August 11, 2021 9 min read

Ask any personal trainer and they'll tell you that chin ups and pull ups are a must. Both are universally recognised as fantastic exercises for the back and biceps. 

But which is the best exercise? Which one builds muscle and upper body strength to the greatest extent? Which one should you incorporate into my training program?

These are questions we have heard before - trust us. Across this article, we will compare chin ups and pull ups in detail. We will look at the differences, similarities, what different muscles they target, such as the back, biceps and much, much more! 

What Are Chin-Ups?

First things first, what is a chin up? This might seem like a simple question. But do not be fooled. Even expert bodybuilders and personal trainers can get it wrong and not use proper form.

Two fit young men having a pullups competition in a gym with a diverse group of friends cheering them on in the background

Chin-ups are an upper body exercise. They involve pulling your body up from a dead hang position, getting your chin up over an elevated bar, while using an underhand grip (supinated - palms facing you) with your hands about shoulder width apart. 

Chin-ups increase strength and build muscle, especially in the upper body. They target the biceps, lats, rear delts, infraspinatus, mid-to-lower traps, teres major and erector spinae (back muscles), alongside pecs, obliques, rhomboids, forearms and abs. Oh and they are great for improving your body weight too! 

What Are Pull-Ups?

Like chin ups, pull ups work by pulling your body from a dead hang position and getting your chin over the pull-up bar. However, they involve using an overhand grip (pronated - palm facing away from your body). 

With pull ups, your grip can vary. A wide grip (with your hands far apart on the pull up bar) is more difficult. It is recommended that a wide grip ought to be approximately 5 inches wider than shoulder width. 

Pull ups are a true compound exercise. They hit pretty much all the muscle groups in your upper back and arms. This includes: lats, biceps, traps, rear delts, teres major, infraspinatus, teres minor, forearms, rhomboids, pecs, erector spinae, abs and external obliques. 

Unsurprisingly they are great for strength training, alongside tackling body weight. Whatever the case in this chin up vs pull up debate, both exercises are challenging, especially for beginners. Compared to other bodyweight exercises in your workout routine, such as those with dumbbells or a barbell, pulling your body over a pull up bar is incredibly hard. 

Nevertheless, let us be clear: pull ups and chin ups are the cornerstone of any effective training program for muscle building and controlling body weight. Want to know what the ideal male body proportions are?

Check out this fascinating article on what the ideal male proportions are.

So How Do You Do Chin-Ups?

A chin up can be performed in five simple steps. 

  1. Grab the elevated bar with both hands about shoulder-width apart and your palms facing you (supinated grip). 
  2. From a dead hang, retract your shoulder blades and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. Note: your elbows should be fully bent (as if you did a bicep curl) 
  3. Pause for a moment at peak contraction and squeeze your shoulder blades down and in
  4. Carefully lower yourself all the way down until your arms are completely straight. Make sure to do this slowly to avoid damaging your upper body muscles. 
  5. Repeat. 
  6. Repeat some more. 

A pull-up is slightly different:

  1. Grab the pull up bar with both hands slightly wider than shoulder width apart and your palms facing away from you (pronated grip) 
  2. From a dead hang, retract your shoulder blades and pull yourself up until your chin is above the bar. 
  3. Rest for a second at peak contraction and squeeze your shoulder blades down and in. 
  4. Slowly lower yourself all the way back down until your arms are straight. Ensure this is done in a controlled manner. 
  5. You guessed it: repeat. 

Before attempting either pull ups or chin ups be sure to warm up. For great muscle activation try push ups or sit ups. Afterwards, be sure to take supplements to ensure that you get the most bulk out of your workout. 

50 Shades of Pull-Up

The devil is in the detail, however. There are a range of different types of pull ups depending on grip width and hand position. Warning: some are tough. As a general rule of thumb, the difficulty of the pull up depends on how close or far apart you place your hands on the bar. This is because each has a different range of motion. 

These are the pull up variations from easiest (1) to hardest (5). 

  1. Neutral Grip (palms facing each other)
  2. Chin Ups (underhand grip) 
  3. Shoulder Width Pull Ups (overhand grip) 
  4. Wide Grip Pull Ups (overhand grip) 

If you are just starting out, try the neutral grip. Once you have improved your grip strength and can do around 10 reps comfortably, move on to chin ups. Again, once you can do around 10 reps of chin ups go for a wider grip. 

However take note: Even if you move onto wide grip pull ups, don't forget about neutral grips and close grips. This is because they work on your muscles differently and are still very effective for strength training. 

Chin-Up vs Pull-Up

Returning to the main question of this article: Chin up vs pull up - which is better? To those with keener eyes, you would have noticed that pull ups and chin ups work all the same muscles.

However, the main difference is the extent to which each exercise works those muscles. As a result, the answer to this question depends on which ones you are targeting in your training program. 

So without further ado ....

Biceps

Each bicep has an identical function, elbow flexion and supination, and forearm supination. Obviously, supination occurs while performing a chin up as your grip is supinated. However, there is still elbow flexion when doing pull ups. 

But which is better?

Chin ups will hit your biceps better than pull ups. This is because they have a stronger line of pull due to the supinated grip and the closer grip width compared to wider grip pull ups. 

Yet, your biceps are far from dormant during a pull up.

Research published in the Journal of Human Kinetics demonstrates that biceps are incredibly active during a pull up. 

To put it simply, chin ups are more effective at building muscle and strength training, while pull ups are also great. Indeed, with pull ups, the narrower your grip, the more the biceps will be exercised. With wide grip pull ups, your muscles are playing a much smaller role, putting greater focus on your lats. 

Lats 

Speaking of which, lats. The role of the lats - or the latissimus dorsi - is to extend the shoulder. However, more than shoulder extension, the lats play a pivotal part in shoulder adduction. That is, through the shoulder joint, it allows you to move your upper arm down to the side towards your body. 

Good news is: Both pull ups and chin ups involve shoulder extension and shoulder adduction. 

Still, Which One is Better?

Chin-ups emphasize shoulder extension as the underhand grip (supinated) makes it easier to perform extension. Conversely, pull ups hone in on shoulder adduction.

As any personal trainer worth their salt will tell you, the lats act on shoulder adduction and shoulder extension simultaneously. But the upper lats endure the heaviest load during shoulder extension, while the lower lats take more load during shoulder adduction.

Given this, a close grip chin up is ideally suited to the upper lats. Whereas for those southwards a wide-grip pull up is best. 

In sum, both pull ups and chin ups will grant you more muscle fibers across your lats, meaning it will develop and blossom.

Side note: the latissimus dorsi is the biggest muscle in your upper body, with the lower lats making up the vast proportion of this size. As a result, you will feel your lats working harder during pull ups as it more effectively targets your lats. So what I hear you ask? It is more difficult. 

Traps

Traps. Heard of them? Well, the trapezius is pretty crucial. Its primary role is to retract the scapula (shoulder blade). This relates to the upper, middle and lower traps. 

At the same time, the upper lats also raise the scapular (most visible when shrugging your shoulders for instance). whereas the lower lats depress the scapular (the opposite of shrugging your shoulders).

trapezius muscle anatomy

As before, both pull ups and chin ups involve scapular movement and so work on the traps. Nevertheless, we must ask the question: what one is better?

Many body builders claim that chin ups hit the traps more as it is possible to get your chest higher up to the bar and squeeze your scapulars more at the peak. 

Perhaps there is a kernel of truth in the above. However pull ups are more strenuous than chin ups. This simple fact means that your traps will be more stretched by performing a pull up. Learn more: The best full-body workout for strength and size.

Any guesses what side of the chin up vs. pull up debate it falls on? 

According to research, lower traps are activated between 5 to 10 per cent more during a pull up, in contrast to chin ups. Why? Due to their difficulty level. Nevertheless, other studies demonstrate that there is no difference in trapezius muscle activity for pull ups and chin ups. In short, the jury is still out on this one. 

Why Both Workouts Matter

So far, we have looked at pull ups vs. chin ups vis-a-vis which muscles they targeted. Let's now sum this up. Chin ups and pull ups target the same muscles. Your lats, teres major, infraspinatus and trapezius will all feel the burn whatever one you choose! 

But there are some differences. Generally speaking, chin ups are (ever so) slightly harder on the biceps and upper back muscles. In contrast, pull ups will target the lats and lower traps to a greater degree. 

This being the case it is better to do both on the reg. I know that is a bit of a cop out. So we will add some caveats. If you are just starting out and cannot yet do a pull up (do not worry, it is normal) start with chin ups. As we said earlier, they are still building the same muscles as pull ups. 

Moreover, if you wish to craft a gigantic v-shaped back, you should develop your lats as much as possible. What this means is that you should favour pull ups. No other exercise, not even chin ups, can rival their impact on the lats. 

Tips and Tricks

Irrespective of all that has been said above, chin ups and pull ups are only as effective as your form. Bad form will nullify their effectiveness and could land you with a nasty injury. Be warned!

Chin ups and pull ups require a ton of energy and focus to perform them correctly, so be sure to stock up on pre-workout powders as they can help you maintain energy and focus. 

Proper form (and therefore effectiveness) could not be emphasized enough. Here are four steps that can guide you. 

1. When you reach the top of the bar, squeeze! This will enable you to gather as much muscle fibre as possible. You will build more muscle and strength as a result.

2. Bring your chest as close as possible to the bar. This is difficult. However it will force you to extend your spine and anteriorly tilt your pelvis during shoulder extension. Your lats work when extending your spine and anteriorly tilting your pelvis, so you will be engaging your lats in numerous different ways (instead of just one). 

Furthermore, when your chest gets equal to the bar, your lats will tighten to a greater extent. Indeed, chest to bar is peak contraction for pull ups, although many people cannot - and do not - reach that high.

3. Ensure that your upper body and core is contracted throughout the exercise. Tighter is lighter (and better)!

4. Squeeze your shoulder blades from a dead hang before you begin to pull yourself up upon the bar. The first step of a pull up ought to always be a scapular retraction. That is, you should put your shoulder blades down and back.

This will exert pressure on your lats and traps, alongside pulling you upward without any arm movement (think of it as less distance). When in this position, squeeze your lats and drive your elbows down to pull yourself up. 

Final Verdict

Truth is: both chin ups and pull ups are incredible exercises. Neither is the best. They are both better for you. Indeed, they are one of the best exercises of all time. Along with squats, deadlifts, bench presses and shoulder presses, they build muscle on an unrivalled scale. 

No work out routine is complete without them. And there's more. Pull ups are very, very versatile.  Through shifting your grip width and body position, you can target each part of your body specifically. Try neutral, overhand and underhand grips to see for yourself. 

What's more, pull ups and chin ups are far safer than other forms of exercise. It is possible to see the same big gains as, say, bench presses, but there is a lot less risk involved. 

Finally, pull ups and chin ups are easy. Within no time you will observe improvements to your upper body, physique and body weight. Besides, you'll be a lot stronger too. 

Don't believe us? Get yourself an elevated bar and get cracking. You have only got the body of your dreams to take. It is time to feel the burn!


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