Sure, heavy deadlifts and kettlebell snatches are impressive, but few exercises display your true strength quite like pull-ups and chin-ups. Notoriously challenging moves, pull-ups and chin-ups not only test your grip strength, but they also call on your back, shoulder, arm, and core muscles to, well, pull your hanging body above a bar.
To the untrained eye, pull-ups and chin-ups appear to be nearly identical, save for a minor difference in hand positioning. But as the cliché goes, looks can be deceiving. Here, fitness experts break down everything you need to know about the pull-up vs. chin-up, including the key distinction between the moves, the muscles each exercise works, their main benefits, and tips on how to figure out which exercise is best for you. Newsflash: Both exercises are more than deserving of a spot in your workout routine.
What Is a Pull-Up?
Simply put, a pull-up is a bodyweight exercise in which you hang from a bar with a pronated grip (read: overhand grip, with palms facing away from your body) and pull yourself up so your chin is hovering above the bar. Pull-ups primarily work the muscles in your posterior chain (the muscles along the backside of your body). Specifically, pull-ups target your latissimus dorsi (aka lats), the large muscles that run along the sides of your mid to lower back. They also work your lower trapezius (aka traps), a part of the trapezius muscle that starts near your shoulder blades and extends into a “V” shape in the middle of your back, says Holly Roser, C.P.T., a NASM-certified personal trainer based in San Francisco, California.
"Pull-ups are one of the toughest bodyweight moves you can accomplish," says Roser. "You're carrying your entire bodyweight and lifting yourself with your upper body without help from your lower body."
Benefits of Pull-Ups
In case you haven't figured it out yet, pull-ups are a seriously challenging exercise, and that's why they're considered a "benchmark move" in training spaces, meaning they're an exercise you base your strength on, says Roser. So in the case of a pull-up, it can say a lot about the strength of your back and grip. "Most likely, if you can do a pull-up, you've been conditioning your body through strenuous training for probably six months or longer," she says. But that's not the only reason you should incorporate pull-ups into your workout routine — or at least build your way up to performing them.
They strengthen your entire upper body.
Pull-ups enlist the muscles in your entire upper body, including your forearm muscles, biceps, pecs, and your lats, research shows. ICYDK, your back muscles are vital for a variety of everyday movements, such as opening and closing doors, bending over, twisting, and more. Having strong back muscles also helps you carry out other important functional strength exercises, such as deadlifts and squats, says Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S. the founder of TS Fitness in New York City. These exercises mimic many daily tasks, such as lifting heavy groceries and picking up your child from the floor.
More good news: Performing pull-ups on a standard bar isn’t the only way to reap the exercise’s upper-body benefits. Using other types of fitness equipment, such as straps, can activate the same muscles as the traditional move on the bar, according to a small study published in the Journal of Human Kinetics. To do a pull-up using straps, secure the straps to the bar and grip the handles with both hands, palms facing forward. Packing your shoulders back and down and keeping your core tight, pull yourself up until your chin is hovering over the bar.
When comparing the traditional pull-up with other variations, such as the straps and towel pull-up (in which you loop a towel over the bar and grip either end while doing a pull-up), all three moves targeted the lats, posterior deltoid (shoulder muscle), middle trapezius, and biceps brachii alike, according to the study. Translation: No matter which pull-up variation you tackle, you're hitting the same upper-body muscle groups.
They help improve posture.
If you’re looking to improve your posture, pull-ups are the name of the game. “Pull-ups help work muscles [specifically in the back] that are typically weaker,” says Roser. “It’s important to strengthen your lats as this will help support your neck and shoulders (weak lats and traps cause slouching), keeping you in excellent posture.”
“When you slouch, your neck darts forward, putting stress on your cervical spine (neck region of your spine) and the muscles surrounding your neck and shoulders,” she adds. “Strengthening your lats will help keep you in an ideal position, lessening the risk of injury.” In fact, poor posture is associated with back and/or neck pain because the surrounding muscles are weak and aren’t able to support the joints and ligaments, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE).
There are other reasons you should button up your posture: Good posture is essential for better breathing. That’s because when you’re slouching, the position compresses your thoracic spine (mid back), which keeps your diaphragm, the dome-shaped muscle used for breathing that sits beneath your breastbone, from fully opening, according to ACE.
They work your core.
To perform a pull-up correctly, you must engage your entire core and settle into a hollow body position. To get into a hollow body position, pull your ribs over your hips and get your pelvis into a posterior tucked position, says Tamir. This will help you stabilize and stiffen your body so you're able to pull yourself over the bar.
When comparing the muscles worked in a pull-up versus other pulling exercises, such as the seated lat pull-down, kneeling lat pull-down, and an assisted pull-up, pull-ups activate the rectus abdominis (superficial ab muscles) the most, according to a study in the Journal of Physical Fitness, Medicine & Treatment in Sports.
They enhance your grip strength.
Your grip strength — your ability to hold and squeeze objects — plays a large role in your ability to pull yourself up above the bar. Your forearm muscles, as well as the muscles in your fingers and hands, are responsible for your grip strength. Your brachioradialis, which is a forearm muscle, is activated when doing pull-ups, according to a small study in the Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology.
"Pull-ups and chin-ups help improve grip strength, as you're using the muscles in your hands and forearms to grip the bar and pull your body weight up towards your chin," says Roser. Grip strength is particularly important as you age because it helps you carry out daily tasks that keep you independent, such as opening jars.
"As you age, you lose bone density," she says. "It's important to challenge the muscles in your forearms, wrists, and hands to combat bone density loss."
Case in point: Research shows that grip strength is a biomarker for identifying whether older adults are at risk for poor health outcomes and is a predictor for disease, disease-specific mortality, falls, and fractures. Grip strength also plays a big role in sports performance; baseball, tennis, paddle boarding, and skiing all employ your grip, says Roser.
What Is a Chin-Up?
Similar to a pull-up, a chin-up also involves hanging from a bar and pulling yourself up so your chin is above it. Instead of a pronated grip, you use an underhand grip, with your palms pointed toward your body. Just like pull-ups, chin-ups work your back muscles. However, the underhand grip also allows you to activate muscles in the anterior chain (read: front) of your body, specifically, your biceps (the front part of your upper arms) and pectorals (the chest muscles), says Tamir.
Benefits of Chin-Ups
Thanks to the underhand grip, chin-ups are more accessible than pull-ups, as you're able to better recruit the strength of your biceps and pecs, says Tamir. "It's easier for beginners who don't have as much back strength," he adds.
But just like its counterpart, a chin-up targets the muscles in your entire upper body, including your back, shoulders, chest, arms, and core. Here's why you shouldn't dismiss the chin-up as an "easier" move.
They require less shoulder mobility and stability.
If you’re not able to do a traditional pull-up, the chin-up offers plenty of the same upper-body strength benefits while protecting your shoulders. Those who have poor shoulder mobility and lack shoulder stability due to weak rotator cuff muscles (the muscles that surround the ball-and-socket joint in your shoulders) may not be able to do pull-ups. Chin-ups, however, require less shoulder mobility, and the movement feels more natural, making them an excellent alternative, says Tamir.
They target your shoulders.
A small study in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports evaluated the muscle force of three different pull-up variations, including the chin-up, and found that it activated the deltoid (shoulder) and rotator cuff muscles, while also working the traps and lats. Fortifying your shoulders is important for daily activities, such as lifting and reaching for things overhead.
They challenge your core and grip strength.
Just like pull-ups, chin-ups are excellent for strengthening your core and grip, says Tamir. Because you're hanging on the bar, you'll employ your forearm muscles, as well as your hands and fingers, to grip the bar. Your core should be engaged throughout the movement to help stabilize your body, he explains.
How to Choose Between a Pull-Up vs. Chin-Up
When choosing chin-ups vs. pull-ups, it comes down to your personal fitness goals and physical abilities. Ahead, here are the common instances where you should focus on doing either the pull-up or chin-up.
If you're a beginner: Chin-ups
If you're new to pull-ups, start with chin-ups since you'll get help from your biceps and pectorals to pull you over the bar, suggests Tamir. Your lower lats and lower trapezius muscles are not as well-trained as your biceps and pectorals if you're a beginner to strength training, making a pull-up much more challenging than a chin-up, adds Roser.
Then, as you build up strength in your back and shoulders, you can progress to doing pull-ups, says Tamir. Or, do lat pull-downs and rows, using TRX straps, barbells, or dumbbells, two to three days a week to help strengthen your lower trapezius muscles, suggests Roser. These exercises will help you crush your first pull-up.
If you lack shoulder mobility and stability: Chin-ups
“If you are someone who has poor shoulder mobility, I would suggest sticking to chin-ups until you improve your mobility,” says Tamir. If you lack adequate range of motion in your shoulder joints, you’ll have a greater risk of injury while doing traditional pull-ups, he adds. To work on your shoulder mobility, try regularly practicing shoulder rotations and movements that help open the thoracic spine (aka mid back), such as child’s pose T-spine rotations, suggests Tamir.
Because pull-ups also require strong shoulder stability, try doing external rotation exercises with a band or side-lying external rotations with a dumbbell, recommends Tamir. If you're still experiencing discomfort in your shoulder joint when doing pull-ups, turn your palms toward one another, also known as a neutral grip, to relieve any aches, adds Roser.
If you want to target the lats: Pull-ups
Once you've nailed down chin-ups and want to increase the challenge, it's time to give pull-ups the old college try. While both exercises work your back, pull-ups do a better job of targeting your lats, according to Tamir.
That said, if you're still not able to do a full-fledged pull-up just yet, try doing pull-up holds, during which you hold the top of the movement (when your chin is above the bar) to strengthen your back, suggests Tamir. You can also do pull-up negatives: You'll start the move at top of the movement (with your chin above the bar) and focus on the eccentric phase (lowering your body down with control). You can also hang from the bar and do shoulder retractions (drawing shoulder blades toward the spine and together) and depressions (bringing shoulders back and down).
You can also try an assisted pull-up with a resistance band, suggests Roser. Wrap a resistance band around the bar and place both knees in it. The band will assist you in pulling your body up toward the bar. "When the band is too easy, remove one knee from the band, and eventually, move to a band that has less resistance, allowing you to pull your own weight up to the bar," she says.
So, which is better — pull-up vs. chin-up?
In the chin-up vs. pull-up debate, there's no clear winner. Both exercises are great for strengthening your upper body, but if you have specific goals in mind, are a strength-training newbie or complete pro, or have some joint limitations, one move might be better suited for you. The bottom line is that chin-ups and pull-ups are both great exercises; one isn't necessarily better than the other. Being able to do pull-ups or chin-ups is a testament to just how strong AF you really are.