Towel Pull-ups (How To, Muscles Worked, Benefits)

One of the most basic but also one of the most important exercises a person can master is the pull-up. Towel Pullups add the additional benefit of really challenging the forearms with the thicker bar.

In this guide, I will be going over how to do Towel Pull-ups including coaching tips, muscles worked and a few alternatives.

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How To Do Towel Pull-Ups

Equipment Needed

  • Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
  • Pair of towels

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • Wrap two towels about shoulder-width around a pull-up bar.
  • Use a bench to get to the bar if it is too high.
  • Grab the towels, engage the core muscles and do not cross your legs.
  • Engage the upper back and pull up until your chin is over the bar*.
  • Pause for 1 second with your chin over the bar.
  • Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.

Coaching Points

*When doing Towel Pull-ups, there is a good chance that you’ll be gripping the towels too far below the bar to then be able to get your chin over the bar. In this case, try to pull your chin higher than your hands at the top of the rep.

Make sure to test the integrity of your towels every time before using them. Towels can and will rip, especially if they are cheap and/or older towels. (Which is oftentimes the case for towels that are relegated for the gym)

Take your time and master the pull-up. The benefits of doing sound pull-ups will pay dividends for your shoulder health and the potential to maximize your upper body strength.

I would highly recommend this movement to any lifter or athlete. It provides all the benefits of an upper-body pulling movement with little to no risk.

Common Mistakes

By far the biggest mistake I see in the pull-up is lifters not using a full range of motion. Hang all the way down and maintain great tension through the shoulders and abdomen (DO NOT JUST HANG IN THE BOTTOM). Pull all the way up and do not whip your head so that your chin barely makes it over the bar.

As with any exercise, do not sacrifice form for the completion or more weight.

Another mistake is lifters go too fast with their pull-ups. Pull-ups are commonly programmed for strength and hypertrophy. This means time under tension is key. Take them slow and perfect the movement to yield maximal results.

How Many Reps?

From a programming standpoint, Towel Pull-ups are a primary strength movement. Recommended rep ranges are 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps.

From a practical standpoint, I encourage my athletes to do pull-ups on their own even with sets as little as 1 or 2 at a time. After a couple of sets are done on their own, the remaining reps can be completed with the assistance of either a resistance band or a partner.

On the other end of the spectrum, if an athlete can easily do sets of 10 to 12 reps, then variables like added weight or a slower tempo are introduced to make sets more challenging.

Towel Pull-up Muscles Worked

  • Lats
  • Upper back
  • Forearms
  • Biceps
  • Abdominal and lower back muscles (Stabilizers in almost all movements)

Towel Pull-Up Variations

Like regular pull-ups, Fat Grip Pull-ups have some great variations that can be utilized based on athletic readiness, training needs, and sport specificity.

Fat Grip Pull-ups

Fat Grip Pull-ups

Fat Grip Pull-ups is another pull-up variation that will seriously challenge your grip like Towel Pull-ups.

For Fat Grip Pull-ups, you’ll either need a fat grip pull-up bar or you’ll need a pair of Fat Gripz to thicken the diameter of a regular pull-up bar.

Weighted Pull-Ups

Grab your weight belt and overload your pull-ups. Weighted pull-ups are one of the best variations a lifter can make to their training programs.

Once regular fat grip pull-ups are perfected, progressive overload must be challenged. I would highly recommend this lift for any lifter who is ready to challenge their upper body strength.

Towel Pull-Up Alternatives

If a lifter is not ready for pull-ups, don’t worry. There are tons of movements that train the upper body for pulling.

Inverted Rows

Inverted Rows are another bodyweight back exercise that is not to be underestimated.

Set your barbell at bench press height. Take a pronated or supinated grip based on your needs. Extend your legs, engages the core, and pull yourself up the bar. Lock in the reps and slowly lower yourself back down. This is a fantastic movement for lifters to develop those posterior chain muscles.

Not only are they a great progression to get you on the path to being able to do pull-ups, but Inverted Rows would also be my recommended substitution if you have a rack but no pull-up bar.

Inverted Row From Rings

Inverted Rows with Gym Rings
Photo Credit: Mariia Korneeva /

A simple progression for inverted rows is to use the ring implement. This allows for more movement at the shoulder. You can start with a pronated grip and as you pull, twist your hand. This is a great movement for rotational/overhead athletes like pitchers who need to build their external movers of the shoulder.

Also, if you don’t have a rack you can get creative with how to hang rings at home.

Lat Pulldown Machine

Lat Pulldown

I do not often recommend machines but in this case, the lat pull-down machine is worth mentioning. If a lifter has a lower-body injury, the lat pull-down is a great option for continuing training while the lower half is being rehabilitated.

Lat Pulldowns are also a great option for novice and veteran lifters looking to add extra volume at the end of a session.

More Info and Links

Looking for some more great exercises to increase your upper body strength? Head over to our exercise library to find step-by-step exercises to help you get stronger. All for free.

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