14 Pull-Up Alternatives To Do With Machines or at Home

best pull-up alternatives

Pull-ups are among the most popular back exercises for building strength and muscle mass around the lats and biceps. They can also be used to test your relative strength and muscular endurance.

However, not everyone can do a pull-up, and there are a ton of variations that are arguably superior to the pull-up. 

Here are 14 of the best pull-up alternative exercises:

  1. Machine chest-supported high row
  2. Nautilus pullover
  3. Single-arm lat pulldown (lat pulldown machine)
  4. Chest-supported lat pulldown
  5. Half-kneeling single-arm lat pulldown (cable machine)
  6. Half-kneeling single-arm banded pulldown
  7. Forward-leaning underhand cable row
  8. Lumbar lat pull-around
  9. Thoracic lat pull-around
  10. Half-kneeling iliac lat pull-around
  11. Lat-focused dumbbell row
  12. Supine resistance band pulldown
  13. Diverging lat pulldown
  14. Dual pulley alternating lat pulldown

In this article, we will go through what pull-ups do, what to do instead of pull-ups, how to perform them, and how to avoid common mistakes.

In the list of alternative pull-up exercises, I’ve included movements you can do in the gym or at home. 

Muscles Used in Pull-Ups

The muscles used in pull-ups are:

  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Biceps
  • Rear deltoids
  • Rhomboids
  • Lower traps

The latissimus dorsi muscles are regularly referred to as the lats for short. They are a large set of muscles that cover a large portion of your back. They insert into the inside of your upper arm bone and connect to the back of your upper pelvis and along the lower thoracic and lumbar spine (the middle and lower regions of the back).

If you have trouble feeling your lats when you do pull-ups, check out these tips on activating your lats more during pull-ups.

Your biceps are attached to your shoulder joint region and onto the upper region of the forearm bone area next to the elbows.

The rear delts are the muscle fibers at the back of the shoulder area. They are often active during any pulling or rowing-type movements. The rhomboids are attached from your spine towards the edge of your shoulder blades and assist with their movement during pull-ups.

The trapezius muscle is located at the base of the neck and runs along the shoulders. It extends down toward the middle of the back. In pull-ups, the lower traps act as a stabilizer, help to retract the shoulder blades at the start of the movement, and keep the shoulder blades in proper position throughout the entire exercise.

Why Are Pull-Ups Important?

Pull-ups are important for multiple reasons. For one, they are a great exercise to develop strength and muscle mass in your lats, lower traps, rhomboids, and biceps.

Pull-ups are also a great standardized way of measuring your pull-up muscles’ relative strength (i.e., how strong you are in relation to your body weight). This may be useful for a sports strength and conditioning setting to compare athletes.

Pull-ups are also worth getting good at as they are a very accessible exercise you can perform outdoors, in a gym, or in certain home gym settings.

How To Do a Pull-Up

You may be looking for a pull-up alternative because you find pull-ups too challenging. Sometimes, changing your technique can make a big difference in how easy or difficult an exercise is. To ensure you perform pull-ups correctly, follow the steps below:

Step one: Grab the pull-up bar with your hands wider than shoulder-width apart

Grab onto a pull-up bar with a wider-than-shoulder-width overhand grip.

Step two: Keep your body fully extended as you hang from the bar

Allow your body to fully extend in a dead hang and keep your body rigid

Step three: Pull yourself up until your chin passes the bar

When your body stops swinging, pull your body up until your chin reaches or passes the bar

Step four: Lower your body until your arms are straight

Slowly lower yourself back down until your arms are straight and your biceps in line with your ears.

Step five: Repeat for reps

Start over from step one and repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Pull-Up Tips

While this article focuses on pull-up alternatives, knowing which tips can help you perform pull-ups successfully is still helpful. This way, if you struggle with the movement, you can try these tips first before looking for an alternative to pull-ups.

  • If you struggle to do a single pull-up, use a resistance band. You can easily use a resistance band to perform an assisted pull-up. Simply attach it from the top of the bar and place the bottom of your foot through the loop on the other end.
  • Do not wait too long between repetitions. While you are still in a dead hang, you constantly expend energy and fatigue your muscles. For this reason, it is best to avoid waiting too long between repetitions.
  • Adjust your pull-up grip width. If you are unsure about your grip width on the pull-up bar, try using a grip that allows you to keep your forearms vertical when you reach the top.

14 Most Effective Pull-Up Alternatives

1. Machine Chest-Supported High Row

The machine chest-supported high row is a great pull-up substitute that uses a machine with lever arms that provide a fixed movement path. The chest support allows you to keep your rib cage fixed, allowing the weight to pull your arms up and away. The advantage to this is that it stretches your lats at the top of the range of motion.

How To

  1. Set up the seat height so your legs can firmly fit between the thigh pad and the seat.
  2. Select your required load on the machine and sit on the seat.
  3. Hold the machine’s handle with an overhand grip, keep your back flat, and lean your chest into the chest pad.
  4. Take a deep breath in and feel your upper back open up.
  5. Exhale as you pull your elbows down to the side of your body and inhale as you return the load back up.
  6. Repeat for the needed number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Avoid arching your back or lifting your chest up to the sky, which defeats the purpose of the chest support. If you make this mistake, you stop your lats from being stretched up and forward into a longer muscle length and activate your lower traps and back extensor muscles.

Also, avoid swinging away from the chest support. If you do this to get the weight down, you may be going too hard, and your lats can no longer initiate the exercise. If this happens, drop the weight until you can do this exercise with a relaxed lower back.

2. Nautilus Pullover

The Nautilus pullover is a great pull-up alternative exercise that isolates the lats well. This makes it great for people who want to focus more on increasing muscle mass in the lats. However, it requires a specific Nautilus pullover resistance machine, which may not be available in your gym.

How To

  1. Set the height of the machine, so the joint of the lever arm goes in line with your shoulder joint.
  2. Select your desired weight on the weight stack.
  3. Sit in the machine with your elbows firmly placed on the elbow pad.
  4. Keep your back flat against the back pad and take a deep breath in.
  5. Forcefully exhale as you pull the lever arm until your elbows are by your sides.
  6. Slowly return the lever arm to above your head and breath in as you go up.
  7. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

One very common mistake in people who do this exercise is not aligning their shoulder joints to the machine pivot. However, this is important, so the exercise can be executed as smoothly as possible. Otherwise, you risk straining your shoulder joint.

When performing this exercise, you also want to avoid moving your back away from the pad at the top. By doing this, you stop your lats from getting stretched, especially if you arch your back. Ensure you keep your back against the pad throughout and stop when you reach your maximum comfortable range of motion.

3. Single-Arm Lat Pulldown (Lat Pulldown Machine)

The single-arm lat pulldown is a good unilateral or single-arm alternative exercise for pull-ups that uses a lat pulldown machine. You will also need to attach a single-hand cable attachment to the cable of the lat pulldown machine.

How To

  1. Attach a single-hand cable attachment to the lat pulldown machine.
  2. Facing the machine, take a seat without sitting all the way in.
  3. Make sure the cable attachment is over your mid-thigh.
  4. Grab the cable handle and lean back slightly while allowing the weight to pull your arm straight.
  5. Keep your chest pointed forward with a flat back and take a deep breath.
  6. Exhale as you drive your elbow toward the side of your body and stop when the attachment reaches your oblique area.
  7. Inhale as you slowly return your arm back to the top while maintaining a consistent back angle.
  8. Repeat for the programmed number of repetitions, then do the same for the other arm.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Don’t pull your elbows behind you. This takes the tension away from the lats and puts it more on the rear delts and trapezius muscles.

Also, do not keep an overextended lower back, as this affects where the lats are attached. By keeping your back flatter, you can keep your lats trained in a more stretched-out position, which can stimulate more muscle mass.

4. Chest-Supported Lat Pulldown

The chest-supported lat pulldown is an excellent substitute for pull-ups. It trains your lats and biceps bilaterally (i.e., you train both sides at the same time). You will need to set this exercise up with an adjustable free-weight bench and a lat pulldown or cable pulley machine.

How To

  1. Set up a free-weight bench with an upright bench pad in front of a lat pulldown or cable pulley machine.
  2. Attach a neutral-grip pulldown handle to the machine.
  3. If using a cable pulley machine, set it so your arms are at a 45-degree angle.
  4. Ensure the free-weight bench is far enough from the machine so your arms are taut when you hold onto the cable handle and you can stay seated the entire time.
  5. Take a deep breath and exhale as you pull your elbows down toward the sides of your obliques.
  6. Slowly return the weight back to the top and inhale as you go up.
  7. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

You shouldn’t bring your arms too high above your head. There is an optimal angle for your lats to be stretched out the most, which may be anywhere between 45 to 60 degrees above horizontal. But if you bring your arms vertically above your head, you bring your shoulder blades backward, shortening the lats.

Furthermore, avoid pinching your shoulder blades back first, which can cause you to feel less tension on your lats and more in your rear delts.

Wondering what the differences are between lat pulldowns and pull-ups? Check out my other article, Lat Pulldown vs Pull-Up: Differences, Pros, Cons.

5. Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Lat Pulldown (Cable Machine)

The half-kneeling single-arm lat pulldown is a great pull-up replacement exercise that can be done with a cable pulley machine. You will need to use a single-arm handle and potentially a mat of some sort for your knee when kneeling.

How To

  1. Set a single-arm cable attachment to the top of a cable pulley machine.
  2. Position yourself in a half-kneeling position with one knee on the ground or mat and one foot forward with your knee set at 90 degrees.
  3. Position yourself far enough from the machine so that when you hold the cable attachment, there is tension in your arm and it is about about 45 to 60 degrees from horizontal.
  4. Keep your back flat with your hips tucked under slightly and grab onto the cable attachment with the arm on the same side as the leg that’s kneeling.
  5. Draw a deep breath in and exhale as you pull your elbow down to your oblique muscles.
  6. Inhale as you slowly return the weight back to the top.
  7. Repeat for the necessary number of repetitions and do the same thing for the other side.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

You want to maintain an upright torso to get the most stretch in your lats, so avoid leaning forward too much. Having a forward lean may prevent your lats from stretching out as much, which reduces the exercise’s effectiveness.

Also, if the angle of the cable is too horizontal, this exercise emphasizes the trapezius and rear delt muscles more than your lats.

Don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine? Try these lat pulldown alternatives instead, many of which are also excellent pull-up alternatives.

6. Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Banded Pulldown

The half-kneeling single-arm banded pulldown is a good pull-up alternative for at-home use that focuses on training one side of your body at a time. You will need a resistance band and an anchor that is quite high (for example, a door frame pull-up bar).

How To

  1. Loop a resistance band to a stabilized pull-up bar or some fixed anchor that is quite high up.
  2. Position yourself in a half-kneeling position with one knee on the ground or something soft and one foot forward with your knee set at 90 degrees.
  3. Position yourself far enough from the anchor point so that when you hold onto the resistance band, there is tension in your arm and it is about 45 to 60 degrees from horizontal.
  4. Keep your back flat with your hips tucked under slightly and grab the band with the arm on the same side as the leg that’s kneeling.
  5. Draw a deep breath in and exhale as you pull your elbow down to your oblique muscles.
  6. Inhale as you slowly return the band to the starting position.
  7. Repeat for the necessary number of repetitions and do the same thing for the other side.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Not allowing your shoulder blades to rotate forward is one of the most common mistakes with this exercise. You should allow your shoulders to wrap forward around your rib cage and avoid maintaining a pinched shoulder blade.

Leaving too much slack at the top of the range of motion is another common mistake. If there is no tension at the top, there will be no stimulus on the lat muscle when it is most stretched out and in the most optimal position for developing muscle mass.

7. Forward-Leaning Underhand Cable Row

The forward-leaning underhand cable row is a useful pull-up alternative that uses a seated cable row, low row, or cable pulley machine. You will also need to use a straight bar cable attachment or a lat pulldown cable attachment.

How To

  1. If using a cable pulley machine, set a bench or exercise box in front of it and connect the cable attachment so that it is roughly belly button height.
  2. If using a seated cable row or low row machine, secure the cable attachment to it.
  3. Take a seat and grab the cable attachment with a forward lean while maintaining a flat back.
  4. Maintain the back angle as you row the cable towards your lower abdomen area.
  5. Stop when your elbows reach the side of your torso and return the cable attachment until your arms straighten.
  6. Repeat for the programmed number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Try to avoid rowing the cable too explosively. Otherwise, you may risk cheating in the exercise and reducing the tension going through your lat muscles. Maintain a smooth and controlled tempo throughout execution.

Also, leaning back too much will make the exercise focus more on activating your side delts and upper trapezius muscle fibers.

8. Lumbar Lat Pull-Around

The lumbar lat pull-around is a good single-arm alternative pull-up exercise. It is useful for targeting the lats, particularly the middle fibers that are attached to the lower back.

This exercise is best performed with a cable pulley machine, but you can use a resistance band and turn it into a great variation to do at home.

How To

  1. Set a single-arm cable attachment to a cable pulley machine at about head height.
  2. Stand about 2 to 3 feet away with the handle in your working arm, your resting hand braced against the machine, and your torso turned slightly away from the column.
  3. Draw your working arm across your chest and mid-sternum area.
  4. Pull the cable back across your torso by driving your elbow down and back and stop when it reaches the side of your torso.
  5. Slowly let the cable return back until your arm straightens across your torso.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and do the same thing for the other arm.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

A mistake I often see when people do this exercise is not fully extending their arms at the end.

You should allow your arms to extend at the end of the range of motion so your shoulder blades can wrap forward and pull your lats into a longer muscle length.

You should also avoid flaring your elbows too much. If you do this, you will turn this into more of a rear delt exercise than a lat exercise.

9. Thoracic Lat Pull-Around

The thoracic lat pull-around is another great unilateral replacement exercise for pull-ups. This exercise variation will help you focus more on the lat fibers that are attached to your mid back.

How To

  1. Set a single-arm cable attachment at about knee height.
  2. Stand about 2 to 3 feet away with the handle in the hand of your working arm, your resting hand braced against the machine, and your torso turned slightly away from the column.
  3. Draw your working arm across your lower chest and mid-abdominal area.
  4. Pull the cable back across your torso by driving your elbow back, and stop when the elbow reaches the side of your torso.
  5. Slowly return the cable until your arm straightens across your torso.
  6. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and do the same for the other arm.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

It is easy to pull too far and/or aggressively to the point that you shrug a lot at the top of the range of motion. Any shrugging will take the tension away from your lats and put it on your upper traps.

Also, if you start with your cable too low, you may find this movement resembles an upright row and makes your shoulders feel less comfortable during execution.

10. Half-Kneeling Iliac Lat Pull-Around

The half-kneeling iliac lat pull-around is a good single-arm substitute exercise for pull-ups. This exercise resembles an archer drawing the string from a bow and arrow. It will help you focus more on the lower lat fibers attached to the top of the back of the pelvis. 

How To

  1. Set a single-arm cable attachment so it’s at about head height when you are in a half-kneeling position.
  2. Position yourself in a half-kneeling position and brace your resting arm against the machine.
  3. Keep your torso turned slightly away from the column.
  4. Draw your working arm across your upper chest.
  5. Pull the cable back across your torso by driving your elbow back and down.
  6. Stop when the upper arm reaches a vertical angle.
  7. Slowly let the cable return back until your arm straightens across your torso.
  8. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and do the same for the other arm.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Avoid rotating through the torso too much. You want to keep the tension as much as possible on the lats, rear delts, and biceps. Any rotation will force your obliques, lower back, and abdominals to help you initiate the movement.

I also recommend avoiding an overhand grip. If you use an overhand grip, you put your biceps in a less advantaged position to help out in the exercise and may not be able to lift as much weight.

11. Lat-Focused Dumbbell Row

The lat-focused dumbbell row is a useful free-weight pull-up exercise alternative. It is a variation of the popular dumbbell row exercise that is normally performed on a free-weight bench. However, the torso is set up to allow the lats to lengthen more, increasing their hypertrophy stimulus.

How To

  1. Set up a free-weight bench so it’s horizontal.
  2. Place your resting-side knee and hand on the bench.
  3. Let your active arm that is holding the dumbbell hang naturally underneath the shoulder and plant your leg on the same side with a slightly bent knee.
  4. Rotate your torso so your sternum slightly faces your active arm.
  5. Drive the elbow back and up without changing the posture and position of your torso.
  6. Slowly return the dumbbell back down while maintaining rigidity throughout the body.
  7. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and do the same for the other arm.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

You do not want your torso to drop at the bottom. If it does, you do not allow your lats to stretch out as much as you could.

You also do not want to go too heavy and swing the dumbbell up. When you do this, you are not in full control of the weight and will inevitably recruit your core muscles to initiate the movement.

12. Supine Resistance Band Pulldown

If you need a pull-ups alternative to do at home, the supine resistance band pulldown is a great beginner-friendly option. All you need to set this exercise up is a resistance band and a fixed anchor that is stable in a low position. 

How To

  1. Attach the resistance band to the low anchor.
  2. Lie down facing the ceiling with your body in a hook lying position where your knees are tucked up at about 90 degrees but your feet are firmly on the floor.
  3. Ensure you are far enough away from the resistance band that when you grab it with your arms by the side of your ears, there is tension in your arms and band.
  4. Ensure your hands are about a foot apart as they hold the resistance band.
  5. Pull your elbows down toward the side of your obliques while keeping a flat back.
  6. Slowly return the resistance band to the starting position and repeat for the necessary number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Resist the temptation to overextend your lower back. If you arch your back when you set up for this exercise, you pre-shorten the lats. This reduces the active and effective range of motion that you train through your lats.

You also do not want the resistance band too close to the floor. It should be a few inches off the floor so that the direction of the pull is down and back.

13. Diverging Lat Pulldown

The diverging lat pulldown is a machine-based substitute for pull-ups that mirrors the pull-up movement. The advantage of the diverging element (when the handles spread apart as you pull them down) in the exercise is that it provides a more natural arm movement that can maximize your lats’ range of motion.

How To

  1. Set up the seat height so that your thighs can fit tightly between the leg pad and the seat.
  2. Select your desired weight on the machine or load it up with the desired plates if it is a plate-loaded model.
  3. Hold the machine’s handle with a neutral grip (palms facing each other), keep your back flat, and keep your hips slightly tucked under so you do not over-extend your lumbar spine.
  4. Lean back at a slight angle so your shoulder blades are stretched forward.
  5. Pull your elbows down to the side of your body and forcefully exhale.
  6. Inhale as you slowly return the handle to the top without changing your torso angle or posture.
  7. Repeat for the needed number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Do your best not to lean back too much. Otherwise, you will recruit your trapezius muscles to perform the pulling motion and use your back extensor muscles too much.

Also, if you sit too far into the seat, you may need to lean back to get as much range of motion as possible, removing the tension from the lats. You should sit far out enough that when you pull down, your elbows are pointed toward the side of your hip flexors.

14. Dual Pulley Alternating Lat Pulldown

The dual pulley alternating lat pulldown is an alternative pull-up exercise that requires a cable pulley machine. It is great for addressing any asymmetry you may have in strength or muscle mass. 

How To

  1. Sit on the ground or on a low seat in a short seated position with your knees bent and legs tucked close to your body.
  2. Set up a single-arm cable attachment to the cable machine and adjust both cable columns to be set up at the top of the columns.
  3. Grab both cable attachments while maintaining a slightly back-leaning torso angle so that the shoulder blades can be stretched forward.
  4. Pull one elbow down to the side of your torso, then slowly return your arm back up and forward.
  5. Pull the other elbow down to the side of your torso and slowly return it back up.
  6. Repeat this process for the desired number of repetitions.

Common Mistakes To Avoid

Don’t round your back too much. If you do, you will not be able to pull your elbows down as much, which limits how much range of motion you get from this exercise.

You should also avoid pulling your elbows outward and away. This puts too much tension on your traps and rotator cuff muscles.

Sample Pull-Up Alternative Workout Routine

sample pull-up alternative workout routine

Below are four sample workouts that contain exercises to replace pull-ups. I’ve provided several sample routines based on various equipment, so you can do one of these workouts in any kind of gym.

Workout A (Machine-Based)

  • Warm Up
  • Machine Chest-Supported High Row 3 sets 12 reps
  • Nautilus Pullover 3 sets 15 reps
  • Diverging Lat Pulldown 2 sets 12 reps

Workout B (Cable-Based)

  • Warm up
  • Lumbar Lat Pull-Around 2 sets 8 reps
  • Thoracic Lat Pull-Around 2 sets 8 reps
  • Half-Kneeling Iliac Lat Pull-Around 2 sets 8 reps
  • Dual Pulley Alternating Lat Pulldown 2 sets 12 reps

Workout C (Gym-Based)

  • Warm Up
  • Single-Arm Lat Pulldown 2 sets 10 reps
  • Chest-Supported Lat Pulldown 2 sets 10 reps
  • Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Lat Pulldown 2 sets 8 reps
  • Forward-Leaning Underhand Cable Row 2 sets 12 reps

Workout D (Home-Based)

  • Warm Up
  • Lat-Focused Dumbbell Row 3 sets 12 reps
  • Supine Resistance Band Pulldown 2 sets 15 reps
  • Half-Kneeling Single-Arm Banded Pulldown 2 sets 10 reps

Who Should Do Pull-Up Alternatives?

You should do pull-up alternatives if you do not have access to a pull-up bar or cannot perform a pull-up with your body weight. If you cannot do an unassisted pull-up, choose pull-up alternatives to build up your lats’ strength and muscle mass, so you can eventually do one without assistance.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is a Pull-Up Alternative?

A pull-up alternative is a pull-up replacement exercise that replicates the training stimulus of the pull-up exercise. This will include a vertical pulling motion in the exercise that will activate the lats, biceps, and rear delt muscles.

Which Pull-Ups Are Easier?

Pull-ups with an underhand grip are easier because you position your forearms in a way that will put your biceps in a more advantageous position to produce force. Keep your hands about shoulder-width apart when doing this.

What Can I Do Instead of Pull-Ups at Home?

Instead of pull-ups at home, you can do lat-focused dumbbell rows, supine resistance band pulldowns, and half-kneeling single-arm banded pulldowns. 


About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach

Norman Cheung

Norman Cheung is a powerlifting, and accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience coaching various lifters, from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Alongside coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com