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How to Get Better at Pull-ups When You Can’t Do Pull-ups

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Vertical pulling should be part of any well-balanced training routine. If you’re performing a push or a press, you must balance it with a horizontal or vertical pull. By balancing out these movements you’ll maintain and/or improve your shoulder health and avoid muscle imbalances and injury.

But what if you can’t do pull-ups yet?

Don’t worry, you’re actually in good company. Many people who have recently begun training, and even some experienced trainees, can’t yet perform a pull-up. That doesn’t give you an excuse to skip the vertical pull, though. After all, you need to have variety in your movements.

How to Get Better at Pull-ups When You Can't Do Pull-ups

I know, I know — now you’re thinking, but I don’t have access to a pull-up bar anyway, right? So what should you do if you can’t perform a pull-up, don’t have easy access to a pull-up bar, or both?

The answer: the dead man’s crawl.

Today, I’ll be teaching you this exercise, which also sometimes goes by the name of “mat cleaners.” It’s a bodyweight movement that requires zero equipment and helps you develop vertical pulling strength and mobility. It’s a great introduction to vertical pulling for those who can’t perform a chin up or pull up, but it can also be used by trainees who can already perform chin-ups and pull-ups and just don’t have a bar handy.

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The Dead Man’s Crawl

The dead man’s crawl is a unique vertical pulling exercise and core strengthening technique. I first learned this crawl during my childhood when I began my training in the martial arts. It was used often during calisthenics-based workouts with the intention of improving our conditioning and balancing our pushing exercises.

This exercise is best done with pants, or with a towel laid under your knees, and not in shorts (as pictured). This will help prevent rubs and friction burns on your knees and legs.

How to train pull-ups if you can't do pull-ups


  1. Start lying face down on the floor.
  2. Extend your arms overhead, shoulder width apart, with your shoulders hugging your ears.
  3. Your legs should be straight, hip width apart, and your toes should be pointed.
  4. Keep your spine flat and avoid pulling your head up and back.
  5. Press your palms, forearms, and elbows deep into the floor.
  6. Brace your abs, low back, glutes, and calves and keep your toes pointed hard.
  7. At the same time, keeping your fingers outstretched, pull yourself forward, keeping your hands in place, and drag your body across the ground
  8. Continue to pull yourself forward until your elbows are at the sides of your rib cage.

That’s one rep.

You can make the dead man’s crawl a part of your training in a multitude of ways. Depending on your fitness level you could try any of the following:

  • Crawling for 40 seconds, resting for 20 seconds, repeating 5-10x
  • Crawling for 10-20 feet, resting for 30 seconds, repeating 3-4x
  • Crawling for reps, 10-20 reps

Get Better at Pull-ups Even When You Can’t Do Pull-ups

The more you build your knowledge of minimalist training and bodyweight-based exercise, the more you’ll liberate yourself from road blocks and excuses keeping you from exercise. Don’t let the inability to perform a pull-up keep you from training your vertical pull. The dead man’s crawl closely resembles the pull-up and requires similar shoulder mobility and core activation – all without the need for a pull-up bar or the strength to perform a pull-up.

Not to mention, if you start training the dead man’s crawl today, you’ll be on your way to performing your first pull up before you know it.

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Timothy Bell
Timothy Bell is a fitness coach and writer from Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. Timothy has trained countless people using his unique minimalist approach to bodyweight training. Tim’s relaxed, no-nonsense, adaptable style of fitness allows his clients the ability to train anytime, anywhere, with little to no equipment needed. He prides himself on being able to deliver world-class training regardless of the location. Timothy firmly believes your training should be a part of your life, and not be your whole life.

Timothy’s goal is to help everyone he works with find a unique fitness and nutrition program that fits their lifestyle. He’s known for giving out tons of free advice, videos, and articles on his blog Timothy Bell Fitness.