Pullups are the gold standard of back exercises, but that doesn’t mean you always want to do them. Heck, you may not even like them, or be able to pull off a single perfect rep.
The good news is that you can get a perfectly good back workout without doing any of them. Despite CrossFit’s obsession with pullups, there are plenty of other moves that you can and should do to build the wide lats and the thick middle back that stands out in a T-shirt — especially if you work a desk job.
Desk jockeying often leaves you with rounded shoulders, as hours of typing lead to shortened pectoral muscles and weak middle back muscles. Running straight to the gym to do pull-ups with that kind of posture is an invitation for shoulder injuries, and it keeps you from properly activating your back musculature the way you want, too. Translation: You get less out of your pull-ups than all the effort you put into them.
The cure for that, and for serious pull-up hate? Do plenty of rowing exercises, which strengthen your middle back muscles, and counterbalance your tight chest muscles. (Bonus: when your middle back muscles gain strength, they’ll pull your shoulders back into proper position and open up your chest, making you look bigger and stronger and honing your posture, too). That’s why rows are the backbone for this pull-up free back session that you can do twice a week:
The No-Pullup Back Workout
Foam roll your upper back, pecs, and hamstrings before doing this workout, then warm up with three rounds of the following circuit, working through the moves as quickly as possible and resting as needed:
- 25 mountain climbers
- 30-second plank
- 15 bodyweight squats
Superset 1: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift and Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Row
Do 15 reps of Romanian deadlifts, then immediately do 15 reps of neutral-grip dumbbell rows. Rest for 90 seconds. Do 4 sets.
Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
- Start standing, with medium-weight dumbbells at your thighs, palms facing your body.
- Slowly push your hips back and slide the dumbbells down your thighs, focusing on keeping your core braced.
- Lower the dumbbells until they reach just below your knee, or until you start rounding at your back, whichever comes first.
- Pause, then stand back up, continuing to brace your core.
Neutral-Grip Dumbbell Row
- Start standing, holding medium-weight dumbbells at your thighs.
- From an athletic stance, feet slightly wider than shoulder-width and knees bent, bend at the waist until your torso is nearly parallel to the ground. Keep your core braced as you do this. The dumbbells should hang naturally, palms turned towards your thighs.
- Row the dumbbells upwards, bringing your elbows up in a wide arc. Squeeze your shoulder blades together at the top of each row rep.
Superset 2: Supine Grip Dumbbell Row and Resistance Band Straight-Arm Pulldown
Do 15 reps of supine grip dumbbell rows, then immediately do 15 reps of resistance band straight-arm pulldowns. Rest for 90 seconds. Do 4 sets.
Supine Grip Dumbbell Row
- Start with feet slightly wider than shoulder width, knees bent slightly, holding dumbbells at your thighs.
- Keeping your core braced, bend at the waist until your torso is at a 45-degree angle with the ground. The dumbbells should hang naturally, your palms facing in front of you.
- Row the dumbbells upwards, driving your elbows up high. Pause for a moment when you’ve rowed as high as you can, then return to the start.
Resistance Band Straight-Arm Pulldown
- Tie a looped resistance band to a pullup bar and start standing below it. Stand a foot behind the resistance band and grab it so there’s just a hint of tension.
- Keeping your arms straight, pull the band downward to your hips. Pause and squeeze your mid-back muscles, then return it to the start position with control.
Superset 3: Wide-Grip Resistance Band Row and Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly
Do 15 reps of wide-grip resistance band rows, then immediately do 15 reps of dumbbell rear delt flies. Rest for 90 seconds. Do 4 sets.
Wide-Grip Resistance Band Row
- Tie a looped resistance band to a structure about shoulder height, and step a few feet away from it. Start standing with feet slightly wider than shoulder-width, knees bent.
- Grasp the resistance band with a shoulder-width grip, arms straight in front of you, palms facing each other.
- Brace your core and squeeze your shoulder blades. From this position, pull the band back to your chest. Squeeze for a moment, then return to the start.
Dumbbell Rear Delt Fly
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, holding light dumbbells at your thighs. Bend over until your torso is at a 45-degree angle; keep your core braced as you do this.
- Let the dumbbells hang naturally, palms facing each other, then bend your elbows just slightly. Pull the dumbbells upward in a wide arc.
- Squeeze your mid-back muscles when you’ve gone as high as is comfortable, then lower to the start.
By David Otey