If you asked any intelligent trainer or strength coach to list the top 5 exercises the majority of the population should be doing, pull ups and/or chin ups (or lat pull-downs) will usually be on every list.
It’s just universally considered one of the best exercise variations for building muscle and increasing strength in the back and biceps. It’s also a common “test” exercise used to show you’re at a certain level of strength and physical condition.
I of course agree with this completely, which is why every workout routine I ever create will ALWAYS contain some type of pull up, chin up, or lat pull-down movement.
The problem however is that many people don’t seem to realize that pull ups and chin ups are NOT the same thing. They’re similar exercises for sure, but using their names interchangeably is just flat out wrong.
In fact, there are actually quite a few differences and pros/cons between them, and you’d need to know them all to figure out which one truly is best for you.
So, here now is a break down of the major differences between pull ups and chin ups…
(*NOTE* Everything in this article also applies to lat pull-downs just the same.)
Differences In Grip
The first and most obvious difference between a pull up and a chin up is the type of grip being used.
- Pull Ups = A pronated (overhand) grip where your palms point outwards so that they are facing away from you. The most common grip width is just slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Chin Ups = A supinated (underhand) grip where your palms point inwards so that they are facing you. The most common grip width is shoulder width.
There are a few other less common variations of these exercises that involve other types of grips, but I think the only other one truly worth mentioning now is the neutral grip.
- Neutral Grip = A “semi-supinated” grip where your palms are facing each other.
Differences In Movement
While both exercises take place in the vertical pulling movement plane, and they both primarily target the back (specifically the lats) and biceps, the way they do it is slightly different.
Pull ups typically use shoulder adduction, where the elbows come down and back from the sides.
Chin ups on the other hand use shoulder extension, where the elbows come down and back from the front (neutral grip fits in this category as well).
The difference isn’t huge and it doesn’t make one exercise better or worse than the other.
It just means that both exercises train the lats in a slightly different way, and if your goal is to build muscle/get stronger (and avoid overuse injuries), it would probably be a good idea to avoid always neglecting one type of movement in favor of the other.
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Differences In Strength
Chin ups put the biceps in a stronger line of pull, so most people will usually be stronger at chin ups than they are at pull ups.
For example, if you can normally do 10 chin ups, you may only be able to do 6 pull ups. And if you’re using a lat pull-down machine with these grips or doing pull ups/chin ups with added weight, you’ll often find that you can use more weight with chin ups than you can with pull ups.
Similarly, most beginners to either exercise (or just beginners in general) will usually find that they’re able to do a chin up before they can do a pull up.
For me though it’s actually the other way around, which is definitely rare and kinda strange. It’s probably because pull ups were the only vertical pulling exercise I did during my first few years of training. For most people though, chin ups will be your stronger exercise.
Differences In Which Muscles Get Worked
Again, both exercises will primarily train your back/lats and biceps no matter what. However, there are some slight differences in the degree in which those muscles get worked.
Since chin ups put your biceps in a stronger line of pull, they’ll typically hit your biceps a bit harder than pull ups will.
Conversely, pull ups may hit your lats a bit harder, mostly as a result of your biceps being in a slightly weaker position.
Grip width also plays a role here too. The narrower your grip is, the more it will train your biceps. The wider the grip, the less it will train your biceps.
Now, it was always believed that the difference in lat/biceps usage between pull ups vs chin ups was pretty significant. However, recent EMG testing shows that, while these differences definitely do exist, it’s not that significant and definitely not worthy of being the sole deciding factor in picking one exercise over the other.
I will mention though that if you tend to have a problem actually feeling and using your back during back exercises instead of your biceps, you may benefit from using pull ups instead of chin ups when trying to correct this problem, at least initially.
Differences In Safety & Comfort
Like ANY weight training exercise, both chin ups and pull ups are perfectly safe… unless you do something incorrectly. There’s just way too many stupid things I’ve seen people do during these exercises to cover them all here, so I’ll just simply say to use proper form always.
However, there are some other general recommendations to keep in mind with these exercises.
For starters, any type of pull up, chin up or lat pull-down done behind the neck is potentially one of the worst things you can do for shoulder health. Some people can do it this way for years without any problem ever, but many people will usually develop problems over time. I don’t recommend it.
At the same time, a VERY wide pull up grip is another common cause of shoulder injuries. People (usually dumbasses and clueless bodybuilders) tend to think a VERY wide grip equals VERY wide lats. Um, no.
A VERY wide grip just means a VERY reduced range of motion and a VERY high risk of shoulder problems. I personally don’t recommend using a grip any wider than just slightly outside of shoulder width.
Beyond that, people with a preexisting history of shoulder problems may find that a chin up grip is a little less stressful on their shoulders than a pull up grip. On the other hand, some people may find that a pull up grip is a lot more comfortable for their wrists and forearms than a chin up grip.
And in terms of being the most overall potentially safe and comfortable grip for people with one or both of the above issues… it’s probably the less-often-available neutral grip. But again, that’s just a generality.
A lot of people will never have a problem with any type of grip. And the ones that do will just need to experiment and figure out which one feels best for them.
Which Do I Use And Recommend? Which Is Best For You?
I honestly like and use both exercises, but if you put a gun to my head (and why would you ever do such a thing?), I’d say that I personally like pull ups done with a slightly wider than shoulder width grip more than any other type of chin up or lat pull-down variation.
My current personal record with this grip is my body weight plus an additional 65lbs for a solid 6-8 reps (UPDATE: currently at 80lbs for 6-8 reps). It’s one of my all time favorite (and strongest) exercises.
However, this is nothing more than a personal preference. I don’t think this grip will work any better or faster than anything else… I just personally feel strongest and most comfortable with it. Will you? I have no idea.
So then, which will work better and faster for you? Which would I most often recommend?
Well, putting the true best answer of “do what’s best for you” to the side for a second, I’ve found that the best (and safest) results come from using a mix of different grips.
Maybe do pull ups for lower reps one day, and then chin ups for higher reps another day (like I recommend in The Muscle Building Workout Routine).
Maybe do chin ups for 8 weeks, then pull ups for the next 8 weeks. If your gym has neutral grip handles available, maybe give that a shot for the 8 weeks after that and then start the cycle over again with chin ups.
Of course, if you find that a certain grip feels more or less ideal for you, you should make the obvious smart decision of using that grip more or less often. (And if you’re currently unable to do any with your own body weight, here are some alternative exercises to consider.)
Whatever it ends up being, some type of vertical pulling movement (be it pull ups, chin ups, or lat pull-downs) should typically be a big part of your overall workout routine, just like it is in the proven workouts I recommend in my Superior Muscle Growth program.
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