Pull Up or Chin Up? Which is Better?

Similar to my article on squat technique variations in the past, this week is dedicated to the pull up and chin up exercises.  Two similar, yet different exercises with some obvious benefits and differences between the two, most notably biceps involvement with the supinated position of the forearm during the chin up.  Personally, I have always thought of the chin up as more of a “beach muscle” exercise and something that I often avoided, especially in overhead athletes that already have issues with SLAP tears and the involvement of the long head of the biceps.

Pull Up

Photo by Jayel Aheram

Pull Up  Versus Chin Up

A recent study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed some differences that were new to me, and may influence our choice between the pull up and chin up exercises.

The authors compared EMG activity of several muscle groups during both the pull up and chin up in 25 healthy subjects.  Both exercises showed significant involvement of the latissimus dorsi, ranging from 117-130% MVIC, obviously.  The chin up, as expected, had significantly higher biceps activity, however, the chin up also had significantly higher pectoralis major activity.

The pull up did have one advantage in regard to the EMG activity.  Lower trapezius activity was significantly higher in the pull up versus the chin up.

So is the pull up or chin up a “better” exercise?

I guess it depends on your definition of better since neither are bad.

If you are weightlifting for good looks and to impress the ladies – looks like the chin up is best for you – high lat activity with greater biceps and pec activity.

For those worried about posture, shoulder function, and general athleticism, as well as for those that may have some shoulder pathology, the pull up may be the better option as you minimize pectoralis major activity and maximize lower trapezius muscle activity.  Both are common goals when dealing with posture and upper body cross syndrome.  The lower trapezius is often an area that gets weak, especially in the presence of shoulder pathology, so any exercise variation that increases lower trap involvement is a plus for me, especially when you are likely performing the exercise primarily for the latissimus.

For the athletes, especially the overhead athletes that don’t want to emphasize biceps activity especially when the body is distracting away from the body, I would say the pull up is probably better suited.  Especially when you consider the above in regard to posture.

What do you think?  Does this information change your perspective on the pull up and chin up exercises?  What have you used as criteria to choose between the pull up and chin up?

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36 Responses to “Pull Up or Chin Up? Which is Better?”

  1. Mike,

    I’m not sure why we always get so caught up in the either/or phenomenon.

    Since people tend to be strongest on the chin I’ll start there and work towards pull ups. Once someone has both in their toolbox I’ll vary the selection.

    Too much of any single motion is a bad thing, yes?

    • Mark – not a bad thought process for the general S&C population, maybe someone that is not concerned about anterior cross syndrome or the eccentric bicep load. But I always feel the more we know about the specifics the better we can individualize our client/patient/athlete’s programs. Based on the results of this study I know that there will be certain times that I choose between these exercises based on what we now know.

  2. Mike,
    I believe you may have a mistake…”The chin up, as expected, had significantly higher biceps activity, however, the chin up also had significantly higher pectoralis major activity.”
    You later state… “looks like the pull up is best for you – high lat activity with greater biceps and pec activity.”

  3. Good question, Joe. Not sure how that would affect the exercise.

  4. I use both, but I emphasize “scap” chin ups, as well as “scap” pull ups, where the mid sternum must touch the bar. This makes me pull myself higher and retract and depress the scapula. Thoughts?

  5. Great question Joe. My best assessment of the neutral grip chin up would be that it would more resemble a regular chin up with respect to muscle involvement…. Think regular bicep curls vs. hammer curls. Still activating the same muscle groups with a little more emphasis on brachioradialis. And its only an educated guess but I would think there wouldn’t be a significant difference in low trap activity between the two chin ups based on that same analysis and elbow/shoulder positioning. Meaning the two chin ups keep you adducted and the pull up keeps you abducted/horiz.abducted allowing greater low trap recruitment. However it may be a good in between exercise or compromise between the normal chin up and pull up. Just a thought.

  6. Hi Mike, have you read Brett Contreras’s and Martin Berkhan’s take on chin-ups?

    Basically, Brett has done some EMGs, himself, and he finds that the chin-up is a more full-body exercise that has great carry-over and no less developmental effects on the lats and back, as compared to the pull-up.

    Martin says he prefers the chin-up due to the greater tendency of clients to achieve full range of motion with the exercise. He also states that in his experience, close- and wide-grip pull-ups do not have difference in building back size.

    This is something that Brett Contreras’s studies back up.

    Could it be that the chin-up is actually the better exercise?

    • Thanks, Mike.

      Personally, I’ve found that the chin-up is indeed easier to perform to the full range of motion. I also get an awesome biceps workout from it.

      I’m not sure about the back development, though. It’s hard to argue against wide-grip pull-ups and the pull-up in general having great effects on back work, but I’ve not heard too much on the chin-up as it relates to back development.

      Well, Bret did not mention which he prefers, but I certainly can go heavier on the chin than the pull-up.

      I guess variety is the answer.

  7. For someone with above average thoracic spine mobility, a chin up may be reasonable, as scapulohumeral/glenohumeral stress may be lessened in the bottom position. Qualitatively, bottom position may give you insight in which exercise to use,in terms of passive shoulder flexion, scapulohumeral position, as well as core stability in the superficial/ deep front lines, functional lines and their ability to set up a good lever system/latform for exercise performance.

    Another thing to consider is a person’s (especially an overhead athlete’s)tolerance for loaded closed chain forearm supination (seen in a chin up while on the bar). If this is limited or uncomfortable, a narrower grip may be unintentionally used, resulting in increased thoracic rounding and a more compromised scapulohumeral, glenohumeral and bicipital position.

    Just some things to consider.

    • Shon,

      Somehow I missed your post before I commented, and I think that’s a great insight into why someone might default to a narrow grip.

      Great point about thoracic mobility, as well.

      I’m glad there are others who are willing to discuss topics like this instead of dismissing it with “it doesn’t matter, just use em all.”

  8. Hi Mike,

    Do you think hand placement can also affect muscle recruitment? Usually, you will see chinups performed with a closer grip than pullups and I think that reduces the effectiveness of the exercise.

    With a close grip, the elbows have nowhere to go but out as your chest approaches the bar. The shoulders will internally rotate (increasing pec activity?) and abduct, so if the upper traps are already dominant, it’s all too easy to finish the movement with a shrug, which is what you tend to see.

    Actually, both variations are typically performed with the elbows flaring out, all or most movement being in the vertical plane of the bar. I believe you get better lat & lower trap recruitment by throwing the elbows out in front, and pulling the body up in an arc towards the bar. For that reason, I tend to favor chinups because it’s easier to keep the elbows forward.

  9. Thanks for sharing the research Mike.
    I work with a lot of tennis players and use chinup variations in the strength program but will incorporate pullups based on the increased lower trap activation in the research study. Keep the great info coming!

  10. The history of the chin up was for the military to see if tyou could climb over a wall. Bodybuilders first started using both exercises because they had no other equipment. EMG, like the previous comment is really a bad way to test full muscle movement activity through the range of motion, just that the muscle is active.
    Regardless the elbow flexor is going to be the limiting factor in either movement, so the chin wins. Plus the chin up works more of the lats as their main job is to rotate the arm around the shoulder. Both exercises are only a half range of motion in that plane. see

  11. I’ll be sticking with chin-ups because I can actually do them. I think pull-ups are still a bit far off my radar!

  12. Hi Mike,

    Just wondering- we tend to do a lot of neutral grip variations including the neutral grip chin up. How do you think the neutral grip variation fits into this spectrum of muscle activation? It’s always felt more comfortable on my shoulder but I still feel that it provides a great trainig effect. Your thoughts?

    Thanks,

    Matt

    • Agree, more comfortable on mine too, and when ever I do a pull/chin up on a rack with rotating grips, I tend to settle in on a neutral grip. To me this must mean that it is easier or more biomechanically efficient for us to perform the exercise in this position, but that is just anecdotal and maybe just for my body (but many of those that I have trained also). My bet is that neutral grip is more similar to a chin up, not 50/50 between the pull up and chin up.

  13. Mike i worry about valgus when supinating on a straight bar over head. Most people have this noticeable valgus when standing in the anatomical position. Wouldn`t the chin up or supinated grip on a straight bar cause potential joint issues? Thanks for any help

    • Brian, just my initial thought but if that is there anatomical position, that is how their joint works best. There may be some axial distraction and flexion of the elbow but not a ton of valgus load. I could be wrong.

  14. Overall, I prefer the chin up. For the beginning trainee, the chin up should obviously be focused on since it is easier. Once pull ups can consistently be performed, however, I think it is ideal to mix up grips all the time; overall better results should be had when you stimulate more muscles in different ways than when you constantly stimulate the same ones the same way. But, I personally find the chin up to be easier on the shoulders. I think it is because the arms are rotated inwards. Wide grip pull ups, in particular, have a tendency to bother my shoulders. Once the trainee is proficient at the various grips that utilize both arms equally, it is time to add weight and/or do assisted one arm chin up progressions. This can be archer chin ups, draping a towel on the bar and grabbing it with the supporting hand, grabbing the side of the rack with the supporting hand, grabbing the forearm of the working arm with the supporting hand…anything that forces you to use one arm substantially more than the other. I also find frenchies to be quite useful. Basically do a chin up with a 5 second isometric hold at the top, 90 degrees down, and 135 degrees down. Doing them with a super close grip (hands touching), I find, is even better. Of course, the one arm progressions should be performed equally on both sides. One arm dead hangs, one arm negatives, and one arm isometric holds at various positions are also fantastic ways to continue building strength. When training for a full, unassisted one arm pull, I think the chin up is the grip of choice as you really want to utilize as many muscles as possible. Not only that, but any “lack” of focus on the lats is negligible since you will ultimately be using a single arm for a chin up. So, when doing weighted pulls or assisted one arm pulls in preparation for this, it is, in my opinion, better to use a chin up grip in these exercises as you will be better able to train your biceps and total body movement for the unassisted one arm chin up. However, it is still a good idea to do pull ups of all grips when doing “basic” variations (equal weight on both arms).

  15. Well I have finally mastered chin ups, to the detriment of my tendons in which I have developed “golfer’s elbow”! Unfortunately it is affecting other aspects of my training. I realize, at least for women, pull ups are harder, but with a resistance band I can do 5-6 and without 1-2 at best. Much less painful. Any suggestions to overcoming the pain with chin ups, or is the answer to just totally switch to pull ups and leave it at that? Thanks!!!!

    • Hi Michele, your “golfer’s elbow” is sign of overload. Too much stress to the muscle/tendon. Have to adjust. Hard to make suggestions from afar.

      • I may be using too much wrist flexion during my chin up – thought about using a Futuro wrist splint for stabilization in neutral/slight functional extension, but do not have one at this time. Will try to just complete pull ups with the reverse grip, but really do like the effect to the biceps I can get with chin ups. Read an article recently about chins ups and the strain they can put on the tendon around the medial epicondyle, so…guess I will just adjust for now and look for a possible solution in the future! I really would rather not cause more damage, as when I do the chin ups despite the pain, I began to have referred pain in my forearm wrist flexors! Oh well…I’ve learned that some exercises just aren’t worth risking further injury! Every BODY is different! Thanks for your reply! Sincerely, Michele

        • hey michele I want you to google cubitus valgus a very normal “condition” that a lot of females have, and some men, I am one of them, I can do 50 pull upp but not a single chin upp, due to the angle of my arms… when I did 3×8-10 chin upps with massive resistance band to help me, I got big pain in my ellbow next day… I am from sweden, and english is not my native so Im pretty much writing in “spanish” if you see it from youre behaf…

  16. I’m much more interested in pull-ups than chin-ups. Pull-ups are useful – I may very well want to pull myself over a ledge, go rock climbing, etc… but I can’t think of anything that would require me to pull my body upwards with my palms facing me.

  17. Lauren, haven’t you seen those movies where someone is hanging for their life from a plank, bar, or helicopter? Chin-ups could save your life!

    For the record, I prefer chin-ups. Pull-ups seem to always aggravate my shoulders or get my neck muscles involved in something they have no business in (though I have a recurring problem with this).

  18. I switched primarily to the chin up when I read Mike Mentzer’s HIT. The convincing thing was when he advises to hang from a bar in both positions and see which provides a greater stretch and greater range of motion. In addition he has you try this with wide and narrow grips to illustrate that you get better stretch and range of motion with a narrow grip; which seems to be contrary to conventional wisdom.

  19. very good, comprehensive article! I find that pull ups are harder for me to do so I train them more. I don’t really need bicep work so I don’t really do as much chin ups. However I should probably include both into my workout.

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