Ask Stew: Workout Do's and Don'ts for Those Trying to Max Out Pull-ups

(U.S. Army/Spc. Ryan Lucas)

Many would-be recruits training for military service have high goals of getting 20 pull-ups on their fitness test. This is typically the gold standard for branches of service and groups that test pull-ups, like the Marine Corps, Rangers and other special operations units.

Pull-ups are also part of the entrance fitness exam for service academies that use the Candidate Fitness Assessment, so you will likely see the need to do pull-ups for your academy career at some point.

Practicing pull-ups and other pulling movements will improve your tactical ability by being able to pull yourself over obstacles like walls and fences, as well as performing the rope climbs seen in many military obstacle courses.

Here is a great question from a young man who has been stuck at 13 pull-ups for several months and has a goal of 20 or more on future fitness tests:

"Hey coach, I currently do weighted pull-ups on one of my lifting days and wanted to add a second or third body weight-based workout to help improve numbers, do you have any advice on adding them into my week? Thanks Hank."

Hank, coming from a lifting background, you likely have the strength to do pull-ups already. The first one to two pull-ups is a strength exercise, but pushing repetitions to more than 20 while you're stuck in the teens becomes a muscle stamina and endurance exercise. Volume is key. A second and third pulling workout a week will be sufficient in seeing the gains you want.

Many people make the mistake of treating pull-ups like an exercise that does not require recovery time. They practice them daily for long periods of time. My first piece of advice is, do not do daily pull-ups, especially at moderate to high volumes.

We need to treat pull-ups like "heavy weightlifting" or calisthenics, as it is one of the few exercises that requires you to lift your entire body weight against gravity.

You also need to do them (or try to), because doing pull-ups requires practicing hanging on the bar, pulling and resisting gravity through negative repetitions. For your first pull-up, check out this article, as building strength is required.

Here is a way to add volume to your pulling days during the week by using some classic workouts:

Workout 1: The PT Pyramid

Your first workout of the week can be a sub-max effort for most of the workout while you increase reps each set until you fail to meet the next level of the pyramid.

Build up to level 10 with the ability to repeat in reverse order (the 1-10-1 pyramid = 100 pull-ups). This workout is a great way to start off the week. You can spread this out through the workout you normally do on that particular day of the week, but the goal is to get 75-100 reps, if possible, given your current max of 13.

You can use the pyramid as a muscle stamina assessment tool as well. Each week you do it, you can check your progress on the level of the pyramid you reach, usually on Monday.

Workout 2: Weight Vest (WV) Supersets

A few days later, try another pulling workout where you add a weight vest of 10-20 pounds. This is a great way to work both strength and muscle stamina, especially when using the following method:

Repeat 5-6 times.

  • WV pull-ups: Max out (push yourself to do as many as you can).
  • Pull-ups (no weight): With no rest, see how many you can do with no weight vest.
  • Pull-downs or rows, 10 per arm: Pick another pulling exercise of your choice to "top off" the pulling workout.
  • 5 minutes of active rest: Do a five-minute block of cardio or other muscle groups (legs, core, etc.) as a way to stay warm, but rest the pulling muscles for the next set.

You can do the second workout on Wednesday or Thursday, depending on how recovered you feel from the first workout Monday.

Workout 3: Max Rep Set Workout

This workout is the toughest one of the week, as it pushes your perceived limitations on pull-ups. For best results, you may want to do this workout after two days of pulling rest. The goal is to do 100 pull-ups in as few sets as possible (5-6 sets one day, maybe even four sets).

If your current max is 13 pull-ups, this may take 10 sets. My advice is not to do any more than 10 total sets and see how many pull-ups you can accumulate in as few sets as possible. This workout has been magic to many who were stuck in the teens on their pull-ups and needed to get to 20 or more.

It is only to be done once a week, along with the other two "sub-max and max effort" workouts.

Personally, I like to do this workout on Saturday or Sunday, depending on my recovery level from the other two pulling workouts of the week.

It is all about volume. By the end of the week, you may be at a total volume of 250-300 pull-ups after three workouts. Eventually, one day, you will find that 100 pull-ups in a workout is your new minimum standard, as long as you remain consistent with these perishable exercises -- perishable, that is, when not performed regularly.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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