What is the difference? Does doing one or the other really matter? There are differences and doing one or the other does matter. It’s in how the exercises engage, strengthen, and develop different groups of muscles. These are two movements that challenge you to lift your entire body weight to complete. Not push-ups. Not lunges. There are others, yes, but chin-ups and pull-ups are probably two of the most widely recognized and hardest to perform.
I am sure that most of us are familiar with lats and biceps; however, each exercise brings different muscles into play in different ways. Additionally, there are a number of smaller supporting muscle groups that come into play for each exercise, too.
Both are compound exercises, that is they involve multiple muscles at one time. In each you are going to pull your chin up over the bar. In many standards, clearing the bar with your chin is adequate, for a deeper and more functional range of strength bring your shoulders up to bar height.
The differences between the two begin with the grips. Pull-ups are overhand, palms facing away from you while chin ups are underhand with your palms facing you. The most complete range of motion is from arms being completely straight to elbows directly under your shoulders. This would be with the bar at about your shoulder. This fits with the definition as set by the American Council on Exercise.
Grip width can be changed to change the angles at which you are working the muscles. A wider grip is generally more difficult than the standard shoulder width grip. A narrower grip engages other muscles making this grip a bit easier.
Pull-ups hit a number of muscles. The largest of which is the latissimus dorsi or lats.
In the forearm the muscles worked are the brachialis and bracioradialis. These two are near the elbow. They help to stabilize and move the forearm.
Of course, the biceps are engaged in this.
Chin-ups engage more muscles than pull-ups. There is overlap. Chin-ups involve the lats, brachialis, and brachioradialis muscles. They also involve biceps, as do pull-ups; however, chin-ups activate biceps to a greater degree. Additionally, if you lean back a little at the top of the movement you can activate more of the muscles in the scapular (shoulder blade region).
By leaning back, pinching your shoulder blades tightly together, and bringing your sternum up to the bar you can best complete the scapular muscles.
The more muscles you engage the better the exercise event is going to be. Consequently, the better your results will be. Make it a point to change your grip in order engage more muscles and from a variety of directions.
Here are some of the government and military standards as a baseline:
US Army Rangers minimum of 6 in 2 minutes
US Secret Service is based on age with no time limit;
20-29 – 7
30-39 – 6
40-49 – 4
50 and up – 2
Women of all ages have to complete 2
Marines range from a minimum of 3 to maximum of 20
Grip width aside, there are a number of variations on forms. By changing the style or form you use you can avoid boredom, continually surprise your body and keep it growing, and challenge yourself. Since you are already familiar with chin-up, pull-up, and varying the width of the grip on these, let’s take a look at some of the others.
Neutral – Using parallel bars, like on monkey bars, so that your palms are facing each other.Commando – Similar to the Neutral, but with a single bar. One repetition counted by pulling your to touch each shoulder once to the bar.
Behind the Neck – This should only be attempted if your shoulders are strong enough to support you through the entire movement, otherwise you are liable to tear or strain the tissues in and around the socket joint of your shoulder. Take a wide grip on the bar. When you pull up lean forward so that the bar goes behind your neck. It should touch you neck on the trapezius as far down to your shoulders as you can manage without straining your shoulder joints.
Other than those, there are cheat techniques like kipping to assist in getting more reps out than you could normally do. While those kinds of cheats are fine, I don’t use them. Here at the Basement Gym there isn’t the physical room for that. I have to curl my legs up at my knees as the ceiling is barely seven feet. I do, however, use negatives to burn out when positive muscle failure has been reached.
Pull-ups and chin-ups, like push-ups, lunges, jump squats, and squats, can be done most anywhere. All you need is a place to put up a proper bar. In addition to my basement area, I have one of those doorframe contraptions that holds itself up. It also has two handles for the neutral grip that are good for dips. This thing is worth more than its weight in gold. You can find one for around $20 at most large department stores and outlets.