There are many exercises that might appear to work the same muscles or be executed in the same way, making one question whether you should attempt to master only one of them, or all of the variations. These exercises usually come in pairs: do you do the handstand push-up or the overhead shoulder press? How do you choose between a sumo or a conventional deadlift? And should you do a lat pull-down on the machine with a normal grip, a wide grip or a close grip? The list is endless, but the one set of exercises that you should never have to choose between is the pull-up and the chin-up.
Most beginners will learn quickly that the pull-up is the more difficult and popular exercise among the two. And in the quest to master it, one might stop paying attention to practicing the chin-up, which is an equally important bodyweight move, with different benefits to the ones the pull-up offers. The primary difference between the two is that the pull-up is performed using an overhand grip with the palms facing down. This needs more shoulder stability with an emphasis on back strength to pull yourself up to the bar. The wider the grip, the more difficult the pull-up.
The chin-up is performed with an underhand grip which instantly unlocks the ability to use arm strength to execute the move. Given that you can pull your shoulders back with this kind of grip, it needs rotator cuff stability. With the chin-up, there is greater room for a narrow grip. However, you might not be able to completely slacken your hang in a chin-up like you can in a pull-up. But both exercises are similar in their demands for a stable core and an able back, and can be done on pull day if you are following a push-pull-legs routine.
A paper titled Surface Electromyographic Activation Patterns And Elbow Joint Motion During A Pull-up, Chin-up, Or Perfect-pullup Rotational Exercise,available at the National Library of Medicine, states that while the pull-up increased posterior chain strength, the chin-up increased activations on the anterior (front part of the body) chain.
But there are a couple of sweeteners that the chin-up offers. The first one being bicep activation—in fact, the chin-up could be the most underrated or ignored exercise to increase arm strength and mass: “The pectoralis major and biceps brachii had significantly higher EMG activation during the chin-up than during the pull-up, whereas the lower trapezius was significantly more active during the pull-up,” the paper states.
The other sweetener is that the chin-up is a shoulder-friendly exercise, and nearly as beneficial to the back as the pull-up is, with minor differences that can be worked on if you performed a lat pull-down on a machine as a paired exercise. Beginners might be able to build up to the pull-up quicker if they managed to learn the chin-up first. Both the moves hit the lats in the same way as each other.
But before all of this, it is important to learn how to perform the perfect chin-up. Especially if you are a beginner who hasn’t yet done one. Jordan Syatt, who has been a world record holding powerlifter, has some excellent tips on how to approach this. The first of his four-step plan involves doing an underhand grip- inverted row on a smith machine. This is a horizontal lift where you are pulling yourself up to the bar while maintaining a straight-line core. The higher the bar on the smith machine, the easier the exercise.
The second step is to perform an eccentric chin-up, where you take the support of the box and use some velocity to go into a chin-up position, and slowly lower yourself down. This will train your body to control the downward motion when you do a full chin-up. Step three would be to perform a band-assisted chin-up and the last one is to do a chin-up with a full range of motion, but without the jump or velocity to take your chin above the bar.
Syatt suggests doing 3-5 reps of each progression stage. Do this for 3-5 sets, done twice or thrice a week before moving onto the next step. Don’t rush it, because to get all the benefits of the chin-up, you will need to perform it with careful speed and technique.
This is not to say that the pull-up should be replaced or discounted from your routines. But not using the chin-up in your workouts is a bad idea. This is the building block to many other pulling exercises, it’s easier on the shoulders, and can offer you serious benefits when it comes to bicep development, which in turn will make your arm workouts easier as well. The overhand pull-up may be the more difficult and cooler exercise to perfect, but the chin-up is equally effective and easier to execute.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.