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Pull-Ups Ain't Easy: 3 Exercises That Serve as Pull-Up Substitutes

view of sky, arms, and pull up bar from below
Pull-ups ain't easy. But we're here to help. There are a number of pull-up substitute exercises you can try.

by Mary Lambkin

The pull-up is a classic movement that has challenged fitness enthusiasts' strength for centuries. However, this upper-body exercise isn't exactly easy for beginners.

Struggling to lift your chin above the bar time and time again will only result in frustration and possibly injury. First, you need to build your back, shoulder, and arm muscles so you can perform pull-ups safely and effectively. That's where exercise machines, pull-up substitutes, and alternative movements come in. They can help you build the strength necessary to lift your body weight up and over your grip.

It's possible to reap all the benefits of the traditional movement using contemporary pull-up substitute exercises. Learn more about three popular alternatives below.

1. Assisted Pull-Ups

The assisted pull-up machine is a perfect place to start if your goal is to eventually achieve a solo pull-up on your own. This counterbalanced machine helps you lift yourself up, "sharing" the weight as you pull your body upward. Setting up for this exercise is simple: Select a weight by inserting the metal pin into the weight stack of the machine. Then, place your knees on the platform and grip the bar above, mimicking a pull-up starting position. Keep your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart as you perform the movement.

The more weight you add, the easier the exercise. Try starting with 10 pounds less than your body weight (for example, if you weigh 180 pounds, set the machine weight at 170). This essentially means that you're only "responsible" for pulling up 10 pounds and the machine will take care of the rest. As your strength improves, lower the amount of weight you use. When you get down to zero, you're pulling up all of your body weight on your own!

2. Cable Machine Pull-Downs

The cable machine is a versatile, go-to piece of equipment for almost any upper body exercise, and it's one of many great pull-up substitutes. To work the latissimus dorsi — that is, the group of back muscles used when doing a pull-up — try doing pull-downs on the cable machine. Yep, that's right: A pull-down can help you achieve a pull-up!

First, make sure that the cable machine is properly equipped with the bar attachment (not the single grip attachments). Set the metal pin at a light weight to get started, then adjust as needed. Sit with your back straight and the bar hanging a few inches in front of you. Reach up and grab the bar, keeping your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Lean back slightly and pull down until the bar reaches the top of your chest, then slowly release it back up, keeping a firm grip and straight back at all times.

3. Hanging From the Pull-Up Bar

Although arm, shoulder, and core strength are all crucial to completing an unassisted pull-up, many people overlook the fact that a firm grip and flexibility are also key components of this exercise. With a firm grip and loose shoulders, you'll be better able to lift yourself up until your chin reaches the bar.

The best place to practice? The pull-up bar, which isn't just for pull-ups! At the end of your workout, head over to the pull-up bar to literally "hang out" for a couple of minutes. Keeping your arms slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, firmly grip the bar with your hands facing forward (do not turn your wrists) and let your legs dangle.

Try hanging for 15 seconds. If this is easy, challenge yourself by tightening your stomach muscles and slowly rocking back and forth to increase shoulder flexibility. As you become more comfortable hanging at the pull-up bar, start testing your strength by trying to pull yourself up — even if you only make it an inch or two toward the bar. Any progress is means for celebration.

As always, please consult with a physician prior to beginning any exercise program. See full medical disclaimer here.