I Can’t Do Pull-Ups Or Chin-Ups, What Alternative Exercises Should I Do Instead?

One common thing you might notice among the workout routines I’ve designed (and really the vast majority of the intelligent workout routines designed by any other sane human) is that they almost always contain some form of vertical pulling exercise.

And, more often than not, the vertical pulling exercise of choice is either pull-ups or chin-ups.

The primary difference between the two of course is that pull-ups are done with an overhand grip, while chin-ups are done using an underhand grip. They both train the muscles of the back – particularly the lats – as well as the biceps secondarily.

I think most people (including myself) will agree that these are potentially both excellent exercises for a variety of goals, and exercises that should be a part of most people’s training programs.

Well, assuming of course you can actually do them.

As it turns out, many people can’t.

Why Can’t You Do It?

In my experience, there tends to be 3 main reasons for why a person can’t do the pull-ups or chin-ups I’ve prescribed in one of my workouts. These reasons are as follows:

  1. They physically lack the back/biceps strength needed to lift their body weight and actually do the exercise.
  2. They work out at home (or possibly a really shitty gym) and don’t have access to a pull-up bar.
  3. They have some type of injury (most often involving the shoulder or elbow) that prevents them from doing the exercise without pain/worsening the injury.

These are all extremely common and completely legitimate problems. But, before we can find their solutions, we need to first determine why they need to be solved in the first place.

Why Do You Want To Do It?

Okay, so pull-ups and/or chin-ups are exercises you want to do. Cool. And, you have a good reason for why you can’t do them, or at least can’t do them as well as you need or want to be doing them.

Gotcha.

The next question that needs to be answered is this: why would someone who can’t currently do these exercises still want to do these exercises?

In my experience, there are only 2 reasons:

  1. They just want to be able to do pull-ups/chin-ups. That, in and of itself (and regardless of any other related reason), is the goal. There is an exercise that cannot be done to the degree they want to be doing it, and their goal is to do whatever is needed to change this. Simple as that. Improvement at the exercise is the reason for wanting to do the exercise.
  2. They have some other goal in mind – most often to build muscle, gain strength or both – and pull-ups and/or chin-ups are exercises they are considering using (or exercises that were prescribed in the workout routine they are considering using) to meet that goal. Therefore, being able to do the exercise isn’t the specific goal itself, but rather the exercise is something they want to use as a tool for reaching their specific goal.

Now, sure, there is obviously some overlap between the two reasons. But, I need to make an important and slightly subtle distinction between them for the purpose of giving the recommendations I’m about to give in this article.

What’s The Difference And Why Does It Matter?

And that distinction is this…

Reason #1 will require that pull-ups/chin-ups be done. THEY are the goal. So, they must be done. Which means, in those cases, the person would need to seek out ways to improve at those exercises. To go from 0 reps to 1 rep. Or 3 reps to 5 reps. Or 5 reps to 10 reps. Or 10 reps with body weight only to 10 reps with additional weight strapped to them. Or whatever else. The primary goal is to improve your performance at the exercise.

Reason #2 however does NOT require these exercises to be done. I mean, they certainly can be. The person can still focus on improving their performance at these exercises just the same as Reason #1 people are, because doing so would eventually allow them to have pull-ups/chin-ups as potential options they can use for whatever their specific goal (e.g. building a bigger, stronger back) may be.

BUT, the distinction here is that they don’t actually have to do this.

Since muscle/strength is the goal rather than improvement at the exercise itself, a second option now exists: find alternative exercises that will still be effective for meeting their muscle/strength related goal.

With me so far? Awesome.

What This Article Is (And Isn’t)

Now, if you’re a Reason #1 person, I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that the rest of this article isn’t really for you. It’s for the Reason #2 people. But the good news is that a full guide to improving at pull-ups/chin-ups (including an entire workout program designed with this goal in mind) is definitely on my to-do list. Stay tuned.

As for Reason #2 people… there are two things I want to get across to you.

One is a list of alternative exercises that you can do in place of pull-ups/chin-ups.

The other is to address the voice in your head that just screamed…

“But I Thought Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups Are The Best Exercises For Building A Bigger, Stronger Back And MUST Be Done And Cannot Be Replaced!”

Well, you thought wrong.

But hey, it’s not just you. The people who think squats are the king of quad exercises and MUST always be done by everyone who ever expects to build bigger, stronger quads are just as wrong, too. Just like the people who think the bench press is the king of chest exercises and MUST be done. And the people who think conventional deadlifts MUST be done.

Or literally any other exercise you can possibly think of.

Basically, unless you’re some type of strength athlete (e.g. competitive powerlifter) who is required to do a certain exercise (e.g. powerlifters are required to bench, squat and deadlift because those are the exercises used in competition), then there is no such thing as a required exercise that must be done.

Which means, if you’re just a typical person who trains for the purpose of building muscle, losing fat, gaining strength, looking awesome, being healthy or anything similar, literally every single exercise in existence – regardless of how “amazing” and “required” and “the best” it’s supposed to be – can very easily be replaced by another similar exercise without sacrificing anything whatsoever.

Pull-ups and chin-ups are no different.

Which is the entire point of that distinction I made earlier.

If you can’t do pull-ups or chin-ups, you don’t… actually… have… to.

You certainly can, and by all means feel free to do what’s needed to become capable of doing them (again, an article on “what’s needed” will be coming eventually).

And hell, I’ll be the first person to admit that pull-ups are probably my favorite exercise of all time. But I’ll also be the first person to tell you how not-required and easily-replaceable they are.

This is a point I stress throughout all of the exercise recommendations I give in Superior Muscle Growth.

As a bonus (or would this be the opposite of a bonus?), I actually have the firsthand experience of removing them completely from my training at various points for significant periods of time due to injury. My back and biceps didn’t fall off. In fact, they still managed to grow and get stronger despite having no pull-ups/chin-ups in my routine at the time.

Turns out all it takes is finding a suitable alternative exercise to do instead. Speaking of which…

The 4 Best Alternative Exercises

  1. Assisted Pull-Ups/Chin-Ups
    Probably the most obvious “alternative” exercise for someone who can’t do pull-ups or chin-ups is to simply add some form of assistance to the movement. If you have access to an assisted pull-up machine, that’s one way to do it. Another is getting a band and doing the band assisted version (example here). This is actually part of the Reason #1 overlap I mentioned before, as doing an assisted version and progressing so that less and less assistance is being used over time is all part of the necessary process of both progression and being able to actually do them with your own body weight.
  2. Lat Pull-Downs
    This is probably the most commonly used alternative as well as the exercise I most often used in place of pull-ups whenever I had to take them out of my training. Lat pull-downs are really a perfect, equally effective, alternative exercise. Wait, what’s that you say? How dare I compare a machine exercise like lat pull-downs to a body weight exercise like pull-ups when everyone knows “machines are nowhere near as effective for building muscle and gaining strength?!?” Ohh, you silly imaginary people and the silly imaginary stuff that I imagine you saying after some of the sentences I write. That idea is nonsense. The truth is, your muscles don’t know nor give the slightest of shits whether you’re grabbing a pull-up bar or the bar of a lat pull-down machine. They only know tension, fatigue and damage, and your back and biceps will grow just the same regardless of the equipment being used to provide that tension, fatigue and damage. This is a point I’ve made before on AWR Facebook page.
  3. Band Pull-Downs
    Don’t have access to a lat pull-down machine? The band pull-down (example here, ideally a bit slower) is a nice option to consider.
  4. Rows With Elbows Tucked Close And Weight Pulled Low
    And finally, if you either A) have some sort of injury that prevents you from doing any form of vertical pulling movement (a situation I’ve personally been in before) or B) are just unable to do any of the previously mentioned alternative exercises for whatever reason, then the next best choice would be some type of rowing movement. However, to place more emphasis on your lats (like vertical pulling exercises would), keep your elbows tucked in close to your sides and pull the weight more toward your hips/lower stomach rather than your upper stomach/chest. For me, the seated cable row with a narrow neutral grip was/is my row of choice for this purpose. Any other horizontal rowing movement (e.g. bent over dumbbell rows) can work just fine, too.

Summing It Up

So, if you can’t do pull-ups or chin-ups for whatever reason but realize your goals/needs/preferences require you to be able to do them… then you should focus on training for the purpose of making that happen (again, future article to come). Shocking, I know.

If you can’t do them for whatever reason BUT realize your goals/needs/preferences don’t actually require you to be able to do them… then you can feel free to simply replace them with a suitable alternative exercise instead (or, optionally feel free to work on being able to do them if you just happen to want to be able to do them).

The end.

52 thoughts on “I Can’t Do Pull-Ups Or Chin-Ups, What Alternative Exercises Should I Do Instead?”

52 Comments

  1. Great article! So many people say that it’s bad to do assisted pull-ups in order to progress to pull-ups. I’m glad to see you don’t agree. I’m not really strong enough yet to do negatives, so assisted is the only option really! I’m a Reason #1 person — can’t wait for the pull-up guide!!

    • The only problem I have with assisted pull-ups is when people who can’t currently do body weight pull-ups use it as a replacement exercise WITHOUT intending to progress to the point of being able to do pull-ups without assistance.

      Basically thinking “I can’t do them now, so I’ll just do this instead of ever being able to do them” rather than “I can’t do them now, so I’ll progress this way until I can.”

      And then they just do the assisted version for the rest of their lives. No progression whatsoever.

      • I have downloaded the workouts I found on your website under “Ultimate Workouts” and there is an excellent video on building up to chin ups and pull ups. It is in the Ultimate Chest Workout or are these workouts not part of your website/

  2. “you silly imaginary people and the silly imaginary stuff that I imagine you saying after some of the sentences I write. That idea is nonsense”

    Hahaha, another fantastic article Jay, sassy as always.

  3. This is another article that needs to be re-posted occasionally. I’m 70% reason 2 but still want to do them. I’m 30 pounds away from my body weight but still plugging away. You keep saying that your muscle don’t care how they are fatigued, I keep forgetting. Which is why I make myself go back and read both of your writings.

    Btw. This was very timely for me. Not just regarding pull ups, but squats, lifts and bench press.

    Thanks.

  4. I’ve always loved pull ups but with a wide grip, can’t seem to go up all the way to touch my chest, as my elbows (and occasionally the back of my shoulder) start giving me pain if I go much beyond a 90 degree bend in my arm. I do feel a good contraction in my back, but considering a lot of people look like they’re doing half man-ups, I’m not sure if it’s a body-geometry thing or I just have quitters for elbows.

  5. Great article! So I do your muscle building routine- I’ve recently discovered I can do pullups and chins ups (I’m a 23 y/o girl lifting for 2.5 years using your programs, this was a serious goal of mine too…) and have been practicing them after my upper body workouts for fun, and still doing lat pull downs and inverse grip lat pull downs during the actual workout. Right now I’m at 3 sets of 3 for both pull ups and chins. At what point (after how many reps achieved each set) should I switch out the LPDs and put in pull ups?
    Do you recommend doing chin ups instead of the inverse lat pull down on upper body A workout? I have been using the handle where your hands face each other as the LPD bar is too thick and hurts my wrists when inverted.

    P.S. YOU ARE THE BEST

    • I’d suggest switching to assisted pull-ups instead of pull-downs, since you’re trying to improve at pull-ups. Then you can do the 3 reps you can do on your own and use assistance for the remainder of the set (and gradually try to do 4 reps on your own… then 5, etc.).

      I’d still keep the neutral grip (palms facing each other) pull-downs you’re currently doing in the A workout, though. Unless of course you REALLY wanna focus on getting better at pull-ups/chin-ups, in which case you can switch this to (ideally) neutral grip pull-ups.

  6. Band Pull-Downs With ankle weights on my arms made me strong enough to do pull-ups chin-ups even tho I am 20 pounds heavier..When I was thinner I was able to do them with no problems. Pull downs are awesome to build strength.

  7. I use a band, but I work away from it eventually. If I can finally do 3 variations of multiple sets, I will then take the band off for one of the variations. Once I can do that exercise without the band, I take the band off for the next variation. It takes time, maybe a year or so, but who cares, pull ups are awesome and they the king of muscle building in my opinion. Lifting 180 pounds in free space compared to the effort of pulling down on a machine is quite a difference. It builds muscle that is used more effectively such as agility and everyday spontaneity. I do pull ups twice a week, giving at least a 72 hour rest between sessions.

    • “It builds muscle that is used more effectively such as agility and everyday spontaneity….”

      Nope, not anymore than lat pulldowns or rows do. How often in the everyday activities of life do you or any of us reach over our heads to pull ourselves up or pull something down?

      I have used weighted and bodyweight pull-ups as my primary upper back exercise (within a program that also includes rows and shrugs) for almost forty-five years, so I definitely love pull-ups and recommend them.

      But as far as pull-ups or chin-ups developing more “functional strength” than lat pulldowns on a machine? Naw. The genetic variations — leverages, neurological efficiencies in individual muscle groups, etcetera — among people might make pull-ups more effective for bodybuilding for some, but, overall, the latissimus muscle responds to either exercise the same way: it grows. And, the bigger it grows, then the stronger it becomes.

      That increased lat strength will translate into improved performance in any sport activity involving the lats, for sure — but unless one’s sport is “pull-ups competition”, then, whether the strength is developed from pull-ups, lat pulldowns, or rows makes no significant difference.

      • I see it more of a physiological thing when you have to “actually” lift yourself up. It’s like riding a bike or skating an ice skate, you just don’t forget. I remember doing lat pull downs, and when I tried to lift myself up on a ledge or a building, it was a struggle. But after I practiced the same movement as pull-ups, things changed dramatically. It is just the “feel” of the movement. More of a confidence builder. Making a mountain look like a ant hill. Plus you may be right on the looks of muscle, but I have also noticed my muscle additionally dense. But hey, just a personal experience. Nothing to brag about. Sorry for being late on the response, I’m a busy guy when it comes to getting back with forum tag.

        • Oops I also wanted to add something about chin-ups. I know I can’t barbell curl 180 pounds, 8 reps at a time. Impossible. However, I can sure do my weight suspended in free air of 180 pounds easily. 4 sets of 8 in a breeze. I realize your engaging more muscles in the activity. But that’s just it isn’t it? The whole point of a great compound exercise? I not only produce great results for my biceps, but 12 more muscles get a rip roar. Thanks!

  8. Bodybuilding is always a matter of the long term — as in, even if all training, eating, and recuperating are done consistently, intelligently, progressively, a long term of four or five consecutive years for the PED-free average-gened person who has finished puberty. Gains are measured over months.

    Applied to becoming able to do pull-ups/chin-ups, that practicalizes as “patience, perseverance, determination”.
    I’m a 60-year-old lifelong PED-free who started bodybuilding at age 16 in 1972 as an below-average-gened-for-muscle-development 140-lb skinny-fat. Heck, I could barely bench press thirty-five (yes, 35) pounds (an Olympic bar weighed 45 lbs with spin-on collars then) for six reps for one set even after my first full month of lifting. Pull-ups seemed to me then like what only Captain America could do. Eventually, I managed to do one pull-up.

    Forty-five years later, even at age 60, I’m still using an added 100 lbs for sets of 8 to10 pull-ups, then finishing my upper back workouts with bodyweight sets of 25-rep pull-ups.

    The “moral” to th’ story being, it might require a long time to succeed at pull-ups, so, if you want to succeed badly enough, then give it time. A few months or even a year may not be enough for you particularly to experience much progress, but don’t quit.
    We all wish we could look like Frank Zane or Flex Wheeler overnight, sure, but, reality is, 99% of us can’t –and even those two genetic anomalies had to put in several years to maximize their potentials. Attaining our potential in doing pull-ups/chin-ups is no different.

      • AW, the site author, might have better suggestions than I do, but…if your using them to build your lower back, you might use:
        1) Back extensions (my favorite)
        2) Good mornings (with a flat, not rounded, back)
        3) Straight-legged deadlifts, regular or Romanian (with flat back)
        4) partial Deadlifts off pins or wooden blocking set so the bar starts at about knee level instead of just above your ankles.

        If any or all of these are unfamiliar, google them — you can find them all described and demonstrated in videos online.

          • My gym recently added a hex shaped trap bar. After trying it a few times, it seems to be a solid piece of equipment, as it seems to spare my lower back from being tweaked like some other exercises. That being said, I’ve read hex bar deadlifts referred to as a squat substitute, as well as an alternate to deadlifts themselves. Do you consider the trap bar deadlift a suitable substitute for squats, deadlifts, or none of the above?

          • Yup, it tends to become more of a “squatlift” than a deadlift when that bar is used. But it DOES take a ton of stress off the lower back… so… pros and cons.

            I still lean towards considering it a deadlift replacement, though it’s really a hybrid movement somewhere in the middle.

      • The default answer I give to anyone looking to replace RDLs, typically because of a lower back issue:

        The best replacements for deadlifts are typically other deadlifts and exercises that mimic a similar movement pattern (which can sometimes be similarly problematic). For example, hyperextensions are good (the way it’s shown here), as are cable pull-throughs (here). If neither option is doable, leg curls and/or barbell hip thrusts would be the next best choices.

      • ‘Course, lol, I’d immediately trade half the strength for the commensurate lat width and thickness I’ve never been able to build with my lousy genetics.

        If you ever write an article on calves, and the myth of “work-up-to-poundages-like-Arnold-did-and-they-can’t-help-but-grow!”, I have an even more eye-rubbing autobiog to share, lol.

  9. I’m doing the smg muscle building workout 1.. I’m doing underhand grip lat pulldown at upper body a, and pull ups at upper body b.. What would be an alternative to pull ups at b, wide grip lat pulldowns?

  10. In your reference to machine vs. free weights section, what is your take on using the smith machine for squats?

    I have done it. I have seen lots of people perform squats with the smith machine, especially when the squat racks are all occupied. However, there are quite a few arguments against the smith machine, due to the more restrictive range of motion and the stress it can put on the spine.

  11. there is a guy who is arguing with me on facebook that is a vegan …. and in 18 years of being a vegan and teaching other people to be like that all over the globe … he never met a person who can’t survive without meat … I called that bullshit and gave my own personal experience of being a vegan for almost a year and my health was extremely bad in that year … I almost got close to a black out … and everything changed after I started eating meat / eggs and even diary again.

    The point is he doesn’t quite believe me and he thinks I am just an exception and the majority of people should never eat meat because is wrong to kill animals and all that kind of crap … Do you have any studies that proves people can be happy with meat and eating it it’s very okay ?

  12. Merry xmas Jay

    May the gains be with you in 2017 and beyond

    Looking forward for your next article (and Superior fat loss book)

    You are THE man when it comes to nutrition/workout approach without bullshit

    Thanks and keep up the good job

  13. Hi Jay!

    I love your routine, it’s exactly what I was looking for. Compound dominant routine written by a smart person. I have one question though. My deadlifts and Barbell Rows have been hurting my back. Is there any exercise I can use to effectively replace it? You gave the suggestion of hyperextensions accompanied with a youtube link, but that link is broken. I follow your routine 100% can you please give me some advice?

    P.S. Many people tell me to perform he barbell row with my back parallel to the ground, is this the cause of my problem?

    • Literally any other rowing exercise for the back will be just fine. Pick whatever one doesn’t give you problems.

      As for your specific problem with the current exercise you are doing… it’s impossible to say without seeing your form. It could be lots of things.

  14. Can you substitute one of the back excercises in your program with rack pulls? if so how would you program them in there. I hear they add serious size to upper back and traps. Btw I’ve made some awesome progress on your program and its only been a couple months but The strongest I’ve ever been 🙂

  15. Hello Jay,

    I am using your upper/lower split workout for a training.
    For the Upper Body B, the workout start is “PULL UP”, and I am the one who can already do 3 sets of 6-8 pull ups, and if I don’t want to use the “pull-up belt” for adding weight, can I use wide grip lat pull down to replace that ?
    As I know pull up is more comprehensive way for back training and I don’t want to skip that also, so let pull up as warm up set and ‘wide grip lat pull down’ as real work set will be okay?

    Many thanks

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