The 5 Best Pull-up Alternatives (How to Do Pull-ups Without a Bar)

A picture of Kermit hanging with Pink Panther, probably trying a pull-up alternative.

So you want to do a pull-up but don’t have a bar?

Or maybe you just don’t quite have the strength yet to hoist yourself up?

Either way, no problem!

We’ve been teaching people how to do pull-up alternatives in our Online Coaching Program, with “no-bar pull-ups”. Today, we’ll show you all these tried and trusted workarounds.

Here’s what we’ll cover:

Let’s get started!

How to Do Pull-ups Without a Bar (5 Pull-up Alternatives)

The video above comes from Nerd Fitness Prime, as part of the Chin-up Challenge we are currently hosting.

Coach Jim walks you through 5 different levels of pull-up alternatives, depending on your experience level and what items you may have lying around the house.

Pull-up Alternative #1: Doorway Rows

Our first alternative is to simply use your doorway for bodyweight rows

A gif of Coach Jim showing you a doorway row, our first pull-up alternative.

To perform a doorway row:

  • Stand in front of your doorway and grab both sides.
  • Place your feet a little closer to the doorway, so you’re leaning back.
  • Sit back so you put weight on your arms.
  • Pull yourself forward.

That’s it. The more you lean back, the tougher this will be.

To start, you can also just hang back to start building some “pull” strength.

Pull-up Alternative #2: Towel Doorway Rows

Our next alternative is to do doorway rows, but this time using a towel.

A towel can help you do a bodyweight row, as shown here.

The towel might help you lean back even further, creating a more challenging exercise.

Take a towel, and fold it twice lengthwise. Then take your long, folded over towel, and tie it around the door on the handle opposite side of you.

Make sure the door opens AWAY from you. You don’t want the door accidentally opening, which could cause an unexpected tumble.

Once you have your towel secured around the doorknob, perform rows by using each side of the towel.

Pull-up Alternative #3: Inverted Rows with Chairs

For this pull-up alternative, you’re gonna need two sturdy chairs and a broomstick (or dowel).

We’ll be combining them together, Voltron style, to form our own row station:

This gif shows Jim doing a row on chairs

The important thing here is the setup. Give your newly created station a few gentle pushes to check the integrity of the structure. Only when you feel confident should you start performing inverted bodyweight rows

Pull-up Alternative #4: Towel Pull-ups

Now, we’re gonna start doing some actual pull-ups…with towels.

You can either use a couple of sturdy handtowels or washcloths. 

Tie an overhand knot in the corner of both towels, which will be used as your anchor.

Then place these knots over a door and close it. Make sure the knots are secure before you start doing your pull-ups.

Again, you’ll also want to make sure the door opens AWAY from you.

Doing towel pull-ups is going to be a great way to improve your grip strength, although if you find them a little too tough, you can use a stool to support your feet as you lift. This will help as you build strength.

Pull-up Alternative #5: Strap Pull-ups

You may or may not have some Forearm Forklifts hanging around, but if you do, you’ll have the perfect equipment for a pull-up alternative.

Forearm Forklifts are made to help you and a friend lift heavy furniture or equipment, but Coach Jim has discovered they’re also pretty useful for doing pull-ups.

This gif shows Coach Jim using Forearm Forklift straps to do this pull-up alternative.

They have loops designed to hold your arms, which makes them easier to grip than a towel.

Tie a knot in them just like you would with a hand towel and use it to anchor against your door. 

For more ideas on how to train with items you may have around the house, check out How to Build a Home Gym (When All Equipment is Sold Out).

The 6 Best Pull-up Alternatives (How to Get Your First Pull-Up)

This is a picture of a mouse hanging, who is trying to get his pull-up alternative.

This section is taken from our guide “Get Your First Pull-up.

If you can’t quite hoist yourself up yet, don’t fret!

We’re going to work on increasing your “pull” muscles through a series of pull-up alternatives.

First up…

Level 1 Pull-up Alternative: Bent-Over Dumbbell Rows

This pull exercise can help you build muscles so you can eventually do pull-ups!

Bent-over dumbbell rows: 

  • 8 reps each arm (or as many as you can do)
  • Rest for a 2-minute break
  • Do another set
  • Repeat until you hit 3 sets

What weight should you start out with initially?

Whatever allows you to get to at least 5 reps a set.

Once you can do 3 sets of 8 reps (each arm), it’s time to pick up a heavier dumbbell.

This will allow you to get stronger and stronger. 

When you can lift a 25-pound (10kg) dumbbell or heavier, consider moving up to the next level.

Level 2 Pull-up Alternative: Inverted Bodyweight Rows

The inverted row is a great way to develop your "pull" and back muscles.

Bodyweight rows are the PERFECT precursor to pull-ups – they work the same muscles, and have you lifting your own bodyweight, just at a different angle.

Our goal here will be to work towards a lower and lower angle, increasing the difficulty of the movement.  

So at first, we’ll do rows with the bar higher up:

Start with inclined inverted rows for your pull-up workout. Then drop lower for more required effort.

Then we’ll progress to getting the bar lower:

Add bodyweight rows to your workouts

As soon as you’re doing bodyweight rows where your body is at a 45-degree angle or lower, you can progress to the next level. 

Level 3 Pull-up Alternative: Assisted Pull-ups

At this point, you are going to start actually doing pull-ups…with a little bit of assistance.

We’ve got a few options for you.

#1) Assisted Pull-ups with Chair

A chair can be a great tool to help you get your first pull-up.

Either one foot or two on the chair, depending on your needs. Your feet are ONLY there for support, use your upper body as much as possible.

#2) Assisted Pull-ups with an Exercise Band

Staci using a band for an assisted pull-up, a great exercise for a bodyweight circuit.

You can get different types of exercise bands with different levels of strength, or a variety pack for easy progression.

Put your foot in the exercise band and pull yourself up.

#3) Assisted Pull-ups with a Partner

A friend can be a great asset when you're trying to do a pull-up.

Have a friend hold your feet behind you and help you complete each rep. Have them use the least amount of help possible to get you through your workouts.

Once you’re comfortable doing a form of assisted pull-ups, and can do about 10 repetitions, it’s time to advance to the next level.

This is probably the TOUGHEST level before getting your pull-ups. If you get stuck on “assisted pull-ups” and “assisted chin-ups”, you’re not alone. This is where most people get stuck.

We work hand-in-hand with people like you to get them their first pull-up in our Online Coaching Program. If you don’t know how to fit these movements into your workouts, or you just want somebody to give you the exact workout to follow every day, we got you!

Level 4 Pull-Up Workout: Negative Pull-Ups

Staci jumping up to do a negative pull-up., a great movement until you can bring regular pull-ups into your circuit.

Our next level on our path for a pull-up is what we call “negative pull-ups.”

  1. Grab onto the bar with an overhand grip
  2. Jump so your chest is touching
  3. Slowly lower yourself under control until you’re at the bottom of the movement.

As you continue to lower yourself down, you’ll build strength, eventually creating enough muscle so you can pull yourself up.

If you want more specific instructions on any of these levels or movements, check out our guide “Get Your First Pull-up” for more

What Is the Easiest Type of Pull-Up? (Start With Chin-Ups)

Staci showing a pull-up to the left and a chin-up to the right.

The easiest pull-up variation for you to attempt will likely be the chin-up.

That’s why we’re hosting a Chin-up Challenge, because we feel Rebels will have an easier time lifting themselves up with this variation, compared to a traditional pull-up.

For reference:

A CHIN-UP is when your hands are facing towards you:

A chin-up is a pull-up, but with your hands facing towards you.

A PULL-UP is when your hands are facing away from you:

The classic pull-up

Chin-ups are generally easier to perform than pull-ups, because the wider grip of a pull-up isolates your lats, which means you get less assistance from your biceps.  

Start with chin-ups. Once you get comfortable doing them, you can then work on more advanced variations. For ideas here, check out our guide How to Do a Pull-up.

When Should I Do My Pull-Up Alternatives? (Next Steps)

There are a lot of versions of Spider-Man out there.

Generally, you want a 48 to 72 hour resting period before returning to train the same muscle group.

So take at least a day off before working on your “pull” muscles again.

This allows the area to heal properly so you can grow stronger.

When we designed a training routine for Nerd Fitness Prime members for part of the Chin-up Challenge, we aimed for three workouts a week.

If you’re trying to get your first pull-up or chin-up, this would be a good goal. 

So for example, you could do:

  • Monday: Bodyweight Rows
  • Wednesday: Chin-up Negatives
  • Friday: Dumbbell Rows

You could also do Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.

Even just working out Monday and Thursday – twice a week pull-up training – would allow you to see some great progress.

Feel free to do whatever works best for you.

As this gif explains, you do you when it comes to bulking up.

If you want any more help with designing your workout, we got you.

Check out the option that best fits your goals:

Option #1) If you want a professional coach in your pocket, who can do video form checks, provide feedback, and adjust your workouts based on the equipment you have available, check out our 1-on-1 Online Coaching Program

For example, let’s say you find yourself stuck indoors during a pandemic, and you want somebody to custom-build you a workout program based on the equipment and furniture you have. That’s where an online coach is a game-changer! 

Personally, I’ve been working with the same online coach since 2015 and it’s changed my life. You can learn more by clicking on the image below: 

Nerd Fitness Coaching Banner

Option #2) Exercising at home and need a plan to follow? Have questions you need answered? Join Nerd Fitness Prime!

Nerd Fitness Prime is our premium membership program that contains at-home exercise routines, live-streamed workouts with NF Coaches, a supportive online community, group challenges, and much more! 

Option #3) Become part of the Rebellion! We need good people like you in our community, the Nerd Fitness Rebellion.

Enlist below and we’ll send you our free Strength Training 101: Everything You Need to Know:

Alright, now I want to hear from you!

Can you currently do a chin-up or pull-up?

What’s your favorite pull-up alternative?

Am I missing any tips or tricks for pull-ups without a bar?

Let me know in the comments!

-Steve

PS: If you want more pull-up goodness, make sure you check out:

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Photo source: Kermit and Pink Panther, Mouse Hanging, Scarlet Spider-man

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