats”, the trapezius or “traps” as well as the biceps brachii, with a particular focus on the inner head of the biceps muscle group.

As stabilizers, the abdominal group of muscles including the obliques are also activated, with the erector spinae (in particular the thoracic portion) also acting as a stabilizer muscle group.

Also included are the accessory muscles of your brachioradialis along the top of your forearm, the deltoid or shoulder muscle group and the upper portion of the pectoral muscles.

How is the Pull-Up Performed?

The pull-up is a relatively easy to perform exercise so long as the exerciser possesses sufficient enough upper body strength to initiate the repetition.

With feet placed flat on the ground, the exerciser will extend their hands upwards towards the bar and grip it firmly, their hands at slightly wider than shoulder-width distance. The pull-up specifically utilizes a neutral or pronated grip, as a supinated grip pull-up is referred to as a chin-up instead.

Activating their back muscles, the exerciser will draw themselves upwards solely with their upper body, allowing their legs to go slack as the exerciser is raised off the floor. They will then draw their clavicle bones as close to or above the bar as possible, hold the position for a moment, then allow themselves to enter a controlled descent towards the floor as they complete a repetition of the pull-up.

It is important to keep in mind that “cheat” pull-ups do not activate the back and biceps muscles in the same way as a pull-up performed using proper form.

Pushing off the ground with your legs, swinging your torso in order to add momentum or not completing the full range of motion of a pull-up will not induce as much hypertrophic muscle growth as a strict pull-up, owing to the fact that the repetition induces less mechanical tension to the specific muscles you are meant to be targeting.

Pull-up Alternatives if You Cannot Perform a Pull-up

It is not uncommon for certain members of the population to be unable to perform even a single full repetition of pull-ups, especially those of advanced age or those who have never trained before. This is entirely normal, and is nothing to be ashamed of, as the pull-up requires significant upper body strength, especially if one is of average or above average body-weight.

Assisted Pull-up Machine

In the event that you are one of the many who are unable to complete a repetition of pull-ups without compromising your form, an assisted pull-up machine may act as the perfect replacement, as they are specifically built for this very purpose.

The assisted pull-up machine reduces the level of tension placed on your upper body’s muscles by providing a moderate amount of assistive force to the base of your body. This may be adjusted by moving the pin to a higher or lower level of counter-force in the machine, of which will often possess weights in pounds or kilograms to denote the amount of counter-force being added. 

assisted pull-up machine

Generally, the lower the number, the less counter-force is being provided, providing a more difficult pull-up movement as more of your weight is used in the exercise.

Depending on the model and brand of the machine, the exerciser will either kneel on a padded cushion or stand on a metallic plate attached to the counter-weights of the machine. Firmly gripping the pull-up bar overhead, they will allow their lower body to go slack as both the machine and their own upper body musculature moves them upwards.

Much like an unassisted pull-up, the assisted pull-up machine provides the most muscular benefit in the negative or eccentric portion of the movement, meaning that in order to maximize the hypertrophic and neurological gain from assisted pull-ups, it is best to lower yourself slowly after reaching the top of the pull-up.

Cable Lat Pull-downs

In the event that an assisted pull-up machine is not available in your gym or you are otherwise unwilling to use it, a similar exercise that activates much the same chain of muscle groups is the cable-machine lat pull-downs. 

Keep in mind that this requires a cable machine with a suitable bar attachment to be available, and is impossible to perform otherwise.

First, attach a pull-up bar attachment, neutral-grip cable attachment or pair of ropes to the cable of a cable machine. Set the resistance to the level that is comfortable yet still challenging for you. 

We advise setting the machine to a low resistance if you are new to the gym or new to this exercise in particular, in order to first build proper form.

Either seated or standing, the exerciser will relax their scapula and grip the cable attachment at both ends, somewhat wider than shoulder-width apart or whatever distance is comfortable.

lat pulldown

Bracing their legs, the exerciser will then draw the bar towards their chest, either directly down from an overhead position or at an angle, depending on the particular height of the machine and whether the exerciser is seated or not.

The exerciser must engage their back muscles as much as possible by drawing the shoulders towards each other on their back, allowing the tension in the cable to hold their torso in place. Hold the cable attachment as close as possible to the neck or upper chest so as to maximize the muscle group recruitment used.

Much like in pull-ups themselves, engage your muscles as much as possible while slowly releasing the bar back to its original position in order to induce hypertrophy and neurological adaptation.

Latissimus Dorsi Focused Pull-up Alternatives

If instead you are choosing to replace pull-ups in order to focus on certain muscle groups that are normally activated by the compound nature of pull-ups, there are a plethora of alternative exercises that may meet your needs.

In particular, isolation exercises that utilize the latissimus dorsi as a primary muscle are quite common and easy to perform, though most will require certain types of equipment, unlike the calisthenic pull-up exercise, which only requires an elevated area to hold on to.

Single Arm Dumbbell Row

The single arm dumbbell row, much like the pull-up, is a compound exercise utilizing a unilateral approach to each repetition, meaning that it will only focus on one side of the body at once, allowing the exerciser to focus more on their individual muscular contractions and therefore inducing higher quality muscular stimulation.

In order to perform the single arm dumbbell row, you will require a dumbbell or weight plate of suitable weight as well as a bench or other elevated surface comfortable enough to kneel on.

single arm dumbbell row

To begin, place one knee on the bench or elevated surface, with your free arm resting against the bench in order to act as a stabilizer. Keeping your back straight, bench over the bench or surface and grip the dumbbell on the ground. A neutral grip is the norm, though it is better to use whatever grip is most comfortable for your physiology.

Extending your shoulder blade, pull the dumbbell towards your chest by drawing your elbow backwards until the dumbbell nearly makes contact with your ribcage or chest. Squeeze your back muscles and hold this contraction for a moment before lowering the dumbbell back to the floor in a controlled manner. This completes a single repetition of dumbbell rows.

Seated or Standing Cable Row

Also considered a compound exercise owing to its wide-spread muscle group activation, the cable row is a machine assisted exercise that places tension on much the same muscles as pull-ups, though with slightly different physiological stress distribution owing to the altered angle at which the exercise is performed at.

In order to perform a cable row, you will need either a machine specifically designed for this exercise or an adjustable cable machine with interchangeable handle attachments.

To begin, swap out the current cable handle with a bar or other type of handle that allows for a neutral or pronated grip. E-Z bar cable handles are unsuitable for this exercise as it will stress your wrist tendons needlessly.

standing cable row

Either seated on the bench attached to the machine or standing approximately a foot away, grip the cable attachment with both hands and draw towards your torso, tucking your elbows into your sides as the handle nears your ribcage.

As you are doing this, allow the tension in the cable to hold your torso in place while your rear leans backwards somewhat, allowing the trapezius and latissimus muscle groups to fully activate.

Hold the handle in place for a moment before slowly releasing it back into its original position, keeping your spine as straight as possible by facing your skull forward.

Biceps Brachii Focused Pull-up Alternatives

The second primary muscle group used in pull-ups is the biceps brachii, which are namely located along the front of your upper arm, opposite the triceps brachii. As its name suggests, the biceps possess two heads, of which are often activated at the same time no matter the type of exercise that is being performed.

In order to take advantage of this when choosing to replace pull-ups in your exercise routine, isolation exercises for the biceps may be used in tandem with other exercises that target other muscle groups normally trained by pull-ups.

Preacher Curls

With a preacher machine loaded with a set of dumbbells or weighted barbell, place the crook of your armpits over the padded triangle, with your chest resting opposite your arms.

Grip the barbell or dumbbell in place on the preacher station’s rack and raise it slowly towards your chin, keeping your wrists as loose as possible so as to avoid impingement.

dumbbell preacher curl

Once the barbell or dumbbells have reached the highest point they may go without raising your chest from the padding, begin to lower it once more to the base of the preacher station’s padding. Do this slowly so as to induce as much hypertrophy as possible.

Hammer Curls

With a pair of dumbbells of suitable weight, allow your hands to rest against either side of your hips with your shoulders squared in order to leave enough space for the exercise.

dumbbell hammer curl

Keeping a neutral grip and the trunk of your body firmly in place, raise either one dumbbell or both at the same time towards your collarbone, squeezing the brachioradialis as you do so, before allowing the dumbbell to enter a controlled descent back to the side of your hips.

References

1. Kennedy, Robert; Ross, Don (August 1988). "Appendix: The Exercises". Muscleblasting! Brief and Brutal Shock Training. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc. p. 132. ISBN 0-8069-6758-7.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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