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Pull ups vs Chin ups (The Definitive Guide)

Pull ups vs Chin ups (The Definitive Guide)

The pull up and chin up are both compound exercises that engage the same muscle groups in the upper body but with different levels of tension…

What is the difference?

The key difference between the pull up and the chin up is how you grip the bar.

1st frame is a chin up with palms facing towards. 2nd frame is a pull up with palms facing away.

1st frame is a chin up with palms facing towards. 2nd frame is a pull up with palms facing away.

  • To perform a pull up you have to adopt a pronated grip. This is where you hold the bar with your palms facing away from you.

  • The chin up requires a suprinated grip where your palms

    are facing towards you.

This may seems like a relatively trivial difference, however the orientation of your grip and the width of your hand positioning has a significant impact on the levels of engagement from different muscle groups.

This article will look the difference between pull ups and chins ups in terms of:

  • The muscles that are placed under most tension with each exercise

  • How the width of your hand placement on the bar affects each exercise

  • How the neutral grip differs from the pull up and chin up

  • And why ring pull ups are undeniably the ultimate pull up

Pull ups vs Chin ups- Muscles worked

Both exercises engage the biceps and the lats as the primary movers of the exercise. Muscles in the back (such as trapezius, Teres Major, Infraspinatus and Teres Minor), shoulders, chest and core are secondary movers that contribute as stabilising and pulling strength.

The pull up and chin up both work the same muscle groups but with different levels of tension.

The chin up places more emphasis on the biceps, core and pectorals due to the hollow body shape, whereas pull ups place more tension on the lats, rear delts and back muscles (traps, rhomboids, erector spinae).

With the chin up your hand positioning is closer together then the pull up so your arms are naturally more in front of your body rather then out to the side as with the pull up.

The fact that your arms are in-front of the body allows for more elbow flexion which puts the biceps at a mechanical advantage contribute more to the exercise. This is why you feel it more in your arms with a chin up and why the chin up is a better exercise for building bigger biceps then pull ups.

The hollow body position required for the chin up also place more tension on the abs and recruits the pectorals far more as the pecs have to contract more when you hold onto the bar with a closer grip to maintain the appropriate posture.

Pull ups…

The pull up on the other hand tends to hit the lats and back more then the chin up. The exercise still places tension on the biceps, but because your arms are out to your side (rather then in front of you, as with the chin up) the biceps are at a mechanical disadvantage to do most of the pulling. There is less flexion at the elbow and more emphasis is placed on your lats and back muscles to pull you up.

While the chin up require a more hollow body positioning during the exercise, the pull up requires a arched back in order to get your chin up and over the bar.

This position places more emphasis on the back and shoulder muscles to provide stability so therefore its more more taxing for your traps, rear delts, Teres Major, Infraspinatus and Teres Minor.

Again its important to remember both pull ups and chin ups engage the same muscle groups, but the level of tension on each muscle group varies with each exercise.

Width of the Grip and Muscle Tension

Pull ups emphasise the lats where as chin ups emphasise the biceps

Pull ups emphasise the lats where as chin ups emphasise the biceps

How wide you place your hands on the bar also has a bearing on the level of tension the exercise has on different muscle groups.

Generally speaking:

  • The wider your hands are apart on the bar, the more the lats (latissimus dorsi) are recruited to be the primary mover of the exercise and less tension is on the biceps

  • The more narrow your grip is the more your emphasis there is on your biceps to be the primary mover.

So if your looking to target your biceps, the best of the two exercise is close grip chin ups. Adopting the chin up grip with your hands close together is a great exercise for adding mass and strength to your biceps.

I personally find that placing my hand six inches apart is the most comfortable and practical distance for close grip chin ups. Any closer and your arms tend to get in the way of your body and obstruct a full contraction of the bicep muscle thereby denying yourself full range of motion.

Also bear in mind that you should keep your hands less then shoulder width apart when doing chin ups. If the grip is too wide it puts strain on the wrists and elbows in particular as they are out of their optimal alignment.

Anywhere between six inches apart and less then shoulder width for chin ups is the most comfortable hand placement for you joints and connective tissue so you can proactively avoid potential aches and strains.

How a wider grip affects pull ups…

The width of your hand placement has a big influence on the relative muscle contribution with the pull up.

Narrow Grip Pull ups

You can choose to specifically target your forearms with close grip pull ups. This is an exceptional way to train grip strength as you are not only testing your forearms capacity for holding your body weight up but also the forearm has to contribute more to the movement when its in this position.

A good way to scale this type of pull up for grip training is too add weight with a dipping belt, this is may favourite way to add strength and size to my forearms and to improve grip strength in both a maximal and endurance strength context. This can be really useful for sports like rowing, climbing and grappling.

Wide Grip Pull ups

If you adopt a wider hand positioning with pull ups you will engage the back, lats and shoulders more then narrow grip.

With wide grip pull ups there is less flexion at the elbow then chin ups, so whilst there is still significant tension on the biceps, they are ultimately are at a mechanical disadvantage to contribute to the movement as the biceps don’t go through the full range of motion and therefore there is less of a contraction.

With pull ups the lats have a bigger role to play when it comes to providing the pulling strength.

So if you want to hit your back wide pull ups are the way to go.

The optimal hand spacing for wide grip pull ups is placing you hands just wider then shoulder width apart, so that your elbows are at the side of your body rather then out in front.

If you are targeting the lats, back and shoulders, it is tempting to adopt a width of hand placement that is excessively wide.

There is a point of diminishing returns with the width of your pull up grip so don’t go too wide. If you hands are too far wide you will not get the same range of motion to really activate the lats and back muscles to their full potential.

Just wider then shoulder width is ideal because you get the tension on the lats and back, but also a good range of motion to really target the muscles effectively.

Wide Grip Pull ups or Close Grip Chin ups?

I personally always recommend to switch up your training between the two variations for a few reasons:

  1. To balance any muscle imbalances so that you are built proportionately in both the back and biceps

  2. The equalise any pulling strength imbalances between your back and biceps (avoid being back or arm dominant)

  3. To maintain a progressive overload for muscle gain

Whether you are looking to build muscle or increase your strength you should spend time developing your strength with both exercises to avoid being overly arm or back dominant in your pulling strength.

Pull ups and chin ups are compound exercise that work all the same muscle groups with varying levels of tension, so to switch it up between the two variations ensure even and proportional muscle development which is good for body building and having a balance physique.

In terms of strength it is good to be at a level where you can do roughly the same number of reps with each variation.

If you have an even amount of strength within arms and back then this will translate to success in other lifts such as rows, dead lifts, sled pulls etc. not to mention well rounded strength cross over better to athletic performance.

Equalising the strength difference between wide grip pull ups and narrow grip chin ups is a very satisfying achievement and a great goal to aim for.

It should be noted most people tend to find chin ups (with a grip less the shoulder width) easier then pull ups as your arms tucked in to your body and there is a stronger line of pull so more muscles are able to contribute to the exercise, so don’t be discouraged if you find pull ups more difficult as nearly everyone does.

Neutral Grip

neutral grip pull ups

Neutral grip is another type of grip used for pull ups that is half way between a pull up and a chin up in terms hand placement) . This is where the palms are orientated so they are opposite one another.

A pull up bar with a neutral grip option are becoming more and more popular particularly with commercial gyms.

This type of pull up can be beneficial as the angle of the grip can be less taxing on your wrists and elbow joints then chin ups. So if you have any niggling discomfort from chin ups then try the neutral grip instead.

They also tend to be less difficult then pull ups for most individuals because of the relative muscle contribution to the exercise.

Neutral grip pull ups also hit the forearms from a different angle. In terms of forearm activation, think of each variation of pull up like the variations of bicep curls…

  • Chin ups resemble a standard bicep curl

  • Neutral grip is similar to a hammer curls

  • Pull ups are like a reverse grip bicep curl

This allows your to develop forearm strength and size from different angles to emphasise different muscles in the forearm. Neutral grip pull ups are a useful tool to have in your arsenal and can provide a different stimulus for your body to adapt to if you are already accustomed to pull ups and chin ups.

The only slight criticism I would have for neutral grip pull ups is that you cannot adjust between wide and narrow grip as the bars are set at a specific distance. But they do tend to put your body in a strong line of pull and they are a good alternative to mix into your training.

However you can choose an even better alternative which is…

Why Ring Pull ups are the Best Variation

From my experience the ring pull up is the ultimate pull up because the rings are free to rotate to the angle which is most comfortable for your joints.

With the rings pull up there is no predetermined angle which dictates how you have to grab the bar. The rings adjust to how your body is moving throughout the exercise.

Typically the most comfortable angle of grip changes during the pull up, and the rings allow you to move to the optimal position with their rotation, whereas the static bar inhibits this natural movement.

For example, when you are in dead hang holding on to a pair of rings your hands naturally orientate to a pronated, pull up like angle. This position is determined by where your, wrists, elbows, shoulders feel most comfortable.

During the course of a pull up, the free movement of the rings allows your body to move through its preferred range of motion.

As your pulling up, you naturally turn the rings so that your palms face progressively face inwards. At the very top of the pull up, the angle of your grip tends to be at a more neutral angle, as it would be with the neutral grip pull up bar and not quite fully suprinated like a chin up.

Of course the eccentric (lowering) phase of the motion the movement is in reverse from a more neutral angle back down to a pronated pull up like grip at the bottom.

For anyone with joint discomfort from pull ups or chin ups will find ring pull ups far more comfortable for wrists, elbows, shoulders and connective tissue such as ligaments, tendons are cartilage.

Also you can easily adjust the distance of the rings straps to find the most comfortable width of grip.

The fact that rings…

  1. Rotate freely adjusting with your body as you move

  2. The distance of the rings is easily altered

…means that Ring pull ups can help you proactively avoid injury as they respect your body’s natural plane of motion when executing pulling movements.

Rings pull ups also has other advantages:

  • The free movement of the rings means there is an instability element to the exercise. This leads to higher muscle activation then regular pull ups.

  • The inherent instability of the rings means your body adaptively responds to the stimulus by strengthening the stabilising muscles in the shoulders and the core. This leads to better shoulder health and a more solid foundation for other movements that require stability.

For four more benefits take a look at my article on the 6 Benefits of Ring Pull ups.


So what is the difference between a pull up and a chin up? The angle of the grip has a huge bearing on which muscles are under most tension during the exercise.

Pull ups are with an overhand grip and are great for back development, pulling strength and really focusing on the lats.

Chin ups use a underhand grip and are better suited for building strength and muscle in the biceps with significantly more contribution from the chest and abs to help maintain that hollow body position during the exercise.

But is important to remember, no matter what variation of pull up or chin up you are doing the primary movers will be the back and biceps, it is the same muscle groups that contribute to both variations.

Pull ups and chin ups are the ultimate upper body compound movement that is a great way to gauge your strength to body weight ratio.

They recruit more muscle groups under a high level of tension then any other exercise.

Ultimately its not a case of choosing one above the other but rather you should switch up your training between wide grip pull ups and narrow grip chin ups to equalise any strength imbalance and and develop a proportional well balanced physique.

However if you want to take your training to the next level I always recommend adding ring pull ups as they not only

  • test your body’s capacity for stability whilst executing a dynamic movement

  • but also protect your joints and connective tissue aches and strains associated with being at a static angle.

  • The muscle activation is higher then bar pull ups due to the rings inherent instability.

Tell me down in the comments which your prefer, the pull up, chin up or rings pull ups? If you have any further questions please let me know! ↓ ↓ ↓ 

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