The pullups is an effective move for building strength, size and endurance in the latissimus dorsi, rhomboid and trapezius muscles of your upper back, as well as your biceps. What makes pullups different from more conventional weighted exercises is that pullups are performed using only your body weight as resistance. If you don't have access to a pullup bar, or are just starting out and can't quite manage pullups yet, you can work the same muscles with dumbbells.
The pullup is classed as an upper body, vertical pulling exercise. This means that you're pulling the weight in toward your body, in the vertical plane with your arms over your head. You can only perform vertical pulls with your body weight -- using exercises such as the pullup or chin-up -- or with a lat pulldown machine, according to strength coach Zach Moore. Unfortunately, it's impossible to exactly replicate the pullup movement with dumbbells.
Compound Dumbbell Moves
Numerous dumbbell moves hit the same muscles of your upper back and arms that pullups target. The simplest of these is the dumbbell row, performed with one hand and one lower leg on a bench, the opposite foot on the floor and the opposite arm holding a dumbbell. Pull the dumbbell from a straight arm position until it lightly touches the area around your rib cage and abdomen. You can vary your rows by performing them free-standing instead of supported on a bench, while lying with your chest on an incline bench, or by using both arms at the same time.
Isolation moves work only one muscle group and joint. This can be advantageous if you're looking to specifically target a weak body part, which may be limiting your pullup performance. Dumbbell shrugs -- in which you hold a dumbbell in either hand with straight arms and lift your shoulders toward your ears -- target your upper traps. Bent-over lateral raises -- performed by leaning forward and raising the dumbbells out to your sides -- work your middle traps and rear shoulders, while dumbbell curls isolate your biceps.
For a dumbbell workout that targets the same muscle groups as pullups, perform a row variation, then two isolation exercises for three sets of eight to 12 repetitions each. If you're looking to improve your pullups because you currently find them too taxing, try mixing dumbbell moves with easier pullup variations. These include pullups on an assisted machine, or with a band looped around the bar to give you assistance. You can even opt for a lat pulldown machine to mimic the pullup movement.
Mike Samuels started writing for his own fitness website and local publications in 2008. He graduated from Peter Symonds College in the UK with A Levels in law, business and sports science, and is a fully qualified personal trainer, sports massage therapist and corrective exercise specialist with accreditations from Premier Global International.