Having been in the personal training business for almost 20 years I would often get the question, “how many pullups should I be able to do?” Here in our Palo Alto, CA studio I don’t get it as often as previous big gyms I worked at, but it still comes up. There are many answers to this question depending on what standards you are looking at. You can easily find these by searching for pullups for military service, presidential fitness standards for kids, or just everyday standards. I’m not trying to dodge this question, but it really depends. The short answer for the amount to be considered “good” is: for men 5-10, for women: 3-5. This is a very general number and for certain fit or athletic groups this number would be much higher.
Strength to bodyweight ratio
Strength to bodyweight ratio (in the upperbody) is one of the biggest determinants of how many pullups one can do. A strong guy who weighs 150 is always going to be able to do more than a “relatively” strong guy at 250. What I mean is that if these two had the same strength standard of say “excellent”, the lighter guy would have to more reps. The lighter guy will have a higher strength to body weight ratio, BUT the standard would be lower (ratio wise) for the bigger guy. So if 30 pullups is considered excellent for a guy who weights 150lbs, 22 pullups would be considered excellent for a 250lb guy. This is shown in sports like powerlifting and weight lifting. The bigger or heavier the competitor the more absolute strength and less strength to body weight ratio they have.
Body fat %
The leaner someone is, the less extra weight they have to lift up to the bar. I always tell my clients that the easiest way to do more pullups is to get leaner and I’m not just saying this to get them to eat better. Of course if you add more upper body and specifically back muscle, it will help you with your pullups. However, you have to take in consideration strength to body weight ratio.
Arm length or height
Long arms have a long way to go during a pullup in compared to short arms. We could also say shorter people are better at them than taller people. Someone at 6’6” has a much longer way to go than someone at 5’6”. Are shorter arms better relative to their height? Theoretically yes, but I don’t know if this has ever been studied. Shorter arms just take less work to get each rep in. The same goes for bench press.
Men and women
Men can do more than women on average, due to 40% more upper body mass (1). Women can be plenty strong and stronger than men in many cases though. Female gymnasts or climbers will likely do more pullups than male distance runners and possibly basketball players.
A long torso?
Being that it’s an upper body exercise, we can theorize the more torso length you have in proportion to your legs means more “useful mass” or less “useless mass”. Although this is possible, I think that the other factors play a larger role.
The best and the worst pullup bodies
Let me first say a great pullup body doesn’t necessarily translate to great athletic ability, nor does a bad pullup body to poor athletic ability. The ideal pullup body would be lean, short, short limbed, lighter, and have a high strength to weight ratio, with a less lower body mass. The closest body type I could think of that fits into this description is a gymnast. Climbers are also great at pullups largely in part because they use the pullup-like motion, but the good ones are also lean, high strength to weight ratio, and have less lower body mass (2).
So what can I do to increase my pullups?
The biggest thing is to get leaner which will increase your strength to weight ratio. Even if you just maintain your strength, you will be able to do more. Of course training pullups while getting leaner is obviously a good idea. If you are already lean, then is just a matter of training. I’ll save pullup training for another blog, but here's a great way to add some weight to your pullups to to increase near-max strength.
Know your body
You can’t change your arm length and adding muscle varies from person to person. If you are tall with long arms, understand that doing half as many pullups as a shorter person is just as good. Height and long limbs have their advantage in most sports. You certainly can add muscle, but everyone reacts differently when their muscles are put under stress. Some grow muscle just looking at a weight, while for others it’s a constant struggle even with proper hypertrophy training. Adding more strength in proportion to muscle mass is ideal for pullups.
It’s simple really
Focus on your nutrition to lose body fat, train pullups, and gain strength in general. Do this and you will see you pullup sets increase.
1) Haff, Triplett, Essentials in Strength Training and Conditioning
Jerry Yuhara, CPT, CES, CMT #75123
4193 El Camino Real
Palo Alto, CA 94306
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