Pull-ups are a good indicator of an individual’s strength and fitness levels, but they’re a challenging exercise for many people. If you’re trying to get your first pull-up or increase the number of pull-ups you can do, it can help to know how many pull-ups are considered strong so you have a number to aim for.
So how many pull-ups are considered strong? There are no definitive guidelines, but the number of pull-ups that are generally considered strong is 12+ for men and 8+ for women. If you can do this many, you’re considered an advanced athlete. However, you are still considered an above-average athlete if you can do more than 8 (for men) or more than 3 (for women).
Note that these numbers are for men and women between 18 and 39. The numbers are slightly lower if you’re under 18 or over 40.
These numbers may seem impossible to reach. But if you’re willing to put in the work and train pull-ups consistently, you can get your first pull-up or increase the number of pull-ups you can do sooner than you think.
In this article, I’ll discuss:
- What muscles pull-ups work
- How many pull-ups you should be able to do
- Factors that affect how many pull-ups you can do
- Tips for getting better at pull-ups
- A sample workout program to help you get better at pull-ups
Looking for a program that can help you get stronger for pull-ups? Check out Fitbod. It can help you add strength and muscle mass to your upper back while continuing to train the rest of your body, too. Download the Fitbod app today and try workouts for free!
What Muscles Do Pull-Ups Work?
The primary muscles used in pull-ups are the:
- Latissimus dorsi (lats for short) – the large, flat muscles extending from the lower back to the upper arm
- Biceps – the muscles at the front of the arms that allow you to bend your arm
Pull-ups also recruit the following muscle groups:
- Rhomboids – the large upper back muscles that move and stabilize the shoulder blades
- Trapezius (traps for short) – the muscles that run along the back of the neck and shoulders
- Rear delts – the muscles at the back of the shoulders
- Teres major – a small muscle at the back of the upper body that assists with the movement of the upper arm
Related Article: Back And Bicep Workout: 5 Examples (Science-Backed)
How Many Pull-Ups Should the Average Person Be Able To Do?
It’s hard to determine how many pull-ups you should be able to do. Everyone has different backgrounds when it comes to physical activity, and factors like your genetics (which I’ll discuss below) can affect how good you are at pull-ups.
That said, I provided a table below to show general recommendations for the number of pull-ups you should be able to do based on age, experience level, and gender.
Also, note that these numbers are for strict pull-ups from a dead hang. The kipping pull-ups that you see in CrossFit, for example, have their place in certain types of workouts (like when you’re trying to complete as many as possible in a short time). However, the data in the tables below only include strict pull-ups.
|Number of Pull-Ups
|Number of Pull-Ups
How Many Pull-Ups are Necessary for the Military?
Currently, only the Marines include pull-ups in their physical fitness tests. Men have to do 18-23 and women have to do 4-12 (depending on age) to max out.
The Army, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard don’t include pull-ups for their physical fitness tests – they test push-ups instead.
However, for the Army, it’s still recommended for soldiers to be good at pull-ups. It demonstrates an ability to climb ropes and easily complete obstacle courses, which are tested often during basic training.
7 Factors That Determine How Many Pull-Ups You Can Do
Men tend to be stronger than women because they have more testosterone, the hormone that plays a role in muscle size and strength. Studies show that men’s upper bodies, in particular, are significantly stronger than women’s since men have larger muscle fibers. They also have a larger percentage of muscle mass.
Therefore, men are often able to get their first pull-up sooner and perform a higher number of strict unassisted pull-ups than women.
2. Body Weight
For most people, it’s easier to do pull-ups when their body weight is lower. This is part of the reason why you don’t see a lot of gymnasts, for example, with a significant amount of bulk on their bodies.
This doesn’t mean you can’t do pull-ups if you’re a heavier individual. But lighter, smaller people tend to have an easier time with pull-ups because they have less mass to pull.
3. Upper Body, Core, and Grip Strength
Upper body strength greatly determines how many pull-ups you can do.
As you saw above, pull-ups work several upper body muscle groups. You’ll struggle with the exercise if these muscle groups (and the lats, in particular) are weak. Since you also have to hang from a bar, having a weak grip can also impede your ability to do pull-ups.
Pull-ups also require a lot of core strength. A strong core can help you maintain a proper hollow position (where your abs are contracted, glutes are squeezed, and pelvis is tilted backward). It can also prevent you from swinging too much and expending more energy than necessary.
Related Article: How To Get Wide Lats
4. Upper Body Mobility
Many people don’t realize that adequate upper body mobility is also necessary for pull-ups. Tight and stiff muscles can make it more challenging to get into the proper pull-up position or work through a full range of motion.
For example, tight thoracic spine (mid-back) muscles can prevent you from being able to hang from the bar with straight arms. They can also prevent your scapula (shoulder blades) from moving efficiently or cause you to overarch your back.
5. Limb Proportions
Whether you have short or long arms can dictate how difficult pull-ups will be for you.
If you have short arms, you’ll likely find them easier because you don’t have to cover a long distance when pulling your body up.
On the other hand, if you have longer arms, you have to move through a larger range of motion. You’ll also fatigue faster because you have to do more work with each rep.
6. How Often You Practice Them
Bodyweight skills like pull-ups can be a “use it or lose it” thing. If you only do them once or twice a month, you can’t expect to be very good at them.
7. Previous Athletic Experience
Having previous athletic experience can help you get your first pull-up or string together multiple reps sooner than someone who’s never been physically active. Even if you didn’t directly train pull-ups, you’ll likely already have some strength and musculature in the upper body that can give you an advantage.
This is especially true if you’ve participated in sports like rock climbing or rowing, which rely heavily on upper body strength.
How Long Does It Take to Get Your First Pull-Up?
Getting your first pull-up can take four to twelve weeks or even longer. However, the time frame is different for everyone. It will depend on the above factors, like pull-up frequency, body weight, and current strength and mobility levels.
For example, someone who practices pull-ups and does upper body work 3 times a week will get their first pull-up sooner than someone who only trains the upper body or practices pull-ups once a week.
Like anything else, consistency is essential when working toward your first pull-up.
10 Tips for Getting Better at Pull-Ups
Once you get your first pull-up, your next goal will likely be to increase the number of consecutive pull-ups you can do. The tips below can help you work up to larger sets of pull-ups.
1. Continue Doing Pull-Up Regressions
Even after you get your first pull-up, it’s good to continue doing fundamental exercises while you work on improving your pull-up proficiency.
Regressions such as ring rows or inverted rows train many of the same muscle groups as pull-ups but offer more variety in your routine. You can also swap them for some pull-up sets if, for example, your program has 4 sets of pull-ups but you can only complete 2.
If you want to make these movements more challenging, you can put your body at a more horizontal angle or elevate your feet on a bench.
2. Practice Them More Often
The key to getting better at something is to do it more often. Whether you can already do pull-ups and want to improve your pull-up endurance, or you are still working on getting your first pull-up, it’s best to practice them at least 2-3 times a week.
Start by adding 3-4 AMRAP (as many reps as possible) sets to the end of your upper body, pull, or full-body training days. Then try to increase the number of reps you can perform per set with each workout.
Once pull-ups start to feel easy, make them more challenging by adding weight (i.e., wearing a weight vest or holding a dumbbell between your feet) or shortening your rest periods between sets.
3. Strengthen Your Upper Back
In addition to practicing pull-ups more often, adding more upper back work to your routine can help strengthen the muscles used in pull-ups and improve their endurance.
Some back-strengthening exercises that can help with pull-ups are:
- Lat pulldowns
- Bent-over barbell rows
- Pendlay rows
- Dumbbell pullovers
- Dumbbell rows
To work on strength, use heavier weights and keep the reps to 5-6 per set. To work on muscular endurance, use light to moderate weights and perform higher reps in the 12-20 range.
Related Article: 11 Barbell Back Exercises for Strength and Mass (With Program)
4. Do Negatives
Negatives are one of the most commonly recommended exercises for people who want to improve their pull-ups. They are a pull-up variation in which you jump up until your chin is over the bar and then lower yourself down slowly. They work the eccentric (downward) portion of the movement, where the muscles are in a lengthened position.
Adding 3-4 sets of negatives to your upper body days (or at least doing them a minimum of 2 days a week) is one of the best ways to improve your pull-up strength.
5. Do Scapular Pull-Ups
Scapular pull-ups train the first part of the pull-up when the scaps (shoulder blades) and lats initiate the pulling movement. These are great to do in conjunction with negatives to train different portions of the pull-up individually.
When doing scapular pull-ups, you should only move an inch or two. Keep your arms straight and focus on moving only your shoulders and upper back. It’s like the opposite of a shrug. Instead of moving your shoulders toward your ears, you push them down toward the floor.
Scapular pull-ups are a good exercise to do regularly, whether or not you’re already proficient at pull-ups. Some examples of ways you can incorporate scapular pull-ups into your routine are:
- Doing 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps of scapular pull-ups only
- Doing 2 sets of 8-10 negatives and 2 sets of 8-10 scapular pull-ups
- Doing 2 AMRAP sets of pull-ups and 2-3 sets of 8-10 scapular pull-ups
- Doing 3-4 sets of regular pull-ups one day and 3-4 sets of scapular pull-ups on a second day
6. Strengthen Your Core
As mentioned earlier, a strong core is necessary for pull-ups because it helps you maintain an optimal body position as you hang from the bar.
Plank variations of any kind are especially beneficial for pull-ups. They improve your core strength and shoulder stability, both of which are necessary to be good at pull-ups.
Similarly, hanging leg or knee raises are excellent core exercises to help with pull-ups because you can train your core and improve your grip strength simultaneously.
Hollow holds and hollow rocks are also good core exercises to do if you want to get better at pull-ups. They help you get stronger in the hollow position you need to maintain to do pull-ups efficiently.
Related Article: Core Workouts At Home: Do These 21 Exercises In 20-Min or Less
7. Widen Your Grip
Widening your grip shortens the range of motion you have to move through, so you have to travel less distance as you pull yourself up. If you usually do pull-ups with a shoulder-width grip, try moving your hands out 1-2 inches.
However, you don’t want to bring your hands out too far because too wide of a grip can put your shoulders in a compromising position. It also doesn’t target your lats as effectively. Keeping your hands just outside shoulder width is best.
8. Use Resistance Bands
If you can do a couple of unassisted pull-ups but want to be able to do larger sets, using a resistance band can give you the extra push you may need to perform more reps.
You can either loop one end of the band through the pull-up bar and put one foot through the other end or secure the band horizontally to the bottom of a squat rack’s uprights. Then, as you get stronger, you can use a thinner band to lessen the assistance.
However, don’t let the bands become a crutch. Most of the band’s assistance comes from the bottom of the movement and lessens as you get to the top of the bar. You’ll never train your muscles to get stronger at the bottom of the pull-up (when you first initiate the movement) if you rely on resistance bands for too long.
9. Work On Your Mobility
As mentioned earlier, mobility is just as necessary as strength when it comes to being good at pull-ups. If you’ve reached a pull-up plateau, improving your upper body mobility can help you overcome it.
Specifically, working on shoulder, thoracic spine, and lat mobility can improve your pull-up proficiency. Even stretching your pecs can help. While the pecs aren’t involved in pull-ups, tight pecs can prevent your shoulder and upper back muscles from engaging properly during pull-ups.
Mobility drills you can do as a warm-up for pull-ups or on your rest days include:
- Overhead PVC shoulder stretch
- Loop band shoulder internal and external rotations
- Foam roll lats
- Chest doorway stretch
- Cross-body arm stretch
The scapular pull-up exercise I discussed earlier is also good for lengthening the thoracic spine before performing pull-ups.
10. Improve Your Grip Strength
Grip strength is another important element of being proficient at pull-ups. Even if you have the strength and muscular endurance to do multiple reps, you’ll have difficulty completing large sets if you can’t hold onto the bar for long.
Exercises that can help improve your grip strength include farmer’s carries with heavy dumbbells or kettlebells and dead hangs from a pull-up bar.
You can also get a pair of fat grips (rubber grips that increase the diameter of a barbell, dumbbell handle, or pull-up bar) and use them for exercises like bicep curls, barbell rows, Romanian deadlifts, or the exercises mentioned above.
If you want to work on your grip strength outside of the gym, you can get an inexpensive grip training tool and use it at home in your spare time.
Looking for a workout program? Try using the Fitbod App, which will design your program based on your logged training data and goals. The workouts will adapt automatically to your levels of recovery and rate of progress. With over 600 movements and exercises videos, you can be sure to perform the movements correctly for optimal results. Take the guesswork out of your workouts. Try Fitbod for free.
Sample Program to Help You Get Better at Pull-Ups
Below are two sample routines based on your current level of pull-up proficiency. I recommend doing whichever routine is best for you at least twice a week.
For Getting Your First Pull-Up
- Lat pulldowns – 3 x 6-8 (heavy)
- Ring rows w/ a 3-second lower – 3 x 10
- Pull-up negatives – 3 x 8-10 (try to lower to at least a 3-count; don’t just drop down from the top)
- Hollow hold – 4 x 30 seconds
For Improving Your Pull-Up Endurance
- Pull-ups – 2 x AMRAP
- Loop band pull-ups – 2 x 8-10 (use as light of a band as possible)
- Scapular pull-ups – 3 x 8-10
- Hanging knee raises – 4 x 10-12
For more workout ideas, download the Fitbod app. You can customize your routine to fit your schedule, the equipment you have available, and the muscle groups you want to prioritize. As you log workouts in the app, it will offer recommendations for how to progress so you can continue getiting stronger over time. Try Fitbod today and get workouts for free!
About The Author
Amanda Dvorak is a freelance writer and powerlifting enthusiast. Amanda played softball for 12 years and discovered her passion for fitness when she was in college. It wasn’t until she started CrossFit in 2015 that she became interested in powerlifting and realized how much she loves lifting heavy weights. In addition to powerlifting, Amanda also enjoys running and cycling.