May 31st, 2018

Pullups Are Awesome, But What If You Can’t Do Any Yet?

We all know that pullups are an awesome, superior exercise for your upper back and even your arms. Trouble is, most people struggle to do any pullups at all. ..

A great alternative that’s also a bodyweight movement is the inverted row.

You can do this exercise under a barbell in a power rack, or even easier, inside Smith machine. You can also use low pullup bars. (Tip: at home or in hotels you can even do it under a sturdy table. PS. I said sturdy – I accept no liability for broken tables!)


Some people say inverted rows are the reverse of pull ups in difficulty – too easy.

Actually I think this is a pretty challenging exercise, but if you’re cranking out 15, 20 reps or more and it’s still easy, then go ahead and progress the exercise (always be thinking about progressive overload!):

Inverted row progressions from easiest to hardest:

1. Inverted rows knees bent feet flat on floor
2. Inverted rows legs straight, heels on floor
3. Inverted rows legs straight, heels up on bench (or stability ball)
4. Inverted rows with barbell plate on your chest (or weighted vest)… but hey, if you’re that strong, you can barbell row as heavy as you want with unlimited progression.

Another tip: still feels too easy? use the peak contraction technique: Hold the top position for 2-3 seconds, squeeze, with strong mind muscle focus on the back, then lower yourself down.

Last but not least, here’s my “secret trick” for the ultimate in intensity:

Superset two different inverted rows.

Start with the harder version with your legs straight, then when you’re about to fail, don’t stop! Switch to the bent knee inverted row and keep going – you’ll find you can get even more reps and blast your back beyond what a normal straight set workout could do.

Go try it, and then let me know what you think. If the likes and comments say this is helpful, then I’ll be back in the next post with more tips on how to actually increase your pullup and chinup reps…. or…

…achieve that very first unassisted pullup!

Train hard and expect success,

Tom Venuto,
Founder & CEO,
Burn The Fat Inner Circle
Author, Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle

PS. Get even more of my training tips, complete workout programs and  exercise secrets (all of them) at

tomvenuto-blogAbout Tom Venuto

Tom Venuto is a lifetime natural (steroid-free) bodybuilder, fitness writer and author of Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle: Fat Burning Secrets of Bodybuilders and Fitness Models and the national bestseller, The Body Fat Solution, which was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom has appeared in The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Huffington Post, Oprah Magazine, Muscle and Fitness Magazine, Ironman Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine, as well as on dozens of radio shows including Sirius Satellite Radio, ESPN-1250 and WCBS. Tom is also the founder and CEO of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community for inspiration and transformation

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9 Responses to “Pullups Are Awesome, But What If You Can’t Do Any Yet?”

  • Anna

    This was fantastic! Thank you very much. It is a dream of mine to one day to a pull up.


    How can doing these graduate someone to being able to do pull-ups?These are two different muscle groups. Pull-ups are mainly for lats and inverted rows are for mid-back.

    • Tom Venuto

      well, if I want to split hairs, the post doesn’t directly say “this will graduate you to pull ups.” What it says is closer to “a great alternative to pull ups if you cant do any pull ups yet is inverted rows.” Reason being, most people only think the alternatives are pulldowns or the assisted pull up machine. The inverted row is certainly more of a horizontal pull while the pull up is a vertical pull. But even so, i DO believe there is some carry over and relationship between getting good at inverted rows and working up to a pullup. In fact on facebook today, a reader posted, “I started out a year ago with these (inverted rows) and this month I cranked out 4 clean pullups.” Ive heard that many times. There ARE other ways, and I would argue (agree with you?) better ways to graduate into unassisted pullups and that is what I insinuated I would share in the next post…. (and those ways have to do with doing pullups not inverted rows). At any rate the inverted rows is a great exercise, not to be knocked.

  • Jewel

    How many sets and reps of these inverted rows should I am to do per workout? What is a good starting point?

    • Tom Venuto

      3 sets per exercise is a standard prescription for resistance training. however with body weight exercises where people may either a) struggle to get only a few reps at a time or b) where people can rep out all day it might not be so simple which is why some people who are in group A simply do as many reps as they can and set the goal to increase their reps (ie, if they can only do 4 or 5 inverted row reps to start, their goal is 6, then 7, then 8 etc – just improve). typically standard prescription for reps for resistance training for building muscle is 8 to 12 reps per set, assuming using resistance where the last few reps are difficult. when strength is a priority, rep ranges are usually 4 to 6 (with heavier weight) and for endurance, 13-15 reps +. But again, body weight exercises are unique and different than free weight exercises in how you can and cant control the load youre lifting. the question is how many reps can you do now – in a row, and total, ifyou add up your sets?

  • Swiss Lee

    Hi Tom
    I stopped doing traditional pull-ups a long time ago due to some injuries but this exercise is a viable alternative. A tip I have is to wear shoes that don’t slip; depending on the gym floor and/or placement of the equipment, sometimes the feet start sliding away. If this hakeeps me from slipping and I can better concentrate on the movement itself.
    Fun factor: no one else does this exercise at my gym and it makes me look like I really know what I’m doing LOL!

    • Tom Venuto

      well if you work up to the feet on bench inverted row, they wont slide away either! 🙂 (of course we know you know what you are doing! 😉 )

  • Frank

    Great info! Please keep it coming!

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