Pull up v. Chin up – Which is better?

The pull up / chin up (or their respective progressions) are a staple in any fitness-based routine. Both are multi-joint upper body movements that can build strength primarily in the back, arms, and shoulders. Remember, the pull up is performed with an overhand grip and the chin up is performed with an underhand grip. When it comes to muscle activation the pull up and chin up utilize similar muscles like the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, infraspinatus, trapezius, pectoralis major, and others.  However, where they differ is the intensity at which these muscle fire during the movement. For example, the chin up tends to activate more of the biceps and pec major in comparison with the pull up. The pull up tends to activate more of the trap muscle when compared to the chin up. Not only does the direction of your hands matter in muscle activation, you also need to think about grip width and how that effects your shoulder and elbow angle. In a close grip chin up, your shoulder enters into extension and your upper arm and elbow will move closely behind the body. This changes in a wide grip pull up. Since your elbows are further away, your shoulders and arms will have a greater emphasis on adduction as your elbows and arms will move towards your sides during the movement. The interesting thing is that both exercises activate the lats quite effectively.  So why does the chin up seem easier?  Well you are recruiting more muscles during the movement. During the pull up, especially the wide grip variety, your lats are tasked with lifting more of your body, which makes it feel more difficult.

Is one better than the other? The short answer is no. However, it may depend on your focus. If your goal is a muscle up. You may want to prioritize the chin up. The chin up still recruits the lats quite well and it also mimics the first pull of the muscle up.  Remember, as you pull in a false grip your palms are positioned towards your body and as you transition your shoulder enter into extension. That does not mean to abandon the pull up! To achieve optimal structural balance, all pull up variations should be utilized in your training routine. While they work predominantly the same muscle groups, the emphasis on muscle activation is completely different between them.