Pull-ups and chin-ups are both compound exercises that have huge benefits for your muscles and your overall health. Many lifters don’t understand the fundamental differences between these exercises and use them ineffectively as part of their workout routine.
If you’re trying to build ripped arms and a wide back, chin-ups and pull-ups can get you there provided you grasp the main differences between them and alternate between the two on the right schedule. Read on to find out how these two important exercises differ, what muscles you target with each one, and how you can get to a bodybuilder’s physique with a workout routine that includes pull-ups and chin-ups.
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Chin-Up Vs Pull-Up: What’s the Difference?
Although both of these exercises require you to lift your bodyweight while hanging onto a horizontal bar, the form for each differs slightly. In a chin-up, you take an underhand grip on the bar, which means your palms are facing your body. The grip on the horizontal bar is narrower in a chin-up than it is in a pull-up.
Pull-ups are done with an overhand grip where your palms face away from your body and the grip should be wider than shoulder-width apart. These main differences may seem slight, but they completely change the dynamic of the workout. For one thing, the change in grip and hand position targets different muscle groups.
Muscles Worked in Chin-Up Vs Pull-Up
Chin-ups are functional exercises that target your biceps much better than pull-ups do. Both exercises lead to muscle activation in your upper back as well. Chin-ups target the latissimus dorsi, which is also helped by important elbow-flexing muscles like the brachialis and brachioradialis, muscles for shoulder extension like the posterior deltoid, as well as your posterior rhomboid.
Pull-ups may not target the biceps brachii like chin-ups do but they’re one of the best back exercises out there. They build tons of strength in your posterior chain, which helps your body move and stay balanced. Many people find pull-ups to be far more difficult because they make the latissimus dorsi and other upper back muscles work with less help from the biceps.
Your pecs, rhomboids, triceps, trapezius, and delts are also activated to varying degrees during a pull-up. Chin-ups work the biceps and pecs more while pull-ups work your traps and lats more.
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Grip & Hand Placement for Chin-Ups & Pull-Ups
We already mentioned that grip is one of the main differences between these two exercises. That doesn’t mean you can’t change your grip style for different results, though.
Grip width is as important as grip strength. Wide grip pull-ups and close-grip chin-ups will both limit the range of motion your body can do and make the exercise more challenging. For both these exercises, you should be aiming to have your grip width pretty close to shoulder-width.
Chin-ups generally have your palms supinated, which means facing up. Pull-ups have them pronated, or facing down. But to make the exercise more difficult, many people also use a mixed grip with one hand supinated and the other pronated.
You can change up your grip width or hand position throughout the exercise if you want to get an even more powerful workout. For example, you can switch to a mixed grip or move from an overhand grip to an underhand grip after a certain number of reps or when you finish a set.
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How to Do the Perfect Pull-Up
Doing a proper pull-up takes lots of practice and muscular strength that could take months and months to build up. The motion is straightforward and deceptively simple, but if you don’t take care to train yourself to do pull-ups the right way you’re going to be wasting your time at best and risking serious injury in the worst-case scenario.
Follow these steps to do a pull-up with perfect form:
- Find a horizontal bar that’s securely installed and high up enough for your feet to be completely off the ground. Beginners might want to find a bar that doesn’t require them to jump very high to grip it since that small bit of exertion can throw you off.
- Put both hands on the bar with an overhand grip. Start with them shoulder-width apart or nearly so before you try variations in your hand position or move to a wider grip.
- You should be in a dead hang at this point. Both feet should be suspended in the air but your kinetic chain shouldn’t be activated. Engage your core and pull your shoulders back.
- Pull your bodyweight up toward the bar by engaging your upper body muscles. Imagine you’re pushing your elbows toward the ground rather than pulling your body up.
- Once your chin clears the bar, slowly lower back into the starting position, making sure that you don’t simply disengage your upper body muscles and drop down as this could easily lead to injury.
Really skilled lifters and professional pull-up artists add an isometric pause somewhere in the middle of the downward motion but believe us that this is incredibly hard and will take some practice to nail correctly.
The First Pull-Up: How to Build Pull-Up Strength
It’s not only newcomers to fitness that struggle with pull-ups. Even seasoned gym rats who can easily perform lat pull-downs and have impressive single-rep maxouts on the bench press sometimes find that they aren’t capable of lifting their own body weight on a pull-up bar.
There’s a good reason for this. Bodyweight exercises combine your muscles’ lifting power with balancing and supporting the body as it moves through space. This type of exercise where your hands or legs stay in a fixed place and you move the rest of your body is called a closed-chain exercise.
Too many bodybuilders focus on open-chain exercises that require them to move weight to and away from their body. These exercises are great for targeting specific muscles but they generally don’t activate nearly as many different joints and muscle groups as a compound exercise like pull-ups do.
If you find that you can’t get to that first pull-up or that it’s so difficult that you can’t do more than one, try adding some of these other exercises to your workout routine. They have a similar movement pattern and activate the same muscles as pull-ups and will help you build strength and get used to the motion.
Also referred to as inverted rows, this simple exercise mimics the pulling movement of pull-ups and chin-ups while also allowing you to keep both feet on the ground for additional support.
All you need to do is find a bar low enough to the ground that you can lie beneath it. Grab up and reach the bar and suspend yourself in a dead hang. Your heels should be on the ground and the rest of your body should be elevated, kind of like an upside-down push-up.
Pull your chest up to the bar and slowly move back down. This move gets harder the lower the bar is, so give yourself some room to improve by starting out with a fairly high bar.
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You can do this exercise with one hand at a time or with a dumbbell in each hand. The second variation is closer to the movement pattern of a pull-up, but doing one arm at a time is fine too.
Find a bench you can put your leg up on if you’re doing the single-arm dumbbell row. Put the opposite leg from the arm you’re targeting on the bench so that your knee and shin are flat. Balance with one hand on the bench and take a dumbbell in the other using a neutral grip that has your palm facing your body.
Making sure your back stays straight and you lift with your shoulder and back muscles, bring the dumbbell up to your chest. Lower it slowly back to the starting position after a quick flex at the top of the movement.
If you’re doing the two-armed version of the dumbbell row, take a dumbbell in each hand or a barbell in both hands with the same neutral grip. Bend over slightly at the hips so you’re facing the ground. Keep your back straight and do the same motion just described for the one-arm dumbbell row.
They might not mimic the full range of motion employed by pull-ups or help you build grip strength, but push-ups do a great job of building strength around your shoulder blades. Shoulder adduction is crucial for successful pull-ups so building strength with push-ups is a solid strategy.
Push-ups can also help you lose weight that might be making pull-ups too difficult. All you have to do to do the best push-ups is place both palms on the ground shoulder-width apart and support your lower body weight with your toes. Keep your back straight and lower yourself by bending your elbows until your chest almost touches the ground.
Lift back to the starting position, making sure to lift your bodyweight with your shoulder blades to get the most possible benefit for future pull-ups. If you want to make things harder, try weighted push-ups by putting a weight plate on your back. One-armed push-ups and diamond push-ups are also good variations of this exercise.
Reverse the traditional pull-up movement by finding a pull-up bar next to a platform and beginning at what would normally be the top of the pull-up movement. Lower your chest beneath the bar slowly and then try to lift back up into the starting position. This is a better exercise for people who want to increase their pull-up count rather than for people who haven’t managed their first pull-up yet.
Helpful Hint: Learn more bodyweight exercises during our Bodyweight Power Fitplan!
Scapular Retraction (Shoulder Blade Squeezes):
This is a super simple exercise that you can use as part of your warm-up routine or even do during idle breaks in the workday just to get away from your desk. You just need a resistance band and a vertical bar or something else the band can attach to.
Loop or tie the band so that it won’t budge, then stand a foot or so away, however far away you need to go to make sure there’s no slack in the band. Take each end of the band in either hand and then pull back until your elbows are almost at your sides at a 90° angle.
You can also loop the band around a horizontal pull-up bar if you want to. Make sure your shoulder blades are doing the work in this exercise. You’ll feel the shoulder adduction and flexion, which is just what you want to prepare for pull-ups.
Tips for the First Pull-Up:
One of the most frustrating things in the world is hitting a roadblock in your workout. People who do tons of push-ups, dumbbell rows, and bodyweight rows for months and still can’t get above the pull-up bar are understandably irritated.
If you’re in that situation you should consider reexamining your form. Many people aren’t leading with their shoulder blades or trying too hard to activate the wrong muscles.
An important part of that form is your grip strength. There are plenty of forearm exercises that will help you increase your grip strength and you can also use grip aids at the gym and try exercises like deadlifts or farmer’s walks.
Another important thing to keep in mind is that learning how to do a pull-up with the right form and building up the strength to do so can take a long time. People train for months on end to do pull-ups with the right form and if you’re just coming to fitness from a more or less sedentary lifestyle it could take a year or more. If you’re getting closer to that first pull-up, try using chin-ups to cross the finish line.
Most gyms also have machines for assisted pull-ups that will support your lower body while you train the muscle groups in your posterior chain for full-on pull-ups. If you aren’t part of a gym or they don’t have such a machine available, you can always use a spotter or a resistance band wrapped around the pull-up bar and supporting your feet to help you complete the pull-up motion.
How to Do Perfect Chin-Ups
Chin-ups are almost exactly the same as pull-ups, but since your biceps aid your lats during a chin-up many people find them to be much easier. Follow these steps to do a chin-up with the perfect form.
- Approach the pull-up bar and grab onto it with both hands in an underhand grip. Your palms should be facing your body, which you’ll likely find to be much easier than the supinated grip used in pull-ups.
- Lift your body up by driving your elbows down toad the ground. Think of it as pulling the bar down to you rather than lifting your own body weight. If it helps you to stay balanced, cross one leg over the other.
- Once your chin clears the pull-up bar, flex your arm and upper back muscles and then slowly lower yourself back into the starting position.
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Chin-Ups Vs Pull-Ups: Which is Better?
There’s no hard and fast rule that one of these upper body exercises is better than the other. Although pull-ups are a much more functional exercise that activates more muscles and joints, you won’t be giving your biceps any attention at all if you stick with pull-ups only. Chin-ups are a great way to build coordinated strength between your shoulders and upper arm muscles.
For the most part, once you can do a full set of pull-ups you’ll benefit from mixing in both chin-ups and pull-ups into your workout routine. They’re essentially variations on the same exercise and there’s no reason why you should avoid either one unless you have a specific injury that prevents you from doing them.
Chin-Ups and Pull-Ups are not only some of the best exercises for building a rippled back. They’re also some of the most convenient bodyweight exercises in general because you don’t need much more than a horizontal bar. If you build up enough grip strength, you can even do chin-ups on a doorframe.
Don’t be fooled by the similarities between chin-ups and pull-ups. The seemingly slight differences in hand position and grip completely alter which muscles are activated by each of these moves. Both are great for building strength in the upper body and in important erector muscles that help your body move and balance.
The best thing you can do is add both chin-ups and pull-ups to your workout routine on different days. That way, your back muscles can get all the benefits of a great compound exercise while your biceps and pecs can still get targeted using the chin-up stance.
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