Sure, hefty deadlifts and kettlebell snatches are impressive, but few exercises demonstrate your true power quite like pull-ups and chin-ups. Infamously challenging movements, pull-ups and chin-ups not only evaluate your grip strength, but they also engage your back, shoulder, arm, and core muscles to hoist your suspended body above a bar.
To the untrained observer, pull-ups and chin-ups may seem almost indistinguishable, except for a minor distinction in hand positioning. However, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving. Here, fitness professionals dissect everything you need to understand about the pull-up versus the chin-up, encompassing the main contrast between the exercises, the muscles targeted by each, their primary advantages, and suggestions on determining which one suits you best. Breaking news: Both exercises unquestionably deserve a place in your workout regimen.
What Is a Pull-Up?
To put it simply, a pull-up is a bodyweight exercise where you hang from a bar with a pronated grip (meaning palms facing away from you) and pull yourself upward until your chin hovers above the bar. Pull-ups primarily engage the muscles in your posterior chain (the muscles along the rear side of your body). Specifically, pull-ups target your latissimus dorsi (commonly known as lats), the prominent muscles that run along the sides of your mid to lower back. Additionally, they work your lower trapezius, a component of the trapezius muscle that initiates near your shoulder blades and extends into a “V” shape in the center of your back, according to Holly Roser, a certified personal trainer based in San Francisco, California.
“Pull-ups are one of the most arduous bodyweight movements you can achieve,” states Roser. “You are lifting your entire body weight and propelling yourself upward solely using your upper body, without assistance from your lower body.”
Benefits of Pull-Ups
If you haven’t deduced it yet, pull-ups are an incredibly demanding exercise, which is why they hold the status of a “benchmark move” in fitness circles. This means they serve as an indicator of your strength level, explains Roser. Therefore, mastering a pull-up can reveal a great deal about the power of your back and grip. “Most likely, if you can execute a pull-up, you have conditioned your body through intensive training for approximately six months or more,” she affirms. However, this isn’t the sole reason to integrate pull-ups into your workout routine or, at the very least, work towards accomplishing them.
They fortify your entire upper body.
Pull-ups enlist the muscles in your entire upper body, including your forearm muscles, biceps, pecs, and your lats, research indicates. In case you didn’t know, your back muscles are crucial for a variety of everyday movements, such as opening and closing doors, bending over, twisting, and more. Having strong back muscles also helps you perform other important functional strength exercises, such as deadlifts and squats, says Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., the founder of TS Fitness in New York City. These exercises emulate many daily tasks, such as lifting heavy groceries and picking up your child from the floor.
More good news: Performing pull-ups on a standard bar isn’t the only way to experience the exercise’s upper-body benefits. Using other types of fitness equipment, such as straps, can activate the same muscles as the traditional move on the bar, according to a small study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics. To do a pull-up using straps, secure the straps to the bar and grip the handles with both hands, palms facing forward. Packing your shoulders back and down and keeping your core tight, pull yourself up until your chin is hovering over the bar.
When comparing the traditional pull-up with other variations, such as the straps and towel pull-up (in which you loop a towel over the bar and grip either end while doing a pull-up), all three moves targeted the lats, posterior deltoid (shoulder muscle), middle trapezius, and biceps brachii likewise, according to the study. Translation: No matter which pull-up variation you tackle, you’re hitting the same upper-body muscle groups.
They help improve posture.
If you’re looking to enhance your posture, pull-ups are the name of the game. “Pull-ups help work muscles [specifically in the back] that are typically weaker,” says Roser. “It’s important to strengthen your lats as this will help support your neck and shoulders (weak lats and traps cause slouching), keeping you in excellent posture.”
“When you slouch, your neck darts forward, putting stress on your cervical spine (neck region of your spine) and the muscles surrounding your neck and shoulders,” she adds. “Strengthening your lats will help keep you in an ideal position, lessening the risk of injury.” In fact, poor posture is associated with back and/or neck pain because the surrounding muscles are weak and aren’t able to support the joints and ligaments, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
There are additional reasons you should fasten your posture: Great posture is imperative for improved respiration. That’s because when you’re slumping, the position compresses your thoracic spine (mid back), which prevents your diaphragm, the arched muscle used for respiration that sits beneath your breastbone, from fully opening, according to ACE.
They engage your core.
To execute a pull-up accurately, you must activate your entire core and settle into a concave body position. To assume a concave body position, draw your ribs over your hips and shift your pelvis into a posterior tucked position, says Tamir. This will assist you in stabilizing and bracing your body so you can pull yourself over the bar.
When comparing the muscles worked in a pull-up versus other pulling exercises, such as the seated lat pull-down, kneeling lat pull-down, and an assisted pull-up, pull-ups activate the rectus abdominis (superficial abdominal muscles) the most, according to a study in the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports.
They improve your grip strength.
Your grip strength — your capability to hold and squeeze objects — plays a significant role in your ability to pull yourself up above the bar. Your forearm muscles, as well as the muscles in your fingers and hands, are responsible for your grip strength. Your brachioradialis, which is a forearm muscle, is activated when performing pull-ups, according to a small study in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology.
“Pull-ups and chin-ups aid in the enhancement of grip strength, as you’re utilizing the muscles in your hands and forearms to grip the bar and pull your body weight up towards your chin,” says Roser. Grip strength is especially crucial as you age because it helps you carry out daily tasks that maintain your independence, such as opening jars.
“As you age, you experience a decline in bone density,” she says. “It’s imperative to challenge the muscles in your forearms, wrists, and hands to combat bone density loss.”
For instance: Research demonstrates that grip strength is a biomarker for identifying whether older adults are at risk for unfavorable health outcomes and is a predictor for disease, disease-specific mortality, falls, and fractures. Grip strength also plays a significant role in sports performance; baseball, tennis, paddle boarding, and skiing all utilize your grip, says Roser.
What Is a Chin-Up?
Similar to a pull-up, a chin-up also involves hanging from a bar and pulling yourself up so your chin is above it.
Instead of an overhand grip, you utilize an underhand grip, with your hands directed towards your body. Similar to pull-ups, chin-ups engage your posterior muscles. However, the underhand grip also enables you to activate muscles in the frontal chain (read: front) of your body, specifically, your brachialis (the front portion of your upper arms) and mammary muscles (the chest muscles), as stated by Tamir.
Advantages of Chin-Ups
Thanks to the reverse grip, chin-ups are more accessible than pull-ups, as you can effectively utilize the power of your biceps and pecs, according to Tamir. “It’s simpler for novices who lack significant back strength,” he adds.
However, similar to its counterpart, a chin-up works the muscles in your entire upper body, including your rear, shoulders, chest, arms, and core. Here’s why you shouldn’t underestimate the chin-up as an “easier” exercise.
They necessitate less shoulder flexibility and stability.
If you are unable to perform a conventional pull-up, chin-ups provide numerous upper-body strengthening benefits while safeguarding your shoulders. Individuals with limited shoulder mobility and inadequate shoulder stability due to weak rotator cuff muscles (the muscles surrounding the ball-and-socket joint in your shoulders) may struggle with pull-ups. In contrast, chin-ups require less shoulder mobility and the movement feels more innate, making them a remarkable alternative, as stated by Tamir.
They focus on your shoulders.
A minor study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports evaluated the muscle force of three distinct pull-up variations, including the chin-up, and discovered that it activates the deltoid (shoulder) and rotator cuff muscles, while also engaging the trapezius and latissimus dorsi. Strengthening your shoulders is crucial for everyday activities like lifting and reaching objects overhead.
They challenge your core and grasp strength.
Similar to pull-ups, chin-ups are exceptional for enhancing your core and grip, according to Tamir. Since you hang from the bar, you engage your forearm muscles, as well as your hands and fingers, to maintain a grip on the bar. Your core should remain activated throughout the movement to aid in stabilizing your body, he explains.
How to Decide Between a Pull-Up vs. Chin-Up
When choosing between chin-ups and pull-ups, it boils down to your individual fitness objectives and physical capabilities. Below are the common scenarios where you should focus on either the pull-up or chin-up.
If you’re a novice: Chin-ups
If you’re new to pull-ups, start with chin-ups since your biceps and pectorals will assist you in pulling yourself up and over the bar, recommends Tamir. As a beginner to strength training, your lower lats and lower trapezius muscles are not as well-conditioned as your biceps and pectorals, making pull-ups much more demanding than chin-ups, Roser adds.
Then, as you develop strength in your back and shoulders, you can progress to performing pull-ups, states Tamir.
Alternatively, engage in lat pull-downs and rows, utilizing TRX straps, barbells, or dumbbells, for a frequency of two to three days per week, as advised by Roser, to enhance the fortitude of your lower trapezius muscles. These workout routines will aid you in accomplishing your initial pull-up with great success.
If you lack shoulder mobility and stability: Chin-ups
“If you are someone who has inadequate shoulder mobility, I would recommend sticking to chin-ups until you enhance your mobility,” says Tamir. If you have insufficient range of motion in your shoulder joints, you will have a higher risk of injury while performing traditional pull-ups, he adds. To improve your shoulder mobility, try regularly practicing shoulder rotations and movements that aid in opening the thoracic spine (also known as the mid back), such as child’s pose T-spine rotations, suggests Tamir.
Because pull-ups also necessitate strong shoulder stability, consider performing external rotation exercises with a band or side-lying external rotations with a dumbbell, recommends Tamir. If you still experience discomfort in your shoulder joint when doing pull-ups, turn your palms towards each other, also called a neutral grip, to alleviate any discomfort, adds Roser.
If you want to target the lats: Pull-ups
Once you have mastered chin-ups and desire to increase the difficulty, it is time to attempt pull-ups. While both exercises engage your back muscles, pull-ups effectively target your lats, according to Tamir.
That being said, if you are still unable to execute a full pull-up, try performing pull-up holds, whereby you hold the top position (when your chin is above the bar) to strengthen your back, suggests Tamir. You can also perform pull-up negatives: initiate the movement from the top position (with your chin above the bar) and focus on the eccentric phase (lowering your body down with control). Additionally, you can hang from the bar and do shoulder retractions (drawing your shoulder blades towards the spine and together) and depressions (bringing your shoulders backwards and downwards).
You can also attempt an assisted pull-up with a resistance band, suggests Roser. Wrap a resistance band around the bar and position both knees within it. The band will assist you in pulling your body up towards the bar. “When the band becomes too easy, remove one knee from the band, and eventually transition to a band with less resistance, enabling you to lift your own weight up to the bar,” she says.
So, which is superior — pull-up vs. chin-up?
In the debate between chin-ups and pull-ups, there is no definitive winner. Both exercises effectively strengthen your upper body, but which one is more suitable for you depends on your specific goals, whether you are a beginner or advanced in strength training, or if you have any joint limitations. The bottom line is that chin-ups and pull-ups are both exceptional exercises; one is not inherently superior to the other. Being capable of performing pull-ups or chin-ups demonstrates how impressively strong you truly are.