Chin-Ups vs. Pull-Ups: Which Is a Better Back Exercise?

LIVESTRONG.com may earn compensation through affiliate links in this story.
athletic man doing chin-ups vs. pull-ups in the park
Pull-ups and chin-ups equally work your lats, but there are some pros and cons to each exercise.
Image Credit: urbazon/E+/GettyImages

When it comes to testing upper-body pulling strength, pull-ups are the gold standard. You can either muster the upper-body, core, grip strength to pull your chin over the bar or you can't.

Advertisement

But there's another reason doing pull-ups is really hard for some people: shoulder discomfort. Pull-ups, which use an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), can make some people's shoulders and rotator cuffs cranky, especially if either have been previously injured. And that discomfort or pain can affect how many reps you're able to do.

Advertisement

"Any amount of inflammation that people have going on — age-related degeneration, [muscle] imbalances, stress from daily life or even just from picking things up — can make those tolerances for [discomfort-free movement] even tighter," says Alex Viada, CSCS, a certified sports and conditioning specialist and owner of Complete Human Performance.

Advertisement

That said, doing chin-ups — where you use an underhand grip (palms facing toward your body) — can be easier on the shoulders for some people and allow you to do more reps, as you're relying more on the strength of your biceps.

But do pull-ups and chin-ups work the same muscles? Let's take a deeper dive into chin-ups versus pull-ups and why one variation might be easier for you than the other.

Advertisement

Pros of Pull-Ups

1. Require Minimal Equipment

You don't need weights or machines to do pull-ups — all you need is a bar. You can also do pull-ups on a playground where there are monkey bars or with rings or a suspension trainer.

2. Build Back Strength

Pull-ups are a standard back exercise for a reason: They do a great job of targeting your lattisimus dorsi — aka your lats — the fan-shaped muscles that are the largest in your back.

According to a February 2013 research review in the ​Strength and Conditioning Journal​, the overhand pull-up taxed the lat muscles at a much higher rate than the 60-percent muscle contraction threshold required for strengthening.

3. Work More Than Just Your Back

Pull-ups are great for strengthening your biceps and shoulders, as much as your back. A February 2017 study in the ​Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology​ found that pull-ups train the biceps brachii and brachioradialis (upper-arm muscles), as well as the infraspinatus (rotator cuff muscle).

The study also found that overhand grip pull-ups specifically train your middle trapezius (upper-back muscle) more than the underhand-grip variation. In addition, pull-ups strengthen your grip, which is important for many daily functional movements like opening jars and carrying grocery bags.

4. Improve Specific Sport Skills

In most sports where you need pulling strength — like football and rowing — you'll rarely need to pull down while using an overhand grip, Arent says. But there are a few sports in which an overhand pull-up is a training movement that will carry over into competition.

For example, rock climbers and swimmers need to pull with their palms facing away from them. And CrossFit athletes competing in kipping pull-up competitions need to be able to pull up with ease.

How to Do a Pull-Up

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Region Upper Body
  1. Hang from a bar with an overhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart or a little wider.
  2. Before you start the move, pretend you have jeans on. Now imagine tucking your shoulder blades into the back pockets of your jeans. This can help keep your shoulders back and down.
  3. Pull your chin toward the bar by bending your elbows. To help engage your back, concentrate on bringing your elbows down to touch your lats instead of thinking about bringing your chin over the bar. This can help prevent you from reaching your head forward, which can cause neck strain and can keep you from rolling your shoulders forward or back.
  4. Lower yourself to the starting position with control.
  5. Repeat.

Cons of Pull-Ups

1. May Cause Shoulder Discomfort

When your arms are pulled back to start an overhand-grip pull-up, your shoulders are already in a slightly unnatural position, Viada says. And even the smallest muscle imbalances and stresses from daily activities can cause space in your shoulder to become tighter.

As that space gets tighter and tighter, you may notice that you're more prone to chronic inflammation and discomfort when doing movements with your elbows wide, such as a pull-up, Viada says.

"Week after week, you may find that it just gets more and more uncomfortable," he says. So you may want to avoid doing back exercises to prevent further aggravating it.

However, the discomfort doesn't necessarily mean that shoulder mobility issues are at play.

"As I've gotten older, I've realized there are some exercises that are great exercises, but they're not great for me — they hurt, and I don't do them anymore," says Shawn Arent, PhD, chair of the Department of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina.

"If the pull-up can be not just hard but painful, why are you forcing yourself to do it? If you can do a chin-up with less pain, you're still going to train your lats and get some additional biceps work at the same time."

You can do physical therapy or corrective exercises to gain shoulder mobility for overhand pull-ups, but it's not essential because there are other exercises, like the chin-up, that provide the same benefits, Arent says.

2. Can Be Tough to Progress

Many people can't do a single pull-up, or they can only do one or two. This limits their ability to do enough reps to get stronger so they can do more. If this is true for you, try this variation to improve your pull-up numbers.

Banded Pull-Up

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Region Upper Body
  1. Wrap a heavy resistance band around the center of the pull-up bar.
  2. Pull the end of the band down and place one bent knee into the loop.
  3. Grip the bar with your hands shoulder-width apart.
  4. Place your other bent knee into the loop.
  5. In a slow, controlled movement, pull your chin up toward the bar.
  6. Lower your body back down.
  7. Since the band has the most tension at the bottom of the movement, it gives you a bit of a boost on your way up and helps offset some of your body weight.

Pull-Up and Chin-Up Bars to Try at Home

Pros of Chin-Ups

1. Work Your Back as Much as a Pull-Up

All pull-up variations, including the chin-up (underhand pull-up), train your lats.

"If your arm is out wide and [you have an overhand grip,] it's the [latissimus dorsi] that's being engaged. If you bring your hands all the way in, it's still the lat. If you have a neutral grip (palms facing each other) or chin-up grip, it's still the lat," Viada says.

The above-mentioned study from the ​Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology​ found that variations of the pull-up, including chin-ups, neutral-grip pull-ups and pull-ups using a rope, activated the latissimus dorsi similarly.

2. Can Be Easier for Some

For exercisers who feel discomfort performing overhand pull-ups, underhand chin-ups can be less painful, because your arms aren't pulled back into the same starting position. But even for those who don't feel any discomfort doing regular pull-ups, chin-ups can be easier.

"It's probably due to the increased activation that you get from the biceps with the underhand grip," says Paul Comfort, PhD, a professor of strength and conditioning at the University of Salford in Manchester, England.

"You have additional muscle mass involved, and you also get greater force production from the biceps to help with that final part of the range of motion [at the top], which is where most people struggle."

Chin-ups might also be easier if you do them more often. Since the easier variation is the one you'll train more, you'll become stronger in that movement.

How to Do a Chin-Up

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Region Upper Body
  1. Hang from the bar with an underhand grip, hands shoulder-width apart.
  2. Before you start the move, pretend you have jeans on. Imagine tucking your shoulder blades into the back pockets of your jeans. This can help keep your shoulders back and down.
  3. Pull your chin toward the bar by bending your elbows, keeping them close to your sides. To help engage your back, concentrate on bringing your elbows down to touch your lats instead of thinking about bringing your chin over the bar. This can help prevent you from reaching your head forward, which can cause neck strain and can keep you from rolling your shoulders forward or back.
  4. Lower back down to the starting position with control.
  5. Repeat.

Cons of Chin-Ups

1. Can Cause Elbow or Wrist Discomfort

Some exercisers find that underhand chin-ups can cause wrist or elbow discomfort, Arent says.

"That's where a neutral-grip pull-up (palms facing each other) might come in, in terms of being able to alleviate some of the wrist strain that a chin-up might cause, and some of the shoulder-impingement issues you might see with an overhand pull-up," he says.

2. Might Be Difficult to Progress

As with overhand pull-ups, many people can't do a single chin-up, but resistance band-assisted variations can help increase the number of reps you're able to do.

Banded Chin-Up

JW Player placeholder image
Type Strength
Region Upper Body
  1. Wrap a heavy resistance band around the center of the pull-up bar.
  2. Pull the end of the band down and place one bent knee into the loop.
  3. Grip the bar with both palms facing your body, about shoulder-width apart, then place your other bent knee into the loop.
  4. In a slow, controlled movement, pull your chin up toward the bar.
  5. Lower your body back down.
  6. Since the band has the most tension at the bottom of the movement, it gives you a bit of a boost on your way up and helps offset some of your body weight.

Pull-Ups vs. Chin-Ups: Which Is Better?

For strengthening your back, choosing between a pull-up and chin-up comes down to preference and which variation you can do better.

Oftentimes, people who say chin-ups "don't count" aren't doing pull-ups with full range of motion — not going all the way down into a straight-arm lockout. So if chin-ups are easier for you with proper form, have at it.

"I'd rather see somebody do 5, 6, 8, or however many good chin-ups than 1 or 2 really crappy pull-ups," Arent says.

By doing longer sets with the easier exercise, you're getting more overall stimulation for your back, Comfort says. So build your workout around your strongest variation, and if you want strengthen other versions, train them slightly less often.

For example, train with them on days when you're not doing your main move. This way, you'll get the lat training with your strongest version and improve your strength in the others.

Do Chin-Ups Count?

The short answer is yes, they count, because they train your lats the same way pull-ups do.

“Take the bent-over row, for example. You can do a pronated or supinated grip, and no one bats an eye. But when it comes to pull-ups, there’s so much argument if you change your hand position that one is better than the other,” Arent says. “They’re both pulling motions. If you’re trying to train your back, either will train your back.”

So unless you’re in a competition that specifically calls for overhand pull-ups, your neutral-grip pull-ups or chin-ups count — no matter what people say.

Advertisement

references