Pull Ups vs. Chin Ups – What’s The Difference? (Plus Tips!)

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Pull ups vs. chin ups. What’s the difference? An excellent question, and one I’ve seen hundreds of times.

Many people think pull ups and chin ups are the same exercise. They are not.

Pull ups are performed with the hands facing away from the body (to varying degrees).  When done properly, a pull up works the lats, or latissimus dorsi, and to a lesser degree the biceps.

A chin up is performed with the the palms facing the body. While a chin up also works the lats, it places a greater amount of emphasis on the biceps. In fact, chin ups are one of the best compound movements you can do for bicep development.

MTS Nutrition CEO Marc Lobliner demonstrates pull ups vs. chin ups.

Pull Ups vs. Chin Ups: A Detailed Look

Both the pull up and chin up are multi-joint upper body exercises. Both of these exercises are considered vertical plane pulls, meaning you’re pulling your body upwards in a position that is along the same plane as the torso.

A rowing exercise, on the other hand, is considered a horizontal pull. You are pulling a weight somewhere in the neighborhood of 90 degrees away from the torso’s plane.

When training the back, pull ups and chin ups are an excellent compliment to rows. Together they forge a well-rounded back-building program that also highly stresses the biceps.

The muscles involved in a pull up and chin up include, to varying degrees:

  • Rhomboids
  • Latissimus dorsi
  • Middle and lower trapezius
  • Biceps brachii
  • Brachialis, brachioradialis
  • Erector spinae
  • External oblique
  • Pectoralis major and minor
  • Deltoids
  • Subscapularis
  • Infraspinatus
  • Teres major
  • Flexor carpi radialis
  • Flexor carpi ulnaris
  • Palmaris longus
  • Flexor digitorum profundus
  • Flexor digitorum superficialis
  • Flexor pollicis longus

In 2010 study by the The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the pull up vs. the chin up. [1] Four women and 21 men participated. Electromyographic signals (EMG) were used to analyze the difference between the 2 exercises.

Researchers used 3 different tests to track muscle stimulation and contraction. The muscle contraction values were as follows:

  • Latissimus dorsi: 117-130%
  • Biceps brachii: 78-96%
  • Infraspinatus: 71-79%
  • Lower trapezius: 45-56%
  • Pectoralis major: 44-57%
  • Erector spinae: 39-41%
  • External oblique: 31-35%

These values were used as a baseline for researchers to compare the differences between pull ups and chin ups. They found that the biceps brachii and pectoralis major were stimulated to a much greater degree during chin ups. On the other hand, the pull up stress the lower trapezius to a much greater degree.

Pull Up and Chin Up Tips

Here are some tips to help you improve both your pull ups and chin ups.

  • Versa Gripps

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    During the pull up concentrate on driving your elbows back rather that “pulling” yourself up. This will help to maximize back activation while minimizing bicep activation.

  • Treat the chin up like a curl. Focus on bicep activation (if possible) and curling yourself towards the bar.
  • If you can’t perform a pull up use either inverted rows or assisted pull ups to help you increase your pull up strength.
  • If pull ups or chin ups become too easy, add resistance via a dip/pull up belt, back pack or ankle weights.
  • If your grip holds you back from performing pull ups and chin ups, use Versa Gripps or lifting straps. Never let a weak grip hinder you from properly training your back. If your grip is weak train it after your back and bicep work.
  • Leave to perform strict pull ups and chin ups before you attempt to use any momentum or “kip.” Momentum can be used to finish off an extended set of pull ups or chin ups, but only after a series of quality, strict reps.
  • Working on pull up and chin up eccentric strength can be a good way to increase your overall strength. Slowly lower yourself back down to the starting position over the course of 3 to 8 seconds.
  • Don’t forget that rows and curls are a great way to improve your chin up and pull up strength.
  • Single and double-handed timed hanging  is an excellent way to improve your grip strength and pull up strength base
  • If you lift with a training partner try partner-assisted pull ups to finish off a tough set.

Finally, if you’re struggling to perform many pull ups or chin ups, perform them 3 times a week for 3 sets a piece. Knock out as many reps as possible. Try to improve your weekly total reps for these 9 sets.

Even if you “only add 1 rep” each week, if you stick with this program your pull up and/or chin up strength will improve dramatically over the long haul.

A Back and Bicep Day with Pull Ups and Chin Ups

This sample back and bicep workout can be inserted into any standard bro split.

Back and Bicep Workout
Using Chin Ups and Pull Ups
Exercise Sets Reps
Deadlifts  2  5
Single Arm Dumbbell Rows  3  12
Seated Cable Rows  4  12
Pull Ups – As Many Rest-Pause Reps as Possible in 60 Seconds  2  AMAP
Lat Pull Downs  3  12
EZ Bar 21s  2  21
Seated Alternating Dumbbell Curls  3  12
Chin Ups – As Many Rest-Pause Reps as Possible in 60 Seconds  2  AMAP
References
  1. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21068680
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Name: Steve Shaw

Bio: I don’t believe in magic training systems or rep ranges. My philosophy is simple: remain consistent, use the best possible exercises, focus upon progression and enter the gym looking to maximize each set. When you maximize each set, you maximize progress. Easy, obvious, insanely effective.