• Photo for This or That: Pull-ups vs. Chin-ups
    Photo Credit: Kevin Caudill

This or That: Pull-ups vs. Chin-ups

By Devin Wicks

Welcome to "This or That?", a weekly series in which I will try to help demystify the different exercises you can do in the gym. There are many familiar exercises that seem very similar. But which should you do to accomplish what result? In this series, I'll try to give some answers. This week I'd like to take a look at two exercises so similar that you may never have really noticed the difference between them: the pull-up and the reverse pull-up (sometimes called a chin-up). Both work your back muscles using a functional body-weight technique, but subtle differences between them do mean that you'll want to choose carefully which you do. So, without further adieu, let's hit that pull-up bar!

The basic pull-up is familiar to most of us since childhood. Start by hanging from a bar with a wide overhand grip (that is, palms facing away from you). Be attentive to the grip, as this will be the basis of variation in these exercises. Inhale as you pull your chest up to the bar, and then lower to your start position exhaling at the end of the movement. Note: If you're not able to go directly to the full body-weight exercise, you can use a Gravitron machine to assist you as you develop this exercise.

There are some subtleties to this basic movement that guys who workout a lot should be familiar with. Let's break it down:

  1. Works the upper back muscles: This exercise is a major winner for developing the latissimus dorsi and teres major in the upper and middle back. If and when you draw your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement, you also develop the rhomboids and the middle and lower portions of the trapezius. This exercise also works the biceps brachii, brachialis and the brachioradialis. Though this is by no means a chest exercise, there will be a slight contraction of the pectorals as the pull-up works with the latissimus dorsi to create an angle between the arm and the trunk of the body.
  2. Variations: This is a simple exercise that depends on a controlled movement. But that doesn't mean you can't add variation, which in turn will lead to different kinds of muscle development. Looking to widen your back? Keeping your elbows close to your body during the movement focuses exertion mainly in the external fibers of the latissimus dorsi and will aid in developing the width of the back. Or perhaps you want to thicken your back muscled rather than widen them. In that case, bringing the elbows back and lifting the chest as you raise to the bar will focus the work more towards the upper and central fibers of the latissimus dorsi and the teres major. This will develop the bulk of the back as you draw the shoulder blades together and the rhomboids and the upper and lower portion of the trapezius are used equally.
So, the basic pull-up will hit all of the major muscles of the upper back, and with minor variations in form can create different kinds of muscle development. Now let's take a look at what happens if you turn your hands around to create a reverse pull-up, or chin up.

Reverse Pull-ups (aka Chin-ups)
In this exercise, you are going to switch the orientation and position of your hands. So you will begin by hanging from a high bar, as in the pull-up, but now with an underhand grip (that is, palms facing toward you rather than away) and with your hands approximately shoulder width apart, rather than wide. Start with an inhale and stick out your chest as you raise your chin toward the bar. Try to get your chin up above the bar before lowering (in a controlled fashion) back to the start position. Note: If you're not able to go directly to the full body-weight exercise, you can use a Smith machine to assist you as you develop this exercise.

Here's what happens when you grip the bar differently for the same basic movement:
  1. Similar back work: Like the pull-up, the reverse pull-up is a thorough back exercise. It also develops the latissimus dorsi and the teres major, like the pull-up. By keeping your chest elevated as you perform the movement and pulling through the full range of motion, you will also develop the middle and lower portions of the rhomboids and the trapezius. And, like the pull-up, the reverse pull-up also recruits a bit of your pectorals.
  2. More bicep work: The major difference in this exercise is that some of the work that in the pull-up is done by the upper back is in the reverse pull-up performed by the biceps. In particular, the biceps brachii and brachialis, which had more of a supporting role in the pull-up, work very hard in the reverse pull-up. That may have implications for organizing your workouts, since, because of the intense nature of the bicep work, you could include this exercise with your arm workouts.
A small change goes a long way here. For a versatile upper back exercise, take the hands wide and facing toward you, and pull yourself up to the bar with a focus on small variations in form. To work your biceps and your upper back together, with a focus on overall back development, flip your hands around and move them to shoulder width apart. Get that chin above the bar!

About Devin Wicks: Devin Wicks (ACSM-HFI, USAW Club Coach) is creator of the RealJock Strength Foundation 12-Week Workout program and the fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, where he acts as specialty strength coach for some of the university's premier sports teams, and is coordinating a pioneering new campus employee wellness program.