Back Strength at Home: Getting Strong When You Can’t Do Pull-Ups

If you want a strong back you have to do pull-ups and rows. That seems to be as safe a statement as it gets in bodyweight fitness training. We even created one of the most comprehensive pull-up tutorials you’ll ever read.

But what if you can’t? Are you resigned to having a weak back?

A lot of times fitness pros and other seasoned trainers will answer that question by providing alternatives that scale down pulling movements. Either with the use of bands, dumbbells, suspension equipment, etc, and there’s definitely a place for those things. But there’s also another approach.

Instead of doing watered down imitations of pull-ups and rows, that you are know are tried and true, why not try other exercises that look different but work the same actions and muscles in a different and more supportive way?

And that’s really our philosophy about a lot of things. We like to talk about physical autonomy a lot here at GMB, and a big part of that is learning how to adjust to the circumstances.

🎙️ If you prefer, listen to the podcast on this topic here.

No pull-up bar? Should you just give up?

There are lots of creative workarounds if you don’t have access to equipment for pull-ups, rows, and other various exercises. Sturdy above door mouldings, towels over doors, broomsticks on chairs, heavy milk jugs, you name it, we’re basically only limited by our imaginations.

Let’s look more closely into why you’d need to try and simulate these movements in the first place. It can be that you aren’t able to go to your gym, or are traveling, or any number of those type of reasons. But what if it’s not about that?

Perhaps you can’t do the movements at all because you are injured or the movements bother you no matter how they are adjusted or scaled. That’s a pretty common situation. Injuries happen and not just strains and sprains to our back, shoulders and elbows. Think of your hands, you could have injured your hands and fingers which make gripping and pulling a significant weight a no-go. Or you could even have a bad cut on them which we all know interferes with just about everything we need to do.

These are the practical reasons why we’re teaching you these particular movements in the tutorial below, but also learning and performing these exercises will show you how you can effectively work on your back strength without the usual pulls.

There’s More to the Back than “Pulling”

Pulling exercises are a staple of the strength training universe because they’re a simple, effective way to engage the muscles of the back. Pulling also extremely functional, a useful movement pattern in it’s own right.

But there’s much more to back strength than just pulling, so let’s get more specific about what else you can do.

From the base of your neck down into your low back, our spine is involved in basically every movement we do in our lives, including the simplest daily chores to the most involved athletic endeavor.

There’s so much to it, and you can see our detailed post about the spine here, but let’s focus on the upper and mid back which is what most people think about when talking about the benefits of pull-ups and rows. And again, they are absolutely great exercises for this, that’s inarguable, it’s simply that they aren’t the only great movements.

Stability, the ability to hold proper positioning both in a static position and also holding our torso steady while the rest of our body works, is a major attribute of functional back strength. Enhancing our ability to do so improves our ability to maintain the best alignment for producing strength and power in movements like pulling and lifting.

The following exercises help achieve this through the emphasis of back and shoulder strengthening in their end-ranges of motion. The last few degrees of the motions you can fully move your shoulders and arms. These ranges are often neglected in a lot of exercises, and that’s why they will likely be surprisingly difficult for you to do the first time you try them!

They are also holistic in the true sense of the term, using your whole body to do them correctly means your whole body gets benefit. And as you’ll see when you do the exercises they aren’t simply easier versions of pulls but distinctly difficult and useful movements that stimulate the same actions as a pull-up and row.

5 Bodyweight Back Exercises to do at Home

1. Prone Swimmers2. Hollow Body Shrugs3. Butterfly Shrugs4. Bear Walk5. L-Sit Shrugs

We’ll explain each of these in the video below, along with detailed instructions.

Bodyweight Back Workout with No Equipment

Bodyweight Back Exercises
#1 – Prone Swimmers • Lying on stomach
• Arms overhead, circle down to your sides and rotate palms up
• Squeeze shoulder blades together and lift hands as they move to your hips
• Slide fingers on ground as you circle back up to overhead
#2 – Hollow Body Shrugs • Start first on hands and knees, then progress to plank position
• Round out your back, spread your shoulder blades, push hard into the ground
#3 – Butterfly Shrugs • Lie on back, hands out to your sides, pull elbows back behind you
• Lift your chest up and squeeze shoulder blades together
• Practice sitting up first to get a feel for it
#4 – Bear Walk (Exaggerated) • Keep lifting your hips high
• Emphasize pushing through the hands to lift off the floor
• Feel your shoulder blades moving through a large range of motion
#5 – L-Sit Shrugs • Sitting up tall, start with your shoulders shrugged up
• Push through hands and roll shoulders back and down
• Keep chest up and back straight
• Use parallettes, push-up bars, blocks, or nothing at all

Let’s talk about these exercises in more detail.

Prone Swimmers

Our core is much more than “six-pack abs”. From hip flexors to inner abdominals, obliques, deep spinal muscles and erectors up to the midback, our entire torso contributes to core stability. From the first repetition of this exercise you’ll begin to understand how there is so much that contributes to back strength!

Start prone (lying on your stomach) with your legs straight, forehead on the ground, and hands overheadNow circle your hands down to your sides and at about 90 degrees, rotate your palms up towards the ceiling and lift up as high as you can by squeezing your shoulder blades togetherThink of pushing your chest into the ground as you do thisMove your hands towards your hip and then slide your fingers on the ground to circle back up overhead

Start easy with your range of motion on the first few repetitions, this will likely be a very new movement for you and muscle cramping is not unusual!

Hollow Body Plank Shrugs

Scapular (shoulder blade) strength and mobility are key to useful upper back strength. They are necessary to allow for the proper shoulder alignment and positioning to use the larger back muscles to best advantage and transmit their power efficiently.

Start on hands and knees, shoulders directly over the hands and hips over the knees. Keep your elbow pits facing forwardPush your hands firmly into the ground to round out your back and focus on spreading your shoulder blades as wide as possibleRelax into a shrug position and repeat. Lean forward to place more weight on your hands as you get more comfortable with the movementProgress to the plank position as you improve your strength

This is another exercise that can have you sweating more than you think, start by emphasizing more range of motion vs. force and then gradually place more weight through your hands as become more familiar with it.

Butterfly Shrugs

This exercise continues the integration between your arms and shoulder blades along with proper spinal alignment. It’s a fairly unique movement so we recommend practicing this sitting up first. Do a few reps and keep the following cues in mind before you head to the ground to do them. A mat along with towels/sheets to decrease friction can be helpful in making this more comfortable on your elbows.

Lie on your back, with your knees bent and arms out to your sideLead with your chest to sit up as you drag your elbows toward each otherSqueeze your shoulder blades together the entire timeLift your chest up high to keep a proper position

You may be familiar with the “face pull” exercise. This motion is very similar except that you are “pushing” through your elbows to achieve the same end position. It’s very important to lift the chest up as this will work on and improve your upper back mobility (active thoracic extension), which is so important for your back strength and health.

Bear Walk (Exaggerated)

If you’ve been following us for a while you know that the Bear is one of the three fundamental locomotion patterns we teach, and they all have different variations within them to emphasize the training of different attributes. In this variation we’ll exaggerate the arm motions to focus on back strength.

Start in the A-Frame position. Hands and feet on the ground and hips high up in the airEmphasize pushing through your hands as you progress forward, lifting off one hand as you push hard with the otherThink of pushing the floor down and away and move your shoulder blades through a large range of motion

Just like the Hollow Body Planks, emphasizing your shoulder blade mobility in this exercise will dramatically improve your scapular strength. Pushing through the ground as you move forward and back in the Bear walk is an excellent stimulus.

L-Sit Shrugs

You’re probably noticing a pattern at this point! All of these exercises take you through different angles for your shoulder blades and arms. From prone and supine, hands and knees, and to hands and feet, these positions allow you to use the ground to provide resistance through various planes of motion. L-Sit Shrugs complete this by having you sitting upright so you can push down vertically. (By the way, for a ridiculously complete step-by-step article on everything you need to know about the L-Sit click on over here.)

Start sitting up tall with your legs straight out in front of youLet your shoulders be shrugged up but keep your back straightPush through your hands and lift your chest up as you roll your shoulders back and downYou’ll get more range of motion with your hands elevated, but they can be flat on the ground and you’ll still get a lot of benefit

All of these exercises can be deceptively difficult and not just because they may be totally new to you. But as we’ve shown above, they take your arms and shoulder blades through a variety of planes and require your muscles to engage strongly throughout the range of motion.

Primary Actions
Latissimus Dorsi • Extension and Adduction of the shoulder
• This is when your arms move back and toward the midline
Rhomboids • Retraction and Downward rotation of the scapula
• Squeezing your shoulder blades together and rolling them back and down
Lower Trapezius • Retraction and Depression of the scapula
• Squeezing your shoulder blades together and pulling them down

How to Get Started

In the video above, Ryan talks about a simple and effective way to get started right away with these exercises. In a circuit style performance, set an timer of 30 seconds for each exercise and move on to the next, either without rest or taking some time as needed. And repeat for rounds as best fits your condition.

Let’s put some more details into that for you:

First, take your time and practice each exercise for a just a few reps. Don’t turn those reps into a “workout” just yet, instead treat this as a learning experience. A few minutes for each one helps a lotNext you can either call it a day, or if you have more time and energy go ahead and get started on a circuit30 seconds work and 30 seconds rest in between is a great place to start, going through the series for 2 to 3 roundsWhen you feel ready to have no rest in between exercises, we suggest a rest period of 1 to 2 minutes between roundsYou can incorporate this wherever in your current training you like, either at the beginning of your workouts when you are fresh, or at the end after you’ve done what you’ve prioritized for the day

As always, the most important thing is to start incorporating some of these movements in whatever way works best for you. Don’t let analysis paralysis, or a less-than-ideal space stop you from getting stronger.

If you ever need help figuring out where to start or what should come next, we’re here to help.

Ready for a complete home training program?

If you do have a pull-up bar (or want to get one), Integral Strength is our best program for building full-body strength you can apply to any sport or activity. Otherwise, we recommend Elements.

Though there’s no obvious “pulling” exercises in Elements, it’s designed to move the shoulders through a full complement of elevation-depression and retraction-protraction ranges, loosening you up and strengthening all the muscles supporting your spine for better posture and less stiffness in everyday situations.


Your Foundation for Physical Autonomy

Get all the details on Elements 👉

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