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Is a Pull-Up the True Mark of Strength?

Nothing says I’m kinda, sorta in shape like being able to pull every last ounce of your body weight through the air

It takes a great deal of courage to train with pull-ups, especially if you’re going to strain your way through them in a public setting. If you’re stationed at a faraway weight machine, I might have no clue what quantity of weight you’ve chosen to lift. Even if I notice that you’re lifting a weight that most people would classify as light, I may give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re rehabilitating an injury, developing your endurance or working on strengthening your mind-muscle connection as you progress through your lifts.

However, once you latch onto that pull-up bar, I know what’s up, and so does everyone else in the gym. That’s because the pull-up is a fitness test at its very core, with a very clear and identifiable moment of muscle failure connected with it. You’ll either arrive at that bar a specified number of times or you won’t. No interpretation necessary.

How long has it been this way?

Kinda forever. By the late 19th century, several American fitness clubs held competitions and published their results in the newspapers; the pull-up was one of the featured exercises. In his coverage of the record-shattering fitness score of Amherst College’s Henry Lane — who reportedly completed 48 pull-ups during a competition in 1895 — the editor of The Standard Union of Brooklyn stated the following: “The man who can make a score of 10 in each of these events may regard himself as very well fitted for life; while a record of 20 is something quite uncommon.”

This utterance would prove to be prophetic: Fifty years later, a score of 20 pull-ups was a requirement to achieve a perfect score in the U.S. Army’s Physical Fitness Ratings, while the record-setting 1943 cadet class at Strother Army Airfield in Arkansas City, Kansas averaged just under 11 pull-ups as reported in The Prairie Flier.

If 10 pull-ups was considered a solid number for fit men from the late 1800s all the way up through the 1940s, how do modern standards compare?

Well, things didn’t always remain at that level. In 1946, the Army Medical Research Laboratory did some testing with respect to the effects of training on all of their physical assessment measures. The study concluded after 57 days of diligent training by the test group, and the pull-up average of the group only increased from seven to nine. Even targeted physical training during that era could only boost pull-up repetitions by so much, and in 1957, the number of pull-ups required to receive a perfect score on the Physical Fitness Test Battery was reduced from 20 to 18.

All of these numbers still sound astronomical to me. Pull-ups are really hard!

It’s true; pull-ups are hard. Sadly, they were made even more demanding by overall societal increases in body weight without corresponding increases in muscle mass and strength. From 1960 to today, the weight of an average American man has risen from approximately 165 pounds to 195 pounds, while the average American height has stabilized. Applying the physics of these anatomical changes to the mechanics of a pull-up, it’s completely understandable why people would have difficulty hoisting an additional 30 pounds of relatively unproductive weight off of the earth on a per-lift basis.

In fact, if you and another person with an identical level of strength are performing the same number of pull-ups, whichever of you is carrying 30 additional pounds of body weight will have been forced to lift 300 additional aggregated pounds by the time you reach 10 reps. This is exactly the sort of information Pvt. Leonard Lawrence could have used in his defense in the film Full Metal Jacket while Gunnery Sergeant Hartman was busy reading him the riot act.

Does this mean I need to lose weight if I want to improve my pull-up total?

It will undeniably help. 

As long as you’re executing them properly, pull-ups provide you with a reliable gauge for simultaneously testing your fitness level while you’re developing strength and endurance in your back. However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t enhance your ability to properly execute pull-ups by improving your form. One of the simplest ways to reliably increase your pull-up totals is by letting your legs hang slightly in front of your body instead of behind you. This increase in tension will stabilize the position of your body, preventing it from swinging, and enabling you to devote the bulk of your energy to raising and lowering your body rather than restricting the oscillation of your body.

But don’t I need to have a strong midsection in order to control my swaying?

Yes, you do, and this leads us to what is often the most uncomfortable truth about the pull-up: Improvements to pull-up numbers usually don’t materialize as a result of simply trying to do more pull-ups; general strength increases to the abdominals, chest, shoulders and arms will all compound to provide you with the strength required to complete more pull-ups.

It sounds like if I want to do more pull-ups, I’m going to have to build muscle all the way around.

It’s true. Pull-ups are an excellent testing and training tool, and continuing to train with them properly will allow you to make rapid strength gains. In fact, once you arrive at the point where you can rattle off several sets of pull-ups, there’s a reasonable argument to be made that you would never have to perform another upper-body exercise in your life in order to maintain your back and bicep strength at levels that are well above average. You’ll also be able to fit competently into practically every superhero training montage ever filmed.