If you want some effective pull up alternatives that you can do at home or in a gym, using dumbbells, bands or machines, this page will show you what to do.
Pull Up Muscles Worked
The pull up is a compound exercise, meaning it works a number of different muscle groups at the same time.
The main ones are:
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres major
- Elbow flexors (biceps, brachialis, brachioradialis)
- Posterior deltoid
Various muscles in the upper back are also involved, including the rhomboids and traps.
Pull Up Alternatives
As a compound lift that targets your lats and biceps, as well as various muscles in the upper back and shoulders, pull ups are one of the best back exercises out there.
However, they’re not an option for everyone.
Maybe you’re training at home, and you don’t have access to a pull up bar. Perhaps you’re just getting started, and you’re not strong enough to do pull ups. Not yet, anyway.
You want an entry-level alternative to the pull up. An exercise that works the same muscles, but one that you can actually do.
No matter what the case, here are several effective replacements for the pull up that can be done at home without the use of a pull up bar, or in a gym using a cable machine.
Let’s assume you’re training at home. Pull ups aren’t an option, either because you don’t have a pull up bar, or you’re not strong enough to do them.
What do you do instead?
Enter the TRX pull up
Home Pull Up Alternative 1: TRX Pull Up
If you’re not strong enough to do regular pull-ups, but you don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine, you can use a TRX suspension trainer to do the TRX pull up.
Most suspension trainers, like a Jungle Gym, or even gymnastic rings, will do a similar job.
The TRX pull up is a lot like a regular pull up, but it lets you reduce the amount of weight you have to lift, making it easier to do.
That is, you can start off with an easier version of the pull up, and progress to harder versions over time as you get stronger.
Like the pull up, the TRX pull up uses your weight to provide resistance. But unlike the pull up, which involves lifting your entire body, the level of resistance will vary depending on:
- Where your body is in relation to the anchor point.
- What you do with your legs.
If you position yourself directly under the anchor point, the TRX pull up is going to be harder compared to starting the exercise with the anchor point in front of you.
Likewise, doing the exercise with both feet on the floor in a squat-type position is easier than starting with your legs straight and arse on the floor.
- Adjust the straps on the suspension trainer so you can just reach the handles with your arms outstretched
- Take hold of the handles and pull your body upwards. Aim to get your chin higher than the handles.
- Briefly hold the top position before lowering yourself under control to the starting position.
- Keep your hips low to avoid turning the exercise into an inverted row.
Home Pull Up Alternative 2: Resistance Band Lat Pulldown
Rather than pull yourself up to a bar, with the resistance being provided by your own bodyweight, the resistance band lat pulldown involves pulling the band towards your body, with the resistance being provided by the band.
Although both exercises work the same muscles in your back, shoulders and arms, there are some important differences between the two.
When you do pull ups, you’ve got a constant level of tension on the lats throughout the whole of the exercise, from the stretched position at the bottom, where your arms are straight, to the contracted position at the top.
But it’s a different story when you’re doing lat pulldowns with bands.
With a band, the resistance is greatest at the bottom of the movement, when the band is closest to your upper chest. Then, as you straighten your arms, the level of resistance provided by the band is gradually reduced.
Rather than constant tension, as you get with pull ups, the tension varies throughout the exercise.
In other words, resistance band lat pulldowns provide more resistance when your arms are closer to your body, than they do at the top of the movement, when your arms are straight.
Why is that important?
One of the things that stimulates growth in a muscle is subjecting it to high levels of tension at long muscle lengths, a phenomenon known as stretch-mediated hypertrophy.
By that, I mean you want to incorporate exercises in your training program that challenge your muscles in a stretched position.
You get that, to a degree at least, with exercises like pull ups and chin ups. But with resistance band lat pulldowns, the tension is at its lowest when your arms are straight.
That doesn’t mean resistance band lat pulldowns are worthless. If, for whatever reason, you can’t do pull ups, they do serve as a passable alternative.
However, they’re not identical, and a training program that includes 3-4 sets of resistance band lat pulldowns isn’t going to stimulate the same level of growth as 3-4 sets of pull ups.
Pull Up Alternatives With Dumbbells
The first thing I should point out is that you can’t do pull ups with dumbbells. In order to do pull ups with dumbbells, you’d have to be hanging upside down.
However, while you can’t do pull ups with dumbbells, you can use dumbbells to target the same muscles as the pull up.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Most exercises for your back can be put into one of two categories:
- Horizontal Pull
- Vertical Pull
Vertical pulling movements, such as pull ups or lat pulldowns, can’t be done with dumbbells. But horizontal pulling exercises, like dumbbell rows or barbell rows, can be.
In other words, you can use horizontal pulling exercises to work the same muscles as a pull up.
To be clear, a horizontal pulling exercise will not replace pull ups completely. Even though the same muscles are being worked, they’re not necessarily being worked in the same way.
That is, if you took two different people, and got one of them to do a vertical pulling exercise like pull ups, while the other did a horizontal rowing exercise, like the barbell row, you’d expect to see more lat growth with pull ups.
However, horizontal pulling exercises can be done with barbells or dumbbells, and work the same muscles as the pull up. This makes them a passable substitute for pull ups, especially if you’re training at home without a pull up bar, or you’re not strong enough to do pull ups.
I’ve covered some of my favorite horizontal pulling exercises in the link below:
If you’re training at a gym rather than at home, the exercise that serves as an almost perfect substitute for the pull up is the lat pulldown. When it comes to working your lats, pulldowns will do the job just as well as pull ups.
In one study, researchers compared pull ups and lat pulldowns, both done using a similar grip width, range of motion and lifting speed .
Electrodes were attached to various different muscles, including the lats, biceps and abs, to measure how hard those muscles worked during both exercises.
There was almost no difference in lat muscle activation between pull-ups and lat pulldowns, with the researchers concluding that both exercises are “similarly effective” for working the lats.
In terms of grip width and hand position, most research shows that lat pulldowns with an overhand grip and your hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart are the best way to target the lats.
- Adjust the knee pad so it sits snugly on your thighs.
- Take hold of the bar with a grip that’s slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Use an overhand grip with your palms facing forward.
- Pull the bar down to your chin or slightly below.
- Keep your chest lifted as you pull the bar down.
- At the bottom position your elbows should point down rather than back.
- Return the bar under control to the starting position.
The pull up is a highly effective compound lift for working your back. However, it’s an exercise that not everyone can do, either because they’re not strong enough, or because they don’t have access to the right equipment.
However, you can use the pull up alternatives I’ve described above to build a stronger, more muscular back. With time, patience and a lot of hard work, you’ll eventually hit the point where you’re strong enough to do pull ups.