- Certified Personal Trainer, The Gym at 99 Sudbury
Pull ups, chin ups or lat pull down (a variation that uses a pulley instead of a bar where you pull the weight down instead of your body weight up) should be considered a mandatory exercise in every upper body exercise list.
These exercises work your entire upper body, especially the muscles of your back, as well as your abs and your biceps.
The problem however is that many people don’t seem to realize that pull ups and chin ups are not the same thing. They’re similar exercises for sure, but using their names interchangeably is just flat out wrong.
In fact, there are quite a few differences and pros/cons between them, and you need to know them all to figure out which one is best for you.
The main differences are:
- Kind of grip
- Muscles reached
- Level of training, safety and comfort
Kind of grip:
- Pull Ups = A pronated (overhand) grip where your palms point outwards so that they are facing away from you. The most common grip width is just slightly wider than shoulder width.
- Chin Ups = A supinated (underhand) grip where your palms point inwards so that they are facing you. The most common grip width is shoulder width.
- Neutral Grip = A “semi-supinated” grip where your palms are facing each other.
- Opposite grip = when one hand is pronated and the other one is supinated. This one is good to correct imbalances in power
While both exercises take place in the vertical pulling movement plane, and they both primarily target the back (specifically the lats) and biceps, the way they do it is slightly different.
Pull ups typically use shoulder adduction, where the elbows come down and back from the sides.
Chin ups on the other hand use shoulder extension, where the elbows come down and back from the front (neutral grip fits in this category as well).
Chin ups put the biceps in a stronger line of pull, so most people will usually be stronger at chin ups than they are at pull ups.
Similarly, most beginners to either exercise (or just beginners in general) will usually find that they’re able to do a chin up before they can do a pull up.
Both exercises will primarily train your back/lats and biceps no matter what. However, there are some slight differences in the degree in which those muscles get trained.
Since chin ups put your biceps in a stronger line of pull, they’ll typically hit your biceps a bit harder than pull ups will.
Conversely, pull ups may hit your lats a bit harder, mostly as a result of your biceps being in a slightly weaker position.
Grip width also plays a role here too. The narrower your grip is, the more it will train your biceps. The wider the grip, the less it will train your biceps.
Level, safety and comfort:
Like any weight training exercise, both chin ups and pull ups are perfectly safe… unless you do something incorrectly.
Some general recommendations to keep in mind with these exercises:
For starters, any type of pull up, chin up or lat pull-down done behind the neck is potentially one of the worst things you can do for shoulder health. Some people can do it this way for years without any problem ever, but many people will usually develop problems over time.
At the same time, a very wide pull up grip is another common cause of shoulder injuries. People tend to think a very wide grip equals very wide lats. A very wide grip just means a reduced range of motion and a very high risk of shoulder problems.
Beyond that, people with a pre-existing history of shoulder problems may find that a chin up grip is a little less stressful on their shoulders than a pull up grip. On the other hand, some people may find that a pull up grip is a lot more comfortable for their wrists and forearms than a chin up grip.
And in terms of being the most overall potentially safe and comfortable grip for people with one or both of the above issues… it’s probably the less-often-available neutral grip.
With all that said, I would say that the best (and safest) results come from using a mix of different grips.