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Pull Ups Alternatives: How to Target the Back

pull up alternatives

The pull up is a classic calisthenic exercise generally performed by the exerciser dead-hanging from a bar overhead prior to contracting their back muscles as they draw themselves upwards, raising their head over the bar and returning to the starting position in order to complete the repetition.

This is done for the purposes of inducing significant muscular hypertrophy and strength conditioning in the majority of the back muscles, as well as the biceps, core stabilizers, and deltoids – all of which are directly activated by the motion of the pull ups exercise.

Despite this, a variety of exercisers find themselves needing to substitute out the pull up in their workout routine for an exercise of different intensity, or one that does not require the same type of equipment to perform.

Reasons Why the Pull Up May Need to be Alternated Out

Though many circumstances and reasons may exist as to why the pull up may need to be substituted out by an exerciser, several of these are among the most common complaints by said exercisers or athletic coaches, with such things like shoulder and elbow injuries or the exerciser being physically unable to complete a pull up with proper form all being perfectly valid reasons for the use of an alternative exercise.

pull ups

In the case of the exerciser having a history or being at risk of such injuries like shoulder dislocations, elbow impingements or simply general wear and tear injuries in the connective tissues stressed during a set of pull ups, they may instead choose a far lower impact exercise that otherwise places less pressure on said joints.

For individuals that are unable or too physically untrained to perform pull ups with proper form, they may instead utilize a variety of supplemental or machine assisted exercises that allow for a similar pattern of muscular activation without requiring that they perform the motion of a pull up themselves.

Other reasons why the pull up may require substitution with an alternative exercise is of the exerciser’s own strength levels surpassing the capacity of simple bodyweight pull ups, or in the case of exercisers without access to an elevated bar or similar platform from which to suspend themselves from.

Regardless of the circumstances or conditions leading to the exerciser changing out the pull up from their workout routine, they need not worry, as even a simple combination of two to three isolation exercises can recreate the training stimulus and subsequent muscular development induced by the pull ups.

What Muscles Are Trained by the Pull Up and its Alternative Exercises?

The pull up is classified as a closed kinetic chain compound movement, and as such activates a large number of muscle groups associated with the “pull” motion of the upper body, as well as several stabilizer muscle groups that ensure the exerciser maintains a stable torso.

Keeping this in mind, any alternative exercise that replaces the pull up within a structured workout regimen should also activate the majority of these muscle groups, or – at the least – isolate the primary mover muscles involved in the kinetics of a pull up.

Even if the exerciser manages to identify and utilize an alternative exercise that activates all the same muscle groups as those of the pull up, the intensity and pattern at which these muscle groups are trained will differ.

As such, it is important for expectations to be tempered, as while this distinction is not necessarily a drawback, no true perfect substitute to any exercise exists, with minute differences of the exercises accounting for any distinction in training stimulus and similar factors.

How to Substitute the Pull Up in a Training Program

The pull up usually takes the place of a secondary compound exercise meant to stimulate the upper back and biceps in a pull routine, either by way of adding surplus resistance via the usage of weight plates as is the case in weighted pull ups, or through the use of a higher repetition of volume, depending on the exerciser’s own bodyweight.

As such, when modifying a training program for the substitution of the pull up, one may either make no changes at all as would be appropriate if choosing a compound exercise of similar intensity and muscular activation, or subtract other exercises that train the back muscles, if the alternative is more intense than the pull up itself would be.

The Assisted Pull Up Machine

The best overall substitute to the pull up is, unsurprisingly, a machine that provides much the same stimulus and form mechanics with the benefit of assisting the exerciser throughout the repetition, reducing the amount of resistance they are combatting by providing a constant upward force beneath the body.

assisted pull up machine

This allows the assisted pull up to act as the perfect alternative for exercisers without enough physical strength to perform the traditional pull up, or for individuals wishing to perform a higher volume of repetitions with a fraction of their own bodyweight instead.

Of course, placing the elbows and shoulders in the same position, the assisted pull up machine is not a safe or suitable alternative to a traditional pull up for exercisers with a history or who are at risk of injuries from said pull up, and as such it is best for them to find another alternative instead.

Nonetheless, substituting pull ups with the assisted pull up machine requires no additional reprogramming or changes within the training routine of the exerciser, and may substitute the exercise entirely with no additional thinking required.

Alternative Calisthenic Back Exercises

Though the pull up exercise may be performed with additional weight for exercisers that require more resistance in the exercise, the majority of individuals only use their own bodyweight as the exercise’s source of resistance, and as such alternative exercises that only utilize the bodyweight as well will provide a similar type and intensity of training stimulus.

This similarity in training stimulus will allow the exerciser to substitute out the pull up without the need for any additional supplementary exercises or subsequent reprogramming of their workout routine, making calisthenic alternatives a very convenient choice.

Inverted Rows

Also known as the bodyweight row, the inverted row is a upper back compound movement wherein the exerciser will suspend themselves from a racked barbell or similar implement as they row their own bodyweight beneath it.

inverted row

If performed correctly, inverted rows are capable of producing a moderate to intense level of training stimulus with only the usage of the exerciser’s bodyweight as the source of resistance.

This has several key benefits that make it an excellent alternative to the pull up, such as the fact that it does not place the same level of pressure on the scapula and elbow joint, and as such is not only a safer and more comfortable substitute to the pull up, but also one that activates the posterior deltoid head and rhomboids in a far more effective manner.

Generally, unless performed with vastly incorrect form, the inverted row presents little to no risk of injury, a fact that works quite well with its relatively simplistic form mechanics, resulting in a safe and efficient bodyweight exercise suitable for gym newbies and advanced athletes alike.

Neutral Grip Pull Ups

A variation of the standard pull up that makes use of a neutral grip in order to reduce the risk of injury and place a larger emphasis on the arms, neutral grip pull ups make a suitable alternative to the traditional pull up for exercisers unable to perform a sufficient amount of repetitions or those seeking greater forearm muscle groups activation.

Substituting pull ups with neutral grip pull ups recreates many of the same benefits that are native to said standard pull up, but with fewer of the drawbacks, as the position of the exerciser’s hands greatly reduces stress placed on the wrists, elbows and shoulders – thereby resulting in a lower chance of repetitive strain injuries.

Such a benefit is in combination with the fact that neutral grip pull ups can generally be used in larger volumes of repetitions, allowing for a greater capacity towards muscular endurance training and conditioning, of which may be of use to athletes and other competitive exercisers.

Chin Ups

Extremely similar to the pull up save for the greater emphasis placed on the biceps brachii by the exerciser supinating their grip, chin ups may act as an alternative to the pull up in practically aspect save for connective tissue injury avoidance.

This equates to the chin up being just as intense a compound movement as the pull up and with the exact same muscle group activation set, but with the biceps bearing a larger percentage of the resistance, reducing the brachial muscle group’s involvement in the exercise.

Exercisers substituting pull ups with chin ups may find that at first, the total volume of repetitions they can perform is somewhat less than that of a set of pull ups due to the reduced endurance capacity of the biceps brachii as they are stressed in a more intense manner.

Nonetheless, the chin up may substitute the pull up in a perfect 1 to 1 ratio of volume, also requiring no additional reprogramming of the workout routine, save for slightly less biceps brachii sets if isolation exercises targeting the muscle group are present.

Individuals choosing to alternate out the pull up due to elbow or wrist issues, however, are better off avoiding the chin up entirely. 

This is because the supinated grip used during a chin up repetition places greater stress on these areas, even worse than what a pull up is capable of.

Alternative Free Weight or Machine Exercises

For situations where a more intense form of resistance is required in a pull up alternative, making use of free weight equipment or exercise machines is an excellent way to up the exertion of the exerciser, or to otherwise provide a different form of training stimulus than what is achievable with simple calisthenic movements.

Lat Pulldowns

A recreation of the pull up movement but with the use of a cable machine, lat pulldowns are usually used as a supplementary exercise alongside pull ups instead of a direct substitute, but may nevertheless function as one if performed with a high level of resistance.

lat pulldowns

One must keep in mind that though the lat pulldown activates practically the same muscle groups as a standard pull up, it otherwise ignores the core stabilizers due to the nature of machine based exercises – and the fact that the exerciser usually performs lat pulldowns while in a seated position.

As such, additional auxiliary core training exercises may be of benefit when utilizing the lat pulldown as an alternative.

Barbell Rows

A free weight compound exercise performed by the exerciser bending at the hips and rowing a plate-loaded barbell, barbell rows and its variations are less of an alternative and more of an upgrade, especially in terms of muscular activation intensity and lower back activation.

bent over rows

This is because of the significantly increased muscle contraction from the angle of resistance and nature of free weight exercises, requiring a larger number of stabilizer muscle groups be incorporated into the movement in order to complete a repetition with proper form.

However, this also comes with its own set of risks, as too much weight or improper form mechanics will result in a risk of injury that surpasses that of the pull up, as well as a higher risk of overtraining as the barbell row places the muscles under more intense levels of exertion.

This makes the barbell row an alternative exercise better suited for exercisers of at least intermediate training experience, or for individuals under the supervision and direction of a licensed athletic coach.

References
  • Urbanczyk, CA, Prinold, JAI, Reilly, P, Bull, AMJ. Avoiding high-risk rotator cuff loading: Muscle force during three pull-up techniques. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2020; 30: 2205– 2214. https://doi.org/10.1111/sms.13780
  • Youdas JW, Keith JM, Nonn DE, Squires AC, Hollman JH. Activation of Spinal Stabilizers and Shoulder Complex Muscles During an Inverted Row Using a Portable Pull-up Device and Body Weight Resistance. J Strength Cond Res. 2016 Jul;30(7):1933-41. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000001210. PMID: 26422610.
  • Snarr RL, Hallmark AV, Casey JC, Esco MR. Electromyographical Comparison of a Traditional, Suspension Device, and Towel Pull-Up. J Hum Kinet. 2017 Aug 1;58:5-13. doi: 10.1515/hukin-2017-0068. PMID: 28828073; PMCID: PMC5548150.