To be honest, I didn’t realize the significance of pull-ups until I was much older. I didn’t have a pull-up bar at home, and the only time anyone in my middle school gym class ever did pull-ups was when we were being tested on them.
That said, even untrained, pre-teen me was able to crank out seven pull-ups without much trouble, which secured me full marks for that task, contributed to the “A” I received in Phys Ed and underscored to me that two hours of swim practice each evening had provided me with more than enough strength to give a respectable showing in anything my PE teacher might have demanded of me (and, yes, that’s one very long humblebrag). It was only after I had grown up, deviated from nightly in-water training and packed on some substantial body weight that I began to understand the brutality pull-ups could inflict on a body — and just how frustrating they could be.
Even though I can now give you 20 pull-ups at the drop of a hat (okay, that’s a humblebrag, too), I’m embarrassed to admit that there were times in my late 20s when that was a total impossibility. And in order to work my way back up, I had to supplement my pull-up training with some other exercises.
What is a good pull-up alternative if I can’t do any pull-ups?
If you can’t do a single pull-up, you needn’t be too ashamed, because you’ve got plenty of company. In any event, your best alternative would be your gym’s assisted pull-up and dip machine. Provided that your form is correct, and that you’ve used the weight pin to select the bare minimum assistance required for you to perform sets of 10 or more assisted pull-ups, your execution should be fairly close to replicating the feel of what it’s like to use no assistance at all. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the muscle-recruitment pattern will be the closest to what it would be if you were doing regular pull-ups (which we’ll address in a moment).
If you go with assisted pull-ups, it’s recommended that you do another exercise necessitating that you move your body weight through space in the direction of resistance as opposed to pulling the resistance toward your body. To accomplish this, you could perform any form of inverted row, including rows from a bar, or hanging from any sort of suspension-training apparatus like a TRX trainer.
Can’t I just do seated lat pulldowns? Those look like they’re basically the same movement.
I’m glad you asked. This is a definite case of two exercises looking superficially the same, but which are fundamentally different.
Again, when you do pull-ups, you’re pulling your body through space and into resistance. When you do lat pulldowns, you’re engaging with some form of external device — whether it’s a bar of any shape, or any form of handle — and pulling the resistance toward your body. The muscle activation patterns of the two movements, while ostensibly similar, is very different if you’re doing seated lat pulldowns. It’s easy to change the angle of your back and the trajectory of the bar when you execute a lat pulldown. Attempting to perform a similar feat during a pull-up requires a different level of muscle control.
None of this is intended to suggest that lat pulldowns won’t make your back stronger; they’re a fantastic precision training tool, and enable you to engage your lats and overall chain at the precise angle you desire. Moreover, kneeling lat pulldowns have been scientifically demonstrated to be the closest thing to replicating the activation pattern of regular pull-ups, even more so than assisted pull-ups. However, as far as wholesale upper-body development is concerned, lat pulldowns aren’t comprehensive enough to act as a one-to-one replacement for a proper pull-up.
This holds true for any of the other rowing movements, too: All of them have their benefits, but they all suffer from the same shortcoming inasmuch as they don’t come close to approximating the true nature of the work being done during a pull-up.
So what’s your recommendation if I can’t do pull-ups?
Train your back from every angle while incorporating at least one bodyweight pulling movement, and still making regular attempts to perform legitimate pull-ups. This can certainly include negative rep pull-ups, where you vault yourself into the position of peak elevation and muscle contraction, and then resist the pull of gravity as it slowly drags you down.
Such eccentric training will contribute greatly to helping you develop the specific strength required to eventually complete full pull-up reps while you learn to control your body. To that end, learning to control your actual body weight is what pull-ups are all about; they’re also one of the best ways to both display and improve overall back strength.
Speaking from experience, I’ve never seen a holistic back-training program that consisted only of pull-ups, so even if you can do pull-ups, you should still throw several of these other exercises into the mix in order to maximize the strength and endurance of your back. That way, anything you do with it — pull-ups or no pull-ups — won’t prove back-breaking.