Though it is generally a good habit to avoid comparing oneself to others, keeping the physical ability of the average individual in mind can aid in seeing how far you’ve come in comparison.
One excellent method of testing upper body strength is the maximal number of pull-up repetitions one can do before reaching the point of complete fatigue.
The average untrained man can perform approximately two to three pull-ups when they are between the stages of adolescence and adulthood, but will be unable to perform more than a single pull-up once they reach the age of over twenty-five years old. This is due to a sedentary lifestyle and increasing body weight.
The pull-up is a bodyweight compound exercise that is performed for the purposes of training the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii and various other pulling muscles along the anterior section of the torso.
It is most frequently encountered in calisthenics workouts, but is also occasionally incorporated into bodybuilding or powerlifting routines as an adjacent movement to weighted compound exercises like the barbell row or deadlift.
The pull-up is considered to be one of the most effective methods of determining upper body strength output due to its relativity to the weight of the exerciser. The heavier the individual, the more difficult the pull-up will be as they are forced to bear their own bodyweight throughout the exercise.
Two main factors are used to help dictate the average number of pull-up repetitions among trained individuals - age and body weight, as these two physiological factors are the largest dictating characteristic in terms of upper body strength.
For individuals between the body weights of 120 and 220, a maximal effort of 6 pull-ups is considered to be the basis of novice level strength, whereas being able to perform between 15 and 12 pull-ups inversely depending on body weight is considered to be intermediate.
Advanced and elite level weightlifters at this body weight will be able to perform anywhere between 26 and 39 pull-ups at the lightest, and 20 to 28 pull-ups at the heaviest point of this range.
Of course, this is assuming that the individual is between the ages of 20 to 45, as exercisers younger or older than this range will be unable to perform as many pull-ups in a single set.
Regardless of bodyweight, beginner level exercisers will generally be only able to perform a single repetition of the pull-up - though some individuals may be capable of performing 2 or 3, depending on their age.
This relatively low starting point is because of the untrained state in which the majority of beginner lifter’s muscles will be in - an unfortunate consequence of the modern lifestyle and the average diet of most individuals.
Fortunately, due to the “newbie gains” effect, exercisers will rapidly be able to adapt to the pull-up and easily double the amount of repetitions they are capable of performing within only a month or two of consistent training.
Before checking how you measure up against the average man, it's important to make sure that you are in fact performing the pull-up correctly, as “cheating” the exercise can easily skew the comparison.
Like most other exercises, it is important to perform the pull-up in a slow and controlled manner, ensuring that no excessive momentum or unsecured joints are present throughout each repetition.
Prior to beginning a set of pull-ups, the exerciser should set their hands wider than shoulder-width apart along a pull-up bar, ensuring that there is enough vertical clearance to allow the arms to fully extend without the exerciser’s feet touching the floor.
The hands should be in an overhand or pronated grip, and the core should remain tightly flexed so as to reduce any momentum or swinging of the lower body as the repetition is performed.
To perform a repetition of the pull-up exercise, the lifter will contract their latissimus dorsi and their biceps, pulling their chin over the bar as they keep the elbows relatively static in position.
Once the bar has passed their eye level, the exerciser will simply reverse the motion in a slow and controlled manner, lowering themselves until the arms are once more fully extended above their torso.
If one of your main fitness goals is being able to perform as many pull-ups in a single set as you possibly can, there are several methods employed by elite level calisthenic athletes that are a sure-fire way of improving your pull-up execution and endurance.
In lifting, the term “negative” refers to the eccentric component of an exercise, wherein the muscles recruited are elongated either before or after the concentric portion of the repetition.
For the pull-up, this is the part of the movement where the exerciser has already pulled themselves upwards, and is now lowering themselves back to the starting position in a careful manner.
As such, a “negative” pull-up is simply a standard pull-up with this latter eccentric motion exaggerated so as to produce a greater hypertrophic effect from each repetition - maximizing the training stimulus accrued from even a few repetitions of the exercise.
Negatives are widely viewed as one of the most convenient and effective methods of improving the maximum number of repetitions possible, all without the inclusion of advanced training programming methods or more equipment.
Much like other exercises that involve some level of slow muscular contraction, the presence of one or multiple “sticking points” in the lifter’s execution of the movement can cause sub-maximal performance.
Though far more complicated, sticking points are considered to be sections of a lift’s movement where the exerciser’s technique or muscular strength begins to fail, forcing them to break away from proper form or otherwise grind through the motion so as to complete the repetition.
This is quite different from reaching a point of fatigue, and is most noticeable during the initial repetitions of a set, prior to the exerciser’s muscles actually reaching a point of exhaustion.
Remedying a sticking point will involve performing isolation exercises that target the failing muscle groups, as well as performing exercise variations that shorten the range of motion to just the specific sticking point.
Performing these techniques is a surefire way of reducing overall muscular fatigue caused by pull-ups, as well as creating a smoother and more efficient movement overall - thereby resulting in more pull-up repetitions per set.
Performing the pull-up in such a way that the movement is unbalanced or involves non-simultaneous bending of the various joints of the upper body can effectively reduce the maximum number of repetitions possible.
This is because unbalanced or disproportional repetitions can cause some muscles to bear the majority of the resistance of the exercise, causing them to fatigue far more prematurely and effectively limiting the other muscles of the body.
To perfect this particular factor, all that is needed is to record oneself performing the pull-up, or to have an experienced friend assess whether their pull-up form is indeed proportional or not.
Including more advanced methods of training programming specifically purposed towards improving your maximum number of pull-ups can have great effect - especially when combined with other methods of improving general physical ability.
Variable repetition schemes, the usage of pull-up variations and structuring your workout in such a way that the pull-up is performed with the greatest amount of effort are all excellent ways of increasing the maximum number of pull-ups you are capable of.
Upping the intensity of your pull-up repetitions by throwing on a weight belt or holding a dumbbell between your feet is one way to improve total pull-up repetition capacity.
This is because of the increased hypertrophic effect and neuromuscular strength adaptations that come with increasing levels of resistance, allowing your body to adapt to a greater intensity of pull-up and making unweighted pull-ups seem easier in comparison.
Keep in mind that this particular method of improving pull-up performance is not for novice exercisers, as being unable to already perform an above-average number of bodyweight pull-ups may mean that performing weighted ones is dangerous and inefficient.
Though age and the lifter’s own bodyweight are the two main demographic groups investigated when searching for the average man’s pull-up limit, several smaller factors relating to the actual execution of the exercise itself or the physiology of the exerciser can also have an effect on performance.
While we’ve indeed established that the bodyweight of the exerciser can have a significant effect on how well they can perform pull-ups, we’ve yet to explain precisely how, and what sort of bodyweight may negatively affect pull-ups.
Because of the fact that pull-ups are a bodyweight exercise, much of the resistance involved in the movement will come from the lifter’s own body being pulled by gravity - except, of course, if it is skeletal muscle mass.
Generally, individuals with a significant amount of muscle mass but a much lower amount of non-muscular tissue (such as fat or bone) will be able to perform significantly more push-ups than individuals with a lower body fat to muscle ratio.
Furthermore, individuals with a high strength to weight ratio will also be able to take advantage of a similar effect - that is, being capable of outputting a significant amount of force against the relatively low resistance on account of their low body weight.
This is the reason why skinny novice lifters will be able to perform more pull-ups than their somewhat more advanced but nonetheless heavier counterparts, as the exercise is literally easier for the former type of lifter than the latter one.
Having poor muscular or connective tissue flexibility can result in a sub-optimal range of motion and failure to properly recruit the most important muscles involved in a repetition of the pull-up.
In order to maximize mobility and greatly reduce any risk of injury that pull-ups may present for the exerciser, performing dynamic stretches before and after the workout (and those specifically targeting the scapula and shoulders) will work to great effect.
In particular, the joints of the shoulder blades, rotator cuff and elbows will receive the greatest stress from performance of the pull-up, as will the muscles of the latissimus dorsi, biceps and various smaller pulling muscles along the upper or mid back.
Performing stretches for these areas and improving full body mobility will ensure that the muscles are in a ready and highly effective state for a maximum pull-up set, as well as to ensure that you will not injure yourself as you do so.
Though kipping is largely considered to be cheating when performing the pull-up, taking full advantage of the shoulder blade “stretch effect” at the base of each repetition can allow lifters to squeeze out one or two more repetitions than they would otherwise be capable of performing.
Furthermore, maximizing your pull-up stance in a manner that engenders compatibility with your own unique body proportions can further produce a similar effect, allowing for the most efficient pull-up mechanics possible.
The answer to this question is somewhat more complex than a simple number of repetitions, as demographic factors like gender, bodyweight and age must all be accounted for in order to give an accurate estimate.
For the most part, men between their teenage years and before the age of thirty will be in the upper levels of upper body strength if they can perform over 12 pull-up repetitions within a single maximum effort set.
For women between the range of their teenage years up to the age of approximately forty, being able to perform over 5 pull-up repetitions in a single set is considered quite impressive from a statistical point of view.
Among bodyweight back exercises, the conventional pull-up is considered to be quite difficult - surpassing other calisthenic back movements like the inverse row or wide-arm scapular push-up in terms of intensity, resistance and effectiveness as a training tool.
Yes - outside of the elite levels of physical training for men in their prime years, anyone being able to perform 20 pull-ups in a row is considered to be quite physically strong, and likely already has some experience in regards to calisthenics movements or resistance training in general.
So - having ensured that your pull-ups are done with perfect form and that you’re maximizing all possible factors, how do you measure up against the average untrained male?
At the end of the day, remember that comparing yourself to others in terms of physical training is often an inaccurate assessment, as individuals will always differ in terms of genetic capabilities, lifestyle and training methodology.
What is important is ensuring that you are progressing in a safe and consistent manner, meaning that the only individual whose maximum number of pull-ups matters (that should be relevant to your training) is your past self.
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2. Ricci, B & Figura, F & Felici, Francesco & Marchetti, M. (1988). Comparison of male and female functional capacity in pull-ups. The Journal of sports medicine and physical fitness. 28. 168-75.
3. Merrigan, Justin & Burke, Adam & Eddo, Oladipo & Kearney, James & Martin, Joel. (2021). Upper Body Push to Pull Ratios in Law Enforcement Officer Recruits. Work. In Press. 10.3233/WOR-210761.