Pullups are amongst the best exercises you can do to develop strength in your upper body. But, let's face it -- they're challenging. You have to pull up your own body weight, which means that how difficult pullups are for you depends on your strength and how much you weigh. If you're looking to work your way up to being able to perform a true pullup, incorporating barbell rows and other similar exercises can help.
The muscle that does most of the work during pullups is your latissimus dorsi in the back. The latissimus dorsi pulls your arms down to your sides, which in turn will bring your body up toward the bar. Smaller muscles in your shoulders and scapula also contract to coordinate the movement at your shoulders and keep your joints stabilized. In addition, your biceps at the front of your upper arms bend your elbows as you pull yourself up.
The barbell row is an exercise that’s appropriate for all levels, because instead of having to lift your own weight, you can easily tweak how difficult the exercise is by adjusting how much weight is on the bar. Barbell rows recruit nearly the same collection of muscles as pullups. The latissimus dorsi is once again the primary mover, driving your elbows up and back toward the ceiling. The biceps are recruited to bend your elbows as you pull the bar up toward your chest. However, barbell rows also require your lower-back muscle to contract and hold you in a bent-over position.
Because barbell rows recruit and develop the same collection of upper-body muscles as pullups, you can use them to build strength in those muscles and improve your performance of pullups. You’ll want to complete the barbell row at a volume and intensity that’s designed to build strength, which is three to five sets of six or fewer repetitions. Pick up a barbell that’s set at a weight that will challenge you as you complete up to six repetitions.
To kick up your pullup training program a notch, in addition to barbell rows, incorporate lat pulldowns and assisted pullups into your training regimen. Lat pulldowns more closely mimic the movement of pullups. Instead of your elbows driving back like they do in barbell rows, they are pulled into your torso like during the pullup. Plus, you can position your hands wide on the bar during lat pulldowns, which mimics how your hands are placed during pullups. Assisted pullups mean that you recruit a friend to put her hands on your torso and push you toward the bar as you pull. If you're alone, put your feet on top of a stool so there's less weight on your arms. Assisted pullups will help build your confidence once it's time to take on the full exercise.
Kim Nunley has been screenwriting and working as an online health and fitness writer since 2005. She’s had multiple short screenplays produced and her feature scripts have placed at the Austin Film Festival. Prior to writing full-time, she worked as a strength coach, athletic coach and college instructor. She holds a master's degree in kinesiology from California State University, Fullerton.