Two of the most popular and effective exercises of all time are also two exercises that are often confused the most. A push up is a push up regardless of hand placement however a pull up is not always a pull up.
This is because a pull up and chin up have come to mean a similar thing in the mainstream today despite being two different exercises with two different purposes and benefits. The key way to differentiate between the two is by how someone grasps the bar.
If you tell someone to do a pull up and they immediately grasp the bar with an underhand grip then this is no longer a pull up but a chin up. A chin up uses an underhand grip whereas a pull up uses an overhand grip. That is the way to tell the two apart.
Chin up vs pull ups? Both the chin up and pull up are excellent strength and muscle builders but are often confused. A chin up uses an underhand, narrow grip that places more emphasis on the bicep whereas a pull uses an overhand, wider grip to place less emphasis on the biceps and more on the lats.
On the surface you might think why does it matter which way you grip the bar, the movement and exercise is the same but this is where you would be going very wrong in your training and this article is where I’ll compare the two timeless strength and mass builders and help you decide which is best for you.
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Chin up vs Pull Ups
A memory that I will never forget is from my very early training days. I first joined my local leisure centre gym at the tender age of 15 and this quickly became my ‘thing’. I’d had weights in my room at home and had been working out for a few months but this was the real step up by having actual machines and free weights available.
It was only small with minimal equipment on the outskirts of manchester (dumbbells up to 30kg in a small free weights are, a few fixed weight machine, a smith machine and cable rack), but at the time it was amazing and for some strange reason there was a surprising amount of big guys who went there despite the limited range of equipment.
By 16 I was in that gym training 6 days per week doing a tonne of pointless stuff as a learning curve, but surprisingly doing a few things right. The moment I’ll never forget is when I was knocking out some strict form pull ups (I always used good form), wide grip, chin over the bar each rep and all the while being a gangly 6’1 lad weighing about 150lbs.
The biggest guy in the gym came over and said something along the lines of “that’s good form, you won’t see many adults here that can do that with pull ups”.
At the time I was quite pleased with myself for the form compliment but didn’t actually realise that most people who workout struggle with pull ups and even chin ups which I’ll come on to shortly.
I’d been watching videos of 250lb bodybuilders doing pull ups with plates around their waist so I was focusing on that and not the fact that people lift weights without even having control over their own body weight which I’d obviously managed to do by complete coincidence.
Enough of the trip down memory lane though, the point I’m trying to get to is that mastering body weight should be your priority before you ever add an external load into the equation and the pull up/chin up are two of the best movements that you are simply not doing.
What Is a Chin Up
A chin up is often most confused with a pull up and people will generally gravitate towards chin ups because they are easier.
A chin up involves grasping the bar with an underhand grip that is either shoulder width or narrower. This is the key difference and the reason chin ups are easier is because this hand position brings the biceps into the movement significantly more than a pull up.
Another factor to note is that this grip and width bring the lower lats into the exercise more as your elbows are tucked and come into your body the higher up you go. This isn’t of any real importance other than an interesting point to note if you are doing this exercise for a specific reason.
Therefore when programming chin ups it needs to be with a specific intention, whilst the back is still the primary mover in the exercise the biceps play a significantly increased contribution and will also fatigue quicker as they are a smaller muscle group.
What Is a Pull Up
A pull up is the exact same movement as the chin up but you grasp the bar with an overhand grip that is shoulder width or wider. The wider the grip the less active your biceps will be in the movement and the more work your lats will do as a result.
This is why pull ups are more difficult and you see people struggle with them a lot more. By reducing the involvement of the biceps your lats now need to do the majority of the work and will also fatigue quicker as the secondary muscle groups are less involved.
I’m going to go out and say that neither the pull up or chin up is better then the other, they both have specific benefits when it comes to building strength and muscle so should not be looked at as a one or the other approach but rather which is best for the situation or goal approach.
Personally I prefer pull ups for the minimal bicep involvement which means I can really focus on the lats but if you want to increase overall body strength then chin ups can likely do that at a quicker rate as you can load them with more weight.
Do Pull Ups and Chin Ups Work Different Muscles
Pull ups and chin ups do work different muscles despite being a similar movement of going up and down. The change of hand grip and width will play a major part in which muscle groups are being worked and to what extent.
A close grip chin up will place a lot of emphasis on the bicep and lower lats. From a bicep perspective, your bicep is more engaged with an underhand grip and going from a straight arm when hanging to a contracted arm when your chin is over the bar will fully work the bicep through it’s preferred range of motion.
The simplest way to look at this is the more your forearm touches your upper arm, the more engaged your biceps will be.
The reason the lower lats come into play is because the elbow will travel closer to your midsection and will be tight by your side. As an example, hold your arm straight out in front of you with your palm facing upwards. Now pull your elbow down by your hips in a rowing motion and behind you.
Imagine that you are rowing a weight and really squeeze your elbow down and backwards with your hand finishing by your hips in line with your belly button. Even with no weight you should feel the lower part of your lats contracting and working.
In a pull up however you use a wider than shoulder width grip with an over hand position. Now you are still lifting yourself upwards in a straight line but the elbows are no longer coming beside your body but rather coming from a position of out to in.
Here your shoulder blades will squeeze together and you will work the upper portion of your lats more as well as the rhomboids, lower traps and rear delts.
Your bicep will also be less active because using the example from earlier your forearm and upper arm will come into contact less the wider your grip and in this example the shorter the range of motion the less active the muscle group is.
To demonstrate again, place your arms straight out in front of you with your palms facing downwards. Now pull your elbows straight back while squeezing your shoulder blades together as you go (imagine you are lowering the weight in a bench press to get an idea for how your arms should be moving).
If you do this you will feel your upper back contracting with minimal feeling in the lower lats like before. In a pull up and chin up these changes are subtle but the muscles worked are drastically different demonstrated by those two movements of pulling your elbow back in different positions.
Which Will Build More Muscle
This is the question you really want to know the answer to and just because pull ups will be harder to do for most does not mean they will build more muscle.
Which exercise you choose will depend on specific factors. For me, a pull up is great for overall strength and because you are limiting the activation of secondary muscle groups. If you train your chest with a bench press but your triceps and anterior delts are highly engaged then you lessen the development of the pecs.
A dumbbell press however can help you place more emphasis on the chest so while you might not be able to lift as much weight as you can with a bench press you might be able to recruit more motor units and more muscle fibres leading to more chest growth.
For this reason I see the pull up as a power house when it comes to back and lat development through a medium grip pull up has been shown (study) to increase back activation despite putting your in a stronger position and bringing the bicep into activation more.
If you can’t do a pull up however, then a chin up is a good place to learn the movement and build up your strength as well as a great way to bring up your biceps. This is my favourite point to always mention when it comes to programming chin ups.
A body weight chin up will recruit more muscle fibres in the biceps than a 25lb curl which in theory will stimulate more muscle growth. While I think that is true, the real game changer is when it comes to progressive overload.
You have the potential to add more weight to a chin up with a dipping belt or holding dumbbells between your legs than you ever do when increasing the weight with a bicep curl. With a chin up you can work up in 45lb increments over time (using smaller weight jumps to get there of course) and it’s not uncommon to see people performing chin ups with 2,3 or 4 plates hanging from their waist.
In my opinion this is the real benefit of a chin up, you can use it as a compound movement for the biceps to really accelerate growth.
For back growth I’d recommend the pull up more due to the fact that the biceps are taking out of the movement by a significant amount making it a great strength and size builder.
Also check out:
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