Pull Up Or Chin Up? (And How To Improve Both)

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For anyone confused about the difference between a Pull Up and a Chin Up, a pull up is performed with your hands facing away from you (pronated) and a chin up is performed with your hands facing you (supinated).



A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that “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.”

Also from the study: both variations are initiated by the lower trapezius and pectoralis major, and then completed by the biceps brachii and latissimus.

Take home message: Both chin ups and pull ups have value and both should be used to add variety to your program.

Now, 10 tips you can use in your training to improve them both!

Pull Up Tip #1: Lose That Fat Weight!

Trying to do chin ups with an extra 20 pounds of fat is just like doing chin ups with 20 pounds in a backpack.

Not sure how to lose weight?  Here’s my $10,000 seminar: Stop eating grains, sugar, dairy, and soy.  Eat more healthy meats and vegetables.  Get some sort of exercise.  (Don’t worry about anything more than that until you’ve got that all down.  More info would just confuse the issue)

Pull Up Tip #2: Open Your Shoulders

Sitting at a desk all day, drooping your shoulders when you’re standing, hunching over a spinning bike… all of these activities tighten your shoulder joint and can lead to injury with both pull ups and chin ups.

Stretching alone is usually not enough to release the muscular adhesions formed around the shoulder, you probably need some sort of soft tissue work.  A good chiropractor who understands sport (like my friend Dr. Brian Russell), an ART practitioner, or a physical therapist are your best bets at opening your shoulder so you can perform pain-free pull ups.

If you can’t find anyone good, or you want to do some extra work on your own, you can do self-myofascial release at home.  A tennis ball, foam roller, and a yoga ball can all be used.

Here is a great video of how to use the yoga ball to improve shoulder mobility.  Sure, the video refers to handstand training, but the shoulder is in the same position in handstands as it is in pull ups, so it works for both :)

Pull Up Tip #3: Add Variety

There are so many ways to train pull ups that you’ll never ever get bored.

As you change the grip width and orientation of your hands, you’ll draw from new motor units in your muscles and make faster progress in your training.

Besides just close/medium/wide and overhand/underhand, here are a few variations to get you started:

Pull Up Tip #4:  Do MORE

Training volume is the KEY to improving your pull ups/chin ups.

Now, here’s what most people miss when it comes to adding volume: Only add QUALITY reps.  If you train with bad form, you’ll only get better at bad form.

So, if you decide to add 20 reps of chin up variations 3x a week, you might have to do ten sets of two reps to get them.  This will give you much faster progress than 5 sets of four UGLY reps.

Pull Up Tip #5: Stretch Arms And Back At The Bottom

A lot of trainers teach their clients to keep the shoulder blades down and to keep a slight bend in the elbows at the bottom of a vertical pull.  This shortens the range of motion and can help you get more reps, but you are short changing your strength gains.

Also, a short range of motion can eventually lead to soft tissue problems and then to injury.

One caveat: higher volume pull up training with a full range of motion can give you sore elbows.  Using rings will get you around this problem.

Pull Up Tip #6: Do Curls

Getting better at chin ups will improve your curling strength, but it can work the other way too.

Improving all types of curls will help with your chins, but you get the best carryover when you use the same grip as your pulls:

Curls: Improve chin ups

Reverse Curls: Improves pull ups

Hammer Curls: Improves neutral grip pull ups

Pull Up Tip #7: Yoga After Workout

Using yoga to compensate after a brutal pull up workout will re-align your shoulders and help prepare you for your next pull up workout.  There are 3 main yoga poses that, done after pull ups, will help you improve.

The first is the locust pose:

Done correctly, you will really feel the locust pose in the back of your elbows after pull ups.  Not exactly comfortable, but it helps :)

The next pose is the cat pose:

The cat pose is great for opening up your back and relieving tension in your upper back and shoulders.

Last yoga pose is the modified table:

Work on gradually bringing your hips higher and moving your body backwards.

These poses will have you doing more pullups AND feeling better afterwards

Pull Up Tip #8: Learn The False Grip

Learning how to use the false grip can add several reps to your maximum pull up test… it almost feels like cheating.

See, a normal grip touches the bar right on the pads at the base of your fingers.  A false grip covers the bar near the big pad at the base of your thumb (the Thenar Eminence).

Look at your palm – the Thenar Eminence can be almost 3 inches below your fingers.  This means 3 inches less that you have to pull.

Now, you don’t always want to train with the false grip.  Remember that variety is key.  But when you want to bust out as many pull ups as possible, the false grip is the way to do it.

Pull Up Tip #9: Lower Slowly

Slowing down the lowering (eccentric) portion of the chin up is the fastest way to gain chin up strength:

Make sure that your pace is even.  So if it take you 30 seconds to lower yourself, you should be halfway down at the 15 second mark.

Programing eccentrics into your workouts is fun!  Beginners may do eccentrics only, by jumping up and lowering themselves.  If you can already do a few reps, add a slow eccentric to the last rep of every set.  And advanced trainees can use a weighted belt to add weight and do overloaded eccentrics.

A side benefit to eccentric training is that your grip strength and endurance will improve from the increased time under tension during the exercise.

Pull Up Tip #10: Follow A Progression Plan

While there’s no doubt that simply “doing lots of pull ups” will make you stronger, if you really want to get better you need to follow a plan.

I detailed a plan for beginners in this post: How To Go From One Pull Up To Five

You can modify the plan to whatever level you’re currently at.

Pullups used to be a part of physical education classes and most people could do at least one.  The trend is picking back up again (possibly due to the popularity of bootcamp-style workouts).

Use these ten tips to help you master this great exercise

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