Here Are Some Alternative Exercises for the Pull-up

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A seaman executes biceps curls.
Seaman Derek B. Hahn uses free weights to execute biceps curls at Camp Foster’s Gunners Fitness Center in Okinawa, Japan, Jan. 7, 2013. (Lance Cpl. Elizabeth Case/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

I often receive questions from people who are trying to substitute pull-ups with other similar exercises that work the same muscle groups.

This gentleman asks:

"I am always trying to add muscle and do not have access to a pull-up bar or lat pulldown machine. I work out at home and have dumbbells. What is an alternative exercise to pull-ups, in your opinion."

First of all, one thing I always do, no matter whether I am travelling or at home, is to go for a jog near a school district and search for any playground that is open to the public. You will find monkey bars there and maybe even pull-up bars where you can do pull-up workouts, such as the PT pyramid.

When discussing alternative exercises for a challenging calisthenics exercise such as pull-ups, simply break down the pull-up into muscle groups used. They are ...

Biceps

These are your pulling muscles that enable your arms to bend and lift your weight over the pull-up bar. The exercise recommended to develop biceps is, of course, biceps curls.

A good workout for this muscle is what I call a superset where you select three dumbbell weights (for instance, 15, 20 and 25 pounds). This is a nonstop workout where you only rest to change the weights after each series of repetitions. Do the 15 pounds for 20 reps, the 20 pounds for 10 reps and the 25 pounds for five reps. Select the weight for you that will make it challenging to do a set of 20, 15 and 10 reps nonstop.

Back and grip muscles

Another great exercise that can work the same muscle groups as pull-ups is the best-over dumbbell row.

It is recommended to prop yourself to take stress off your lower back and better concentrate on pulling the dumbbell as if you were starting a pull-start lawnmower. Let the heavy dumbbell hang and stretch your back and shoulder connection, and then pull the dumbbell to the outside of your chest. Hold for 1-2 seconds at the top of the lift.

Stomach and lower back

It never hurts to work out your torso, as pull-ups cause you to flex your abs and back during the lift and hang. See the "Rest with Crunches" article for ideas on abs and lower-back exercises.

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Tips for Better Pull-ups

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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