The Best Upper Body Exercises When You Can't Do a Pull-Up (Yet!)


It takes more than strong arms to do a pull-up. And if you regularly crush your strength workouts or HIIT routines but still can’t seem to get your chin above the bar—you’re not alone.

“From carrying excess fat to a weak back and grip, there are a number of reasons why even seemingly fit people have trouble with pull-ups,” says Adam Rosante, trainer and author of The 30-Second Body.

Simply put: The move is a tough one. You’re starting from a dead hang and then pulling up your entire body weight. “Pull-ups are arguably the greatest indicator of relative strength,” Rosante says. In other words: How strong are you in relation to your own weight? If you’ve ever tackled other no-equipment classics before—like push-ups, planks, or any forearm pose in yoga—you know using your own body weight can sometimes be the biggest challenge.

So how do you make it happen? “It’s not as simple as ‘do these eight moves, and you’ll be cranking out pull-ups in no time,’” Rosante says. “However, there are moves that can help strengthen the muscles you use during a pull-up.”

The major muscles involved include the large back muscles (your latissimus dorsi and rhomboids), posterior deltoids, and biceps. You’ll also need to engage your core throughout the movement and maintain proper shoulder alignment. That means “packing your scapula”—keeping shoulder blades pulled down and not allowing them to “wing” (poke out of your back) or come apart too far (whic…

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