Pull-ups are among the most challenging exercises you can do in the gym. After all, lifting your entire bodyweight with only your arms is a great feat of strength.
Unsurprisingly, few people can actually do this exercise. So, if you're not up to doing them just yet, you're not alone. But you can practice chin-up or pull-up alternatives to help build your upper-body strength and finally nail this move.
1. The Lat Pulldown
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.
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.
- Sit on the bench of the lat pulldown machine with your legs at 90-degree angles.
- Grab the bar with your palms forward (overhand grip) and your hands shoulder-width apart or slightly wider than shoulder-width.
- While holding the bar, brace your core and lean back slightly. Keep your spine in a straight line and make sure you aren’t arching your lower back.
- Pull the bar down toward your chest, stopping when it reaches your upper chest or just above your chest.
- Return to the starting position with your arms straight overhead.
- Focus on pulling down for 1 to 2 seconds and going back up for 2 to 3 seconds.
- Keep your motions slow and controlled.
When you use a lat pulldown machine, keep your chest up and out — don't slouch — and let your elbows lead the motion.
Chin-Up Alternative With a Resistance Band
You can also do a pull-up or chin-up alternative with resistance bands. As with a lat pulldown machine, you can practice the same motion with a mini resistance band right at home.
Mini Loop Lat Pulldown
- Begin standing with your feet hip-width apart or kneel.
- Loop one end of a mini band around each wrist.
- Raise your arms straight overhead, palms facing forward.
- On an exhale, bring your palms down behind your back and pull the band apart, just outside your shoulders.
- Pause for a moment here, then reverse the motion back overhead.
2. Band-Assisted Pull-Up
If your barrier to pull-ups and chin-ups is just that they're hard, you can work up to them with some assistance. If your gym has an assisted pull-up machine, it can do some work for you: Just kneel or stand on the lever and select how much of your weight you want the machine to counterbalance.
Other ways to progress your pull-up include using a pull-up assist band. All you have to do is anchor a heavy-duty, long-loop resistance band 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.
- Tie a resistance band of moderate thickness around the bar by placing the band on top of the bar and looping one end through the other. Make sure the band is secure and doesn't have any tears that could cause it to break while you're using it.
- Place a box next to the bar and stand on it. Pull the band down and loop it under the bottom of one foot.
- Grab onto the bar, then carefully step off the box and into a dead hang. Your legs should be straight and your arms should be fully extended above your head.
- Initiate the movement by un-shrugging your shoulders and pulling your shoulder blades down into your back pockets.
- Pull yourself all the way up until your chin is over the bar. Keep your shoulders down and don't shrug.
- Finish the rep by lowering yourself all the way down into a full dead hang.
- When you're done with your set, step back onto the box with the non-banded leg. Then carefully let go of the bar and remove the band from your other foot.
3. Dumbbell and Cable 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.
Single-Arm Supported Dumbbell Row
- Stand facing a bench or chair while holding a dumbbell in your left hand down by your side.
- Keeping your back flat, step your right foot forward and place your right palm flat on the bench or chair. Allow your left knee to bend slightly and your left arm to hang toward the floor, palm facing in.
- Pull the weight toward your ribcage and your elbow back toward your hip, squeezing your shoulder blade at the top of the movement.
- Lower the weight with control until your arm is fully extended. Repeat for reps and switch sides.
- If you need extra support for your lower back, kneel on the chair so your knee is directly under your hip and your supporting hand is directly under your shoulder.
Seated Cable Row
- Secure your attachment of choice to the cable and adjust the height of the cable to the lowest point.
- Sit on the floor and grip the handle(s) with both hands.
- Scoot back until your arms are fully extended. Allow your legs to extend as well, or bend your knees and place both feet flat on the floor.
- Sitting tall, pull your elbows to your hips and draw your shoulder blades together. Stop once your elbows reach just past your midline.
- Pause briefly, and then let your arms extend again. Repeat for reps.