The pull-up is iconic for being an easily accessible and highly effective calisthenic exercise performed by all sorts of athletes - meaning that it is also occasionally used as a method of benchmarking the upper body strength of an exerciser.
As such, it is no surprise that many individuals question whether they are indeed as effective as other members of their demographic in terms of pull-up performance.
The majority of individuals cannot actually perform more than a single pull-up, though this is largely because of the statistically average woman only being able to perform a single pull-up at most. The average member of the male demographic should be able to perform two pull-ups at maximum effort, not accounting for age or experience.
The pull-up is a classic bodyweight compound movement performed for the purposes of increasing muscle mass and strength along the back, core and arm muscle groups.
They are frequently executed for multiple repetitions within consecutive sets, and are considered to be accessible to beginner exercisers while still remaining challenging for more advanced individuals.
For the purpose of physical rehabilitation or competitive athletics, pull-ups may also be seen as a method of testing the integrity and capabilities of an individual’s upper body.
To begin performing a repetition of the pull-up, the exerciser will grip a pull-up bar overhead with enough vertical clearance to prevent their feet from touching the ground while their arms are in a state of full extension.
Then, flexing the core and facing their head upwards, the exerciser will flex their back muscles and bend at the elbows, drawing their chest towards the bar in a controlled and slow manner. It is important to avoid any swinging of the lower body during this portion of the movement, as it can greatly reduce the intensity of the exercise.
Once the bar has cleared eye-level, the exerciser will then allow themselves to return to the original dead hang position in a similarly slow manner, completing the repetition once their arms have returned to a state of full extension once more.
The two most important demographic factors when investigating pull-up performance among the average individual are that of their body weight and their age, as individuals of high weight and low strength output will obviously be far more challenged during a pull-up than their lighter counterparts.
Furthermore, the gender of the individual will also influence how many pull-ups they will be capable of, meaning that women and men should be separated into two categories when establishing the average number of pull-ups that a person can perform.
Among the average untrained male, individuals aged from 13 to their late 30’s will only be capable of up to two pull-ups at most, with the median weight of such individuals being approximately 170 pounds.
Generally, the lighter and younger the man, the closer they will be to performing the upper end of the average pull-up range. Of course, this is taking the global average into consideration, not solely men that regularly train in a gym.
Among the resistance trained population of males however, being able to perform 1-2 pull-ups places them firmly in the lower percentiles, with the average number of pull-ups possible among trained men being between 8 and 13 instead.
Well-trained men with relatively low body fat and in their prime will be capable of even more repetitions, with “elite” level calisthenic athletes being capable of over 15 pull-ups consecutively on average.
In the case of the average untrained female, individuals aged between 13 and the early 40’s will likely only be capable of performing a single repetition of pull-ups, though quite a number of heavier or older women may not be capable of performing any pull-ups without training.
Much like in the case of untrained males, being of lower body weight and younger age will generally equate to better performance - though this is among the global average, meaning that it does not necessarily apply to athletic or otherwise physically trained women.
Despite the global average, among women who participate in regular resistance training, the average number of pull-ups for women between 13 and the early 40’s is up to 3 consecutive repetitions. Among the more advanced female athletes, being able to perform up to 12 pull-ups in a row is entirely possible.
To put it more concisely, the number of pull-ups you should be able to do is simply what the average performance of your demographic is capable of.
If you are an untrained man, you should be able to perform up to two pull-ups.
If you are a male athlete, weightlifter or otherwise participate in some form of strength training, you should be able to perform between 8 and 13 pull-ups consecutively.
If you are an untrained woman, it is entirely normal to be capable of only a single pull-up, or none at all.
For women whom participate in sports, resistance training or some other form of strength-training activity, you should be able to perform up to three pull-ups consecutively.
Pull-ups are often used as a gauge of an athlete’s capabilities in comparison to other individuals in their age group or weight class, as the number of consecutive repetitions an individual is capable of can dictate whether they are considered to be a “novice” level exerciser or further.
It is also possible to gauge one’s own personal progress through this very same method, seeing how you compare to your own previous personal record (PR) and utilizing such info to maximize the effectiveness of your training methodology.
Among so-called novice or beginner exercisers, being capable of performing a single pull-up is considered standard for women between their teenage years and early forties. For men, this is up to two consecutive pull-ups.
However, for novice exercisers beyond the age of 40, performing only a single pull-up is entirely normal for either gender.
Intermediate exercisers are the statistical average, meaning that they are the 50th percentile among a trained population. While they are far more capable than the average untrained individual, they are nonetheless only somewhat stronger than novice exercisers, as is evidenced by their maximal pull-up set attempts.
For intermediate male lifters, being able to perform between 8 and 12 repetitions is the statistical average, whereas intermediate female lifters can likely do as many as three in a set.
Beyond the age of 40, women capable of performing 2 pull-up repetitions are considered to be intermediate level exercisers, whereas men capable of 8 repetitions are classified as intermediate as well.
Among the higher percentiles of a trained population, the so-called “advanced” or “elite” are those that can perform significantly better than the average.
In the case of pull-ups, this equates to a male exerciser who is capable of performing up to 12 repetitions and beyond, as the intermediate or average among resistance trained men is between 8 and 12 consecutive repetitions.
For women, the upper percentile is any woman capable of performing between 8 and 12 repetitions consecutively, a far cry from the average untrained woman.
Keep in mind that these figures assume that the man or woman is between the ages of 13 and 40, meaning people over 40 do not need to be capable of performing as many repetitions as their younger counterparts in order to make it into the higher percentiles.
As such, for these advanced exercisers over the age of 40, performing over 9 repetitions by either gender qualifies them as elite in terms of pull-up performance.
In the event that you are a novice and wish to derive the many benefits of performing pull-ups, or are otherwise seeking to surpass the average trained individual of your demographic, there are a few universally applicable tips that can make reaching your goals more efficient.
One of the most important factors a novice should master in their training career is to practice, and to do so in a consistent manner that ensures steady returns from said practice.
As is repeated ad nauseam among fitness gurus; “consistency is key”, as not only does the body attempt to undo your hard-earned results if it finds no stimulus to justify such adaptations, but so too does an inconsistent training schedule also cause poor habits to develop.
This does not equate to training the same movement every single day, but rather ensuring that you are following your training program in a controlled and thoughtful manner - while simultaneously taking the time to allow your body to recover.
As pull-ups are a compound movement that involve some of the largest muscle groups in the upper body, it is pretty common practice to include several accessory exercises alongside them so as to produce a more evenly-distributed training stimulus among the muscles.
While some accessory movements are meant to aid in the technical aspect of performing a pull-up, others are more widely accessible and are meant to target the less-recruited muscle groups normally involved in a conventional pull-up repetition.
These are usually isolation exercises that recruit the biceps, trapezius, abdominal muscles or even the rhomboids - often with characteristically low resistance and a moderate amount of volume per set.
Because of the fact that the standard pull-up is an exercise with all the resistance derived from gravity acting upon the exerciser’s own body weight, it should be no surprise that reducing your own non-lean tissue mass is an excellent way of making pull-ups easier to perform in greater numbers.
Furthermore, this can be made even more effective by increasing the amount of lean muscle that you have, thereby making the exercise easier both by reducing the resistance involved, as well as your own ability to counter the resistance by growing physically stronger.
To do so, simply improve your diet with sufficient protein intake and a mild caloric deficit as you continue to train with pull-ups.
Pull-ups are more than just an exercise of physical ability, as performing them to your greatest capabilities will also involve perfecting their execution by taking advantage of your own physiology and how the exercise itself is performed.
Utilizing the “stretch” effect of the latissimus dorsi, learning to control your momentum through abdominal muscle contraction and even figuring out the perfect grip width for your own proportions are just a few technicalities of the pull-up that can help you squeeze out one or two more repetitions from your muscles.
Yes - being capable of performing 20 consecutive pull-ups easily places any individual in the elite level of athletic capability. In fact, the majority of high level male athletes cannot achieve such a feat without nearing the limitations of their own physical ability.
To be able to achieve 20 consecutive pull-ups is to have trained consistently and at a high level of effectiveness for several years, and is a veritable achievement for exercisers of all backgrounds.
While the definition of “good” will vary widely on your own age, gender and bodyweight - generally, over 12 repetitions for men and 8 for women is considered to be in the advanced levels of athletic capability.
To reach this point, train consistently, perfect your diet and learn the ins-and-outs of performing a proper pull-up repetition.
Pull-ups grow more difficult to perform as the set continues due to muscular fatigue and waste products of various biochemical processes collecting within the body.
This can cause the muscles to reach a point of “failure” where they are no longer capable of performing a pull-up repetition with proper form.
Such an occurrence is entirely normal and is a part of all forms of muscular exertion - and can generally be reduced in its intensity through regular training and performing proper preparatory work prior to your training session.
So - are you performing enough pull-ups to beat the average member of your demographic? If not - don’t worry, as what is truly important is ensuring that you are making progress in comparison to your past self.
It is important to remember that statistics are not always accurate, and that taking an average from a sample size is not reflective of the dozens of factors that can change how many pull-ups an individual is capable of.
At the end of the day, as long as you are training properly and in a safe and healthy manner, then you are indeed doing as many pull-ups as you should be.
1. Ronai, Peter M. and Eric P. Scibek. “The Pull-Up.” Strength and Conditioning Journal 36 (2014): 88-90.
2. Negrete RJ, Hanney WJ, Pabian P, Kolber MJ. Upper body push and pull strength ratio in recreationally active adults. Int J Sports Phys Ther. 2013 Apr;8(2):138-44. PMID: 23593552; PMCID: PMC3625793.
3. Aandstad A. Association Between Performance in Muscle Fitness Field Tests and Skeletal Muscle Mass in Soldiers. Mil Med. 2020 Jun 8;185(5-6):e839-e846. doi: 10.1093/milmed/usz437. PMID: 31875898.