Pull-ups Part Three: Going from 10 to 20 Pull-​​ups

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Reservist goes through circuit training.
Pfc. Elizabeth Scherer, a medical logistics specialist with the 393rd Medical Logistics Company, completes a set of pull-ups during a circuit-style physical training session in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, Aug. 6, 2020. (Staff Sgt. Brigitte Morgan/U.S. Army Reserve photo)

This article is part three of the three-part series on 20 Pull-​​ups for Women:

1. How to get your first pull-​​up

2. Getting the USMC women's maximum pull-​​up (eight reps)

3. Getting the USMC maximum on the pull-up test (20 reps).

From Maj. Misty Posey: "A fellow Marine once told me that I couldn't learn to do 20 pull-​​ups. In that instant, I decided to make 20 pull-​​ups my goal. At the time, I had been doing pull-​​ups for seven years or so and had worked my way up to 12 without much deliberate effort. I simply did a few straight/​max sets a few times a week.

"As such, I was surprised to hear my buddy claim with the utmost confidence that 20 pull-​​ups were beyond the upper limit of my pull-​​up potential. It did not make sense to me. I could do 12, so why not 20? Was there a proprietary limit on how many pull-​​ups a person could learn to do? Surely he was kidding. He wasn't.

"He pointed out that I had been doing pull-​​ups for eight years, so if I were physically capable of performing 20 pull-​​ups, I would have already done so. I countered that I had not yet reached 20 pull-​​ups because I had never tried. He retorted by throwing his hands up, shrugging his shoulders and stating that women simply could not do 20 pull-ups. It was impossible. I assured him it was not only possible for a woman to do 20, but more than 20.

"So we made a bet that each of us would outperform the other on the next PFT. The plan was, we would each do as many pull-​​ups as we could, neither one of us stopping at 20 repetitions. Since the PFT was less than a couple months away, and since he was already performing 18 or 19 pull-​​ups, I decided to get serious about my training.

"The below workout is how I doubled my pull-​​up score in six weeks and proved him wrong. It was possible for a woman to perform 20+ pull-​​ups (and do more pull-​​ups than him)."

Hitting 20+ pull-​​ups: When you are able to reach the "double-digit" zone of the pull-​​up repetition count, you can start adding in more creative workouts that will change your strength foundation into a muscle stamina/endurance peak. This transition from strength to muscle stamina is usually a sticking point with many Marines and other Special Ops candidates trying to ace a fitness test with 20-30 pull-​​ups.

Two schools of thought (weighted reps or high volume): There are two schools of thought for going from 10 to 20+ pull-​​ups, but both require recovery days in between. No more back-​​to-​​back-to-back days of pull-​​ups at this level is recommended. You can try it with some results in the short term, but if you do 4-5 pull-​​up workouts in a week at weighted or high-volume rep workouts, you most likely will see negative results. Recovery is key to your growth.

High-volume workouts: Now that you are able to push 50-100 reps of pull-​​ups in a single workout, this type of high-volume workout requires recovery days and only performing pull-​​ups three days a week. I recommend the three workouts below to be done on Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday. Push your base repetitions in your workouts with these three proven methods:

Monday: PT Pyramid

Wednesday: PT Super Set

Saturday: Max Rep Set

*I like to add another day of recovery between the Super Set Wednesday and the Max Rep Set Saturday, as you can better push your previous maximum repetitions each set with another non pull-​​up day of rest. You can still do pushing, legs, core, running and rucking on your recovery and workout days, however.

Weighted pull-​​ups also work well, but you still want to push your previous max-​​set repetitions occasionally during the week. I recommend only doing weighted pull-​​ups 1-2 times per week and cutting your total pull-​​up workout repetitions by 50% on those days. Pick a weight that will enable you to do at least 20-25 total reps in a weighted pull-​​up workout.

Another option: Short-​​term daily pull-​​ups (10 days straight + 3 days rest = Day 14 test max reps)

Daily pull-​​ups (also known as "Pull-​​up Push") work well but do not repeat this workout over and over as negative results will appear within a month. Daily pull-​​ups work best if your current maximum is under 15. Also, adding weighted pull-​​ups into this workout for a few days (not more than 2-3 days out of 10) will help optimize your training, but make sure to reduce your daily pull-​​up total by 50% if using weight.

This three-part program is designed to take you from zero to 20+ pull-​​ups. It works if you stay determined with your pull-​​up workouts each week. Once you achieve 20+ pull-​​ups, you might want to get creative with your workout routine and mix in more tactical skills like fireman carries, bear crawls, body drags, and stress (see Adding Thinking Games to Workouts).

See more ideas: Running and PT Combinations and Advanced Movements with Pull-​​up Workouts

Losing body fat is extremely beneficial to pull-​​up progress. Add in cardio such as running or rucking (walk/​run with weight) after your calisthenics and weight workouts to optimize the fat burning phase, as well as simulate the typical sequence of your physical fitness test.

Note: You may notice in this three-​​stage progression series, we did not mention kipping pull-​​ups. You cannot kip in military fitness tests, and if you do not have a solid pull-​​up foundation, you easily could injure yourself attempting kipping pull-​​ups.

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 stew@stewsmith.com.

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