Strength coach and Athlean-X founder Jeff Cavaliere C.S.C.S. is a walking encyclopedia when it comes to growing muscle and making gains. Whether he's sharing his knowledge on the science behind the best moves for a chiseled chest, the best bodyweight exercises for building muscle, or the move you should be doing everyday to grow your calves, he knows what's up. So if you're trying to grow your arms, he knows you may be repping through pullups and chin-ups.
But which one is superior to really help you to get those big arm gains? He breaks it down by starting with an anatomy lesson of the upper arm, which consists of the biceps and triceps muscles.
"As we know, the job of the biceps is do supinate the forearm and flex the elbow. It also has the ability to flex the shoulder since it has a biceps long head attachment that crosses the joint," says Cavaliere. "The triceps of course are designed to extend the elbow and bring the arm back into extension behind the body."
When you perform pullups, there is another "very important" muscle used in the upper arm called the brachialis. "This muscle is a strong flexor of the elbow. The brachialis lies directly underneath the biceps and, when developed, can give you wider arms and taller looking biceps," says Cavaliere.
To build bigger arms, you are going to ultimately want to build up your biceps as well as your brachialis. So with the chinup, the underhand position demands supination, which engages the biceps more than in a pullup. However, there is also supination of the forearm, and it may engage your lats rather than your biceps.
"When the elbow drifts out in front of the body the stretch on the lats becomes greater," says Cavaliere. "Due to the activation of the stretch reflex at the bottom of the rep, we can turn the exercise into one that favors the lats rather than the biceps. You don’t want this to happen if you are trying to build up your biceps."
You can do that by making sure you focus on how you are pulling your body up to the bar. Instead of pulling yourself straight up to or remaining super close to the bar, you should keep some distance between your body and the bar on the way up.
"Act as if you are curling your body to the bar like you would curl a bar to your body in a traditional barbell curl," says Cavaliere. "This will demand that the biceps do more of the work and that the lats do less."
As for pullups, the mechanism is different thanks to an overhand grip rather than an underhand one, which shifts the focus away from the biceps to the brachialis muscle. Cavaliere notes that the thing to focus on with pullups is the grip width on the bar.
"The wider grip you take, the less you are going to work the brachialis because the amount of flexion at the elbow is going to be less," says Cavaliere. "With the brachialis, one of the stronger flexors of the elbow, we want to get more flexion by taking a more narrow grip." Like with the chinup, he suggests that you also keep your body distanced from the bar, because if you're too close, it will lessen the effect on the brachialis muscle.
So which is better for building bigger arms? The answer is both of them—a trick question from Cavaliere.
Your best split depends on your goals and the type of program you follow.
"If you're following a bro split, I would consider the brachialis exercise to be more of the pullup, and that would go on our back day," says Cavaliere. "I consider the chinup to be the better bicep exercise if performed it the way that I showed you, and that would sort of go on bicep or arm day."
For a pull workout, you can put them either in alternating workouts, or you can use them together in the same workout. If you do them in the same workout, Cavaliere suggests on focus on the strength lift like a weighted pullup, and then you use your chinup as a higher rep accessory exercise. Or, you can fit them into a total body workout scheme where you either the pullup or chinup every single time you're training.
"The fact is guys, both of them are great exercises," says Cavaliere. "How you do what you do always matters."
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