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Pull-ups or Chin-ups…?
Which one should I do?
If you’re asking yourself this question, you came to the right place.
Today I’m going to talk about these two exercises, the differences between them, why you should be doing one over the other, and what’s the science and anatomy behind each exercise.
Let’s get right into it.
In a nutshell:
- Pull-Ups = when your palms are pronated (overhand grip), facing away from you.
- Chin-Ups = when your palms are supinated (underhand grip), facing towards you.
Pullups are often done at a wide-grip or at shoulder-width, and chin-ups are usually done at shoulder-width or narrow-grip.
There’s also a third type of grip which is:
- Neutral-Grip = when your palms are facing each other like when doing hammer curls.
This one usually requires a special bar with parallel handles.
With that out of the way, let’s get into the nitty-gritty stuff.
To start with, I want to talk about wide-grip pullups where the hands are placed outside your shoulder width.
In general, wide-grip pullups are going to have a slightly increased emphasis on recruitment of the lats.
The reason for this is when the arms are out wide, the biceps are actually placed in a mechanically disadvantaged position, whereby the lats are forced to do a bit more work during the exercise.
This is coupled with the fact that when you’re in a pull-up position, your hands are pronated, a thing which takes away one of the other functions of the bicep – supination.
When you’re gripping the bar with a wide grip, you have an increased capacity to perform adduction at the shoulder joint, and that allows you to increase the recruitment of the lats.
Compare that to a close-grip chin-up or a close-grip pullup where the elbows are forward in front of the body – you can’t get as much of that forceful adduction that demands more recruitment of the back.
Additionally, there’s less overall elbow flexion required to complete a full range-of-motion wide-grip pullup compared to a standard pullup or a standard chin-up.
Targeting Specific Lat Fibers
There’s a bit of speculation on this next point, but it’s been theorized that the wider your hands are placed, the more you focus on the lower fibers of the lats.
On the other hand, the closer your grip comes in, the more it targets the upper fibers of the lats.
This is because the wider you go, you’re following more the orientation of the lats’ lower fibers, and the closer your hands come in you’re following more of the lats’ upper fibers.
When it comes to chin-ups (shoulder-width or narrow-grip), there’s probably no surprise there, but you tend to get a little more biceps involvement with this hand placement.
The reason for that is this:
One of the functions of the bicep is forearm supination.
When your hands are in a supinated position, your biceps are actually in a mechanical advantage to produce greater force.
So, to make a long story short, whenever you’re doing chin-ups, you’re placing a bigger emphasis on the biceps.
When it comes to performing neutral-grip pullups (or neutral-grip chin-ups as some prefer calling it) or even an exercise like towel chin-ups, your forearm is in a neutral position.
This is going to heavily involve your brachialis and your brachioradialis, which are two other muscles that flex your arm.
People tend to find neutral-grip pullups even easier than pullups and chin-ups.
This is because in a neutral-grip position you get by far the most recruitment from your arm muscles.
And when it comes to pulling exercises, most people tend to be more arm dominant than back dominant.
So getting all the help you can from your biceps and your brachialis is one of the main reasons why neutral-grips tend to be the easiest.
Why Should I Do Pullups/Chinups?
What I really like about bodyweight exercises is that they’re a good reality check.
If someone has poor relative strength and they’re not good at moving their own bodyweight through space, they’re going to have a really hard time when it comes to doing pullups and chin-ups.
For example, if a person can lat-pulldown a lot of weight but has poor body-composition and he’s over-weight, he will find pull-ups and chin-ups to be difficult to perform.
Pullups and chin-ups are some of the best relative strength exercises. They are a perfect reality check to get things in line with your nutrition and start working on relative strength.
If you need more reasons to why you should do them, here’s another five excellent ones:
Pullup vs Chinup – Which One Is Better?
Before I answer this question, I want you to think for a second about what’s happening at the shoulder joint when you’re doing a pullup/chinup…
You’re in a hanging position, and you’re basically performing shoulder extension (pulling the arms down).
So regardless of what grip you use, at the end of the day you’re working your arms, your back, your shoulders, and your trunk muscles, because the movement pattern through shoulder extension is ultimately the same.
As far as which variation is better, the truth is, there’s no right or wrong here – it all depends, and it changes from person to person.
One aspect, especially for beginners, is the difficulty factor.
If you’re struggling to do even one or two pullups, then start with the easiest one, and move on to harder variations as you get stronger and increase your rep range.
Typically, this is the order from easiest to hardest:
- Shoulder-Width Pullups
- Wide-Grip Pullups
If pulling yourself over the bar is not a problem for you, then it’s time to get more strategic about it. Here, you can try maximizing the activation of a specific muscle that you’re trying to target.
A good rule to follow is this:
When it comes to choosing your hand placement, choose the one that emphasizes the muscle you’re trying to target most.
So if you’re looking to target the biceps more – go with the chin-up, and if you’re looking to hit the lats more – go with a pull-up.
Each variation will emphasize certain muscle groups more/less depending on the one you choose.
But don’t stress or lose sleep over it, because at the end of the day, regardless of the hand placement you choose, you’re still working all these muscles.
Longevity also plays a key role here, so choose an exercise that allows you to focus on the muscle you want without any joint pain or discomfort.
There’s no use in choosing an exercise that in theory will maximize your results if in application it hurts and you can’t put in a full effort.
There are many more ways you could do these exercises to elicit different responses from different muscles. It’s all about how you put the exercises together that determines the results you’re going to get.
A good routine that teaches all these principles in practice is the Bar Brothers 12-week program, a bodyweight training routine that really does an excellent job of balancing out and mixing the different variations to get the maximum benefit out of them.
Born and raised in sunny Florida, Jesse Parker grew up spending most of his days outdoors playing hoops and honing his basketball skills. He has a huge love for the game and is always striving to get better at it. His latest obsession is the subject of vertical jumping and dunking.