Reading Time: 7 minutes

Wondering what exactly modified pull-ups are? Think of them as a stepping stone towards full, unassisted pull-ups.

The ability to complete a pull-up is a good thing. For instance, you never know when you might need to pull yourself up and over a wall, or similar, in a life or death emergency situation.

Imagine an unfortunate scenario that leads to you hanging, by your hands, from the edge of a very high cliff. Now imagine the nightmare situation of not being able to pull yourself up to safety. Oh no, your inability to do a pull-up has literally just cost you your life!

Now that I have scared the heck out of you, you should be really motivated to get started on doing some pull-ups. Ah, but I can’t even do one pull up, heck I can’t even do half a pull-up, I hear you say.

Welcome my friend, to the modified pull-up.

modified pull ups main image

A little about pull-ups

Before we look in detail at the modified pull-up, let’s discuss what a normal pull-up is.

Basically, find a bar about 2 feet above your head. Get up and grab the bar, either jumping up or using a step, and just dangle with feet not touching the ground, this is the start position. Your hands will be wrapped around the bar, palms facing forwards, a little more than shoulder-width apart.

Now begin to pull your body upwards until your chin is above the bar. When you get that far, you can then start to lower yourself back down to the start position. Congratulations, you have just completed 1 pull-up.

Pulling up your entire body weight however, is not as easy as it looks. A lot of people really struggle with it. This is particularly true if you’re not fit, and toned, and over your ideal weight. Every extra pound is one extra you need to haul straight up when doing your pull-up.

Pull-Ups vs Chin Ups

A lot of people confuse these and use them interchangeably, as though they are the same thing. They are not technically the same at all. Both involve hanging from a bar with your hands and pulling your body towards the ceiling until your chin passes the bar.

Chin up v pull up

The difference however, is in how the bar is held. For the chin-up, the palms face the subject, and for the pull-up, the palms face away. A small change but both feel radically different to do. I personally prefer, and feel that chin-ups are easier to do, however, that is most likely from me doing way more chin-ups than pull-ups.

What’s the purpose of modified pull-ups?

The problem with regular pull-ups is that you can’t just reduce the weight to what you feel comfortable lifting. Like stripping some discs of a dumbbell when doing a bicep curl.

What’s needed is a way to reduce the weight somehow, so instead of pulling up 200 lbs you’re only pulling up 150 lbs. That’s exactly what modified pull-ups allow you to do.

By allowing the feet to remain on the ground, and take some of the weight, they decrease the load you need to lift. Changing the angle of the legs will effectively increase or decrease the load, and tailor the effort to your needs.

Why do modified pull-ups

By now you probably have a fair idea of why you might need to do these. There could be many different reasons to do them, but all will essentially boil down to the two below.

  • When doing regular pull-ups is too difficult.
  • You want to do high rep sets with a lighter load.

Modified Pull-Ups: Muscles worked

The modified pull-up works primarily the same muscles that are worked whilst doing a regular pull-up. For obvious reasons however, the muscles won’t be worked as hard. However, the main muscles worked will be as follows.

  • Lats
    • The primary muscle used during a pull-up.
    • Its function is to bring the arm to the body.
    • During the exercise, it is used to move your body to your arm.
  • Biceps
    • Heavily used in conjunction with lats during the lift phase.
  • Abs
    • Abdominal muscles are used to stabilize your body throughout the entire movement.
  • Forearms
    • These are used extensively to hold your grip on the bar.
    • The wider the bar, the more the forearm muscles are worked.
    • Also worked harder with a narrower grip.
  • Pecs
    • Assists the lats when you pull up and down.
  • Upper back
    • The deltoids and traps are heavily engaged during a pull-up.

There are also loads of other little stabilizing muscles in and around your shoulder that are worked hard due to the shoulder mobility nature of this exercise. This article is a pretty good place to get more detailed info on all the muscles that are worked.

Keep in mind, the manner in which the muscles are worked during a modified pull-up could vary a great deal, as opposed to during the regular version. This is because, during the modified version, the angle of the body can be different depending on where the feet are placed. If the torso is kept vertical however, the same as in a regular pull-up, then the same muscles will be worked, just not as hard.

How to do modified pull-ups

The first thing you will need is a low bar, roughly chest height. A smith machine would be ideal for this.

  1. Grip the bar with both hands, palms facing forward.
  2. With legs straight, place both feet out in front about a foot or so, both feet together.
  3. Keeping feet on the floor and torso vertical, lower down until arms are straightened.
  4. You are now at the start position of the exercise.
  5. From here begin the pull upwards until the chin clears the bar.
  6. You are now at the top of the exercise and have completed one rep.

Your bum should just about hit the floor at the bottom of the exercise. If this isn’t happening then raise or lower the bar as needed.

You may bend the knees or keep the legs straight. Bending the knees during the movement will make it a little easier.

Be sure to perform them with the correct technique.


The only bad thing about this exercise is that you need a low bar or something similar to hang onto, to perform it.

Progression/alternatives to modified pull-ups

The ultimate and obvious progression for modified pull-ups is the regular old, unassisted pull-up. Keep increasing the load your lifting bit by bit, until you are confident and strong enough to jump up to that higher bar.

Until then though here are some other variations for you to work on. All of these engage and strengthen the main muscles used during a pull-up. These will ultimately help you towards that goal.

  • Barbell bent-over row

This exercise makes high use of your lats, One of the major muscles used in a pull-up. Perform as follows.

  1. Start with the bar on the floor, just in front of you.
  2. Stand with feet about shoulder-width apart.
  3. Bend over, keep back straight, knees slightly bent, torso and thighs at 90-degree angle.
  4. Reach down and grab the bar, palms toward or away from you, hands shoulder-width apart.
  5. Begin to pull the bar to the chest.
  6. Lower the bar back down until the arms are straight. 1 rep complete.

Remember to keep the back straight throughout the movement.

  • Kneeling Band pull down

Another exercise that highly engages the lats. Also, the great thing about this exercise is that you only need is some bands and an anchor point.

  1. Securely anchor the center of the band somewhere above you.
  2. While standing, grab the ends of the band, one in each hand.
  3. Move to the knees, preferably on a mat or soft surface.
  4. Your arms should now be extended straight above your head. This is the start position.
  5. Begin to pull down towards the shoulders.
  6. Stop when hands are in front of shoulders.
  7. Under control, begin to move the hands back to the start position. 1 rep complete.

Keep the torso and thighs straight and vertical during the exercise.

  • Negative pull-ups

These are fantastic for strengthening the muscles specific to doing a full pull-up. More or less exactly the same as regular pull up, but with the emphasis placed on the lowering portion of the movement, as opposed to the lifting phase.

  1. Using a chair or step, get yourself up on the bar to the full-up position.
  2. Grasp the bar with palms facing away from you.
  3. Place hands a little wider than shoulder-width apart.
  4. Step of the support and hold the position as long as possible.
  5. Then lower down as slowly and controlled as possible.

It is important on this one to keep the descent downward as slow and controlled as possible.

  • Buddy assisted pull-ups

These are a great alternative to modified pull-ups. You just need to have someone to assist you when you do them.

  1. Get on the bar and hang as you would for a normal pull-up.
  2. Have a buddy lift you as you do the lift part, to help you up.
  3. Ensure your buddy assists only as much as is needed to get your chin past the bar.
  4. Lower yourself back down again unassisted.

Buddy-assisted pull-ups are fantastic when used in conjunction with negative pull-ups.


When the thought of trying to do a pull-up fills you with dread, but you really want to get better at them, then the modified pull-up is just what’s needed. The fact they let you build up to lifting your full bodyweight is invaluable. This is what’s so discouraging for most people about doing pull-ups, it’s just too much weight to start off with.

I have never been overly fond of pull-ups because of my preference for chin-ups. I’ll definitely be doing some of these modified pull-ups to increase my very lacking pull-up strength. For sure they will help me surpass my current p.b. which is about 3, I think.

Update 06-may-2021 – my new PB is now 7 full proper pull-ups. In other words, these modified pull-ups really work!

As always, feel free to leave a comment if you have any thoughts, advice, questions, or opinions related to this article.


Always consult your GP before undertaking any form of weight loss, fitness, or exercise.

Michael Duffy
Michael Duffy

Fitness, health, and outdoor enthusiast! 2 decade of experience training for, and competing in different sports. Boxer, runner, road cyclist, triathlete, and XC mountain biker. More about me here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.