January 20, 2021 1 Comment
While both pull ups and chin ups are fantastic compound upper body exercises, we often get asked: “Pull ups or chin ups, which one is better for building muscle and strength? Which one should I do?” Because this topic comes up time and time again, we’ve decided to answer the question in depth. In this post, we are going to be comparing chin ups vs pull ups from all angles - the differences, the similarities, difficulty level, how they target the back, biceps and upper body muscles, and more. This will tell you everything you need to know about these two challenging and highly effective bodyweight exercises.
When it comes to back exercises, every trainer and strength coach will tell you that everyone should do pull ups and/or chin ups. Both pull ups and chin ups are universally recognized as the best exercises for building muscle and strength in the back and biceps. This is why pull ups and chin ups are used as the primary test of physical conditioning and strength.
Let’s look at this from a militaristic view…
One of the main physical fitness tests for Marines is the pull up. However, the pull ups can be done with an overhand (pronated) grip or an underhand (supinated) grip. In other words, you can do either pull ups or chin ups during the test. What does this say? Well, the two exercises are equally important.
All that said, the question of "which is better" still comes into play, with “better” meaning more effective.
The short answer to “chin ups vs pull ups, which is more effective?” is…both are effective, but pull ups and chin ups are a bit different!
If they weren’t, then why would chin ups be easier for most people?
Here’s the thing, while they are different without question, in that they target the back and biceps differently (pull ups hit certain muscles better and chin ups hit certain muscles better), they do in fact target all of the same muscles.
So, that means you could hit all of the muscles with just one or the other…BUT if you were to do both, then you would be giving your back muscles and biceps the best possible stimulation and overload for adaption (i.e. strength and muscle gains).
To sum it up, both are great, they hit all the same muscles yet they target certain muscles differently, and you should do both. You could stop reading here and go get on with your training. Making time in your workout program to do both chin ups and pull ups.
However, if you want to learn more, continue reading on, as we are going to look at this question in-depth. We are going to discuss which muscles are worked better during pull ups and chin ups, how to perform the exercises correctly (with tips), effective programming, progression/regression exercises, and more.
The chin up is an exercise that involves pulling your body up from a dead hang position, getting your chin up over an elevated bar, using an underhand grip (supinated - palms facing you) with your hands about shoulder width apart.
What muscles do chin ups work?
Chin ups will increase strength and build muscle and definition in your biceps, lats, rear delts, infraspinatus, mid-to-lower traps, teres major, and rhomboids, as well as your pecs, abs, obliques, erector spinae and forearms (improved grip strength!).
The pull up is an exercise that involves pulling your body up from a dead hang position, getting your chin over the bar and chest as close as possible, using a pronated grip (palm away from your body).
With pull ups, the width of your grip can vary. The closer your hands are to each other, the easier it will be. However, the standard pull up is considered to be the wide grip pull up, which is about 5 inches wider than shoulder-width apart (as seen in the picture above).
What muscles do pull ups work?
Pull ups work your lats, biceps, traps, rear delts, teres major, infrasprinatus, teres minor, and forearms, as well as your rhomboids, pecs, erector spinae, abs, and external obliques.
As you can see, it’s a true compound exercises that pretty much hits your entire back and arms.
Pull ups and chin ups are not the funnest exercises by any stretch for most beginners because they are difficult. Comparing to other bodyweight exercises, such as push ups, pulling your body up over an elevated bar is significantly harder. However, it is essential to achieving well-rounded, true fitness and athleticism.
Below, we are going to discuss how pull ups and chin ups work the primary muscles to see which targets them better.
But, before we get into that, let’s go over the grip variations (easiest to hardest).
Pull ups are probably the hardest and most effective bodyweight exercise there is. For beginners, and most women, the difficulty factor of pull ups keeps efforts at bay. Some people find them too difficult, so they don’t even both attempting or regularly doing pull ups. That’s a shame because if you give your best effort, your pull up game will actually progress very quickly. Moreover, it’s a milestone exercise that anyone who takes fitness seriously should be doing.
Why can I do chin ups but I can’t do pull ups?
This is very normal. Chin ups are easier than pull ups. This is because chin ups put the biceps in a more active role, whereas pull ups take away much of the biceps activity, isolating the lats, which makes pulling yourself up considerably more difficult.
If you have difficulty doing standard pull ups, you need to start with the easiest variations and then workout your way up to harder variations as you get stronger and your rep range increases.
Note: If you can’t even do the easiest variations, there are still ways to improve your strength for pull ups, which we will get into further below.
So, to answer the following frequently asked question…
What’s harder pull ups or chin ups?
For most people, the following variations are the easiest to hardest (based on grip):
For beginners, start with neutral grip and once you can do 10 or so reps, move on to chin ups. Once you can do 10 reps of chin ups, do shoulder width pull ups…and so on and so forth.
Although you will be moving on to standard pull ups as you get stronger, you can still do neutral grip pull ups and chin ups, as they are working your muscles differently (we are about to get into this) and they are all still very effective. The point is, you want to be able to master the wide grip pull up at some point so you can have that in your arsenal.
Pull Ups - Grip Width Difficulty
With pull ups, you can alter the difficulty by simply widening your grip. The further your hands are apart, the harder the pull up will be because less muscles are getting involved (the wider, the more isolated the movement is on your lats). So, when you first start doing pull ups, keep your hands about shoulder width apart. This will allow other muscles of your back and your arms to take on a bigger role. As you get stronger, you can widen your grip if you want to hone in more on your lats.
Widening your grip is a form of progressive overload for your lats, whereas weighted pull ups are a form of progressive overload for your back as a whole.
The wide grip pull ups is the king of lat exercises.
As we mentioned, pull up and chin ups work all the same muscles. However, what's different is the degree in which those muscles get worked. So, let’s look at each of the primary movers individually to compare.
Note: This relates to muscular hypertrophy, strength and endurance.
The primary function of the latissimus dorsi is shoulder extension, adduction and horizontal abduction.
Both pull up and chin ups involve shoulder extension and shoulder adduction.
Therefore, the question is, which hits the lats more effectively?
The answer is both, just in a different manner.
Pull ups emphasize shoulder adduction due the overhand (pronated) grip flaring out your arms. Chin ups, on the other hand, place more emphasis on shoulder extension due to your arms being tucked to your sides.
As we know, the lats act on both shoulder extension and adduction (as well as horizontal abduction).
Now, the lower region of the lats undergo the most load during shoulder extension, while the upper region of the lats take more load during shoulder adduction.
So, for the mid-to-lower part of the lats, a close grip chin up is best, and for the upper-to-mid part of the lats, a wide-grip pull up is best.
Note: Your lats are the biggest muscle of your back. And while it is one muscle and your entire lat will be worked during any lat exercise, certain exercises work different regions of your lats (the lats are often broken down into the upper, middle and lower region). Generally speaking, shoulder extension places the most emphasis on your lower lats, horizontal abduction places the most emphasis on your middle lats, and shoulder adduction places the most emphasis on your upper lats.
As for the reason why everyone says wide grip pull ups are best for your lats...
It's because with wide grip pull ups, you are isolating your lats better (not completely, but as isolated as it's going to get). This is because with the wide grip pull up, other muscles of your back and your arms can't help pull you up as much. With the close grip chin up, other muscles take on a bigger role.
All in all, you should do both pull ups and chin ups. Doing both pull ups and chin ups will allow you to recruit the most muscle fibers in your entire latissimus dorsi, leading to the best possible lat development.
Related: 14 Best Lat Exercises
The main function of the traps is to retract the scapula. This applies to the upper, middle and lower traps. The upper lats also raise the scapular (i.e. shoulder shrugs) and the lower lat fibers depress the scapular (pull the scapular down - opposite of shoulder shrugs).
Both pull ups and chin ups involve scapular movement, so either one will target your traps. But again, which is better?
Some say the chin up targets your traps more as you can get your chest higher up to the bar and squeeze your scapulars more at the top. While this may be true, pull ups are more difficult than chin ups, so your traps will be more activated simply because of that.
From our research, it seems that on average the lower traps are slightly better activated (5-10% more) during pull ups than chin ups simply due to the difficulty level. However, many studies will show no difference in trapezius muscle activity for pull ups and chin ups.
Related: Best Trapezius Exercises
The two heads of the bicep have the same function, elbow flexion and supination and forearm supination. Obviously supination occurs during the chin up, not the pull up, as your grip is supinated. Nevertheless, there is still elbow flexion when doing pull ups, so your biceps will be taking load and stress.
Which is better?
Well, it’s clear that the biceps have a stronger line of pull with chin ups due to the supinated grip and the grip width being closer than on a wide grip pull ups, so the chin up will typically hit your biceps better than pull ups, especially the short head of the bicep.
That said, research shows that the biceps are still significantly activated during pull ups.
To make things straightforward, the chin up is more effective at building muscle and strength in the biceps, but the pull up is great too. With pull ups, the more narrow your grip, the bigger role the biceps will play. With wide grip pull ups, your biceps are playing a much smaller role, placing emphasis on your lats.
Both chin ups and pull ups target all of the same muscles, and pretty effectively at that. However, generally speaking, chin ups will hit the biceps and upper back muscles (including the rear delts, infrasprinatus, teres major, and teres minor) slightly more effectively, whereas pull ups will target the lats and lower traps to a greater degree. So, the best bet is to do both on a regular basis.
If you can’t do pull ups, start with chin ups. At the end of the day, chin ups are working all of the same muscles. However, eventually you need to progress to pull ups. Remember, your lats are the biggest muscle in your back, so if you want to build a big v-shaped back, you need as much lat development as possible, and no other exercise, including chin ups, is as effective at building big, strong lats as the pull up.
Now, all that said, none of the above matters if your form and technique is not good. Without proper form, neither chin ups nor pull ups will be as effective as they should be.
When it comes to the upper body, the pull up test (also called the chin up test) is the ultimate measure of strength and endurance.
All you need for this test is a pull up bar or a power tower and your body.
Note: a straight horizontal bar is best and the standard for most tests.
Test yourself for both chin ups and pull ups. Do them on separate days.
Chin Ups vs Pull Up Test Norms
For most tests, chin up and pull up norms are the same. This is why military pull up tests allow for either grip variation.
Of course, we know chin ups are easier for most beginners, so we will give you our opinion on the matter…
How many pull ups should I be able to do?
Men should be able to perform at least 8 pull ups. This is average. Anything below that is a grade of fair or poor. 8-13 reps is considered above average, and anything higher than that is excellent to elite.
Women should be able to perform between 1-3 pull ups to be considered average. 4-9 would be above average, and anything above 10 is excellent to elite.
How many chin ups should I be able to do?
Men should be able to do 10 chin ups to be considered average. 10-15 is above average and anything higher than that is excellent to elite.
Women should be able to do 1-3 chin ups to be considered average. 5-10 is above average and anything higher than that is excellent to elite.
All in all, you should be able to do a few more chin ups than you can pull ups when testing yourself. However, it would be odd if the scores are very far apart. It would suggest that your lats are way behind and you are using mostly your biceps on chin ups.
Note: when first starting our, your chin up to pull up ratio will likely me 3-to-1, but as you get stronger, that ratio narrows.
Chinups and pullups are incredible exercises for building muscle in your back and biceps. In fact, they are among the best exercises of all for building muscle, alongside squats, deadlifts, bench press, and shoulder press. Chin ups and pull ups are absolutely essential to a well-rounded physique.
But building muscle (and strength) isn’t the only benefit of chin ups and pull ups…
1. Compound Exercise
Pull ups and chin ups are a multi-joint compound exercise. If you look at any weightlifter’s program, you will find pull ups in the mix. You may not find any other bodyweight exercises, but pull ups will always be employed. This is because they are part of the 5 big compound exercises: squats, deadlifts, bench press, shoulder press, and PULL UPS. Quite impressive that a bodyweight exercise can be in the mix with these serious muscle building and strength training lifts, right? Well, pull ups and chin ups are just that effective.
Pull ups are extremely versatile. By simply changing your grip (neutral, underhand, overhand, and grip width), and even body position, you can target your back and arms differently. One could argue that you could build a perfectly well rounded back with just pull up variations alone.
All in all, if there was only one back exercise that you could do, it better be pull ups (sorry deadlifts). The risk to reward ratio for pull ups is way better too.
3. Low Risk, High Reward
As we mentioned, pull ups and chin ups are among the top compound exercises for strength and hypertrophy. However, comparing to the others, pull ups are far safer. You get the same big rewards, but with a lot less risk. It's actually quite hard to hurt yourself when doing pull ups.
Now, most exercises have some form of risk, so that’s not to say you shouldn't do the other compound lifts we mentioned, but it does make us particularly fond of pull ups. They are just very easy on the joints.
4. Easy Improvements
You will find that your muscles respond very well to pull ups. It’s probably the hardest exercise that’s the easiest to improve at. Ironic right?
If you struggle with 1 or 2 pull ups today, we guarantee if you stick to it and do pull ups every day, you will be able to do 10 unassisted in a matter of 3-4 weeks.
There is no better exercise for building the lats than pull ups. And if you want that sexy v-shape physique, you need solid lats.
So, not only will you become more powerful by doing pull ups, you will also become more attractive thanks to better body composition in the form of a “V”.
6. Grip Strength
Pull ups and chin ups build incredible grip strength and powerful forearms. Having a strong grip will translate to improvements across the board. You will become stronger in deadlifts, rows, and all the other pulling exercises you do.
Some people don’t realize the incredible importance of grip strength.
7. The Obvious - Strength, Endurance, and Hypertrophy.
Last, but surely not least, pull ups and chin ups will build muscle, strength and endurance in your lats and back muscles, biceps, forearms and shoulders, and your entire core. All of those muscles we mentioned make up like a third of your body. So, pull ups will be covering a huge basis of your strength, hypertrophy and endurance training. Of course, you should do other back exercises too, but pull ups and chin ups are top of the food chain for hypertrophy and muscular strength and endurance…not to mention, explosiveness.
Are pull ups and chin ups safe?
While pull ups and chin ups are perfectly safe. It is important that you do them correctly. Moreover, if you have pre-existing shoulder issues, too wide of a grip during pull ups can exacerbate that. Even if you don’t have shoulder issues, there’s no need to go super wide with your grip. A very wide grip is not going to make for a very wide back. When your grip is too wide, you are reducing the range of motion and you could potentially put too much pressure on the shoulder joint. We recommend only going about 5-6 inches more than shoulder width apart on both sides, and work your way up to that width. Start with shoulder width apart if you are new to pull ups.
All that said, we’d be surprised if you hurt yourself during pull ups or chin ups. If you have healthy shoulder joints, you’d almost have to try to hurt yourself.
Note: If for any reason you have any concern, consult your doctor prior to doing pull ups or chin ups.
What if I can’t do chin ups or pull ups?
If you can’t do pull ups, let alone neutral grip pull ups or chin ups, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be doing them. There are many assisted pull up options to employ. Here are some great ways to assist your pull up, all of which are still very effective for building strength and muscle.
Be sure to practice the different grip variations as well.
Check out our pull up progression plan to master the pull up.
What do I do when I master the wide grip pull up?
When chin ups and pull ups become easy for you, it’s time to increase the difficulty. If you can do 10-15 reps of chin ups or wide grip pull ups for 3-4 sets, you can add weight to the movement by wearing a dip belt or a weighted vest. If you don’t have either, cross your feet and place a dumbbell between them. You could even throw on a heavy backpack.
Other ways to make pull ups and chin ups harder is by chaining the tempo. Practice slow pull ups with holds at the top, as well as explosive pull ups.
These are all great ways to continue increasing strength and building muscle.
Pull ups and chin ups are both fantastic exercises that target the same muscles. Generally speaking, chin ups will work your biceps and chest more and they are also slightly more effective for the upper back, while pull ups are best for the biggest muscle in your back, the lats!
We highly recommend doing both if you can.
Adding both chin ups and pull ups (as well as neutral grip pull ups) to your workout plan is easy.
If you do full body workouts three times a week, you could do pull ups on day 1, chin ups day 2, and neutral grip on day 3.
If you do upper/lower body workouts, then you likely hit upper body twice a week, so do chin ups on one of those day and pull ups on the other.
If you do a 4-5 day bodybuilding split, then you probably hit back once a week. That means you are doing around 6-8 exercises on back day. At least 2 of those exercises can be pull up variations (chin ups, shoulder width pull ups, wide grip pull ups or neutral grip pull ups). As chin ups and pull ups are arguably the most effective back exercises you can do, you should be doing them every back session! The more, the better. And yes, you can do both on the same day!
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