They can be performed as bodyweight or weighted exercise in a variety of different ways with the 2 most popular versions being the chin up and pull up.
Training the back, chest, arms and abs the chin up and pull up are true compound movements.
In this article, we look at both movements in detail to highlight the similarities and differences before giving you a definitive answer on when to use each one and whether one is more effective than the other.
Let’s dive in.
It goes without saying that both exercises train the back, but they also work the chest, arms and abs too. However, the back is the main focus and the exercise recruits all of these back muscles to help complete the movement;
The main muscle used is your latissimus dorsi (the lats) muscles, which originate from your lower to mid-back and extend up into your shoulder. Your lats function to pull your arms down and toward your body i.e. the bulk of the chin up / pull up movement.
When the lats are well-developed, they stick out from the side of your torso and create the wide, v-shaped look synonymous with cover models, swimmers and bodybuilders.
The other back muscles help with pulling, assist of the lats and stability throughout the movement. The biceps also assist the pulling movement, with the chest and abs helping to provide stability and stop you from swinging around.
Whilst both exercises are effective at building both strength and muscle, they are not performed in the same way.
Before we get to the similarities and difference it’s important to understand what each movement is and how you do it.
Probably my favourite back exercise at the moment, the chin up allows you to lift epic amounts of weight whilst building a dense, muscular and wide back.
It’s performed using a shoulder-width underhand or supinated grip with your palms facing toward you. This means the biceps play a much larger role in completing the lift which means it’s not only easier to do but your biceps will also get a great workout.
For this reason, it is often the best place to start if you’re new to chin ups.
In contrast, the pull up is performed with a wider pronated or overhand grip with the hands outside the shoulders and the palms of your hands facing away from you.
Due to the wider hand position, you’ll find the pull up a more difficult movement as the biceps play a much smaller role. This means it’ll take you longer to build the same kind of strength that you get with the chin ups.
However, it is very possible to build up some fantastic strength here and the pull up is a great exercise if you’re looking for a change, want to back off on the bicep work or have plateaued on chin ups.
You’ll often hear people saying that you should do chin ups if you want to build big biceps and pull ups if you want to focus more on your lats.
However, current research (1) shows that whilst bicep* and chest activation is much higher in the chin up and lower trap activation is much higher in pull ups when it comes to your lats, muscle activation is similar for both exercises.
This means that if your goal is to build a big back then it really doesn’t matter which exercise you choose.
However, as you’ll see shortly there are a few criteria I find useful for help you decide which exercise you should include in your training plan.
*In fact, chin ups have been shown (2) to be the 3rd most effective exercise when it comes to building bigger biceps with only concentration and cable curls being more effective.
Chin ups and pull ups are both closed chain compound exercises that train the entirety of the back and should be a mainstay in anyone training plan who is serious about building muscle and strength.
Closed chain exercises are said to more closely mimic the functional movement we used in our day to day lives and compound movements allow you to build strength faster by lifting more weight as you’re using multiple muscle groups together.
On the other side, chin ups and pull ups differ in their hand position, muscle emphasis and difficulty. This doesn’t necessarily make one better than the other, but these things should be considered when deciding which to use.
When it comes to deciding which exercise, you should do there are only really a couple of things to consider.
If you’re going to do chin ups and/or pull up and get the most out of them, then there are a handful of mistakes that you’re really going to want to avoid when doing these movements.
Using bad form not only increases your risk of injury but it can reduce the amount of muscle and strength you build too. For the best results you’ll want to avoid doing these 3 things;
A common mistake with chin ups and pull ups is not using a full range of motion. This leaves progress on the table as you shorten your reps.
A full rep starts from a dead hang and ends with your chin over the bar. If you want to get the most bang for your buck with these exercises, then you’ll want to make sure you’re doing them properly.
Another common mistake is using momentum to complete the exercise. This is what happens when the weight you’re using is too heavy or you’re not strong enough to complete the full movement.
Using momentum cheats the movement, requires less muscle activation and increases your risk of injury. Instead of swinging your way to the top I strongly recommend you start slow and build your strength over time.
Ego lifting refers to using a weight that is too heavy for you, even though you know it’s too heavy. It’s a symptom of not wanting to appear weak in front of others in the gym or feeling like you have to some macho ideal to live up to.
The issue is that lifting with a weight that is too heavy for you results in a limited range of motion, the use of momentum to complete your lift and bad technique. All of which increase your risk of injury and prevent you from making real progress.
Instead of doing this, focus on using an appropriate weight and doing the exercise with good form. If you do this then you’ll build strength and muscle.
The chin up and pull up are both fantastic exercises for building a bigger, stronger back with the chin up generally being more beginner-friendly due to the larger involvement of the biceps.
Aside from the difference in grip width and muscle activation, with the chin up working the biceps more and the pull up working the lower traps more, there is little to separate them.
Beginners may find the chin up a better place to start due to it being an easier movement. However, there is no wrong or right answer as to which you decide to use in your training plan.