From drenching yourself with a bucket of ice-cold water to standing still like a mannequin, every year seems to throw up its own viral craze. And in 2019 it was the turn of the chair challenge. The only difference with this particular task is that only women seemed able to pull it off.
The chair challenge sounds simple enough. Participants must stand directly in front of a wall before taking three steps back. After placing a chair in front of them, they must then bend their body over it at an angle of 90 degrees and place the top of their head up flush against the wall.
To complete the maneuver, participants need to then lift the chair up to their chests and hold it while returning to an upright standing position. It’s a challenge with a fascinating gender dynamic. For while most women appear to achieve the task effortlessly, most men seem to find it practically impossible.
And it’s this battle of the sexes that helped the craze blow up at the end of 2019. Indeed, it doesn’t seem to matter how physically fit participants may be. When it comes to the chair challenge, the female of the species is undoubtedly more effective than the male. Here’s a look at the science behind the meme and its unlikely origins.
Whereas most viral crazes stem from the 21st century, the chair challenge surprisingly dates back all the way to the 1970s. And from a long-running family sitcom, to boot. Yes, the first recorded example of someone attempting the challenge appeared in Norman Lear’s groundbreaking prime-time sitcom, All in the Family.
The attempt occurs in the “Judging Books By Covers” episode, which first screened on CBS in early 1971. Patriarch Archie Bunker is seen being taught how the challenge works by his daughter Gloria, who subsequently pulls it off with ease. However, much to his frustration, Archie is forced to give up without completing the move.
Archie becomes even more exasperated when his famously dippy but lovable wife Edith also makes light work of the challenge. “It’s a trick chair,” he claims in an attempt to explain his failure. His hippie son-in-law Michael also struggles with the seemingly simple task, giving the female Bunkers a welcome victory.
But despite featuring in one of America’s most-watched shows of the era, the chair challenge didn’t exactly sweep the nation. Indeed, the next notable example of the task popping up in pop culture was nearly three decades later. In 2009, a YouTube user named kenbabe2O12 posted a clip on the video-sharing platform of a young boy and girl attempting the challenge.
And much to the amusement of the person behind the camera, the young boy fails to pull the chair challenge off. The young girl, however, makes it look as easy as ABC. The clip racked up thousands of views over the next few years, but this wasn’t exactly enough to kickstart a worldwide craze.
Yes, although this particular video inspired a number of fellow YouTube users to attempt the feat, the chair challenge remained relatively unknown. However, that all changed in 2019 thanks to an entirely different video-sharing platform. This time around, it was the users of TikTok that sent the chair challenge stratospheric.
Firstly, a user named @culligan tackles the challenge successfully, racking up nearly 190,000 likes in a little over two weeks in the process. Three days later, former Oprah Winfrey cohort Dr. Oz also uploaded a clip of his attempt to the same platform. Unsurprisingly, the health expert is put to shame by the female acquaintance whose attempt is also captured in the video.
But Dr. Oz was in good company. On the very same day, a Twitter user named @katebarstool posted a clip of her male and female colleagues attempting the challenge. She captioned the video, “Had everyone trying the #ChairChallenge at office today & the gals could all do it, but the guys could not. Not even if they played football at West Point.”
As you would expect, the internet was soon swamped with videos of frustrated men attempting and hopelessly failing the challenge. And many of these clips also added insult to injury by showing a girlfriend, sister or female friend pulling it off without any effort whatsoever. One of the most popular videos was uploaded by engaged couple Devin and Krystyna.
The soon-to-be wedded pair quickly racked up one million viewers with their attempt. Firstly, Krystyna can be seen following each of the challenge’s steps perfectly, completing the routine with a look which suggests she has no idea why men find it so hard. And then her muscled and tattooed fiancé gives it a go.
In what can only be described as an epic fail, Devin strains to stand upright before taking a backwards stumble. However, adhering to the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed…,” the muscle man later tries again. And this time around Devin manages to do what his partner achieved at the first attempt.
Krystyna told her followers how their video came about. She said, “We saw this challenge on TikTok randomly when we were just hanging out late one night trying to figure out how to use the app so we decided to try it. We woke up the next morning with one million views!”
And Krystyna claimed that the trick to pulling off the challenge is a rather simple one. She added, “When you follow the instructions and just do it without thinking too hard about it, he [Devin] couldn’t do it. However when he sat and concentrated about it, he could do it.”
Another couple also went viral with their contrasting attempts at the chair challenge. In a video uploaded by a Twitter user named SamTwizzy5, a woman tackles it with aplomb. She then can’t help but burst into laughter when the man makes the climactic part of the challenge look like a mountainous task.
And many women took delight in achieving something that their male counterparts couldn’t. A Twitter user named @baby_JuliL posted, “It isn’t a Friday without doing the #chairchallenge. The boss couldn’t do it. It’s true men suck.” Another user named applesmoothie0 posted, “What I learned about #chairchallenge is how incredibly offended men [are] at the phrase ‘only women can do.’ It’s beautiful.”
As with most viral crazes, several famous faces decided to get in on the action. These included a group of cast members from the 2018 season of British reality show Love Island. Firstly, Arabella Chi proved once again that the chair challenge is a piece of cake for women by pulling it off in style.
Fellow Love Islander Joe Garratt then attempted to repeat Arabella’s success without much luck. However, Wes Nelson, who’s since added Dancing on Ice and The X Factor: Celebrity to his reality-show resumé, bucked the trend. Indeed, the star smugly said, “Girl power, what?” after completing the move first time around.
And Wes wasn’t the only male celebrity to disprove the theory that only women can successfully attempt the chair challenge. While co-hosting his ABC daytime talk show with Sara Haines and Keke Palmer, Michael Strahan gave it a go. And the former NFL pro pulled it off like a champion. However, these are exceptions to the rule.
So why is there such a general disparity between the sexes when it comes to the seemingly simple task of lifting a chair? Well, there are several theories floating about as to why men are being well and truly shown up by women. And one of the most popular relates to gravity.
Men and women’s centers of mass are generally different. For the former it’s in their chest, while for the latter it’s in the area around their hips. And Jeremy Johnson, an American scientist and teacher, argues that this is the reason why the chair challenge has varying difficulty levels.
Johnson wrote on his blog, “Interestingly enough, many girls can successfully complete this challenge, while most boys cannot. The center of mass for most girls is lower to the hips, while the center of mass in boys is much higher. Therefore, for most girls, the center of mass while bent over the chair is above their feet, while the center of mass for most boys is above the chair.”
And there are several other similar challenges where gravity factors in, according to Johnson. In the thumb press, participants must sit on a chair placed against a wall and with their feet positioned flatly on the ground in front of them. Another individual then puts their thumb in the center of the participant’s forehead.
The participant must then attempt to stand up but without forcing back the hand of their partner. It sounds easy enough but as the chair challenge has proven, instructions can be deceptive. Johnson claims that so many people struggle to achieve this feat as the “center of mass is located over the seat of the chair rather than over your feet.”
Then there’s the quarter grab. Here, individuals should stand up against a wall with their feet together and legs straight. Another person must then take a quarter and place it in front of the other’s toes between their feet. The participant must then attempt to bend over, while still keeping their legs entirely straight, without tumbling over.
This time around, it’s the gluteus maximus that comes into play. Johnson writes, “The reason this challenge is so difficult is because of our anatomy, specifically, our bottoms. As you bend over to pick up the quarter, your rear end naturally extends backward to help keep your body balanced. Since it’s pressed against the wall, your bottom has nowhere to extend. This causes the center of mass to shift forward, resulting in falling forward, at least for most people.”
But the hardest such challenge of all appears to be the leg raise. Here, participants must stand against a wall with both their right leg and shoulder pressed against it. The next step is to simply raise their left leg while standing on their right one. But this proves to be near-impossible for most.
Again, Johnson argues that the center of gravity is to blame. The scientist writes on his blog, “Because the wall is in the way, your body can’t counter-balance the mass distribution. Your center of mass is over both legs, not just one.” Perhaps we should expect one of these other challenges to become a viral craze over the next few years, too.
Johnson explains on his blog that he uses such tricks to help his students learn about gravity in a more enjoyable way. He writes, “In my 13 years of classroom teaching experience, I’ve learned a few tricks to keep my students from becoming overwhelmed, or bored, by their science textbooks. One of my favorite tricks is to get my kids up on their feet, doing science instead of reading about it.”
“In the end, these physical experiments allow my students to grasp the basic concepts of gravity and center of mass in a far more compelling way than they’d ever learn from any textbook,” continues Johnson. “The results are hilarious and unforgettable! As an added bonus, these challenges often bring my students’ families together as the students go home and challenge their siblings and parents to do them as well.”
However, not everyone entirely agrees with Johnson about the explanation for women’s superiority in the chair challenge. Brian Ford, a professor at Cambridge University, claims that there’s another area of the body which comes into play. And, perhaps surprisingly, it is all to do with the size of participants’ feet.
Ford told British newspaper The Sun, “It is true that women have a lower center of gravity than men, by several centimetres. But that has no bearing on this crafty little trick. Men have longer feet than women. Two paces back for a man would be some 60cm, for a woman it’s more like 50cm.”
“So to begin with, the man is forced further away from the wall,” Ford continues in his assessment about why women have the advantage. “The man’s larger feet mean he is farther away from the wall than the woman, and is thus leaning forward. The woman’s legs are closer to the wall, and are thus leaning back.”
However, the difference in men and women’s center of gravity and size of feet aren’t the only theories floating about. Chromozome Innerwear, a men’s sportswear brand, posted the following on its official Twitter account, “Tight hamstrings mean you are unable to hold in that position once you leave head support. Those with calf tightness will tend to fall forward. It’s not men vs women.”
Of course, not everyone was particularly interested in the science behind it anyway. Twitter user @HylandAndMe posted on his account, “Am I the only one whose mind wasn’t blown away by this TikTok Chair Challenge? I already learned about it 25-30 years ago when Bill Nye did it on his Bill Nye The Science Guy TV show… and I didn’t really find it that exciting.”
And some queried whether there was anything remotely challenging about it all in the first place. A Twitter user named @Nathaniels_t posted, “The challenge wasn’t that hard. Honestly I feel those who were not doing it right are faking it.” He was backed up by a follower who replied, “Yes!!! That’s what I said too.”
Another Twitter user named Southernbirdtwt also vented her frustrations at the craze’s creator, posting, “Whoever came up with the chair challenge about to run me up the wall. It’s all my coworkers are talking about.” And @lesleepymuse also isn’t a fan, tweeting, “Why is the chair challenge a thing? Why end the year with such a stupid challenge?”