Pull-ups vs. Chin-ups

Squats vs. Deadlifts

Batman vs. Superman

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Which one is better than the other?  This could raise some serious debates, especially when it comes to Batman vs. Superman.  But it shouldn’t be a matter of which is better, because let’s face it, all of those are awesome, especially Batman & Superman.   It’s more a matter of ‘Which am I going to use today?’

Remember the Physical Fitness test we had to do in gym class?  What was the worst of all the test outs?  Ok, well maybe it was the mile run but in my opinion it was most certainly the pull-up.

Why?  Because you had to pull yourself over a bar, using just your upper body.   That requires a great deal of upper body strength as I’ve come to learn over my years of being a trainer & coach.

Pull-ups and Chin-ups are essentially the same bodyweight exercise that will engage mostly the same major muscles, with some minor differences on technique and secondary muscle activation.

This isn’t to say one is better than the other.  On the contrary, both should be incorporated into your programs because they are both great at developing upper body strength through the use of a multi-joint movement.

Muscle engagement for both Pull-ups and Chin-ups is pretty similar.

– Latissimus dorsi
– Biceps
– Infraspinatus
– Lower trapezius
– Pectorals
– Erectors

Both are a vertical pull movement pattern.

Pull-ups and Chin-ups will activate the same muscle groups, however according to an EMG research study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning; it was found that the pectorals and bicep muscles had significantly higher activation during the Chin-up than during the Pull-up.

It was also found that the lower trapezius were significantly more active during the Pull-up.

Pull-ups

The basic Pull-up starts with an overhand grip on the bar, with the hands slightly wider than shoulder width.  Starting from a hanging position and pulling yourself up until your chin is at the level of the bar, then slowly lower yourself down (more on this technique later).

While in this position, the upward pull will require your body to focus mostly on your latissimus dorsi with assistance from biceps brachii, lower trapezius and infraspinatus.

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Chin-ups

In its basic form, a Chin-up looks very similar to a Pull-up.  The one small difference is that you perform the vertical pull with an underhand grip placing your hands shoulder width apart.  In the same manner, starting from a dead hang position, pull yourself up to the bar, and then lower back down slowly.

This change in grip will still engage your latissimus dorsi, but the change in form will cause the focus to shift to your biceps, pectorals, and rear deltoids to complete the action.

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Here are a few tips to get your Pull-ups and Chin-ups on the right track:

1, Elbows to your sides or to the ground– This will cue your body to initiate the movement from your latissimus dorsi and shoulder blades instead of the hands and arms.  Often times, we think to just pull with our hands and arms to get up, and this can lead to poor motor planning and muscle recruitment.

To see how to strengthen your torso check out Add Maximum Muscle to Your Torso with these 6 Exercises

Changing your thought process of pulling with the back instead of the hands can make a huge difference in results.

2, Head Up– Keep your head up and towards the ceiling or the bar.  This will ensure that your chest stays up and help prevent your shoulders from rounding.

3, BREATHE!  I can’t tell you how many times I see people hold their breath as they try to perform Pull-ups or Chin-ups. Breathing through any exercise is integral.

Don’t do exercises wrong see also 9 common strength training exercise mistakes to avoid

Corrective Problems

Seeing as how we live in a world full of flexion, you’ll tend to see people with rounded shoulders, and that can create chaos when it comes to increasing not only the strength of your Pull-ups but the technique as well.

This rounded posture makes it hard for the latissimus dorsi to fire, which means that other muscles must pick up the slack.  Try to remember keeping your chest proud, and pull the shoulders down and back.

Most of this is because we’ve lost our posture.  We’ve become more dominant in our upper trapezius, rather than dominant in a much larger muscle, latissimus dorsi.  So in order to get your Pull-ups to where you want them, try these activation exercises.

– Straight arm Pull-down

Using a band or even a lat pull-down machine at the gym, you’re going to pull the bar or band to your hips while keeping the arms straight.  Concentrate on pulling using your lats and shoulder blades, rather than pulling from the hands.

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– Supine Pull-over

Lay on your back with a band attached to a secure spot behind you.  Similar to the pull-down above, you are going to pull the band to your hips while keeping the arms as straight as possible.

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With both of these activations, make sure you are using latissimus dorsi and not just moving the shoulder.  Think about keeping the shoulders down and not getting into a shrugged position.  Think about maintaining a proud chest, not caved in chest.

How to Improve & Get Stronger

Isometric Holds In order to build the strength to do Pull-ups and Chin-ups, you need to be able to engage the important large muscles of the back.  Performing isometric holds may seem like a simple idea, but they are extremely challenging, especially in the beginning.

Even when you’ve developed the strength and motor pattern to do Pull-ups and Chin-ups, it’s still fun to push yourself and throw isometric holds in every once in a while.

Negatives or Eccentrics This tip starts at the top of a Pull-up or Chin-up, much like the isometric hold.  Starting at the top of each exercise, slowly lower yourself down until you reach full range of motion.  Reset at the top and repeat.  Try starting with a 5 second lowering, and increase from there.

Bands Using bands provides assistance while performing Pull-ups or Chin-ups through their full range of motion.  Through the use of these, you can start adding more volume to your vertical pull workouts.  As you get stronger, you start to use bands with less and less tension, finally ending up with doing them with no bands at all.

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One simple way to increase your ability to do Pull-ups and Chin-ups is to drop weight.  If you weigh less than you do currently, it will make pulling yourself up that much easier.  It is as simple as a lighter load compared to a heavier one.

Skip the Kip

When you see people “performing” kipping Pull-ups they are essentially taking a gymnastic move, and butchering it.  This movement is a matter of creating momentum to get over the bar.

However, if you’re only using momentum to complete the task, your muscles aren’t fully engaged, thus you’re taking the burden or load from the muscles, which can handle those dynamic forces, and puts it on other tissues(tendons, ligaments & fascia).

Additionally, if you don’t have enough strength to do a strict Pull-up, you definitely shouldn’t be kipping as you wouldn’t be able to stabilize through the kip as you create momentum instead of strength and stability.

As such, without that stability, your arm, namely the head of the humerus, is free to move within the joint, and this can put pressure on the soft tissue surrounding the shoulder.  That is how you get injuries such as impingement, labral tears, and rotator cuff problems (which is four muscles, not one).

If you don’t have enough strenght at the begining try this Lat pull down

Takeaway

There is no debate that both Pull-ups and Chin-ups should have their place in your programming.  Both are multi joint movements that utilize the larger muscles of the body, and both can help build great upper body strength.

Pull-ups and Chin-ups are just the beginning.  In addition to the overhand & underhand positions, variations including a neutral grip and a mixed grip can also be added.  If you want to further add variability to your vertical pulls, alter the placement of your hands from wide to narrow to close grip.

No matter how you decide to pull yourself over the bar, the benefits of adding these exercises to your program are tremendous.

Lead image by Tyler Bolken.

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