It’s a question I’ve heard asked many times, “Why Can I Do Chin Ups But Not Pull Ups?”
For most people the difference between chin ups and pull ups is around 2-3 reps.
That being said, I have also seen others say that they can perform 10-15 chin ups and yet not a single pull up.
So, I’d like to discuss the main reasons that your chin up game is strong, whereas your pull ups suck.
Why Can I Do Chin Ups But Not Pull Ups?
The main reasons you can perform chin ups but not pull ups include, your biceps are usually better trained than your lats, traps, and upper back. Your grip, forearms, and rotator cuff muscles may not be strong enough to perform pull ups. This may lead to avoiding pull ups completely, and even a mental plateau.
1. Your “Chin Up Muscles” Are Better Trained
I guess you’ll already know that the chin up involves a lot more use of the bicep, as you have an underhand grip.
Now, I’m not saying this is always the case, but I often see people who place a lot of focus on training their biceps.
They’ll perform curl-after-after with barbells, the EZ bar, and dumbbells.
We all know that a lot guys train the biceps more than any other muscle.
And they probably train the chest a lot too.
The “showy” muscles tend to get a lot of work.
However, when it comes to performing pull ups the lats, traps, and upper back are actually far more active.
In the vast majority of cases these muscles are nowhere near as well-trained as the beloved bicep.
In fact, for some it could be a case of some lat pulldowns.
You follow this with a few half-hearted attempts at some pull ups, and a few dumbbell shrugs – done!
If you work on training the lats, traps, and upper back more you will definitely see improvements in your pull ups.
9 Exercise For Upper Back and Trap Thickness
2. Your Grip is Too Weak For Pull Ups
From a personal perspective, the first thing that always “goes” for me when performing pull ups is my grip.
And this is coming from someone who can regularly perform 20+ strict form (arms fully extended, chest up to the bar, no kipping) pull ups.
I know I’ve still got more in the tank, but my grip starts to fade, and I’m literally holding onto the bar with two fingertips by my final couple of reps.
Having a strong grip actually has a huge impact not only in the gym, but outside of it too.
I’m guessing you already know that a stronger grip will up your deadlift and Olympic lift numbers, which can only be good for your overall body composition.
The same can be said in the improved number of pull ups you’ll be able to perform.
However, a study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research also concluded that a stronger grip correlates to a lower risk of heart, attack, stroke, and cancer.
So, if you want to get better at pull ups, and potentially extend your longevity, work on strengthening your grip.
For me, I don’t require any special equipment or new-fangled grip exercise, I just grab a pair of heavy dumbbells and perform Farmer’s Walks regularly.
The Farmer’s Walk
3. You Lack Forearm Strength
This is much the same as grip strength, but you tend to require more forearm strength when performing pull ups.
Our hands are usually wider apart when we do a pull up when compared to a chin up.
And this simply means that there are different muscles being activated.
Unfortunately, if you take a step back and just look at the muscle “weaknesses” that I’ve covered so far, well that tells a story in itself.
Once again, I’m not saying this is always the case, but do the lats, traps, upper back, grip, and forearms get anywhere as much training as various other body parts?
Going back over what I’ve discussed so far, just making slight tweaks to your training could help fix these issues.
If you love performing bicep curls, you could throw in some hammer curls and reverse curls every once in a while.
Your biceps are still getting activated, but so are your forearms.
Back to the Farmer’s Walk once again, an exercise that stimulates the forearms (and hits All the “weak” muscles I’ve mentioned above).
That being said, there are so many ways you can train to increase both grip and forearm strength.
Forearm Workout (Grip Strengthener)
4. Your Rotator Cuff Muscles Are Weak
I still recall the first time I heard the term “rotator cuff”, I simply nodded in agreement, but had no real clue what this was.
So, I set about learning more about them, and what difference they could make to getting stronger and more muscular.
The rotator cuff is a group of four muscles that act to stabilize the shoulder.
The muscles can best be remembered by using the acronym, SITS:
- Teres Minor
Okay, I admit this probably doesn’t mean a great deal to you, and in the grand scheme of things you don’t really need to know these details.
That being said, we typically pay very little attention to the rotator cuff until something goes wrong.
I’ve been lucky enough to never have a rotator cuff injury, but I know plenty who have.
However, one thing I have noticed when performing pull ups, especially if I’ve not done them in a while, is that this area of the body tends to feel strained or ache slightly.
This tells me that my rotator cuff muscles are either weak or that I’m simply not performing the pull up correctly.
Nevertheless, something that is potentially holding you back from doing pull ups is a SITS weakness.
Check out these basic rotator cuff exercises that are often recommended by physical therapists.
5. Your Hands Play a More Important Role in Chin Ups
I’d never really noticed this until I tried to use the mind-muscle connection more when performing chin ups and pull ups.
But, it now seems obvious to me that the hands have a far more important role when you do chin ups.
Okay, you shouldn’t really focus on using your arms or hands when performing either exercise, as they’re both more specifically an upper back exercise.
However, simply due to the fact that you can wrap your fingers around the bar, and your hands are usually closer together, means that your hands are far more involved with chin ups.
Irrespective of whether you need to work on grip strength or not, the ability to do this will make chin ups easier to perform than pull ups.
In fact, going back to grip strength again, I don’t feel this is anywhere near as much an issue with chin ups.
I guess this is because I have more of a “hook grip” and I can literally feel my hands helping me with every rep.
Sounds weird I know, but see what you think next time you’re doing chin ups.
6. You Don’t Train the Pull Up Enough
Plain and simple – you find chin ups easier, so you perform them more often that pull ups.
In fact, if you can’t perform a single pull up, but can crank out a few reps of chin ups, then you’re likely to avoid the exercise altogether.
I’m not sure why, but many people fall into the trap of trying to make exercises or their workout easier whenever they train.
I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but if we feel that an exercise is difficult or we don’t like it, then we tend to ignore it.
Okay, you can work all you like on everything I’ve mentioned here.
You can train your lats, traps, upper back, grip, forearms, rotator cuffs, etc.
But the only way to get better at pull ups is to actually do pull ups.
Unfortunately, there’s no avoiding it.
I was once given some great advice, and it is a training protocol I have stuck with ever since.
I know I’ve mentioned this before on my website, but you can never hear it enough, LOL.
“The exercises that you hate doing the most are the ones you should be doing more”.
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7. You’ve Hit a Mental Plateau
This ties in with what I’ve just mentioned above.
Call it a mental plateau or a mental block, but you’ve already made your mind up about whether or not you can do pull ups.
Not only do you avoid the exercise, but you’re constantly telling yourself that you can’t do pull ups.
Unfortunately, this constant barrage of negativity will have you believe that you’re never going to be able to do pull ups.
The mind actually plays a HUGE role when it comes to exercise.
I’m not sure how true this is, but I once heard that when we typically “give up” on an exercise when we are only about 40% done physically.
I wouldn’t want to test this theory out with a heavy barbell squat or deadlift, but I know it’s probably true of many exercises.
I would say more specifically with cardio and conditioning exercises than anything else.
However, if your mind is constantly telling you that you can’t do something, then you may have already lost the battle.
A discussion on negative thinking is probably beyond the realms of this article, my website, and perhaps even my overall knowledge of the subject.
However, I do know that a mental plateau can impact on your ability to do pull ups, or any other exercise for that matter.
In fact, it can also stop you from doing that one extra rep, another set, or even working out at all.
Only you can answer whether your mind is holding you back from even attempting pull ups.
And going back to the previous reason, as I’ve mentioned, the only way you’re going to get better at pull ups is by doing pull ups.
So, there you have the main reasons why you can perform chin ups but not pull ups.
As you can see, much of this focused around specific weaknesses or certain muscles, and not training them enough.
Plus, it makes sense to train the pull up more, no matter what you think about the exercise.
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Hi, I’m Partha, the founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I’m someone who’s been passionate about exercise and nutrition for more years than I care to remember. I’ve studied, researched, and honed my skills for a number of decades now. So, I’ve created this website to hopefully share my knowledge with you. Whether your goal is to lose weight, burn fat, get fitter, or build muscle and strength, I’ve got you covered.