Chin-up vs. pull-up: The only real difference between these fantastic back exercises is your hand position and how it, in turn, affects your shoulders. If you find that chin-ups feel better than pull-ups, you might also like doing neutral-grip chin-ups.
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A Look at the Terminology
The words chin-up and pull-up are often used interchangeably — small surprise, because both exercises center around pulling your chin up to the level of a high bar.
But there is a difference between the two exercises. During pull-ups you grip the bar in an overhand grip (palms facing away from you), while for chin-ups you grip the bar in an underhand grip (palms facing toward you). You might occasionally hear chin-ups described as using a supinated grip, and pull-ups as using a pronated grip; this is just a different way of saying the same thing.
The neutral-grip pull-up — or neutral-grip chin-up, if you prefer — requires a specialized bar with two parallel handles that jut out toward you. When you grip those handles your hands aren't in an overhand or underhand grip, but in a neutral position with your palms facing in toward each other. Otherwise, a neutral-grip pull-up works the same as any other pull-up variation: Get that chin up to the bar.
Speaking of chins and bars, for some people the "chin to bar" cue prompts a forward-thrusting head motion at the top of the motion, leaving your neck doing more work than your back muscles as you stretch your chin to reach the bar.
If this sounds familiar, you might find it more helpful to think of this exercise as a chest-up instead of a chin-up. That change in terminology helps you stay focused on lifting your chest to meet the bar, working the right muscles with none of the literal rubbernecking that can throw off your form and even leave you injured.
Why Chin-Up vs. Pull-Up Matters
There's a common perception that doing chin-ups activates your biceps more than other pull-up variations, relieving some of the load from your back — and there's no denying that for many people, chin-ups feel easier than pull-ups. You might also notice that you have a greater and more comfortable range of motion while doing chin-ups and neutral-grip pull-ups versus regular pull-ups.
But according to a small study of 19 volunteers, published in the February 2017 issue of the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology, peak muscle activation in the shoulder-arm-forearm complex is actually quite similar in all the pull-up variations tested. Those variations included not just a supinated-grip pull-up (remember, that's a chin-up) and the typical overhand-grip pull-up, but also the palms-in, neutral-grip pull-up.
Why do so many people report that chin-ups and even neutral-grip pull-ups feel easier than regular pull-ups? It's probably their shoulders talking. Another small study, published in the August 2016 issue of the Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, focused on observations of scapular motion in a group of 11 participants as they did chin-ups, wide-grip pull-ups and "front" pull-ups using an overhand grip with hands roughly shoulder-width apart.
Researchers found that your choice of hand position can have a significant effect on your risk of shoulder impingement or, to put it another way, the risk of repeatedly squashing of your rotator cuff tendons in the limited space between your humerus (upper arm bone) and your shoulder blade.
Chin-ups and wide-grip pull-ups presented the greatest risk of impingement (albeit through different mechanisms). Although neutral-grip pull-ups were not evaluated, their mechanics are similar to the front pull-ups that were, which also happened to be the variation that presented the least impingement risk.
Depending on the width of your shoulders versus the width of your neutral-grip pull-up handles, a neutral-grip pull-up can also place your upper arms in the scapular plane of motion, at an angle to your body that reduces the risk of shoulder impingement.
Translation: If you have shoulder issues, neutral-grip pull-ups might be one of the more forgiving pull-up variations open to you. But if you're undergoing rehabilitation or medical treatment, you should always consult your medical team before choosing exercises.
Rehabilitation isn't only about strengthening certain muscles but also doing so in a particular progression to encourage appropriate function, and, of course, avoiding exercises that might set back your progress.
One Difference in Muscle Activation
There was one notable difference in muscle activation between the pull-up variations studied in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology article: Doing pull-ups with a neutral grip provoked significantly less activation of the middle trapezius fibers than doing regular pull-ups. Unless you're bodybuilding or working toward a therapeutic goal, that doesn't need to affect your exercise programming.
In fact, the difference in trapezius activation can be useful, because, as explained by ExRx.net, it's generally beneficial to change up which exercises you're doing for a given muscle group every so often. That doesn't mean doing different exercises in every workout — a certain amount of consistency is helpful too.
The cue that it's time to switch comes when you stop making regular progress, usually every four to eight weeks. So you could switch from chin-ups to neutral-grip pull-ups or vice versa, or swap from one of those exercises to other effective back exercises like the lat pulldown, dumbbell row or bent-over row.
Muscles Worked During Chin-Ups
Another common misconception about pull-ups and chin-ups is that they're primarily an arm exercise. Although the pulling muscles in your arms do get a workout during pull-ups, the muscles providing most of the "oomph" for your pull-ups and chin-ups are in your back.
The primary mover for these pulling exercises is your latissimus dorsi, the large, V-shaped muscle in your back. But when you do any variation including a neutral-grip chin-up, the muscles worked in your back also include the teres major, trapezius, rhomboids and your posterior deltoids (the backs of your shoulders).
Your core also activates to stabilize your body, and even your pecs — that's right, your chest muscles — play a role in swinging your arms down toward your body, which in turn lifts your body up toward the bar.
Some Pull-Up Variations
Not quite up to doing full chin-ups or pull-ups just yet? Don't worry — lots of people aren't, but you can get there with regular practice and a few clever modifications to help you scale the exercise to your current level of strength.
One of the most obvious modifications is using an assisted pull-up machine. This fairly common piece of gym equipment has a bar you kneel or stand on and a stack of weight plates that can be selected to counterbalance your weight, essentially letting you choose what percentage of your body weight to lift as you do your chin-ups.
Another option is using the lat pulldown machine instead; it employs a near-identical motion, with a much greater range of weight possibilities.
And finally, you can employ any of several options for self-assisted pull-ups. These include having a friend give you a boost at the knees as you pull yourself up; using elastic pull-up bands, which are basically gigantic, extra-tough rubber bands that you girth-hitch to the pull-up bar and then tuck a knee in for an extra boost; and using dip bars for a neutral-grip pull-up, which allows you to plant your feet on the ground and push to give yourself a boost.
- ExRx.net: "Restimulating Progress by Changing Exercises"
- Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology: "Electromyographic Analysis of Muscle Activation During Pull-Up Variations"
- Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport: "Scapula Kinematics of Pull-Up Techniques: Avoiding Impingement Risk With Training Changes"
- ExRx.net: "Pull-Up"
- ExRx.net: "Chin-Up"