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Today I’m going to talk about pull-ups vs. chin-ups, 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, pullups are when your palms are facing away from you (overhand grip), and chin-ups are when your palms facing towards you (underhand grip). Nothing fancy here.
Pullups are often done at a wide-grip or either shoulder-width, and chin-ups are usually done at shoulder-width or narrow-grip.
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 disadvantage 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 basically following more the orientation of the lower fibers of the lat, and the closer your hands come-in, you’re following more of the upper fibers of the lat.
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 force and get you through the exercise.
So, to make a long story short, whenever you’re doing chin-ups you’re placing a bigger emphasis on the biceps.
Neutral Grip Pull-Ups
When it comes to performing neutral-grip pullups (or neutral-grip chin-ups as some prefer calling it) or even an exercise like a towel chin-up, your forearm is in a neutral position. This is going to heavily involve your brachialis, which is one of the muscles on the outside of 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 it’s a really good reality check indicator, so if someone has a 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 the perfect reality check to get things in line with your nutrition and start working on relative strength.
If you need more reasons of why you should do them, then here are another five excellent ones:
Which One Is Better?
Before I answer this question, I want you to think for a second what is 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 the grip you’re going with, at the end of the day you’re working your arms, your back, your shoulder 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 answer here – it all depends and that changes from one person to another.
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 then and move on to harder variations as you get stronger and increase your rep range.
Typically, this is the order from easiest to hardest:
- Neutral-Grip Pullups
- 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 would be 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 those muscles mentioned.
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 the 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 these different variations to get the maximum benefit out of them.