How can I do more pull-ups?

For the Marine Corps Physical Fitness Test (PFT) you must complete a minimum of 3 “dead-hang” pull-ups. This means no “kipping” (swinging the legs for momentum), no bringing the knees above the hips, and returning to arms locked out at the bottom for a full repetition. In Marine boot camp, your drill instructors will be ruthlessly enforcing strict pull-ups, so it’s best to not waste your energy with bad form. Additionally, once you get to the fleet your PFT scores are used for promotion points. And since each pull-up is worth 5 points, getting your 20 pull-ups is one of the easier ways to get promoted above your peers. It’s a lot harder to run an 18:00 3-mile than it is to go from 10-20 pull-ups.

So how do I do more pull-ups?

Simple answer: do more pull-ups. When I shipped out to boot camp I could do 14 dead hang pull-ups, palm facing in like the recruit in the picture. Many Marines say that it is easier to do pull-ups with palms faced away from you, and arms as wide as possible. This way, there’s less movement from your chin to the bar from the locked-out position. This seemed to work better for bigger guys who had a lot of muscle, but for the skinny Marines, we found it easier to use the strength in our biceps. Find the grip where you can complete the maximum number of pull-ups and begin there.

Pyramid Sets

One of the ways we “got our 20” was to do pyramid sets. Say you can only do 5 pull-ups at a time. You’ll start with 1, then come off the bar. Then do 2, then 3, and so on. So each set builds up to your maximum, in this case 5, and then back down again. So the progression looks like this: 1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1. Do several of these in succession, heading back down the pyramid once you hit your maximum.

Several sets may look like this:

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1

1-2-3-4-5-4-3-2-1

1-2-3-4-3-2-1

See? In three sets you’ll have done 105 pull-ups. The more you do pyramid sets, the stronger you’ll get over time. When I was a Marine, we’d do pull-

ups every single day as part of our warm-up in the gym. And everytime we’d leave the chow hall, or hang out in front of the company office. Seriously, in the Marine Corps there are pull-up bars everywhere. Even in Iraq we had a pull-up bar, though we had to wear body armor while outside…

Kipping Pull-ups

A Marine Corps recruit does pull-ups during a physical fitness test at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego, CA.

Yeah, you hardcore gym rats are shaking your head just reading this. But I have to admit that kipping pull-ups was one of the techniques I used to get my 20, so I’m suggesting it for you. It’s a little tough to master the technique, so I’ll break it down for you.

Grip the bar palms facing away from you, slightly greater than shoulder width apart. Hang from the bar and bring your knees straight up in a sharp movement. When the knees near your hip height, kick down and pull with your upper body until your chin is above the bar. Your upper body may move away from the bar slightly as you kick up. When lowering yourself down, bring your feet back by your butt to prevent swinging, then come to the bottom position, arms locked out. Once you start to feel the technique, you can make the legs swing in one fluid movement.

I honestly feel that this technique builds good strength in the upper body because it makes you use additional force to get above the bar. One of my favorite workouts to do with kipping pull-ups was AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) in 20 minutes of: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, 15 bodyweight squats. That’s a complete workout, I guarantee.

Weighted Pull-ups and Dips

Very simple technique to get stronger: use more weight. Using a weight belt or weighted vest, add 10 lbs to your body weight and do 3 sets of as many pull-ups as possible. Or you could do pyramid sets. DON’T KIP with weights, as they will swing between your legs, and you don’t want to have any, um, technical difficulties—trust me.

Why dips? Use weighted dips to increase the strength in your lattisimus dorsi muscles, the long strappy muscle that attaches from the outside of your shoulder blade down the ribs: wing-like muscles that can get very strong. The stronger your lats are, the more pull-ups you’ll be able to do, hands down.

Assisted Pull-ups

When in boot camp, you won’t have the equipment to do weighted pull-ups so you have to improvise. Assisted pull-ups are good for working past your max. Bend your knees 90° so your feet are behind you, and have a friend or fellow recruit hold your ankles. You’ll be able to push into their hands to get a couple extra repetitions.

Important Note for Recruits

If you are shipping off to boot camp and can only perform the minimum pull-ups on the Initial Strength Test, you’re going to be in trouble come boot camp. I could do 14 pull-ups at the recruiter’s office and when it came time to take the IST after getting no sleep the first night and constantly stressed out by a drill instructor, I could only do 6. The fatigue, stress, and sleep deprivation will affect your physical performance. If you don’t pass the IST, you’ll be put into a Physical Conditioning Platoon (or Pork Chop Platoon) where you will work out, clean squad bays, serve chow, and generally be miserable until you are strong enough to begin training. You do not want to be there.

Remember, maxing out on your 20 pull-ups is one of the  best ways to score points toward your promotion. Want more information on how to kick ass at boot camp? Buy the Marine Corps Boot Camp Prep Guide HERE.

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