Pull Ups vs. Chin Ups: Everything You Need to Know (2020)

Everyone knows that Pull-Ups are one of the best Calisthenics exercises out there. But the debate rages on about the difference between Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups. If you put Pull-Ups vs Chin-Ups head to head, which is the better exercise?

It’s time to delve into the science behind the movements and find out which is the better exercise and when is the best time to use each variation.

What’s The Difference Between A Pull-Up And A Chin-Up?

The difference between Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups is simply a grip adjustment. Pull-Ups use a pronated grip where your palms are faced out. Chin-Ups use a supinated grip where your palms face in, towards your body.

With such a small variation, you wouldn’t expect much difference with training and you definitely wouldn’t expect a debate on which one is better.

But, if they are the same, then why is a Pull-Up harder than a Chin-Up?

Why can I do Chin-Ups but not Pull-Ups?

The difference is due to the mechanical advantage that Chin-Ups deliver. Grip width also changes mechanical advantages, which is why you might find you are stronger with Wide Grip Pull-Ups vs Close Grip Pull-Ups.

All the science aside, the only difference when looking at the two exercises is that Chin-Ups are just Underhand Pull-Ups.

Muscle Activation For Pull-Up Variations

Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups, and other grip variations still focus on training the upper back, lats, biceps, and forearm muscles as the main drivers. The grip variations can alter the degree to which these muscles are activated, which is why they feel different when they are being trained.

Luckily for us, science has a way to measure muscle activation during an exercise with Electromyography, or EMG. A study performed in 2010 examined the exact difference between a Pull-Up and a Chin-Up.

Now we can examine the data and settle the debate on Pull-Ups vs Chin-Ups for back, lats, biceps, and all other muscle groups!

What Muscles Do Chin-Ups Work Better Than Pull-Ups?

Not surprisingly, the Chin-Up outperformed the Pull-Up when it comes to biceps activation. This higher activation is what helps make the Chin-Up feel easier than the traditional Pull-Up. So, will Chin-Ups build biceps? Yes, they will help!

Another muscle that performed better is the Pectoralis Major. While it may seem illogical that the pushing muscle on your chest helps during pulling exercises, you always have to remember that antagonist muscle groups do get worked during agonist exercise. 

The pecs work to stabilize the body and help throughout the movement, even if they aren’t the main driver.

This higher recruitment in a big stabilizing muscle group like the pecs may also be a reason that most people find Chin-Ups easier.

What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Work Better Than Chin-Ups?

What may be surprising to most people is that Pull-Ups don’t outperform Chin-Ups in much at all. They slightly increase activation for the lats, but not to a significant degree.

The one muscle that does more work is the Lower Trapezius muscle. This is the muscle between your shoulder blades.

This muscle is quite small, which means that to be stronger in a Pull-Up, you need stronger traps than biceps. That’s highly uncommon. 

This may make it seem like Pull-Ups are inferior. But, the traps are an important muscle for posture, which is a huge problem in today’s society. Doing Pull-ups regularly can counteract bad posture in a matter of months or even weeks.

Which Is Better: Pull-Ups Or Chin-Ups?

The subtle differences between the movements only make a big difference if you neglect to train both versions. A complete training program would include both variations of aiming for optimum results.

Where the Pull-Up falls short in biceps work, the Chin-Up shines. Where the Chin-Up lacks in middle back development, the Pull-Up makes up the difference.

The two exercises are just two pieces in one puzzle.

This can be and for all grip variations. For example, Neutral-Grip Pull-Ups have a place in training as well since they help develop the deltoid muscle a bit better than other variations.

Each variation has merit and shouldn’t be ranked against each other.

Benefits Of Pull-Ups And Chin-Ups

Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups are some of the top exercises for a pulling pattern with the upper body. They work the lats, traps, erectors, biceps, and forearms.

If you think you can find a better movement tell me: what exercise replaces Pull-Ups?

When comparing various exercises to Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups, the only place they shine is Trapezius activation. Rowing variations and I-Y-T raises proved to be better for the traps in this study.

In that same study, it shows that Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups are superior for all other muscles in the back, including the lats and erectors.

If you think a machine variation like Lat Pulldown is just as effective, you can check that study out too. The Pull-Up and Chin-Up vs Lat Pulldown activation patterns weren’t similar enough to warrant dropping the bar for the machine!

You can train Pull-Ups for strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance. Tools like a weighted vest and weight belts can overload the exercise for strength. They can be trained to failure, which is good for maximal hypertrophy. They can also be done using a tool like resistance bands that can assist you during the exercise and make it easier to perform more reps than usual, making it useful for endurance. Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups are a great choice for any training style!

The data is simple: Pull-Ups are essential to a balanced training program. It’s just an added benefit that they require even less equipment than other comparable exercises.

FAQs

Are Chin-Ups easier than Pull-Ups?

Chin-Ups provide a mechanical advantage and allow the trainee to activate more biceps and pecs to make them stronger through the range of motion. If you happen to have abnormally strong traps and/or weak biceps, then you won’t think that Chin-Ups are easier. But, for the rest of us, Chin-Ups will remain the easier variation.

Do Pull-Ups give you big arms?

If you use an underhand grip, you will find that your biceps get trained more efficiently. However, they will still be trained to do an overhand grip. Another benefit of an overhand grip is the higher recruitment of the forearm muscles, which can spur more growth. It’s best to train both underhand and overhand if you want to build well-developed arm muscles. Just remember that no variation will train your triceps, which are the largest muscle group in the arms.

Should I do Pull-Ups and Chin-Ups?

Yes, training both variations is a good idea to ensure balanced strength and hypertrophy. An easy way to do this is to switch focus between the movements each time you train your upper body pulling muscles. For example, on Mondays train with Pull-Ups and on Thursdays train with Chin-Ups. Even better is if you include different grip widths as well to create more diverse movement patterns to change muscle activation regularly. All variations will work essentially the same muscles but to different degrees.

Are Chin-Ups bad for shoulders?

Due to the external rotation during overhand Pull-Ups, shoulder impingement is possible. Chin-Ups can change the angle of the shoulder joint and make it easier to train pain-free. It’s best to avoid pain when training but working on mobility and improving rotator cuff strength may help reduce any shoulder pain during Pull-Ups. Until you can fix the issue, stick with whatever variation keeps you out of pain.

Do Chin-Ups improve Pull-Ups?

If your biceps are too strong compared to your lats, your biceps will take the brunt of the work during Chin-Ups. But, most people will still get good activation in their lats by doing Chin-Ups, which can transfer to Pull-Up strength. Doing exercises that work your traps, like Barbell Rows, can be effective as well. Remember, Chin-Ups don’t work traps well but the Pull-Ups do. That means strengthening your traps with Rows may help you be able to do more Pull-Ups as well.

Now Tell Me – Are Pull-Ups Better Than Chin-Ups Or Are They Both Great?!

I think it’s time to stop the debate of overhand vs underhand Pull-Ups. It’s time to accept that they are both effective and fill in gaps for each other.

It’s best to perform both to avoid any imbalances. Few exercises are comparable, but the Pull-Up and Chin-Up both remain king!

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