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


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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.

“Although the pull-up is generally considered an upper-body movement, whole body stability—rigidity from the chest down—becomes very important when trying to optimize movement within the shoulders, scapulae, and thoracic spine,” says Jeff Halevy, trainer and CEO of Halevy Life in New York City.

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," says Adam Rosante, trainer and author of The 30-Second Body. 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-upsplanks, or any forearm pose in yoga—you know using your own body weight can sometimes be the biggest challenge.

Another important thing to keep in mind: shoulder mobility. “Adequate thoracic or shoulder mobility allows the lats—a primary mover in a pull-up—to do their job," Halevy says. "If the shoulder girdle does not possess the requisite mobility, stability, and coordination, a properly executed pull-up becomes nearly impossible to accomplish.”

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 (which would hunch your shoulders).

Here's How to Use This Guide:

1. If you're already doing a workout and come across pull-ups as one of the moves, feel free to sub in any of the alternative moves below, depending on your skill level.

2. If you're working with the specific goal of doing a pull-up, once you can do the moves in the "Advanced" section, use our "Pull-Up Progression."

And keep in mind: Though we've broken these down by skill level, you can still benefit from using any of the exercises regardless of your fitness level.


Upper Body Moves When You Can't Do A Pull-Up - Dumbbell Holds

Photo: Jeff Halevy LLC

1. Dumbbell Holds

Standing with feet shoulder-width apart and arms at your sides, hold a heavy dumbbell in each hand. Maintain perfect posture, engaging your biceps (not simply locking your arms) for at least 30 seconds. If you can't get to 30 seconds, use a lighter weight. Rest for 60 seconds. Repeat 3 times.

To build even more strength in your grip, hold the head of a light dumbbell (instead of the dumbbell bar) in each hand for at least 30 seconds.

2. Timed Hangs

With hands facing away from your body, grab hold of a pull-up bar, keeping abs tight. Hang with straight arms and feet off the ground for 10 seconds. Think about internally rotating your shoulders and pressing them down (not letting them up around your neck) to set your shoulder blades. Focus on using your back muscles to keep shoulder blades (scapula) in a level position. Repeat 5 times.

3. Scap-Ups

Hang from a pull-up bar with hands facing away from body and feet off the ground. Press down shoulders and gently squeeze shoulder blades together. Release back to a normal hang with shoulder blades level and apart. Repeat 15 times.

(Pro tip: Practice this move before hanging from the bar by imagining someone has a finger on your spine between your shoulder blades. Squeeze that finger using your shoulder blades. Your shoulders will go back slightly, but focus on using your back, not just your shoulders.)

4. Prone Bat Wings

Lie facedown on an incline bench, with head dangling over the edge. Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Keep one leg on each side of the bench, knees loosely bent and relaxed. With elbows close to your body, pull up dumbbells (as though you're rowing) by squeezing shoulder blades together. The dumbbells should be in line with your ribcage or waist (not armpits). Hold for 10 seconds at the top of your row. Repeat 5 times.


Upper Body Moves When You Can't Do A Pull-Up - Plank

Photo: Jeff Halevy LLC

5. Plank

Place hands on floor, directly under shoulders, and legs straight behind you with feet hip-width apart (at the top of a push-up position). Engage abs and keep body straight from head to toe (don't hike your hips!). Hold for 60 seconds. Release. Repeat 3 times.

6. Hollow Hold Bananas

Lie faceup on the floor, with legs straight and arms stretched overhead. Keeping your low back flat to the ground, activate abs and lift your arms, head, and legs off the floor. Hold for 15 seconds. Repeat 5 times.

7. Supine Cable Pull-Down

Lie faceup on an incline bench with legs away from a cable machine, knees relaxed and feet resting on the floor. Grab hold of cable overhead. Keeping arms straight (but not locked), squeeze shoulder blades together and pull the cable overhead and down toward your chest. Slowly return the cable to starting position. Repeat 15 times.

8. Plate Pinch

Stack two or more small weight plates together with the smooth sides facing out. Standing in a relaxed position with arms at your sides, squeeze them together between your thumb and fingers for at least 30 seconds.

If you can't get to 30 seconds, try using lighter weights. Rest for 60 seconds, and repeat 3 times.


Upper Body Moves When You Can't Do A Pull-Up - Kettlebell Bottom Up Press

Photo: Jeff Halevy LLC

9. Kettlebell Bottom-Up Press

Hold a kettlebell upside down (by the handle) in your right hand, elbow bent and level with your chest. Slowly press the kettlebell overhead, keeping the bell balanced toward the ceiling. Repeat 15 times then switch hands.

10. Inverted Rows

Stand facing an empty barbell racked at about chest height. Hold the bar with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart and elbows bent. Walk feet underneath the bar, so your body is angled, and you are facing the ceiling. Keeping legs straight and elbows close to body, extend arms to lower away from the bar, then squeeze shoulder blades together as you pull up and bring your chest toward the bar.

11. Stability Ball Roll-Outs

From a kneeling position on the floor, clasp your hands and place them on a stability ball. Keeping your back flat and body in line from head to toe (don't let your butt rise or fall), roll forearms and ball forward, slowly elongating your body. Use abs to return to starting position. Repeat 15 times.

12. Empty Bar 100's 

Hold an empty barbell with an underhand grip (palms facing up). Keeping elbows close to your body, curl the bar 100 times as fast as you safely can while maintaing good form.