Chin up vs pull up: what's the difference, which muscles are worked and most importantly, what is the best one?

Chin ups vs pull ups: which one is better for you?

Chin up vs pull up
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The chin up vs pull up question may never go away but the truth is, they are both excellent compound exercises, albeit not easy to perform correctly. Although similar to some degree, chin ups and pull ups work different muscles, or at least work similar muscles differently. Choosing one over another very much comes down to what muscle groups you would like to focus on more in your workout routine.

Equipment-wise you will need – yes you guessed it – either an entry from our list of the best pull up bars, or a gym membership – or venture to your local outdoor gym, if you have one. Do you have any questions about pull ups? Here are 11 of the most searched questions about pull up bars answered.

Chin up vs pull up: man doing chin ups

Make sure the pull up bar is drilled in properly at home

(Image credit: mirafit)

Be safe and sensible

Especially is you are trying to perform chin ups or pull ups at home, make sure that the pull up bar you're using is safe to use before you apply your weight onto it. These exercises might not seem too dangerous at first but your bodyweight provides plenty of resistance and if you fall off the bars for any reason, you can hurt yourself, pretty badly.

Before you even attempt to do either chin ups or pull ups, improve your grip strength by just hanging from the bar, resting your legs on the floor or on an elevated surface like a chair or aerobic step. When hanging, try not to drop your shoulders and engage your core as well.

Doing multiple sets of chin ups/pull ups require a lot of strength so don't try to rush progress and hurt yourself in the process.

Important: if you are new to exercising or haven't done much exercising in the past, try easing your body and mind into working out rather than going too strong at the beginning. If you have some excess body fat, we have a few handy tips on how to lose weight fast (relatively) as well as many articles on different diet methods (link to these are in the article above). Just be sensible. 

Chin up vs pull up: man doing chin ups

Chin should go over the bar at the top

(Image credit: Future)

Chin up

Best for: sculpting big arms, especially the biceps and strengthening the lats

Muscle worked: biceps, lats, forearm, shoulders, core

Chin ups are probably a tad bit easier to perform than pull ups, mainly because in the case of chin ups, your arm muscles – especially your biceps – can be utilised more during the movement. For the same reason, chin ups are better to build arm definition and to really make the biceps pop.

To perform a chin up, grab the bar with an underhand grip (palms facing you), hands being shoulder apart. Even in the lowermost position, you should drop your shoulders completely and engage your core too. This will help you stabilise your body, especially on your descent.

At halfway point, your chin should be over the bar. otherwise it's only a half-rep and you don't want to half-rep. It is not only less effective but also promotes bad form as well.

Chin up vs pull up: man doing pull ups

Hands wide apart for a nice V-shape

(Image credit: Future)

Pull up

Best for: achieving the coveted V-shape, building a strong upper back

Muscles worked: lats, teres major, rhomboids, biceps, core

Being able to perform pull ups correctly is the ultimate power move in a gym. Many people who can powerlift twice their bodyweight would struggle to do eight clean reps of pull ups.

Pull ups are challenging because you need to be agile as well as strong to be able to do the pull ups, not to mention shoulder mobility, something a lot of people ignore and just assume they have because "they use to rule the monkey bars in primary school".

To perform a pull up, hold the bar with an overhand grip (palms facing away from you) and hands being wide apart. A nice wide grip will help activate the lats even more and will help you shape that back-V sooner.

The same rules apply to pull ups as for chin ups: core engaged, not dropping shoulders, being mindful of the descent. As with any exercise, the slower you can perform it – within reason – the longer you activate the muscles and the quicker you are going to see results.

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Pull up alternatives

  • Assisted pull up machine: this machine can be found in gyms – it's highly unlikely you'll get one for your home gym – and it is great for beginners. The way it works, with the weight stack, it counter-balances your your bodyweight so it's easier to pull yourself up. Pretty much like a set of scales. So, unlike many other gym machines, the lower weight, the more effort it takes to pull yourself up. Be careful as you kneel on the pads, make sure you hold onto the bars first firmly.
  • Wide-grip lat pulldown: probably the best exercise to do if you haven't got the strength to do pull ups properly yet. Once you can comfortably pull the same amount of weights as your bodyweight, you are most likely ready to start moving over to the pull up frame.
  • Barbell row: barbell rows – or bent over rows – are also excellent exercises for beginners and pros alike. You can control the amount of weights better than doing pull ups which can come in handy if you haven't got the muscle power just yet to do pull ups.

Want to build muscle? Eat your protein.

To avoid any injuries and to help recovery, keep an eye out on your protein intake and always stretch after your exercising sessions. And make sure you drink plenty of water as well. A decent gym water bottle doesn't cost all that much.

Supplement-wise, you only really need two: protein powder and creatine. The former will help in the muscle repair process and latter will boost performance. Both are safe to use and there is a wide variety of offerings so you can choose a flavour you prefer.

With creatine, we recommend you get the unflavoured variety because it mixes well with any liquid and you only need a small amount to keep your creatine levels saturated. This means you can mix your 3-5 grams of creatine with anything in the morning (water, juice, even coffee) without having to worry about an aftertaste.

If you feel like you need a nibble throughout the day, opt in for low-sugar protein bars and snacks as opposed to Mars bars. 

Matt Kollat
Matt Kollat

Matt is a fitness fanatic (a.k.a. fitness and nutrition writer) who's been rambling on about all things health and fitness for over two years now here at T3. His achievements include a short-lived fitness podcast called Fit Mentality Podcast and being a judge on the Fit&Well Awards 2021. In his free time, he works out at home, runs, cycles and loves a good ol' walk around the city. He writes about general fitness stuff, fitness tech, workouts, workout gear/equipment, nutrition and much, much more.