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Need Help with Pullups? Consider These Options

Stew Smith

Pullups (and dips too) are considered the heavy weight lifting of the calisthenics world as 100% of your body weight will be placed on a group of muscles and joints.  Being able to move with these exercises start with a basis of strength, but doing multiple sets and repetitions of these movements takes a strength exercises and requires it to become an endurance exercise - muscle stamina. That is the process to getting your first pullup and your 20th pullup. 

There are some factors that play into successful pullup improvement as well as alternatives to pullups when you cannot do ONE or fail at later sets of pullups.

Body Weight - How much you weight is the biggest factor for most people with pullup progress.  The more you weigh, the less pullups you maybe able to do at first, but as you build your strength to manage your bodyweight, you will find pullup improvement possible. However, the strength required to do a 225 lb pullup and a 150lb pullup is obviously greater. 

Training and Athletic History - If you have lifted in previous years, your ability to do a pullup is likely, unless you skip all pulling exercises often. Your ability to do double digits may require some extra muscle stamina training however. 

Consider how you add these exercises: 

AFTER you fail at pull-ups or even if cannot do a pull-up, TRY – then resort to the exercises below for a total of 10-15 repetitions combined or completion of the set of a pyramid for instance:

Calisthenics version of practice - #1 recommended method of gaining pull-up strength is actually getting on the bar and hanging, doing assisted pull-ups, doing negatives, and even jumping pull-ups. Get yourself over that bar ANYWAY you can – even if you have to cheat at first. This is going to most importantly get your arms used to pulling your body weight upward.

Yes I do recommend you do some easier version pullups after you fail at pullups first: 

1 - Assisted Pullups - Get bands to assist you over the bar like these from RITFIT.  Place your foot or knee in the band that is secured to the pullup bar and get those remaining reps you failed on with the assisted band aided pullup. 
2 - Assisted Pullups - Jump over the bar, or get assistance from partner, or step, and hang, but control yourself coming down 4-5 seconds (negative pullup). Assisted Pull-ups means someone helps you up and over the bar, but you do MOST of the work. Having a partner, or bands, push up about 25% of the lift will allow for you to feel 75% of a pull-up weight in motion. Eventually you will see an increase in pull-ups doing these exercises every other day for a few weeks.
3 - Do assisted pullups with feet on the floor with lower bar about waist high (dip bars or waist high barbell on squat rack for instance).
4 - Pulldowns, rows, bicep curls will also help you build the muscles needed to do a pullup.

5 - And Yes - lose weight - a pullup is not easy - a heavy pullup is harder.

If 20–30 lbs. overweight, you may have to be more patient with your pull-up progress until you drop to a normal weight zone for your height.

Stuck at 10 Pullups? Next Goal - Hitting 20+ Pull-​​ups 

When you are able to reach the “double digit” zone of the pull-​​up repetition count, you can now 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.

However, if you are stuck on a plateau, usually there are two things to do:

- Take a few recovery days as you may be over-training – especially if you see some negative result training day on your max reps.

- Do something new – Add in weight training (weighted pullups, pulldowns, rows, biceps) a few days a week to complement a pullup workout.

Weighted, Higher Volume or Both?

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 of training volume. Recovery is KEY TO YOUR GROWTH! I like both, but which way works best for you - you need to find out. 

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. Personally, I recommend the three workouts below to be done on Mondays, Wednesday, and Friday or Saturday: Push your base repetitions in your workouts with these three proven methods in what I call the Classic PST Week of Training:

Monday: PT Pyramid

Wednesday: PT Superset

Friday or Saturday: Max Rep Sets

Weighted Pull-​​ups

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

Weight Loss and Pull-​​ups - Loss of body fat is extremely beneficial to pull-​​up progress. Add in cardio such as running or rucking your calisthenics and weight workouts to optimize the fat burning phase, as well as simulate the typical sequence of your physical fitness test.

Workouts With Pullups - ALL OF THEM Incorporate Pullups: 

Complete List of Stew Smith Fitness Books, eBook, Programs. 

Seasonal Tactical Periodization - A Way to Train to join and stay in the tactical professions.

EBOOKS (Military, Police, Fire Fighter, Special Ops, General Fitness– Most of my programs tend to focus on getting TO and THROUGH a specific tactical training program.  So you may see a mix of all the seasons in some of these books, but if you are training long term, you can take advantage of Seasonal Periodization and save yourself some of the over-use, long term pains that tend to follow many of the tactical preparations - especially on the spec ops level of training. 

Start training today with workouts that focus on the specifics of getting to and through tactical profession training from firefighter, police, swat, military to special ops. We have programs to help you get TO and THROUGH training. We also have training programs to help you with training as you age in these professions (Tactical Fitness 40+ series).


Programs that follow Seasonal Periodization Training

BOOKS – Eleven Published Tactical Fitness Books and more than 30 other printed programs specifically designed for a special test, event, or selection training program or training cycle.

Tactical Fitness - Walks through all the phases / seasons of tactical fitness

Tactical Strength -  This is my Fall / Winter Lift Cycle with more of a strength / power lifting cycle compared to Maximum Fitness Winter Lift Cycle. 

Tactical Mobility - You have to do mobility regularly - year round. 

Warrior Workouts Vol 1  |   Vol 2   |    Vol 3 - All three books of Warrior Workouts contain 100 workouts each.  They are organized by calisthenics only, cardio, weights / cals mixed, and weight only.  Warrior Workouts 1 is organized with seasonal periodization is mind.  These are individual workouts you place into your program ala-carte.  These books are not part of system or program - just individual workouts for your choosing each day. 

The Complete Guide to Navy SEAL Fitness - This is ALL calisthenics and cardio (run / swim).  Basically a high rep / moderate to high volume of running and swimming with SEAL training specifically in mind.  It is essentially a Summer training cycle.

Navy SEAL Weight Training Workout - This is a Fall / Winter training cycle with SEAL Training in mind - complete with cardio (run, swim, ruck), lifting for logs and boats, as well as still maintaining calisthenics scores. 

Maximum Fitness - This is a 52 week program that was my first full year of Seasonal Periodization as discussed above.  The Winter Lift Cycle is more of a hypertrophy body building routine with some isolation exercises as it is meant to help rebuild the joints, put on mass in the Winter.  But the Spring, Summer, Fall are similar to other programs - just different.

The SWAT Workout - Is a mix of PT Test Prep for Academy training that advances into SWAT Tryouts, and active SWAT Team member.  It is a mix of Spring / Summer and Fall / Winter with the Run / lift cycles.  But much of the running can be replaced with non-impact cardio if needed. 

Special Ops Workout -  Is a mix of foundation building program for aspiring Special Operators with specific training programs for Army Ranger / SF, Navy SEALs, and Air Force PJ.  This program was written before MarSOC was part of SOCOM, so we offer the MarSOC / RECON workout EBOOK for free with the purchase of this program.  I would call this a good intermediate to advanced level of fitness preparation. 

Do You Want my REAL TIME Seasonal Periodization Training?
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Stew Smith Training programs. 

Stew Smith Fitness Membership – You have access to years of workouts for both beginner / intermediate and advanced / special ops levels of fitness. Each week you will receive new and unpublished workouts being tested by Navy SEAL veteran / Stew Smith CSCS and his local group of future tactical professionals in both basic training and advanced spec ops training programming. The latest videos, articles, and other programming will be part of the weekly data feed to members as well. We go through the Seasonal Tactical Fitness Periodization program one week at a time.

If You Need a More Personalized Approach to Fit Your Needs, Goals, Time per Day, Days per week, Facilities, Abilities, etc...Try Online Coaching

Online Personal Coaching – Receive one on one training with Stew Smith as he personally designed programs for you that fit your schedule (time per day / days per week), abilities, facilities / equipment, and goals. There personally designed programs for YOU are received one week at a time and each week YOUR feedback helps to create the following week of training. We work around issues that get in the way of our typical training days – injury / aches / pains, work, family, travel, and deadlines. Call and talk to Stew to see if it is right for you. 

Best of all, if you have questions, email Stew Smith himself (  Join the tactical fitness group discussions, latest articles, videos, podcasts at the Stew Smith Tactical Fitness Training Closed Group on Facebook.



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