If you’re exercising your upper body, particularly your back and biceps, it’s only a matter of time before you hit the chin-ups and pull-ups. But which one should you stick with? Is there even a difference?

Chin-up vs. pull-up: Is one *really* better than the other?

Chin-ups and pull-ups work the same muscles but with different emphasis. The chin-up emphasizes your arms and chest. The pull-up emphasizes your back and shoulders. This is because the chin-up works your biceps and pecs slightly more than your lats and traps, which the pull-up really nails.

That slight (slight!) difference might help you decide which is the better upper-body exercise for you, based on your body proportions. Otherwise, the two exercises pose a similar challenge and get largely identical results.

But if you’re just starting out on your fitness journey, you might find chin-ups a bit easier to perfect. As you’re about to learn, they involve a narrower grip than pull-ups, which could be better for building muscle in your chest and arms.

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Chin-ups use a supinated grip — you grab the bar with your palms facing toward you. Pull-ups use a pronated grip, with palms facing away from you.

That’s a major difference between the two exercises, which affects which muscle groups each one targets.

What’s a bodyweight exercise?

Both chin-ups and pull-ups are bodyweight exercises. That means they use gravity’s natural pull on your body to generate resistance instead of relying on weights and ropes.

They’re not 100 percent equipment-free exercises, but you can get a chin-up or pull-up bar in your home for way cheap. That makes them highly accessible moves. In practice, you can use any horizontal ledge or object that gives you enough space to grip it and has the strength to support your body weight.

Let’s break it down.

requires a barrequires a bar
supinated grip (palms facing toward you)pronated grip (palms facing away from you)
emphasizes biceps and pecsemphasizes lats and traps
hands held less than shoulder-width aparthands held more than shoulder-width apart
aim for 8–12 repsaim for 8–12 reps
medium challengemedium challenge

Chin-ups are dynamite for working your biceps and pecs. But, really, your whole upper body benefits.

Step-by-step guide to doing a chin-up

To crank out the best possible chin-up, take the following steps:

  1. Grip the bar with your palms facing toward you, slightly less than shoulder-width apart.
  2. Engage your core and leg muscles.
  3. Bring your shoulder blades together as you lift your body up off the floor until your chin is above the bar.
  4. Hold for a second.
  5. Lower back to the starting position.
  6. Do 8–10 reps total.

As you lift, it’s important to keep your head the same distance from the bar and lift your body parallel to it. Don’t move your chin toward the bar so that your body falls into a back-and-forth motion.

Which muscles do chin-ups work?

Chin-ups mostly work your:

  • biceps brachii
  • brachialis
  • brachioradialis
  • latissimus dorsi
  • teres major
  • posterior deltoid

They’re also great for deep spinal stabilizers like your transverse abdominis, lumbar multifidus, and thoracolumbar fascia.

Overall, chin-ups are ideal for developing strength and definition in your arms and back.

Pull-ups target your lats and traps the most. Here’s how to do them safely and effectively.

Step-by-step guide to doing a pull-up

To perform the perfect pull-up with precision:

  1. With your hands wider than shoulder width, grip the bar so your palms face away from you.
  2. Draw your shoulder blades together.
  3. Engage your core and lift your feet off the floor.
  4. Pull your chest up toward the bar until your head peeks over it.
  5. Hold for a second.
  6. Lower yourself back down into the starting position.
  7. Do 8–10 reps total.

As you pull your body up, remember to keep your shoulders and elbows parallel with the bar. Imagine you’re folding your elbows directly in toward your body in a straight line, like one of those corkscrew machine thingies.

Which muscles do pull-ups work?

During a pull-up, you’re mainly working these muscles right here:

  • latissimus dorsi
  • middle trapezius
  • lower trapezius
  • rhomboids

You’re also showing some love to these secondary muscles:

  • biceps brachii
  • infraspinatus
  • pectoralis major
  • erector spinae
  • external oblique

That means pull-ups aren’t just great upper-body strengtheners for your upper back and arms, but they also carry benefits for your core strength and shoulder stability.

Need to work up the body strength to nail your first chin-up? Or are you looking for something more intense than a pull-up for your biceps? Take a look at these alternatives, two easier and two more difficult, to help tailor your workout.

Inverted row (easier)

Inverted rows are a good progression toward chin-ups or pull-ups. You’ll need a bar set relatively low to the floor, or you could use a table edge if you’re sure it’s strong enough to take your weight. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Lie beneath the bar and grip it with your palms facing away from you.
  2. Brace your abs so your body aligns straight from your heels to your neck.
  3. Pull yourself up until your chest touches the bar.
  4. Hold for a second.
  5. Lower back down into the starting position.
  6. Do 8–10 reps.

Single-arm dumbbell row (easier)

Some chin-up and pull-up alternatives can be hard on your lower back, but the one-armed dumbbell row gives you support as you progress. You’ll need a weight to grip and a bench or stool to support you. Here’s how it works:

  1. Kneel on the bench and bend forward so your torso is in line with the floor.
  2. Grip the weight with your palm facing you.
  3. Lifting with your back and shoulder, bring the weight up toward your chest.
  4. Hold for a second while engaging your shoulder and back muscles.
  5. Steadily lower back to the starting position.
  6. Do 8–10 reps with each arm.

T-bar row (harder)

Stepping up in difficulty, this is an alternative to chin-ups and pull-ups that targets the same muscles. You’ll need a barbell with the weight removed from one end. Your form should look like this:

  1. Grip the weighted end of the barbell, with the bar between your legs.
  2. Tucking your elbows close to your body, lift the weight up to touch your chest.
  3. Pull your shoulder blades together and hold for a second.
  4. Slowly extend your arms until the barbell returns to the starting position.
  5. Do 8–10 reps.

Renegade row (way harder)

This is a major step forward from chin-ups and pull-ups. You’re targeting your entire upper body, as well as your core. You’ll need a weight in each hand, and you’re going to be resting on those weights, so ones with flat edges might be best while you get used to balancing.

To do renegade rows:

  1. Start in a push-up position with a weight in each hand, gripped so your palms face inward.
  2. Extend your arms so they’re supporting your body.
  3. Lift one arm while supporting yourself with the other, until your hand is level with your torso.
  4. Hold for a second.
  5. Lower the raised weight back to the starting position.
  6. Repeat with the other arm.
  7. Alternate arms until you’ve done 8–10 reps with each.

For perfect form, keep your elbow tucked into your side as you lift. These are harder than they look, so wait until you’ve truly perfected your choice of chin-up or pull-up before attempting renegade rows.

Both pull-ups and chin-ups are perfectly safe and effective exercises. But if you get into bad habits with your form, it can take some time to notice and correct your mistakes. Here are four vital areas to focus on if you want to be pulling or chinning up at max efficiency.

Complete the full motions

Chin-ups and pull-ups target some very specific muscles in your arms and lower back. You’re missing out on activating some of those muscles if you rush through the exercises. Aim for full contractions and extensions of your arms to make sure you’re getting the most from each rep.

Keep your shoulders set from start to finish

Engaging your shoulders ensures that you’re lifting with the right muscles. If your shoulders are too loose for too long, you’ll end up lifting with your joints and tendons, which aren’t built to take that kind of strain.

Bend your body slightly

Don’t aim for a straight body while you’re doing your reps — that makes it harder to engage your shoulders. Instead, bend slightly at the core, so your body has room to work those back muscles the way you need.

Keep those elbows tucked

If you let your elbows flare out to the sides when you’re doing your reps, you’re cheating your lats out of that sweet, sweet stimulation. Keep them as tucked in as you comfortably can to make sure you’re working the right areas.

Chin-ups and pull-ups are equally challenging and effective upper-body exercises. Knowing the difference can help you sculpt the exact right muscles if that’s your thing. But for most of us, the key is not to overthink. Pick one that you prefer and get to it.

As part of a well-rounded exercise routine, you can’t go wrong with either.