Pull-ups and chin-ups are both fantastic exercises for your back and arms — but they're also difficult. If you're not up to doing them yet or just don't have the right equipment handy, here's some good news: You can try a chin-up or pull-up alternative, beginning with the trusty lat pulldown machine in your gym and spanning all the way to elastic resistance bands you can use at home.
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The Lat Pulldown Machine
If you don't want to pull your body up to a bar, how about pulling the bar down to you? Enter the lat pulldown machine: This gym staple mimics the movement of a pull-up, but your body stays still, anchored by a padded surface that holds your knees in place — and it's the machine handles that move instead.
In general, lat pulldown machines have several handles, so you can use an overhand grip to simulate wide-grip pull-ups, a parallel or "palms in" grip to simulate narrow-grip pull-ups and an underhand grip as a chin-up alternative.
That difference in hand position — overhand grip versus underhand grip — is the difference between pull-ups and chin-ups. Exactly how these two exercises differ in muscular engagement is subject to controversy.
One thing is for sure: both are excellent workouts for all your pulling muscles, including your latissimus dorsi, your shoulders and the pulling muscles in your arms. Whichever variation you choose, keep your chest up and out and bring the bar down toward the top of your chest, not behind your neck.
When you use a lat pulldown machine, keep your chest up and out — don't slouch — and let your elbows lead the motion.
No lat pulldown machine? If your gym has a cable machine with a high pulley, you can use it for a chin-up alternative.
Clip the handle of your choice to the pulley and sit down beneath it — there might be a bench already in place, or you might have to pull one over. As with the lat pulldown, think "chest up and out" as you lift and pull the bar down toward the top of your chest, not behind your head. Keep your elbows pointing down throughout the motion.
If you're lifting a significant portion of your body weight, you'll need to hook your knees or feet — or both — beneath a stationary part of the machine to keep your body steady.
Chin-Up Alternative With Resistance Bands
You can also do a pull-up or chin-up alternative with resistance bands. As with a lat pulldown machine, you can do wide-grip and narrow-grip pull-ups or underhand pull-ups (chin-ups).
Move 1: Narrow-Grip Resistance Band Pulls
Here's how to mimic narrow-grip pull-ups and chin-ups with your elastic resistance bands:
- Use a foam anchor to hold the midpoint of your elastic resistance band in place over a door. Or tie a knot in the midpoint of the band and shut that knot in the top of the door.
- Kneel facing the door and hold one handle, or one end of the band, in each hand. Keep your chest up and out as you extend your arms up toward where you have the band anchored. There should be mild tension on the elastic band when your arms are all the way up.
- Choose which variation you'll do: Turn your palms toward you in an underhand grip for chin-ups, or turn your palms toward each other to simulate narrow-grip pull-ups.
- Pull your hands down in front of you against the band's resistance; keep your elbows pointing down. Once your hands are even with your shoulders, return to the starting point with a slow, controlled motion to complete the repetition.
Move 2: Wide-Grip Resistance Band Pulls
To simulate wide-grip pulldowns, you'll need a relatively short elastic resistance band or one that you're able to grip near the middle.
- Extend your arms overhead so that your body forms a "Y." Hold the elastic resistance band between your hands, choking up enough that there's mild tension in the band.
- Pull your hands down and out, letting your elbows lead the motion. Position your hands so the band passes down in front of your face until it reaches chin or collarbone level (depending on how wide you go). Keep your elbows pointing down throughout the motion.
- Release your hands back to the starting position with a slow, controlled motion.
Give Yourself an Assist
If your barrier to doing pull-ups and chin-ups is just that they're hard, you can work up to them with a variety of assisted machines. If your gym has an assisted pull-up machine, it'll provide the help for you: Just kneel or stand on the lever and select how much of your weight you want the machine to counterbalance. (Because you're selecting a counterbalancing weight and not a weight to lift, the higher the weight you select, the easier the exercise will be.)
Then perform the pull-ups or chin-ups as usual. The counterbalance will give you a boost, effectively reducing the amount of weight you're lifting. As you get stronger, you can reduce the counterbalancing weight.
Other ways to progress your pull-up include using dip bars for narrow-grip pull-ups, pressing against the floor with your feet to give yourself a boost or using a pull-up assist band. You girth-hitch these heavy-duty elastic loops to a pull-up bar, then place your foot or knee in the band. The tension from the band helps pull you up toward the bar, making the exercise easier.
Try Dumbbell Rows
Like pull-ups and chin-ups, dumbbell rows work every muscle in your back — but they don't require you to fling your body around, and you don't need a pull-up bar to make them happen. A weight bench does come in handy, though.
Move 1: Dumbbell Rows
- Hold a dumbbell in your left hand. Bend forward from the hips, placing your right knee and right hand on the bench to keep your torso stable. Think "back flat, chest up" to help keep yourself from slouching or rounding out your back.
- Extend your arm, letting the dumbbell hang below your shoulder — but keep both shoulders level. Don't dip your shoulder down toward the floor.
- Imagine that a string is tied to your left elbow, lifting it up toward the ceiling as you pull the weight up, keeping it close to your body. The motion is somewhat like the pull-start on a lawn mower, but make sure you keep the lift slow and controlled — don't jerk the dumbbell.
- Complete the repetition by lowering the dumbbell back to the starting position.
Move 2: Seated Cable Rows
If you have access to a cable machine, you can do another variation on the dumbbell row: a seated row.
- Sit on a weight bench facing a mid-level pulley, or move an adjustable pulley to chest height.
- Clip a double-D bar or a T-bar, aka "row handle," onto the pulley — or choose almost any other bar that lets you use both hands.
- Brace your feet against the floor or a stationary part of the cable machine to hold your body in place. Some cable machines will have special footrests for this.
- Draw the handle back toward your navel, keeping your elbows close to your body.
- Extend your arms in a slow, controlled motion, keeping your chest up and shoulders back. This completes one repetition.
Read more: The Best Back Exercises With Dumbbells
Not sure how many sets and repetitions to do? Start with one or two sets of eight to 12 reps each.