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:
- They physically lack the back/biceps strength needed to lift their body weight and actually do the exercise.
- They work out at home (or possibly a really shitty gym) and don’t have access to a pull-up bar.
- 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.
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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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).
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