Fitness Tips

Trainers Break Down How To Choose Between a Pull-Up vs Chin-Up in Your Workouts

Rachel Lapidos

Rachel LapidosAugust 26, 2020

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Photo: Getty Images/Eugenio Marongiu

When you’re at the gym—or perhaps Muscle Beach in California—one of the most impressive things to witness is a person lifting themselves up over a bar that’s above their heads. This exercise can be either a chin-up or a pull-up, both of which are major upper body strengthening moves. But they’re also both notoriously challenging. To help you nail one (or both) of the moves, trainers are explaining everything you need to know about the pull-up vs chin-up exercises.

Basically, the main difference between the two moves is how far you’re lifting yourself up above a bar. Keep scrolling for what muscle groups each exercise works, how to do it yourself, and the different variations you can add to your workouts.

The benefits of pull-ups and chin-ups

With a pull-up, you’re working your upper back muscles along with your arms. “You perform a pull-up by hanging from a bar with an overhand or pronated grip where your palms are facing away from you, followed by pulling your body vertically up to the bar,” says Johry Batt, head of athletics at F45 Training. The exercise is commonly used as a way to measure someone’s upper body strength.

Mainly, the pull-up will work to strengthen your lats, biceps, forearms, rear delts, abdominals, and mid and lower traps. “If done correctly, pull-ups can help build strength in those muscle groups, which can lead to improvements on things like grip strength, shoulder stability, and help to develop kinesthetic awareness,” says Coach Trooper Flex, personal trainer and Isopure Athlete. The exercise is also uniquely beneficial because of how it hits your muscles. “The pull-up is one of the best exercises due to its ability to target muscles from a different angle than normal,” says Batt. “The multi-joint exercise is low impact and uses many upper body muscles at the same time, forcing the body to work as one.”

A chin-up, on the other hand, is a sort of pull-up but involves an underhand grip, which works different muscles. “By switching your hand placement, it helps to target the secondary muscles, which are the biceps, which help aid in the movement,” says Dogpound trainer Kevin Mejia. Compared to a pull-up, the chin-up is more of a bicep-strengthening exercise. “The biceps have a higher activation rate because the biceps’ main function is supination of the forearm,” says Batt, who notes that it also targets the pectoral muscles (more than a pull-up). Also, since you’re only pulling your chin above the bar, a chin-up is easier to perform than a pull-up.

Comparing the pull-up vs chin-up

Though both exercises recruit most of the same muscle groups, the small differences make them each appealing for different reasons. “The main difference between pull-ups and chin-ups will be the grip,” says Batt. “If you’re new to pull-ups, the chin-up will definitely be easier to build up your strength.” This is because of the underhand grip in the chin up, which brings your biceps and pectoral muscles into the pulling motion, he says.

Also, both moves can help to boost your posture. “Pull-ups and chin-ups help strengthen the back, mainly the lat muscles, and also help to develop scapular rotation, which translates to better body posture,” says Meija.

Trainers recommend pull-ups and chin-ups for all gym-goers because of the functionality of the movements. “These exercises are important because it’s part of our fundamental movement as humans to be able to climb and pull our own body weight,” says Flex. And if you’re looking to improve your upper body strength, Mejia says that the two exercises are great options to work into your workouts.

If you’re into a sport that involves some sort of climbing, pull-ups would be more beneficial to do than chin-ups. “I would suggest pull-ups for those who do sports like rock climbing or bar athletes looking to progress to muscle-ups,” says Flex.

What to know before working out

Before you do either exercise, know that it’s best to skip if you have any wrist or shoulder issues, since both joints are used in the moves. When you’re doing a pull-up or chin-up, make sure to maintain proper form to avoid injury. “The shoulders are very mobile joints, so things such as a labral tear or spasms in your traps can happen if you’re not aware of your shoulder positioning,” says Flex. Batt recommends starting slow, and, if you can’t perform a full chin-up or pull up, ease your way in by working through variations first. Also key? Keep your neck relaxed in the exercises. “Many people tend to tense their necks too much while performing pull-ups,” says Mejia.

How to do pull-ups and chin-ups properly

Pull-up

1. Get on a bar and come into a dead hang with your palms facing away from you.
2. Drop your shoulders down away from your ears while keeping your elbows locked.
3. Tighten your abs and legs, then begin to pull your chest to the bar.
4. Release the tension and control your descent while keeping your shoulders down.

You can modify this by using a band to assist in the pull, or you can do it from a seated position and use your legs for assistance.

Chin-up

1. Get on a bar and come to a dead hang with your palms facing towards you.
2. Drop your shoulders down away from your ears while keeping your elbows locked.
3. Tighten your abs and legs, then pull yourself up so that your chin is raised above the bar.
4. Release the tension and control your descent while keeping your shoulders down.

You can also modify this with a band or by doing it from a seated position.

Exercise variations to try first

If you want to progress your way up to a full pull-up or chin-up, try these variations first to build up your strength.

Dead hang

“This exercise targets the upper back, shoulders, core, and grip strength, all of which are vital components of the pull-up,” says Batt.

1. Hang from an overhead pull-up bar with an underhand grip. Make sure your feet cannot touch the ground.
2. Hold this position as long as possible, keeping your arms straight. Avoid swaying the body.

Isometric chin-up

Hold yourself above the bar for as long as you can, starting with just a few seconds and working your way up.

Negative pull-up

“The goal is to eccentrically train and strengthen the movement and muscles involved in a pull-up,” says Batt, who recommends doing this as slowly as possible.

1. Stand on a box or bench high enough for you to grab the pull-up bar.
2. Jump into the top end position and then slowly lower the body down.
3. At the bottom of the pull-up, stand back on the box and repeat.

Suspended pull-up

Bett recommends doing this variation to train your body the movement pattern of a pull-up and to improve motor control.

1. Attach a suspension trainer overhead and sit directly underneath it on the floor.
2. Pull your upper chest towards the handles, with your palms facing outwards.

Suspended chin-up

1. Attach a suspension trainer overhead and sit directly underneath it on the floor.
2. Pull your upper chest towards the handles, with your palms facing towards you.

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