How to Do Pull-Ups Without a Pull-Up Bar

How to Do Pull-Ups Without a Pull-Up Bar
Photo: Shutterstock

In our continuing series of improvised home workout gear, today we’re going to talk about how to do pull-ups or inverted rows at home. If you’re used to doing pull-ups on a bar or using cable machines like a lat pulldown, that’s hard to recreate with home equipment. But you do have a few options.

Don’t give up on the possibility of a bar

We’ll get into the no-bar options in a minute, but first, are you sure you can’t install a pull-up bar? There are three main types:

  • Bars that you can install at the top of the door frame with screws. These are very secure, but you need to be willing and able to put holes in your door frame.
  • Bars that tension into the inside of the door frame like a shower curtain rod. Pay attention to the maximum weight on these, and be sure to install them correctly so they don’t slip.
  • Bars that wedge onto the door frame. These are easiest to install and don’t require any screw holes, but they may not fit all types of doors (for example, those in corners).

These bars may not be as secure as what you’re used to at the gym, so unless you are very sure of your installation, strict pull-ups are probably going to be safer than the kipping kind where you swing your body on each rep.

Find a fence

If you can find a tall, smooth fence, you can do pull-ups by hooking your hands over the top and dragging your body up. Your knees and thighs will slide up the fence, so watch out for splinters. Your elbows will also be against the fence, making the movement a bit like a curl. It’s a weird variation, but if you find the right setup, you’re golden.

I’ve seen people suggest you can do pull-ups this way on an open door, but the problem with that setup is that you’re putting a lot of stress on the hinges. If you try this — which you probably shouldn’t — at the very least make sure to put a book or similar object under the unsupported side of the door.

Use rings or straps

My kids have a play set in the backyard, and I remembered one day that it came with a pair of rings you could hang in place of a swing. I dug them out and suddenly had a place to do my pull-ups. Ring pull-ups are a bit different from doing chin-ups or pull-ups on a bar, but they’re close enough. You can also easily loop resistance bands around them if you’re doing banded pull-ups.

If you have something tall that just isn’t the right height or shape for your hands — like a play set with a wooden beam at the top — you can still manage pull-ups by tossing a ring on a strap across the top. Or use a long skinny towel — towel pull-ups are a serious challenge to your grip strength, but if you have strong hands, they may work for you.

Finally, don’t forget that a suspension trainer can work for pull-ups if you shorten the handles enough (or if you do them from a kneeling or seated starting position).

Do inverted rows

Inverted rows are a lower-to-the-ground cousin of pull-ups. You place yourself under a bar that’s set to maybe waist height, and you prop your feet on the ground ahead of you, keeping your body straight, as if you were in a plank position. Then, pull your chest toward the bar.

Anything that works for a pull-up can also work for inverted rows; you just get your setup closer to the ground. A railing can work well, for example. My favourite indoor variation is using a table: just get under the table and pull yourself up using the edge. As always, make sure what you’re using is sturdy enough to support you.

Beware tree branches

Yes, you can do pull-ups on a tree branch. But often, a branch that’s thin enough for you to hold onto is also likely to be too weak to hold your weight. And if you aren’t careful, you might end up grabbing onto a branch that is dead. (And dead branches can break suddenly.)

If you find the perfect branch, though, enjoy — cautiously.

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