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Pull-up Alternatives

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 pull down 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 traveling or at home is to go for a jog near a school district and search for any playground that is open to the public. There you will find monkey bars 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, bicep curls.

A good workout for this muscle is what I call a superset where you select three dumbbell weights (For instance 15lbs, 20lbs, and 25lbs). This is a non-stop workout where you only rest to change the weights after each series of repetitions. Do the 15lbs for 20 reps, the 20 lbs for 10 reps, and the 25 lbs for 5 reps. Select the weight for you that will make it challenging to do a set of 20,15,10 reps non-stop.

Back and Grip Muscles - Another great exercise that can work the same muscle groups as pull-ups is the Bent over Dumbbell Row and Assisted Pullups.

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 workout your torso, as pull-ups cause you to flex your abs and back during the lift and hang. See the following link for ideas on abs and lower back exercises and workouts: Rest with Crunches or the
Lower Back Plan

TRX Workouts - This is a great device to use if you are failing at pullups.  The TRX rows will help you build your bicep / back muscles like a set of weights, but also work the core at the same time.

TRX Train Like the Pros

Keep the emails coming! You can contact me at Check out the Fitness Store for answers to your weight loss and fitness goals.

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. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Fitness eBook store and the
Stew Smith article archive at To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at

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