Like bent-over rows, pull-ups primarily work your back and shoulders.
A complete, effective exercise routine features a variety of movements to work different muscle groups and challenge your overall strength. Although both bent-over rows and pullups are pulling exercises that require scapular retraction and mobility, they don't target all of the same muscles, so it's worth putting both on regular rotation in your fitness routine.
Understand Bent-Over Rows
A bent-over row is typically performed with free weights or a barbell, but it can also work with cables or machines. To do it, hinge forward at the hips, keeping a flat back and knees soft. Grab the weight and then, bracing the core and keeping the back flat, pull it to your chest before lowering it back to the ground with control. According to a study published in the International Journal of Sports Medicine in 2015, bent-over rows using free weights result in greater stabilizing muscle activation in the erector spinae (the large muscle that runs along the spine and supports its movement) than either cable or machine versions of the exercise.
Try a Pullup
To do a pullup, you'll need a sturdy bar that can support your weight. Jump or step on a bench up to the bar and grab the bar with an overhand grip, palms facing away from you. Lower to a dead hang position, with straight arms, engaged shoulders and a tight core. Keeping the core and legs engaged, pull up until your chin is over the bar, then lower back to your dead hang with control.
ID the Muscle Groups
Both bent-over rows and pullups work your biceps, shoulders and back, focusing on the trapezius, rhomboids, deltoids and lats. Both exercises also work the core. In a pullup, you're likely to feel your biceps and lats working more actively than you would in a bent-over row; and in a row, you'll experience more pectoral, quad and hamstring activation than in a pullup. Alternating bent-over rows also require more core stabilization and oblique activation than pullups.
Modify to Your Level
While a bent-over row is accessible to almost any physically-able person, a complete pullup is a much harder exercise and out of reach for many beginners. For those new to exercise, rowing very light weights is an option. For pullups, modifications include assisted pullups, jump pullups and negatives. To progress a bent-over row, you'll need heavier weights. You can also progress a pullup by adding weight, but that additional equipment isn't necessary. Other options include simply slowing down the movement or performing it in a different body position (such as a pike).