Chin Ups Vs Pull Ups – A Scientific Guide

Vertical pulling patterns like the chin up and pull-up are absolute staple exercises of upper body strength and hypertrophy.  But what exactly are the differences between them? And how much do those differences matter?  That’s exactly what we’ll be covering in this article.

Chin ups vs Pull ups

The main difference between chin ups and pull ups is the grip you take.  With chin-ups you take an underhand grip (palms facing towards you) whilst with pull ups you take an overhead grip (palms facing away from you).

This difference in grip changes the width you’re likely to use, as well as changing the relative joint ranges of motion and muscle recruitments.

Joints worked and ranges of motion

To understand the difference, firstly we must understand what joints and muscles are being used. 

JointChin ups ROMPull-Ups ROM
ShoulderLargeLarge + 1-2 Inches
ElbowLargeMedium – Large

What muscles do pull ups work?

Pull-ups mainly work your lats and rhomboids, with some support and assistance from your teres major, teres minor and infraspinatus – which support your shoulder and scapular positions, as well as support from your forearms to help you grip and hang onto the bar. 

Location of lats and rhomboids
Location of lats and rhomboids

Benefits of a pull up

The pull up has multiple benefits:

  1. It has been well documented to improve back muscle strength, size and endurance.
  2. They help to improve shoulder mobility and stability
  3. pull ups also improve grip strength
  4. It has a great carryover to activities like gymnastics and climbing
  5. Plus the pullup requires minimal equipment and can performed with just bodyweight

Pull up variations

As a coach I tend to adjust pull-ups to either make them easier or make them harder depending on my athletes.

Variation 1: Wide Grip Pull-Ups (Harder)

Wide grip pull-ups are a more difficult pull-up variation which targets your lats a bit more, but tends to limit the numbe of reps that most people can do.  To perform the movement, place your hands anywhere from 1.5-2x shoulder width apart and pull up as you typically would.

Set up for wide grip pull ups

Variation 2: Leg Assisted Pull-Ups (Easier)

If regular pull-ups are too difficult, one of my favourite pull up variations is the leg assisted pull-up.  You don’t need any special equipment like bands or an assisted pull-up machine, all you need is a bench, box or chair to rest your feet on.  Boom, the change in leverage suddenly means you can get 1.5 to 2x as many reps.

Set up for assisted pull-ups at home

What muscles do chin ups work?

Chin ups work your lats and rhomboids, as well as your biceps.  You’ll also be assisted and stabilised by your teres minor, teres major and infraspinatus, along with using your forearms to grip the bar.

Studies show (Lusk et al. 2010) that your lats may work ever so slightly less, as your biceps work ever so slightly more.

Fun fact: Notice how other than the biceps, the pullup and chinup use exactly the same muscles?

Benefits of a chin up

The chin up has multiple benefits:

  1. It has been well documented to improve back muscle strength, size and endurance.
  2. They help to improve shoulder mobility and stability
  3. Chin ups also improve grip strength
  4. It has a great carryover to activities like gymnastics and climbing
  5. Plus the chinup requires minimal equipment and can performed with just bodyweight

Again: Notice how the benefits of the chinup are identical to the benefits of the pullup?

Chin up variations

Just like with pull-ups, I tend to use chin up variations to make the exercise harder or easier depending on my athlete.

Variation 1: Tempo Chin-Ups (Harder)

Another challenging variation that you can use is the tempo pull up.  To perform this movement, pull upwards as normal, but then hold for 2s at the top, and come back down slowly for a count of 3-5s, aiming to come down with loads of control and get a deep stretch in the lats at the bottom.

Tempo-chin ups technique

Variation 2: ‘Negative’ Only Chin-Ups

If you’re new to chin ups, you can use negative chin ups, which are actually similar to tempo chin-ups, only without the upwards section.  To perform them you use a chair or box to jump to the top position (instead of pulling up) and then you perform the downwards ‘negative’ section slowly, ideally taking 3-5 seconds per repetition.  This is a great way to build strength for your chin-ups and work towards your first full chinup.

Negative-chin up technique – beginner tutorial to practice for pull-ups – by BarStarzzBTX.com

Grip width and other factors

The pull up is far more versatile when it comes to grip width, you can perform narrow grip, medium grip (just outside shoulder width) and wide grip (1.5-2x shoulder width) pullups, or anything in between.

Chin-ups on the other hand can only be performed narrow grip or at shoulder width.  If you try to go much wider the pulling angle gets all messed up and your wrists will start to feel painful.

Luckily, research found that grip width doesn’t make a huge difference in muscle activation and performance outcomes.  Or that it does make some difference, but the degree is so small that strength and hypertrophy outcomes are likely to be close to identical.

Similarities Between the Pull-Up and Chin-Up

The pull up and the chin up have plenty of similarities, in fact I would argue as a coach that they have so many similarities as to be almost interchangeable.

  1. They’re both compound, closed kinetic chain exercises
  2. They both strengthen your upper back and lats
  3. They both require a degree of core control to perform well
  4. They both use a very similar pulling movement
  5. And they’re both typically performed for the same sets and reps

Plus they both have similar strength and hypertrophy outcomes in training, so for all intents and purposes you can think of them as interchangeable.

When should athletes choose chin ups or pull ups?

For the most part, athletes can choose chin-ups and pull-ups based mostly on personal preference. 

  • If you chin-ups feel good, you get a good stimulus in the muscles and you enjoy doing them, go with chin-ups.
  • On the other hand if you get a better stimulus or mind-muscle connection from pull-ups, or you just enjoy doing them more, then pick pull-ups instead.

With that said, there are a couple of situations where chin-ups or pull-ups might be better.

  1. If you’re trying to build towards muscle ups, pull-ups, especially explosive pull-ups performed with a ‘false grip’ will help you get to muscle ups far quicker, as the movement pattern has a better carryover.
  1. If you’re in a rush and want to get some bicep stimulus in, but only have time for one exercise (no extra curls) then chin-ups will be a better choice.

Beyond those two VERY SPECIFIC situations, it’s honestly just down to personal preference.

Other factors and FAQ’s

Are chin ups easier than pull-ups?

In my coaching experience I’ve found that most people find chin-ups slightly easier than pull-ups.  This may be due to being able to use your biceps a bit more, or it may just feel like a more ‘natural’ movement, especially for beginners who struggle to feel their lats working.

Which is better pull ups or chin ups?

Neither pull ups nor chin ups is better, they’re simply different variations that you can use to achieve the same goal.

Summary

The great chin up vs pull up debate is one that needs to end.  Its pointless.  Both exercises work almost identical muscle groups in almost identical ways, and both exercises have almost identical performance outcomes for strength, size and endurance.

The choice of chin up vs pull up mainly comes down to your own personal preference.  Does the exercise feel good?  Are you feeling the right muscles working? Do you feel strong in it?

From this point onwards, I want you to think of:

  • Wide grip pull ups
  • Narrow grip pull ups
  • Chin ups
  • Tempo chin ups
  • Narrow grip chin ups
  • Towel chin ups
  • Machine assisted chin ups or pull ups
  • Leg assisted chin ups or pullups

Simply as interchangeable exercises that you can add into your training for variety and to keep things fresh.

Further Reading / References

Anderson et al. (2014) – Effects of grip width on muscle strength and activation in the lat pull-down.

Lusk et al. (2010) – Grip width and forearm orientation effects on muscle activity during the lat pull-down.

Ronai & Scibek (2014) – The Pull-up.

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Alex Parry
British Weightlifting Tutor & Educator at Character Strength & Conditioning | Website | + posts

Alex is the Owner and Head Coach of Character Strength & Conditioning, and specialises in strength & power development for athletes.

He currently works as a Tutor & Educator for British Weightlifting, and has previously delivered S&C support to gymnastics and swimming talent pathways.