Illustration of a man flexing his biceps

Both chin-ups and biceps curls are sorely underrated. Chin-ups are easily worthy of being given the same lofty position as the squat, bench press, and deadlift, and yet they’re left out of most strength training programs. According to most strength coaches, curls are even more of a Pariah, but at least most guys who want bigger biceps know to do them.

To be fair, strength training programs aren’t designed to help guys build bigger biceps, and so it makes sense that they aren’t very good at it. But who wouldn’t want bigger biceps?

In this article, let’s compare the chin-up against the curl for biceps growth, and then talk about how to build a biceps bulking routine around them.

Doing Chin-Ups for Biceps Growth

Illustration of a man doing chin-ups

Chin-ups can be a great biceps exercise. In fact, they can even be a great main exercise for our biceps: they’re a big, heavy compound lift that puts our biceps through a large range of motion … sort of, and sometimes.

Chin-ups can be a great exercise for our biceps, but it really depends on how we do them.

For starters, we need to differentiate chin-ups from pull-ups. Chin-ups are done with an underhand or angled grip, whereas pull-ups are done with an overhand or neutral grip, like so:

Illustration of the difference between chin-ups and pull-ups.

With chin-ups, our biceps are in a great position to contribute to the lift. In fact, our hands are in nearly the same position as they are when we’re doing biceps curls. As a result, we’d expect that position to be ideal for biceps growth.

With pull-ups, on the other hand, our hands are rotated away from us, reducing the leverage that our biceps have. In this case, it’s our forearm muscles—our brachialis and brachioradialis—that will be working to flex our arms.

How much of a difference does that make? If we look at the muscle-activation (EMG) research of Bret Contreras, PhD, we see that weighted chin-ups are around 50% better at stimulating our biceps than weighted pull-ups:

  • Chin-up: 107 mean biceps activation, 205 peak
  • Pull-up: 65 mean biceps activation, 145 peak

Chin-ups are much better at engaging our biceps than pull-ups, and thus much better at stimulating growth in them.

The next thing to consider is the range of motion we’re using. As a general rule of thumb, when we’re trying to grow a muscle, we want to train it through a large effective range of motion.

With chin-ups that means starting from a dead hang, with your biceps stretched out to 180 degrees, and then pulling your chest all the way to the bar, contracting your biceps fully, like so:

Illustration of a man doing chin-ups with a full range of motion

However, the chin-up is a compound lift, and we’re moving at both the elbows and the shoulders. This complicates things because our biceps work across both of those joints, too—they start at our forearms and finish at our shoulders. As we’re flexing our arms, our biceps are contracting, but as we’re pulling our elbows in closer to our torsos, our biceps are lengthening. So as we pull ourselves up the bar, our biceps are staying at about the same overall length.

Now, that doesn’t mean that the chin-up is useless for our biceps. Far from it. As we can see Contreras’ EMG research, our biceps are heavily involved in the chin-up. But it does mean that the curl has at least one advantage over chin-ups.

Doing Curls for Biceps Growth

Illustration of a man doing Ez-Bar biceps curls

Biceps curls are certainly the most popular biceps exercise, and they’ve earned it, too: they allow us to work our biceps through a large range of motion with no movement in our shoulder joint, meaning that we get a good biceps stretch at the bottom and a good contraction at the top.

Furthermore, even though it’s a single-joint “isolation” exercise, curls are actually a pretty good lift for strengthening our upper-back muscles and posture. As we’re curling the barbell up, it will try to round our back forward, and so our back muscles will need to hold strong. In that sense, it strengthens our back in the same way that the deadlift does.

Barbell curls can also get pretty heavy, too! They’re thought of as a small exercise, definitely, but if you spend enough time curling, you’re going to pack a lot of meat onto your arms and upper back, and that barbell is going to start getting pretty hefty.

So even though barbell curls are often thought of as a bodybuilding and aesthetics lift, they’re actually pretty great for our general strength and posture. They’re a great lift all around.

As with chin-ups, there are different ways that you can curl, and some are better for our biceps than others. Here’s what we see in Contreras’ muscle activation research:

  • Dumbbell Curl: 53 mean biceps activation, 118 peak
  • Preacher Curl: 80 mean biceps activation, 145 peak
  • EZ-Bar Curl: 75 mean biceps activation, 146 peak
  • Barbell Curl: 95 mean biceps activation, 138 peak
  • Cheat Curl: 94 mean biceps activation, 136 peak

As an interesting aside, although cheat curls weren’t noticeably better at stimulating biceps growth, they were quite a bit better at stimulating the muscles in our upper backs, making them more of a compound movement.

Anyway, what we’re seeing here is that none of the curl variations are working our biceps as hard as weighted chin-ups:

  • Barbell Curl: 95 mean biceps activation, 138 peak
  • Chin-up: 107 mean biceps activation, 205 peak

The difference is quite stark, too. We’re seeing 50% more peak muscle activation in chin-ups than barbell curls.

Now, this research isn’t perfect, and as we saw with a recent study comparing squats against hip thrusts, sometimes exercises produce more muscle growth despite scoring lower in EMG research. However, when that happens, it’s usually the bigger compound exercises that produce more muscle growth, not the smaller isolation ones.

Even so, there are some notable advantages to curls:

  • Our biceps are worked from a stretched to a contracted position. Even with less peak muscle activation, being worked through their entire range of motion might yield more muscle growth per rep.
  • Curls are less fatiguing than chin-ups, allowing us to do more sets more quickly, and with less risk of running into recovery issues. This means that curls are usually a better way to add in extra biceps work to our workout routines.

How to Build Bigger Biceps

Illustration of a man flexing his biceps

If we compare chin-ups and curls for biceps growth, we see that each lift is bringing something special to the table:

  • Chin-Ups stimulate more overall muscle growth throughout our entire bodies, making them a much better compound exercise. They also put the most tension on our biceps and force them to generate the most force, making them the best heavy biceps exercise.
  • Curls work our biceps through a larger effective range of motion and they’re less tiring per set, allowing us to easily add in complementary biceps work to the end of our workouts without running into fatigue issues.

As a result, the best way to bulk up your biceps is to focus on getting stronger at chin-ups over time. Treat them like you do your other big compound lifts, and gradually add reps, sets, and weight.

However, to speed that process up, you can also add in plenty of biceps curls. They work your biceps in a different way to chin-ups, and the extra volume should yield extra growth.

For example, if we look at this study, we see that adding in biceps curls after lat pulldowns produced nearly 60% more arm growth. We could expect a similar result from adding curls after our chin-ups.

Summary

So wrap up, chin-ups are better for bulking up our biceps on a per-set basis, whereas curls are better for our biceps once we factor in time, energy, and fatigue.

To get the best biceps growth, then, best to use chin-ups as our main compound lift and then stack some curls on at the end of our workouts. They both stimulate our biceps in slightly different ways and complement each other well.

Cover illustration of the Outlift intermediate bulking program for naturally skinny guys.

If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds these principles in, then check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program. If you liked this article, you’ll love the full program.

Shane Duquette is the co-founder and creative lead of Outlift. He has a degree in Design Theory (BDes) from York University and Sheridan College. He also founded Bony to Beastly and Bony to Bombshell, where he's spent the past eight years helping naturally skinny people bulk up.

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