The classic pull-up is one of my favorite exercises. It targets lots of muscles and is essential in counteracting all the pushing movements we do over the course of a day.
Unfortunately, of the basic bodyweight progressions, this is the only exercise that calls for some kind of equipment: You need something to hang from. But some people don’t like to own a lot of equipment or don’t have the possibilities to mount a pull-up bar in their doorway or on their wall.
I’m a big proponent of going outside for my workouts. Most of the time, there is a playground near you or even some special park especially dedicated to bar calisthenics.
Sometimes, though, it’s raining cats and dogs outside or you just don’t have enough time and want a quick workout that you can do at home.
For these cases, I came up with 4 neat pull-up alternatives to do at home. The only equipment you need is some basic stuff that every household should already have: a table, a chair, a towel, a door and I think a floor’s pretty essential. Read on for detailed descriptions of the exercises.
Table Bodyweight Rows
This is the default pull-up alternative: the bodyweight row (also called reverse row or australian pull-up). It primarily works your biceps, upper back and the lats.
Normally, you need a low bar (around hip high or lower) to perform this exercise. But there are different setups to do variations of the bodyweight row at home.
I know that some people recommend using two chairs and a broomstick to emulate a proper bar setup. You can do this if you have two chairs with the right height and a broomstick, but I think the table/chair method is accessible to more people.
You need a sturdy table and chair for this to work. Grab the edge of the table with an underhand grip like I do in the animation above. By putting my feet on the chair, I’m leveraging my body against the table so that it doesn’t tilt. That may not be necessary if you have a different table. Or you can grab the table the other way around (legs are under the table, you can grab the edge with an overhand grip).
Remember, just as with the regular bodyweight row, keep your body in a rigid straight line, lock your elbows out at the bottom and try to touch the table with your chest (you might need to experiment with the positioning of your feet for this to work).
This is one of my favorites, ’cause c’mon, who doesn’t have a door and a towel? Door pull-ins are an excellent biceps exercise, while also emphasizing the upper back muscles and the forearms (because you need quite a bit of grip strength for these).
Simply wrap the towel around the edge of the door and the door knob. No need to make a fancy sailor’s knot. Place your feet on each side of the door. Press against the door with your feet. This works best with a wooden floor and dry, bare feet for optimal grip.
Grip both ends of the towel with your hands. Lower down until your torso, thighs and knees form roughly 90 degree angles. Make sure that these angles change minimally when you pull yourself into the door (I’m pulling so far that my nose touches the door).
If that doesn’t seem challenging to you, can use a longer towel and you can place your feet closer to the door hinge. Due to the change in leverage, this will make it harder. Longer towels are also usually thicker and therefore harder to grip.
If that’s still a piece of cake to you, try them one-handed:
Elbow Reverse Push-ups
These look easy until you try them once. Elbow reverse push-ups are excellent for working your upper back muscles and especially help with lat activation.
Lie flat on the ground. Now lift your forearms up, elbows are still touching the floor. Zip up your whole body by tensing all the muscles you can think of, especially the core, glutes, hamstrings and lats. It helps to make a really tight fist for this. Now push into the ground with your elbows and try to lift your body off the ground.
You can either do these for reps as I do in the animation or just hold them for time, like regular planks. Either way, keep a straight body. If this move is too hard for you, stick to the bodyweight rows and door pull-ins, first.
Biceps planks might look familiar to people who are into bodyweight strength training: It looks a bit like a cheater planche.
Get into a plank position, arms straight, hands on the floor. Now turn your hands so that they are pointing towards your toes. Shift your body a bit forward, the goal is to get your hands under your hip. Try to keep your arms and body as straight as possible. You should feel lots of tension in your biceps. Hold for time. This beats curls every day!
[Update]: Floor Pulls
I recently stumbled over this variation and had to include it in this list. Find a smooth surface. I recommend placing a towel under your chest to prevent your shirt from sliding up and down.
Stay flat on the ground or lift your legs and chest up to make it easier (less surface to provide friction resistance). Press your hands into the floor and pull yourself forward.
I found that the one-handed variation comes very close to real pull-ups in terms of intensity and lat engagement. Use the other hand minimally to keep yourself moving in a straight line. I tried to only use one finger in the video. You can start with your full hand gently assisting the movement.
So from now on, you have no excuses to neglect your pulling strength work. With these 4 alternatives, you should survive the occasional pull-up bar abstinence with no problem.
However, if you do have access to a set of bars, I highly recommend that you read Raising the Bar by bodyweight training sensei Al Kavadlo. This is a superb encyclopedia on all things bar calisthenics, including proven ways to learn levers, the human flag, muscle-ups and much more.
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