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November 09, 2020 10 min read

If you’re selling tickets to the gun show anytime soon, you better make sure that people get their money’s worth. And what’s the best way to do that? Make sure you’ve got some jacked-up biceps.

When it comes to aesthetic, the biceps are one of the most important muscles. Not only are they at the front of your body, but they’re also very apparent—if you’ve got them. Short sleeves or long, they’ll either fill them out or shine on their own.

So, as lifters who want to work smart and hard, how do we make sure that these biceps find themselves on our arms?

We’ll be looking at two amazing exercises for biceps; the chin-up and the curl. Looking into what makes these movements tick, we’ll see how exactly a bicep workout should be approached.

The Chin-Up, the Curl, and the Biceps

We’ll start upfront with what you came here for: the curl is generally considered better than chin-up when it comes to bicep activation.

Of course, things go much deeper than that—or else we’d have no article to write. There are several things to keep into account when programming these exercises into your workout routine. And, if you want to keep on top of your routine, it’s important to take everything into consideration. The differences between either exercise will mean that your body will react in very different ways.

The bottom line is that they’re both terrific movements while also being very different from one another. Both, however, are great functional exercises. The chin-up is helpful when it comes to pulling yourself up to anything and it’s a great way to build your upper back muscles along with your biceps. And while curls are often associated with bodybuilding and isolation movements, they’re also surprisingly functional. Anytime you lift something up and hold it in front of your body, you’ll be recreating the same motion as with a curl.   

First, let’s take a closer look at the chin-up.

A man doing a chin up.

The Chin-Up and What It’s All About

Before we go any further, let’s all make sure we’re on the same page when it comes to the chin-up. 

The chin-up and the pull-up are often confused because of their similar form, but significant differences exist in muscle activation. A pull-up has your palms facing away from you when you grip the bar; an overhand or pronated grip. Chin-ups will have the palms facing towards you when you grip the bar; a supinated or underhand grip. Otherwise, the form is essentially the same. 

This small difference changes which muscles are activated. The pull-up mostly targets your upper back and lats, along with the brachioradialis (forearm) and other parts of your upper body to a lesser extent.

The chin-up on the other hand places a greater emphasis on your biceps and brachialis. It also activates your forearms, teres major, and posterior delts. Both the pull-up and the chin-up are considered compound exercises since they rely on several muscles and multiple joints (the elbow and the shoulder) to perform the exercise.

Let’s closer examine chin-ups and the biceps.

What the Chin-Up Offers Your Biceps

When it comes to comparing the chin-up and the curl, the biggest difference comes from the fact that the chin-up is a big, compound movement.

It relies on both your shoulders and elbows to raise your chin above the bar. Imagine going from a dead hang while holding onto the bar, and then slowly raising yourself. Through one part of the movement, your shoulders are going to have to take over. 

This is good news if you’re looking for a well-rounded upper body workout. You’ll activate several muscle groups and make yourself stronger in general. But that’s not necessarily what we’re looking for here: we want to maximize bicep growth.

In that case, we’re going to want to lengthen the range of motion that the bicep is worked. With a double-jointed movement such as the chin-up, the bicep doesn’t go through the full range of motion. However, it goes even deeper than that.

The greatest muscle growth is elicited when our muscles are loaded while stretched out. And if you stretch out your arms above your head right now, you’ll see that your biceps aren’t activated at all. This might sound problematic, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that chin-ups are still a great way to stimulate your biceps. But when compared to curls, that isn’t necessarily the case. 

The fact that chin-ups are a compound movement has another negative effect on bicep activation. Since several muscle groups are required to perform the exercise, it means that you might not be effectively hitting the biceps hard enough. 

For example, if it’s your grip or lats that are failing to bring your biceps to exhaustion, then you’re not going to be able to probably train the biceps. You need to be gassing them out if you want them to grow, and if there’s a different muscle that’s not letting you get there, you won’t be able to grow.

That does, however, depend on your own training and how developed your muscles are. It should be noted that the biceps will be activated enough for most people when doing chin-ups. However, the correct level of activation isn’t always guaranteed.

While these factors might make the chin-up a poorer choice when choosing between them and curls for the biceps, it also imparts various strengths on them. For one, they’ll provide a great upper body workout. Your lats and forearms will be particularly challenged—something that curls usually fail at.

Barbell Curls and Your Biceps

Considering that chin-ups tend to be the heavier lift, it’s somewhat surprising that the humble biceps curl is known so well for activating the biceps brachii. As we’ve seen above, there are several reasons for that discrepancy.

While the weight might be smaller, curls allow your bicep to be challenged through a greater range of motion. Furthermore, the most difficult part of the lift comes right in the middle—with your hands straight out in front of you. This also happens to be when your biceps are at their strongest, which is exactly what you want when training a muscle. 

We went over this in quite a bit of detail above, but what sets curls apart from chin-ups is that the biceps will always be your limiting factor. If you start getting stronger with your curls and having to put on more weight, you know it’s that you're making gains in your biceps—not the lats or the forearms.

Furthermore, since the weight is usually lower with curls, you’re able to add on curls to a workout if you’re looking to really gas out your biceps. Less fatiguing means you can do more sets for longer, which is what you want if you’re looking for hypertrophy. Also, they’re great to do at the end of workouts when you’re too tired for other more complex lifts. If you’ve hit everything enough except your biceps, curls are the way to go.

And in addition to the lower weight, you can also much better control how much you’re going to lift. This will allow you to be much more precise with how much you’re lifting and keeping track of progress. With a bodyweight exercise such as chin-ups, it’s more difficult to tell how you’re progressing.

What the EMG Studies Say

While this might be all well and good, you might be wondering what the science says on this topic.

EMG, which stands for electromyography, is a procedure that measures the health of muscles via the nerves that control them. It essentially measures the electrical activity in muscles.

What this allows us to find out is how much muscle activation takes place when certain exercises are done—giving us some quantitative info on what works and what doesn’t. The one caveat to this (which will become important later), is that EMG studies measure peak muscle activation, which is when our muscles are shortened. And as we’ve already learned, it’s more useful to know how much muscle activation takes place when muscles are lengthened, since that’s when growth happens.

The mean EMG activation with the chin-up is 107, while that stands at 95 for the bicep curl. This difference is more than made up for the reasons we’ve mentioned above, but it is important to note how close (and high, relative to other exercises tested), these two movements really are.

Every Curl Variation for Your Needs 

Being such a fundamental and basic movement, you already know that there’s going to be several variations that’ll each hit something different. While each of these will work your biceps, switching things around every once in a while will help you avoid plateaus and turbocharge your training.

A man doing hammer curls in a gym.

Hammer Curls

Hammer curls have you holding dumbbells with a neutral grip, or palms facing one another. This grip allows you to put more emphasis on your forearms. If you’re committed to the bicep training, rest assured that the hammer curl is also great for training the outer head (the long head) of the bicep. And if you’re looking to fill out those shirt sleeves, that’s the head you should be targeting.

Just make sure that the dumbbells are facing each other as you go through the movement.

Preacher Curls

This is a uniquely effective curl since it activates the biceps in a way that neither barbell curls nor chin-ups do.

We mentioned above how chin-ups don’t challenge your biceps at the best time to do so for growth—when they’re lengthened. Regular curls don’t necessarily activate your biceps when they’re lengthened either, which is where preacher curls come in.

A preacher curl relies on a preacher curl station; a seat with a raised, angled platform in front of where you sit. The point is to support your upper arms on the platform and then begin curling.

What this does is it shifts the load further away from your body and your elbows, at least towards the beginning of the movement. This makes the start of the motion more difficult than the ending—a great way to challenge your biceps even more. 

Dumbbell Curls

Using dumbbells instead of a barbell will mean that you can’t lift as much weight as you normally would be able to.

While this isn’t necessarily good news when it comes to gains, it is beneficial if you’re working to maintain or fix symmetry. Since both of your arms will be working independently, the stronger side of your body won’t be able to make up for the weaker—ensuring that neither side is slacking off in the lift. 

Zottman Curl

This curl is a departure from a mostly bicep-focused list, but it still deserves a place on this list. 

The Zottman curl works by holding dumbbells with an overhand grip, but as you curl the weights towards your body, your wrists should turn so that your palms end up facing away from you at the top. This combination of a regular curl and a reverse curl is a great way to challenge both your biceps and your forearms.

And if your grip strength is a limiting factor for exercises such as chin-ups, this can be a fantastic way to get your forearms into shape while also giving some love to the biceps.

A man doing EZ bar curls in a gym.

EZ Bar Curls

The EZ bar is a shorter, curved version of the regular barbell. Its greatest benefit lies in the curves since it places your elbows and wrists in a more natural position. This is especially useful for those who’ve had previous injuries and had to go to physical therapy.

But the EZ bar can also help beginners avoid potential aches and pains in the future. Furthermore, since the grip is set in a more natural position, you should, in theory, be in a better position to lift higher weights. And higher weights mean more gains.

And the Chin-Ups are Back

Thought we were done talking about chin-ups? Not so fast. We’ve got a curveball to throw at you as soon as you've loaded up on your supplements.

According to the EMG studies that we mentioned above, it’s actually weighted chin-ups that are the best at engaging the biceps. However, there’s a caveat to this. 

Even further above we mentioned how EMG studies look at muscle activation when the muscle is at its shortest rather than its longest. This isn’t good because muscles grow when they’re challenged as they’re stretched out. So, what does that mean in terms of the chin-up and curl?

Things such as preacher curls are still most likely better at imparting gains on the biceps than chin-ups are. This is because they challenge your bicep as the weight is out from your elbow, which makes the bottom of the lift more difficult—where the bicep is stretched out. 

Additionally, that’s not even considering the isolation versus compound lift benefits and drawbacks of the chin-up and bicep curl. As it stands, curls are undoubtedly better for pumping up the guns. However, that doesn’t mean we should entirely discount the chin-up.

Chin-Ups for Maximum Gains

The study itself looked at weighted chin-ups, which usually rely on some sort of belt or weight vest. That’s definitely a solid way to go about things, but if you don’t have the equipment and you’d prefer to do chin-ups, there are several strategies you can try.

The biggest difference you can make is to just go slower and take your time. This is a tenet of good chin-up form, but it’ll also help to maximize gains. Pay special attention to the eccentric movement—or, when you’re lowering yourself back down. This is the bicep stretching out, and this is where you’ll get the maximum gains. This is also the easiest part of a chin-up, so taking your time will add some extra resistance.

You can also add some longer holds at the very top of the movement. This becomes less about the biceps, but it’s still a good way to get a little more juice out of them. You should be pausing at the top of pull-ups and chin-ups anyway, but extending that to 3 to 5 seconds will really burn up your arms.

And obviously, you can do one-arm chin-ups as well. This is definitely a much more advanced exercise, so don’t think you can just go up and do it. If you want to work your way up to it, consider “shifting” your body weight to the opposite arm after each set. This is an excellent way to add some extra resistance to chin-ups if you’ve already advanced pretty far with them. 

Building Muscle with the Proper Training Program 

While we’ve been taking a deep dive into chin-ups and curls, none of this will matter if you don’t have a solid foundation. What does a solid foundation look like? 

Whole and healthy foods with plenty of lean protein, good carbs, and healthy fats. Also, get enough sleep. If you’ve got your bases covered and locked down, you’ll see bicep gains that’ll dwarf any difference between a chin-up and curl. Just remember to keep your guns loaded with bigger biceps, and don’t forget about the triceps