Chin-Ups vs Curls: Which is Best for Biceps?

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 28, 2022

Despite the seemingly massive difference between chin-ups and curls, there is some debate in sports science on which exercise is the more effective biceps-builder.

Furthermore, lifters strapped for time or equipment may wish to decide on one exercise over the other, but otherwise remain unsure of which exercise is better for overall upper-body training.

In truth, it is somewhat more complex than one exercise being better than the other, as they are not equivalents by definition alone. 

Chin-ups are a compound movement that recruit multiple muscle groups in a multi-joint suspended movement, whereas curls are a highly efficient biceps brachii isolation exercise considered to be quite effective at volume-induced hypertrophy.

What are Chin-Ups?

Chin-ups are a bodyweight compound exercise performed by calisthenics athletes and exercisers for the purposes of back-and-biceps muscle development or functional fitness.

chin ups

They are most well known for being the more biceps-focused counterpart of the classic pull-up exercise, and are generally rated to be an intermediate level exercise due to the upper body strength required to suspend oneself throughout each repetition.

In bodybuilding and weightlifting routines, chin-ups can take the role of a secondary compound exercise meant to reinforce the training stimulus provided by heavier resistance exercises like barbell rows or deadlifts.

Muscles Worked by Chin-ups

Chin-ups recruit the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, trapezius, deltoids, pectorals and rhomboids in a dynamic capacity, with the forearms and core muscles contracting as stabilizer muscles.

chin up muscles

What are Curls?

Curls are (in most variations) free weight biceps-brachii isolation exercises performed either unilaterally or bilaterally for the purpose of inducing hypertrophy in the biceps muscles.

dumbbell bicep curl

Bicep curls are considered to be a classic bodybuilding exercise and a staple of any arm-focused workout session, so much so that some form of curl variation is almost universally included in modern training programs.

Muscles Worked by Curls

The conventional curl exercise primarily targets the two heads of the biceps brachii, though certain variations also recruit the brachioradialis and brachialis muscles that are adjacent to the biceps as well.

dumbbell biceps curl

Equipment Differences of Chin-Ups and Curls

The most obvious difference between chin-ups and curls lies in the equipment differences of either exercise, with chin-ups requiring some sort of overhead ledge or bar while curls will generally require a weighted item, such as a dumbbell or barbell.

While both chin-ups and curls are versatile and can make use of a variety of items, curls will generally be safer and more effective when performed with dumbbells, E-Z curl bars or kettlebells. 

This is not so much the case with chin-ups, as calisthenic athletes are known for performing their exercises in a variety of non-gym environments that do not feature a pull-up bar.

As such, chin-ups are considered to be more cost-effective and suitable for calisthenic athletes on a budget.

Biomechanical Differences of Chin-Ups and Curls

In terms of pure biomechanical recruitment, chin-ups are far more complex than the conventional curl exercise - especially considering the fact that curls will only ever make use of elbow flexion and extension.

In comparison, chin-ups make use of scapular retraction, elbow movement, shoulder rotation and a number of other biomechanics, all in a single movement.

For individuals with poor coordination or a history of injury in any upper body joints aside from the elbows, curls are the safer exercise for training the biceps. 

Conversely, individuals wishing to train their whole-body coordination and strength will prefer the chin-up for its multi-joint simultaneous movement pattern.

Chin-Ups or Curls for Back Muscle Workouts?

In terms of training the various muscles of the back, the chin-ups are vastly superior to curls with virtually no contest.

Conventional curl exercises are meant to be performed as biceps isolation exercises, meaning that they solely train the muscles of the biceps brachii and do not otherwise engage any other muscle groups in a dynamic fashion.

In comparison, chin-ups both recruit the muscles of the back, and do so in a dynamic and highly intense fashion - especially in regards to the latissimus dorsi and rhomboid muscles, of which will be engaged throughout the entirety of the chin-up movement.

Chin-Ups or Curls for Biceps Growth?

The main reason for the debate between chin-ups and curls revolves around which exercise is superior for biceps brachii development.

On one end of the debate are individuals claiming that curls are better due to their isolation-type activation of the biceps, whereas individuals in support of chin-ups will cite EMG studies claiming that the biceps are contracted to a greater degree by chin-up repetitions.

In truth, chin-ups are indeed clinically established to be better for pure muscular activation of the biceps - especially in a full range of motion. 

However, muscular activation is not the only factor needed to induce effective muscular hypertrophy, as the high-volume sets of curls are also quite useful for inducing muscle protein synthesis in the area.

If pure biceps brachii recruitment is the sole goal - then chin-ups are the better choice, whereas curls are better for directly targeting the biceps without the inclusion of other muscle groups.

As such, it is far more efficient to combine the two exercises within the same workout - performing chin-ups alongside other compound exercises prior to finishing up with curls so as to maximize biceps brachii volume.

Chin-Ups or Curls for Volume and Progressive Overload

In terms of maintaining an adequate volume of repetitions per set, the majority of novice and intermediate level exercisers will find that curls are far easier to perform for multiple repetitions than chin-ups.

This is simply a consequence of the compound nature of chin-ups, as well as the higher intensity of each repetition therein, of which will generally result in fewer repetitions per set than what one would be capable of with a working weight set of curls.

Linear Progression of Chin-Ups and Curls

This further ties into the concept of progressive overload, wherein an exerciser will gradually up the weight or volume of a certain exercise over time so as to keep the body steadily challenged, ensuring linear physical development.

Unless already at the higher levels of physical strength, it can be quite difficult to progressively load chin-ups due to the intensity and fatigue involved in the exercise - something that is not an issue for curls, which simply require the exerciser to lift heavier weights in order to maintain progressive overload.

In summary, the fact that curls may be more easily loaded and performed at higher volumes per set make them far more ideal for training programming than chin-ups - though only in the case of biceps progression, unfortunately.

Chin-Ups or Curls for Athletic Carryover

For athletes or exercisers seeking greater functional fitness, chin-ups are clearly the superior choice as they are of a higher intensity while simultaneously being a compound exercise of both dynamic and isometric contraction.

In comparison, curls are far more specific in their scope of athletic activity carryover - being far more relevant as an accessory movement due to the isolated muscular activation and angle of resistance involved.

Unless participating in a sport that directly involves a movement pattern similar to bicep curls, it is far better to pick chin-ups instead, especially if you are a climber or a similar type of athlete in need of suspension exercises.

Can Chin-Ups and Curls be Combined?

Investigating the different applications of chin-ups and curls can lead to one conclusion; why not perform both exercises within a single workout?

Unless otherwise limited by your physiology or other factors like time and equipment, there is little reason to pick one exercise over the other.

The various strengths and weaknesses of chin-ups and curls are accounted for by the other, with the fatigue-limitation and higher intensity of chin-ups being balanced out by the more isolated recruitment of the biceps by curl exercises.

The shortened range of motion and generally limited maximum weight of curls are also complemented by chin-ups, wherein these disadvantages are compensated by the full range of motion and heavy repetitions of the latter movement.

As you can see, from a programming perspective, chin-ups and curls are quite effective in tandem - so long as they are done correctly. 

Performing the heavier chin-ups exercise prior to curls will ensure that fatigue and training stimulus are managed properly, maximizing biceps brachii development within the workout.

Final Thoughts

To conclude the article, we would like to reiterate that chin-ups and curls are two vastly different exercises with the sole characteristic shared between the two being recruitment of the biceps muscles.

If this is your sole goal, then performing a curl variation like preacher curls or concentration curls are arguably the best choices to make.

However, if you wish to be training for more than simple biceps development, it may be preferable to pick chin-ups - or to even combine the two exercises, for the best results.

References

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. Burhan N, Kasno M', Ghazali R, Said MR, Abdullah SS, Jali MH. Analysis of the Biceps Brachii Muscle by Varying the Arm Movement Level and Load Resistance Band. J Healthc Eng. 2017;2017:1631384. doi: 10.1155/2017/1631384. Epub 2017 Sep 12. PMID: 29138687; PMCID: PMC5613368.

3. Marcolin G, Panizzolo FA, Petrone N, Moro T, Grigoletto D, Piccolo D, Paoli A. Differences in electromyographic activity of biceps brachii and brachioradialis while performing three variants of curl. PeerJ. 2018 Jul 13;6:e5165. doi: 10.7717/peerj.5165. PMID: 30013836; PMCID: PMC6047503.

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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