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Differences in muscle activity between pull-ups and chin-ups

by P. Debraux | 11 May 2020

pull-ups, chin-ups, muscle, fitness, resistance, training, workout, back, lats, EMG, activity, exercises, choice, hypertrophy, strength
Pronation and supination of the hand.

Figure 1. Pronation and supination of the hand.

Performing pull-ups is a very common exercise for increasing upper body strength. Poly-articular and functional, this exercise requires motor coordination and strength. In addition, it's basic movement, like running and jumping which allow man to survive in a hostile environment by lifting up himself to a tree or a wall. For all these reasons, pull-ups are one of the most used exercises as a selection test in army, police, firefighters, sports, etc.

Different pull-ups variants exist. These variants are essentially dependent on the grip width and the position of the hands on the bar. Regarding the grip width, we explained to you in a previous article, that it has little influence on muscle recruitment, especially that of the latissimus dorsi. But concerning the position of the hands (i.e., pronation or supination) (Fig. 1), even if an athlete immediately feels a difference in difficulty between these two versions, it would be interesting to understand how the muscle recruitment varies according to the grip.

The Study

A team of American researchers from the Mayo clinic was interested in muscular solicitation during 3 pull-ups variants: pronated grip (Fig. 2), supinated grip (Fig. 3) and with rotation during the concentric phase thanks to the so-called system "Perfect-Pullup™" (Fig. 4).

Pronated grip (Pull-ups)

Figure 2. Pronated grip (Pull-ups).

Supinated grip (chin-ups)

Figure 3. Supinated grip (chin-ups).


Figure 4. Perfect-PullupTM.

For this protocol, 25 people (4 women and 21 men) participated. All of them performed at least 3 full pull-ups (pronated grip) and 84% of them were practicing resistance training 2-3 times a week. The study consisted of placing electromyographical surface electrodes on the latissimus dorsi, pectoralis major, lower trapezius, biceps brachialis, infraspinatus, erector spinae and external obliques in order to record electrical muscle activity. Then, according to a defined procedure, each participant tested the maximal voluntary isometric contraction (MVIC) for each muscle observed. Finally, all subjects had to perform 3 repetitions of each type of pull-up randomly. For pull-ups with the Perfect-Pull-up™, they started in the pronation position and ended the concentric phase in the supination position.

Results & Analyzes

The main results of this study show that for these 3 pull-ups variants, only the pectoralis major, the lower trapezius and the biceps brachialis show a significant difference in muscle recruitment (Fig. 5). No difference was observed for the latissimus dorsi or the erector spinae. The pectoralis major and the biceps brachialis are more used during chin-ups (supinated grip), while the lower trapezius is more used during pull-ups (pronated grip). The Perfect-Pullup™ system does not seem to offer better muscle recruitment, even if the stress on the lats is slightly greater (although not significant here) than the other two variants.

Figure 5. Electromyographic data (EMG) of the muscle activity depending on the pull-up variants. MVIC: Maximal Voluntary Isometric Contraction.

The fairly significant stress on the pectoralis major (greater than 55% for chin-ups) can be explained by the position of the arm relative to the trunk at the start of the concentric phase and the stretching that the pectoralis major undergoes until the arm crosses the horizontal. Chin-ups increase its recruitment because the elbows are in front of the body, therefore increasing the lever arm during the pulling phase, the elbows are closer to the body and slightly to the side. It is the same principle concerning the accentuated recruitment of the biceps brachialis during chin-ups. Regarding the lower trapezius, during pull-ups, the scapulae are much more upward (in external rotation) at the start of the concentric phase. The lower trapezius therefore undergoes a greater stretch, hence its significantly higher activation.

Practical Applications

In summary, this study demonstrates that there are few significant differences between chin-ups (supinated grip) and pull-ups (pronated grip). No difference is observed at the level of the latissimus dorsi, while, logically, the biceps brachialis is more activated with supinated grip and the lower trapezius are more activated with the pronated grip. The main muscles of the back will be used in an identical way and it will be possible to vary the work with pull-ups according to the difficulties encountered, injuries, etc. Obviously, pronated pulls are the movement closest to natural climbing since, in nature, it is very rare to be able to overcome an obstacle with a supinated grip.

Even if this study tested a system supposed to improve muscle recruitment, it is not entirely complete since it doesn't give any information about the the neutral grip (i.e., the palms facing each other) and certain important muscles. Well, an older study compared neutral grip to supinated, pronated and wide grip during front and back lat pulldown. It is possible to summarize the results as follows: Compared to chin-ups, pull-ups with neutral grip have a similar recruitment of the latissimus dorsi and pectoralis major, and a posterior deltoid activity significantly higher. But note that this 2002 study found a significant difference in recruitment of the latissimus dorsi between the wide grip front lat pulldown and chin-ups. A difference that is not found in the study presented here. It would perhaps be interesting to compare in more detail the lat pulldowns and pull-ups.

So, no matter which version of pull-ups you choose, you will work the lats equally. But chin-ups will focus on the biceps brachialis, neutral grip pull-ups on the posterior deltoids and pull-ups on the lower trapezius. Of course, this list is not exhaustive, since all studies do not study the same muscles and do not measure the EMG of all the muscles participating in the effort.


  1. Youdas JW, Amundson CL, Cicero KS, Hahn JJ, Harezlak DT and Hollman JH. Surface electromyographic activation patterns and elbow joint motion during a pull-up, chin-up, or perfect-pullupTM rotational exercise. J Strength Cond Res 24 (12) : 3404-3414, 2010.
  2. Signorile JE, Zink AJ and Szwed SP. A comparative electromyographical investigation of muscle utilization patterns using various hand positions during the lat pull-down. J Strength Cond Res 16 (4) : 539-546, 2002.

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