The 10 Best Pull-Up Alternatives

Barbell Medicine
May 15, 2024
Reading Time: 14 minutes
Table of Contents

    Pull-ups (palms down) and chin-ups (palms up) primarily train your latissimus dorsi or “lats,” along with other muscle groups in your upper and middle back (teres major, rhomboids, trapezius), arms (biceps brachii, brachioradialis), shoulders (anterior, middle, and posterior deltoid heads) and torso (rectus abdominis).

    Pull-ups and chin-ups are both compound (multi-joint) vertical pulling movements. While they can be very effective exercises for training the aforementioned muscles, some folks may prefer different variations to use in place or in addition to chin-ups and pull-ups.

    We prepared a list of best alternative exercises that will hit the same muscle groups including ring rows, inverted rows, barbell rows, 1-arm dumbbell rows, lat-pulldowns, dumbbell pullovers, seated cable rows, chest-supported rows, lever rows, and t-bar rows.

    You’ll note that there are a number of row variations listed. While these are horizontal pulling movements and, thus, load the muscles slightly differently, they still train the same muscles through a similar range of motion as pull-ups and chin-ups. 

    Here’s a quick rundown of what you need for each exercise:

    • Ring row – Equipment: gymnastic rings with adjustable straps, TRX
    • Inverted Row – Equipment: Smith machine or TRX or bar and towels
    • Lat Pulldowns – Lat pulldown machine or high pulley
    • 1-arm Dumbbell Row – Equipment: Dumbbell and a bench/surface
    • Seated Cable Row – Equipment: cable row machine
    • Barbell Row – Equipment: Barbell
    • Dumbbell pullover/Barbell pullover – Equipment: dumbbell, or barbell and bench/surface
    • Chest supported row – Equipment: Incline bench and dumbbell/ barbell
    • Lever rows – Equipment: barbell, bench/surface
    • T-Bar Row – Equipment: Barbell

    1. Ring Row

    Ring Row

    Ring rows primarily train the lats, traps, rhomboids, biceps, and the posterior deltoid head though other muscles are used too. They are typically a bodyweight exercise, though the amount of weight being lifted can be adjusted by altering the angle of your body relative to the floor. The higher the rings and the more upright your body is, the easier the exercise is. The lower the rings are and the more horizontal your body is, the harder ring rows become.

    You need a pair of gymnastic rings or a suspension strap system like TRX to do ring rows. Anchor the straps to a sturdy beam overhead, e.g., in a squat rack, smith machine, or tree branch, and you have all you need.

    How to Do Ring Rows:

    1. Adjust the height and width of the rings. For width, we recommend about a forearm’s length between the rings side-to-side. For height, we recommend starting with the rings at approximately hip level. If you’re a beginner, you can set them at chest level. The lower the rings, the more horizontal you can get, which makes the movement harder. You can set them at hip height and still remain somewhat vertical by walking further away from the center.
    2. While standing up, grab the rings with both hands and walk your feet out in front of you while you straighten your arms to get into position. Your shoulders should be directly underneath the rings, your legs straight in front of you, and your heels on the ground. This is your starting position.
    3. Tighten your core, squeeze your butt, and pull your chest up towards the rings. At the top, the rings should be on either side of your chest. This is the top of the movement.
    4. Extend your arms at a controlled speed and lower yourself to the starting position. That’s one repetition.

    If the movement is too difficult, we recommend raising the rings to encourage a more vertical body position and/or bending your knees so that your entire foot is flat on the floor. This reduces the amount of load that needs to be lifted.

    For a more challenging alternative, you may lower the rings to assume a more horizontal position with only your heels touching the ground. You may also raise your feet on an elevated surface to make the movement even more difficult.

    You can increase the difficulty by doing single-hand ring rows, though this will likely need to be performed with a higher ring position and more vertical body angle than when using both arms. Instead of grabbing both rings, grab one with one hand, and pull yourself up.

    2. Inverted Row

    Inverted Row

    Like the ring row, the inverted row is a bodyweight pull exercise. Instead of using rings or a TRX system, however, this exercise uses a tried and true barbell placed in a squat rack. Inverted rows target upper back muscles, with the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, and teres muscle group as the primary movers.

    Similar to ring rows, we recommend placing the barbell at approximately hip height to start. You can adjust the height of the bar and your angle to the floor to make the movement easier or more challenging. The more horizontal you get, the more difficult the movement. Some find the inverted row somewhat easier compared to the ring row because the bar doesn’t move, whereas others find it more difficult since it forces a specific hand position.

    In order to do inverted rows, you need a fixed bar at the height of your choice (lower will be more difficult). You can use a Smith machine or a squat rack to do inverted rows.

    How to Do Inverted Rows:

    1. Place a bar on the squat rack. The height of the bar is up to you: the lower it is, the more challenging the movement will be. We recommend starting with the bar at approximately hip height.
    2. If the bar is level with or higher than your sternum,
      1. Stand in front of the bar and plant your feet firmly into the ground. Grab the bar with both hands using an overhand grip, slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
      2. Keep your body straight, and lean back by extending your arms. Keep your heels on the ground to support yourself.
    3. If the bar is lower, lay or sit down under it and reach up to grab the bar with both hands in a wide grip. Walk your feet out. Your body should be in a straight line from your heels on the floor, up to your back. This is the starting position.
    4. Use your arms to pull your chest up until it touches the bar. Keep your body straight and your core and glutes engaged throughout the movement.
    5. Lower yourself down by extending your arms at a controlled speed. That’s one repetition.

    Finding the right height takes a bit of experimentation. You can also try adjusting your grip (overhand or underhand) and grip width to find the best position.

    3. Lat-Pulldown

    Lat-Pulldown

    The lat pulldown is a great alternative to the pull-up or chin-up, as it’s another vertical pulling movement that trains the muscle groups in the back, shoulders, and arms. [1]

    Like the pull-up, it primarily targets the latissimus dorsi, with infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor, trapezius, posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, brachialis, brachioradialis acting as synergists.

    It’s also a versatile movement, as it can be performed with different attachments and grip widths in an effort to target certain muscles and/or muscle groups through different angles and ranges of motion.

    The lat pulldown is also a bit more straightforward to scale than a pull-up or chin-up. While pull-ups and chin-ups can be performed with bands, machines, or added weight to suit an individual’s needs, the lat pulldown can do the same thing by just moving the pin in a weight stack. Beginners and experienced trainees alike can easily incorporate lat pulldowns into their programs.

    You need a lat pulldown machine to do lat pulldowns.

    How to Do Lat Pulldowns:

    1. Attach a lat pulldown bar to the pulley. Grab the bar with both hands using a double overhand grip, with the hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
    2. Sit on the bench with your knees under the knee pads. You can adjust the knee pad height to ensure there isn’t a gap between your knees and the pads.
    3. Pull the bar down towards your upper chest without leaning back. Keep your back straight and chest proud.
    4. Once your elbows are by your sides and the bar is around your chest level, slowly let it return to the starting position.

    How to Do Close-Grip Lat Pulldowns:

    As the name suggests, a close-grip lat pulldown is done with your palms together. The position allows you to primarily focus on the latissimus dorsi and teres major.

    You will need a close grip attachment (v-bar) for close grip lat pulldown:

    1. Attach the v-grip attachment to the lat pulldown machine. Sit up straight with your knees under the pads.
    2. Grab the attachment with both hands, palms facing each other.
    3. Pull down the attachment towards your sternum by squeezing your shoulder blades and driving your elbows down.
    4. Let the attachment return to its previous position by pushing your shoulder blades apart and extending your arms.

    4. 1-Arm Dumbbell Row

    1-Arm Dumbbell Row

    The 1-arm dumbbell row trains the muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms. It’s a multi-joint exercise that you can perform with a dumbbell and a bench (or other supporting surface).

    The back muscles (latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, teres major) and shoulders (posterior deltoid) are the primary movers when doing one-arm dumbbell rows. The biceps brachii and brachialis act as synergists to support the movement.

    How to Do a 1-arm Dumbbell Row:

    1. Stand next to the bench or the surface you’ll use for support. Place a dumbbell next to you on the floor. Hinge forward and put your left hand and left knee on the bench. Make sure your hand is in line with your shoulder and your knee is in line with your hip. Let your left foot dangle from the bench. Your right foot should be on the floor, slightly back from your hips and out to the side.
    2. Lean down, hold the dumbbell with your right hand, and lift it up until your back is horizontal, parallel to the floor. This is the starting position.
    3. Pull your right elbow up and back by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Keep your elbow close to your body as you lift the dumbbell. Try not to move your torso much during the movement.
    4. Lower the dumbbell down, getting back to the starting position. That’s one repetition.
    5. Complete all the programmed reps on one side, then switch to the other arm.

    5. Seated Cable Row

    Seated Cable Row

    The seated cable row is another horizontal upper-body pulling exercise. It primarily targets the back muscles, including the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, posterior deltoid, and teres muscle groups.

    A cable row machine allows you to try different variations of the same movement and train your muscles through different angles and ranges of motion. We’ll describe the seated cable row, in addition to the wide grip row and one-arm cable row.

    How to Do Seated Cable Rows:

    1. Attach a v-grip bar to the pulley to do the traditional seated cable row. Sit up straight on the bench, your knees softly bent. Take a secure grip on the attachment with your palms facing each other. 
    2. Using your arms, pull the handles straight towards your torso, aiming for the bottom of your sternum. The key here is to use your back muscles as you pull: you don’t want to lean back with your torso or get support from your legs. They should be relatively still.
    3. Extend your arms forward at a controlled speed to return to the start position.

    You can also use attachments and different grips to alter the exercise. For example, with a bar attachment, you can do a wide grip cable row. Grab the bar in an overhand grip, hands placed shoulder-width apart, and follow the instructions above.

    You can also do a one-arm seated cable row by using a single d-handle attachment. The movement is the same, but you use only one hand to pull the straps. Once you’re done, switch to the other arm and repeat.

    6. Dumbbell Pullover

    Dumbbell Pullover

    Dumbbell/barbell pullovers are upper-body exercises that work both the chest and back muscles. More specifically, the pectoralis major, serratus anterior, and latissimus dorsi are the primary movers during this exercise.

    If you’re new to dumbbell pullovers, it’s a good idea to try it first by lying on the bench. In this variation, your whole back, in addition to your torso and hips, are supported.

    If you’re up for a more challenging variation, you can rest your upper back on the bench while in a bridge position. In this version, you engage your core and legs with a horizontal torso.

    ​​How to Do Dumbbell Pullovers:

    1. Lie down on the bench with your back, shoulders, torso, and hips supported by the bench. Plant your feet on the ground. Your head will slightly hang from the bench.
      1. For a more challenging version, sit in front of the bench with your back resting against it. From here, push up into a bridge. Your upper back will be on the bench, with your core and glutes supporting your weight.
    2. Your upper back and hips will rest on the bench, but you can arch your middle back slightly.
    3. Grab a single dumbbell, holding each edge with one hand, and position it over your chest. Extend your arms, lifting the dumbbell up, but keep a soft bend in your elbows. This is your starting position.
    4. Slowly lower the dumbbell back over your head. The movement will stretch your lats and pecs, so it’s a good idea to take it slow and not push too hard.
    5. Drawing your arms back, return the dumbbells back to the starting position.

    The key here is to remain in control of the movement and discover your range of motion. It might be a good idea to start with an empty bar if you’re new to the exercise.

    7. Pendlay/Barbell Row

    Barbell Row

    Barbell rows are a great way to train the muscles of the back, shoulders, and arms. The primary movers are the latissimus dorsi, infraspinatus, teres major, teres minor, infraspinatus, and trapezius, while the posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, and brachialis are the synergists. [2]

    Pendlay rows are a specific type of barbell row, but with a longer range of motion, as you start and end with the bar on the floor for each repetition. The Pendlay Row is a common choice for powerlifters and other strength athletes, as it has some similarities to the deadlift and power clean, plus it can be loaded relatively heavy.

    Overall, both movements are good for training your back, so choose whichever one you enjoy better.

    You only need a barbell and weight plates to perform barbell rows.

    How to Do Barbell Rows:

    1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and the bar on the ground right in front of you, about 1 inch in front of your shins.
    2. Keeping your knees mostly straight, bend over and grab the barbell with an overhand grip using a shoulder-width grip just outside of your legs. Make sure your wrists and arms are straight.
    3. Lift the bar off the ground by slightly straightening your knees and hips. The bar should be just below your knees. This is your starting position.
    4. Keeping your core engaged, pull the bar up towards your sternum using your arms, pulling your shoulder blades together, and driving your elbows up and back.
    5. Return the bar to the starting position.

    How to Do Pendlay Rows:

    1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and the bar on the ground right in front of you, about 1 inch in front of your shins.
    2. Keeping your knees mostly straight, bend over and grab the barbell with an overhand grip using a shoulder-width grip just outside of your legs. Make sure your wrists and arms are straight.
    3. From here, use the arms to pull the bar off the floor and pull it towards the bottom of your sternum. Squeeze your shoulder blades together as you lift the bar up.
    4. Return the bar to the floor and repeat until you complete your set.

    Here is a Pendlay row video that will help you understand the movement.

    8. Chest-Supported Row

    Chest-Supported Row

    The chest-supported row is a great exercise for training the back and arm muscles. The latissimus dorsi, trapezius, rhomboids, infraspinatus, teres major and minor, and biceps muscles are all trained during this movement.

    This exercise can be performed using dumbbells and an incline bench or a chest-supported row machine. We’ll describe the dumbbell version below, though the technique is similar if you’re using a machine.

    How to Do Chest-Supported Rows:

    1. Set your bench to a 45-degree incline and grab a pair of dumbbells. Your toes will be on the floor to support you while your body rests on the bench (facedown). Engage your core and glutes.
    2. Drive your elbows up and back by squeezing your shoulder blades together. Keep your arms close to your body. Maintaining a tight core will help you maintain form and prevent overextending your back.
    3. Lower the dumbbells down and return to the starting position.

    9. Lever Row

    Lever Row

    Whether you want to go heavier on one-arm dumbbell rows than the dumbbells available to you allow or you don’t have dumbbells at all, the lever row is a great option. Essentially, the lever row is a one-arm row you do with a barbell by grabbing it close to the collar and rowing it like a dumbbell.

    The latissimus dorsi, teres major, trapezius, rhomboids, and posterior deltoid are all loaded with this movement, as are the biceps brachii and brachialis are synergists.

    To do a lever row, you’ll need a barbell, weight plates, and a flat bench.

    How to Do Lever Rows:

    1. Load weight plates to one side of the bar. Place it next to the bench. You can lay another plate on top of the empty end of the bar on a weight plate to prevent it from slipping. Alternatively, you can place the empty end of the barbell into a landmine attachment to secure it. Finally, you can actually do this exercise with both sides loaded equally. All that changes is the leverage the lifter will have, thereby changing the weight that will be used.
    2. Put one knee and one hand on the bench (for example right knee, right hand) like a 1-arm dumbbell row. Your hand should be right under your shoulder and your knee right under your hip.
    3. Place your other foot on the floor, slightly back and out to the side. You should be able to stay in this position without losing your balance.
    4. Extend your empty arm and grab the bar near the collar of the barbell. Your hand should be slightly in front of your shoulder when viewed from the side.
    5. Using your arm and keeping your back straight, pull the end of the barbell up and towards your chest. Squeeze your shoulder blades together.
    6. Lower the bar down until the plate is touching the floor. 
    7. Do all repetitions on 1 side, then repeat the movement with your other arm.

    10. T-Bar Row

    T-Bar Row

    You do a T-bar row by adding weight plates to one end of the bar and securing the other end with a heavy weight, like the lever row. However, this time you’re going to use both hands to pull the heavy side of the bar toward your chest.

    You don’t need a bench for this exercise as it’s done standing up, slightly bent over, with the bar between your legs so you can comfortably hold it with both hands while lifting.

    If the bar keeps moving or slipping as you lift it, use a landmine attachment to anchor the bar in place. If that’s not an option, put a heavy dumbbell on the other hand to ensure it doesn’t move. Many gyms also have a t-bar station and/or machine.

    The latissimus dorsi, trapezius, infraspinatus, teres major, and teres minor are used in this exercise, with the posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, and brachialis included as well.

    How to Do T-bar Rows:

    1. Straddle the bar, your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep a soft bend in the knees, hinge at the hips, and bend forward to an approx. 45-degree angle relative to the floor, or just low enough so you can grab the bar (or the V-part attachment if you want to use one) with extended arms.
    2. Grab the V-bar with both hands. Squeeze your shoulder blades and drive your elbows up and back, lifting the weight plate towards your chest.
    3. Lower the bar back down with controlled speed and motion.
    4. Repeat for reps.

    Wrapping Up

    Make no mistake, pull-ups and chin-ups are both great exercises for training the posterior shoulder girdle and vertical pulling movement pattern. They’re quite scalable as well, as individuals can use a band or an assisted pull-up machine (e.g., a Gravitron) to reduce the load that’s being lifted. Lifters can also add weight to these movements using chains, adding plates on a dip belt, a weighted vest, or holding a dumbbell between the legs.

    However, not everyone will want to or be able to do chin-ups or pull-ups. And even then, we recommend that folks do a variety of different exercises to train the muscles in different planes, and ranges of motion as a way to broadly improve physical development.

    In this light, we would recommend some type of horizontal row be trained in addition to the chin-up, pull-up, or lat pulldown. From a hypertrophy perspective, most of the exercises listed above are not particularly fatiguing compared to the loads, amount of muscle mass, and overall difficulty of the pull-up or chin-up. Even though most of these rows are compound exercises, you can do them without generating too much unwanted fatigue. You can adjust the weight for each exercise to progressively increase your load and increase your training volume without straining your recovery resources.

    If you’re training for a particular goal, you may want to check out our templates. We offer strength training, endurance, hypertrophy, bodybuilding, and rehab templates for people of all ages and fitness levels. You can also reach out to us and share your fitness goals, so we can prepare and lead you through a custom training module.

    References

    1. Ronai, Peter M.S., FACSM, ACSM-CEP, ACSM-EP, EIM Level III, CSCS. The Lat Pulldown. ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal 23(2):p 24-30, 3/4 2019. | DOI: 10.1249/FIT.0000000000000469
    2. Fenwick, C. M. J., Brown, S. H. M., & McGill, S. M. (2009). Comparison of Different Rowing Exercises: Trunk Muscle Activation and Lumbar Spine Motion, Load, and Stiffness. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(2), 350–358. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181942019
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    Barbell Medicine
    The Barbell Medicine Website Editorial Team consists of Fitness, Health, Nutrition, and Strength Training experts. Our Team is led by Jordan Feigenbaum, MD, an elite competitive powerlifter, health educator, and fitness & strength coach.
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