Article Thumbnail

Who Is the One True Pull-Up King?

The Guinness Book of World Records has bestowed the honor upon many over the years, but one man lifts himself above all the rest

It’s easy to understand why it would be such a prized achievement to hold the pull-up world record. With all due respect to the push-up, the pull-up is theoretically the purest of the most easily replicable and understood upper-body marriages of raw power and bodyweight mastery. Other exercises are either less sufficient displays of bodyweight control, or necessitate the use of additional skills and abilities (e.g., core strength, timing and acrobatics). 

By the time you can do at least 23 pull-ups, regardless of your age, height, weight or body dimensions, the U.S. Marine Corps will award you with its highest test marks and will not require you to perform another one, even if you could. Not that many Marines could do that many more pull-ups to begin with, considering that the average number of pull-ups performed by U.S. Marines ages 17 to 26 fell between 15 and 17 reps from 2013 to 2017.

That’s not to say the pull-up isn’t without its subjectivity or faults. Depending upon who you ask, the definition of a pull-up can be limited only to strict pulls of the body above the bar originating from a body that dangles in a dead hang, and with no lower-body movement of any sort permitted. Or the definition can be stretched to make room for any motion that effectuates the movement of the trainee’s chin from below the bar to the level of the bar. 

Unsurprisingly, this places the fitness conservatives at odds against the fitness liberals, and results in the mocking of claims to accomplishments that were achieved as a result of pull-up forms and techniques disparaged as unorthodox or insufficient. Or as Dom Mazzetti of BroScience once succinctly encapsulated the opinion of the purists, “CrossFit has revolutionized fitness by teaching you the correct way to do an incorrect pull-up.”

It’s with all of these perspectives in mind that we approach the assorted claims that have been made with respect to record-setting and record-breaking pull-up performances, or at least those that have been officially registered with the Guinness Book of World Records. It turns out that a pull-up record is only as legitimate as the individual restrictions you impose on its enactment, and who you perceive to be the world’s one true pull-up king is a matter of personal preference. 

In other words, all of the numbers attached to these records sound impressive at face value, but the execution of the pull-up performances turns out to be something altogether different in practice.

How could a pull-up record be disappointing in practice?

We can generally subsume any pull-up record within one of four categories, or the overlaps of the four categories: pull-up sprints, pull-up marathons, specialized pull-ups and pull-ups with weights or toys. The categories that people seem to be the most impressed with are the pull-up sprints and marathons, because anyone with a fundamental familiarity of the pull-up from P.E. class comes preloaded with an understanding of just how challenging a regular pull-up can be.

Let’s start by evaluating the entries in the pull-up sprint category, where the shortest sprint consists of as many pull-ups as a competitor can complete in a single minute. The record presently sits at 74 pull-ups, which is a statistic that’s both mind-boggling and revelatory. When pull-ups are being completed at a pace that exceeds one per second for 60 seconds, you know they’re not exactly of the pause-at-the-top and feel-the-squeeze-in-your-lats variety.

Provided the form of the pull-ups is pristine, this record is probably the closest that we’ll come to what most purists would consider a legitimate pull-up record. It makes sense, because in a legitimate showdown between two parties, we’d have them go head-to-head, executing as many pull-ups as they could, and we’d call shenanigans if someone just hung around and waited for infinite stretches in between single pull-up reps. 

Don’t get me wrong: It’s super impressive when a guy does 105 pull-ups in a row without his feet touching the ground, but when more than 10 minutes and 30 seconds elapses between the execution of the first and final pull-ups, you’re left with a feeling like some of the substance has been drained out of the achievement.

Even so, when we examine footage of the official record-breaking sprint performances, it starts to appear as if some of the achievements are less than as well. If we evaluate the pull-up technique of Adam Sandel — the two-time and former world-record holder in the push-ups-in-one-minute category — we see that even his world-record performances don’t resemble what you invariably pictured when you heard of them. Instead of seeing a guy grinding out pull-ups with perfect form, the same way your gym teacher required of you, you get someone with his arms extended as widely as he possibly can and moving his chin the bare minimum distance he can get away with to qualify the movement as a pull-up. Even so, he still begins to lead with his legs around the 50 pull-up mark, turning his final 18 reps into kipping pull-up hybrids. 

Compare this to the performance of another former holder of the world record, Yeo Kim Yeong. Yeong stops and resets his body several times while recording his former record-setting mark of 43 pull-ups, and his arms are positioned very wide, but his form comes far closer to resembling what most people would consider to be the form of a legitimate pull-up. 

This leads me to believe that the authentic mark for what a human being is capable of achieving in this category is still somewhere in the realm of 45 to 50 pull-ups. Unfortunately, it’s likely that no one will be able to declare supremacy in the category again without resorting to kipping chin-scraping used to propel the record into truly absurd territory. What’s even more unfortunate is that guys like Sandel clearly know how to execute perfect pull-ups, but perfect form isn’t the sort of technique that will have a representative from Guinness showing up in a blazer to hand you a framed certificate.

Wow. So it sounds like the pull-up sprint records have been hopelessly compromised by bad form. 

Sadly, yes. The good news is, however, that the records for endurance pull-ups are absolutely unfathomable achievements no matter how you slice them, especially considering that most men presently in the primes of their lives are unable to execute more than five pull-ups in a row. As a point of comparison, to equal Brandon Tucker’s 7,715 pull-ups in a 24-hour period, you’d need to perform more than 321 pull-ups every hour, or more than 5 pull-ups per minute, every minute, for an entire day.

Then there’s Andrew Shapiro’s record for most pull-ups in 12 hours — 5,742. It’s a pace that would place him in the realm of eight pull-ups per hour during that stretch of time, significantly exceeding Tucker’s 24-hour pace. The wonder, though, begins to drain from the achievement when you watch a full video of Shapiro casually completing 2,200 pull-ups in well under four hours. What the effort quickly becomes is Shapiro performing a series of five-rep pull-up sets followed by stretches of standing around watching TV. That’s when you realize that nearly all pull-up endurance records are likely to follow this snooze-inducing pattern.

Meanwhile, during his world-record performance, Tucker had a team full of handlers at the ready to ice down his arms, provide him with massages and ply him with food, water and supplements. Does this dispel any of the one-man-against-all-odds aspects of the achievement? Maybe a little bit. Could this potentially give rise to a most-pull-ups-in-24-hours-without-the-benefit-of-a-hype-squad-and-medical-team category? Possibly. That’s the loophole I’d be aiming for if I couldn’t scrape together enough friends who were willing to monitor my progress in rotating shifts, and to his credit, Shapiro was blowing this pace out of the water without the benefit of an entourage, and all while looking like he was watching golf in between sets. 

I know, I know, I’m mostly just being a hater. In all honesty, these achievements are so impressive and daunting, I don’t know who would even want to take a shot at them. But if you’ll allow me to be a hater one last time, based on Guinness’ seemingly low judging standards, I’m left with the impression that Guinness reps don’t like to get dressed up in blazers for nothing, and don’t want to carry certificates around with them all day only to end up running them through a shredder when they get back home.