Pulling Without Pullups? How To Train Your No-Tech Pull

by Geoff Girvitz, Bang Fitness

Bodyweight training can develop excellent strength, functional movement, balance, flexibility, stability, and other wonderful physical qualities. As someone once said, “You should be able to train strength and movement to the highest level with bodyweight only.”

Problem is, some movements lend themselves better to bodyweight than others.

Squat, push… pull?

Push-up and squat! That’s where the money is! If doing a two-limbed version is too easy then do a one-limbed version. (If you’re not sure how to bridge the gap, Pavel
Tsatsouline wrote a terrific book on the subject in 2003 called The Naked Warrior.)

As great as squats and push-ups are, though, they don’t cover all movement patterns that you can do without equipment. Notably absent is pulling.

Like squatting and pushing-away, pulling-towards is a pretty fundamental movement pattern. (Some have even argued that the pulling motion, which allowed us to effectively scoop and shovel food into our primate food-holes, helped speed human evolution.)

Any movement — such as a row or pullup — that brings our upper arms down and towards our bodies involves our pulling muscles.

Sure, you could use pullups/chinups as your pulling-related bodyweight exercise. But what if you don’t have a pullup bar? Or what if you aren’t strong enough (yet) to make pullups the cornerstone of your bodyweight routine?

The no-tech pull

How can you perform upper-body pulling movements without equipment? Let’s break it down into a logical progression.

  1. Crawl
  2. Two-arm drag (short-arm)
  3. Staggered drag (long-arm)
  4. Two-arm drag (short -arm)
  5. Staggered drag (long-arm)

This video covers the full progression. And below: a step-by-step explanation.

1. Crawl

Does crawling involve pulling or pushing muscles? Yes.

Crawling is not only our starting point; it’s also where distinctions between pulling and pushing get blurred. There is no clear dominance of any set of muscles.

As a result, the reductionist mindset that makes people say things like, “Today is chest and tris, Thursday is back and bis,” gets thrown right out the window. I’m cool with
that if you are.

Crawling represents a fundamental stage in our motor development. If you’re not crawling well, it’s fair to guess that you lack the coordination and core stability
to perform movements further down the developmental chain.

In other words, if you struggle with push-ups or suffer from crazy-arm syndrome when skipping or sprinting, you may find a return to crawling to be the most efficient plan of attack.

The crawling progression begins with your weight distributed equally on your hands and knees. It ends with most of your weight shifted onto your hands.

Phase 1a: Baby Style (quadruped)
Phase 1b: Floating knees (as above but with the knees slightly off the ground)
Phase 1c: Bear crawl
Phase 1d: Bear crawl on forearms

1a – Baby-style (quadruped) crawl

1c – Bear crawl

Two-arm drag

Developmentally speaking, the two-arm drag (aka the creep) will typically come before the crawl. However, since you no longer weigh 12 lbs (and if you do, HOW ARE YOU READING THIS ARTICLE!?), this changes things. For adults, the two-arm dragging motion gets harder with more body weight, longer limbs, and an upper body that is now relatively weaker than the lower body.

So here’s how to proceed.

  1. Get into prone position. That means face-down with the body in contact with the ground somewhere between the hips and navel, depending on  your individual mobility. Pretend you’re a circus seal.
  2. From there, reach overhead (which is to say, along the ground in front of you) and place your forearms down, increasing the pressure from light to hard in order to get traction and stability.
  3. Pull yourself toward your arms. Or, think of pulling your arms to you (even though they’ll stay in the same place).

If we forget about what direction we’re facing for a moment, the two-arm drag looks suspiciously like a pull-up. Developing strength in this full-body pull movement pattern will build a foundation for chin-ups and pull-ups down the road.

Since we have a turf floor in our facility, we typically put nylon mats under people’s lower bodies. You could also do this movement on wood or linoleum floors. (Or simply tell your clothing to go to hell as you drag yourself over dirt and grass.)

Phase 2a: Prone (short-arm): Focus on the forearms and keep the elbows bent as you drag yourself forward.
Phase 2b: Prone (long-arm): Fully extend your arms in front of you before pulling. This is the variation that looks like a face-down pull-up.

Staggered or alternating drag

(Also known as the military crawl)

Once you’ve mastered the two-arm drag, you can increase the intensity by performing an alternating drag. This isn’t a strict one-arm pull, as the extended arm will do most of the work while the closer arm contributes what it needs to. Pulling in this staggered manner will also help you move more fluidly.

As above, increase the difficulty by reaching progressively further in front of you Since the closer arm will be sharing a smaller share of the workload, you
can also dial up the challenge by allowing that arm to continue traveling past your shoulders toward your naval.

Phase 3a: Prone (short-arm): Focus on the forearms and keep the elbows bent as you drag yourself forward.
Phase 3b: Prone (long-arm): Fully extend your arms in front of you before pulling.
Phase 3c/d: Add friction by driving your hips or feet into the ground.

Most people are surprised by how challenging these creeping and crawling variations are, especially if we work on stabilizing the core and preventing the hips from swinging around.

Our own ability to add resistance (by increasing friction or dragging something behind us) mean that even very strong people can be sufficiently challenged by these simple exercises.

geoff_girvitz_headshotGeoff Girvitz runs Bang Fitness in Toronto. He puts HGH in his smoothies and once punched Flex Wheeler in the soleus.