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The Chin Up vs. Pull Up

Updated on April 6, 2018

A description of the pull up and chin up exercise

As a fitness instructor, I incorporate a different combination of exercises, to help improve strength, posture, hypertrophy and help build lean muscle. Different positions target different muscles. This article will provide information on the differences between the pull-up and the chin up, describe muscles engaged, what type of exercise is a pull-up chin-up and potential benefits obtained from performing these upper body exercises.

Some may want to know what is a pull-up or a chin up? In general a “pull- up” or “chin up” is an upper body pulling strengthening exercise. These 2 variations of exercises are also identified to be a closed circuit exercise. According to the NSCA (essentials of strength and conditioning 3rd edition) a closed circuit exercise is an exercise in which the distal joint (s) movement is restricted and is inhibiting free motion.

Pull ups and chin up exercises are both upper bodies closed kinetic chain exercises.

The Chin up and Pull Up exercise help stabilize the shoulder joint. Stabilizing your shoulder is critical, helping build a strong foundation for upper body strength.

When performing pull ups or chin ups locking the shoulders in place by implementing shoulder external rotation is very important. You want your shoulders to be stable to create stability by producing torque (twisting force). Instability at the shoulder joint can lead to injuries, less efficiency, and less total reps.

When the body is in a fully extended/stabilized or static position the muscles applying for the work are your pectorals, deltoids, infraspinatus, supraspinatus, lattisimus dorsi, teres major (muscles of your back), biceps brachii and brachialis, brachioradialis, flexor carpi radialis, palmaris longus, flexor digitorum longus, flexor policis longus (muscles of the arm), external oblique, erector spinae (consisting of 3 muscles illiocostalis, longisimus and spinalis).

During the eccentric phase (lowering your body or descending) your lattisimus dorsi, pectoral major and deltoids are synergistically lengthened helping lower your body. The rhomboids are actually in a shortened or contracted position.

Now we are going to look at the different types of grips and some differences that you can get by applying between the wide under grip or (supinated), neutral grip (palms facing in) and overhand (pronated grip).

Upper body strength is important for athletes and it is also important in our everyday life. Looking at the entire body as a whole we work as a system. If one area of our body is weak other muscles start to compensate, which in turn impacts posture which then impacts movement.

When a muscle is not contracting properly, or not properly engaged that presents problems. The problems can be attributed to neuromuscular inefficiency. Muscles that don’t “fire” long enough, or just don’t want to contract at all presents “weakness”. This flaw leads to other muscles having to either to overwork or recruit muscles that compensate creating faulty movement and imbalances.

Those who have rounded shoulders or upper cross syndrome will find that it harder to conduct chin-ups and pull-ups. What you find with people who have upper cross syndrome is that they experience tight (shortened) pectoral muscles and weak (lengthened) rhomboids, rotator cuff and latissimus Dorsi. To balance the body better and to provide more upper body strength, the muscles of the posterior chain must be worked on CONSISTENTLY.

The body will not be able to work to its fullest capacity, therefore, impacting strength and stability. All muscles should be applied in order to get the full effects of the exercise. Now looking at the body as it is being pulled up (concentric phase; muscle shortening) all of the muscles being applied should be contracting in unison applying smooth coordinated movement.

Neutral grip pull ups

By performing a neutral grip pull up (palms facing in) not only is your back active but you also have your biceps performing work (concentric and eccentric). Specifically hitting the shorter head of the biceps. Neutral grip pull ups do not provide a full range of motion, which leads to less recruitment of the posterior muscles of the shoulders. This position provides a more internal rotation of the shoulder.

Underhand wide positioned grip pull-ups

Underhand grip (supinated grip) places emphasize on lengthening and shortening both the short and long heads of the biceps. This exercise isolates the lattisimus dorsi, deltoids, lower rhomboids, again helping build upper body strength. This position provides more recruitment of fibers and improves range of motion. Again it is important to stabilize the shoulder joint, as you don’t want to be just hanging giving the shoulder joint too much “slack”; a term used by DR. Kelly Starrett in the book Supple Leopard.

In the case that you don’t provide sufficient joint stability, you lose the ability to generate force. Again emphasizing on shoulder external rotation when descending and lengthened (eccentric) position.

Over hand wide grip chin up

Overhand grip (pronated grip) slightly shoulder width apart emphasizes more on the back musculature and less on the recruitment of the bicep heads. This is why it is important to take into account hand positioning. Hand positioning changes muscles being worked on or “recruited”.


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