Ask Stew: Improving Weighted Pull-Ups

How to improve on weighted pull-ups
Army Special Operations Forces members perform the ‘Murph’ workout for Memorial Day on May 25, 2020, during a deployment to At-Tanf Garrison, Syria. (Staff Sgt. William Howard/U.S. Army photo)

If you're getting ready for a military program, you're most likely to find a fitness nemesis in one of two places: running or pull-ups. Statistically speaking, those are the two things with which most people struggle.

Depending on your athletic history, you might be good at one, but not the other. Some focus will be required to deal with any particular weakness beforehand.

These types of weaknesses typically are exposed in the first few days of training and may require more effort to meet the standard than you are capable of, so neglect these personal weaknesses at your own risk.

Here is a question from someone who is good at running and pull-ups, but the curveball of doing pull-ups while wearing a 45-pound ruck has triggered some concern and brought a weakness into focus:

Hi Mr. Smith,

I have a PT test coming and I have to be able to do six pull-ups while wearing a 45-pound ruck. I want to know if the same principle of the "Pull-up Push" applies to weighted pull-ups as well? I can only do five 45 lbs. weighted pull-up reps. Should I do 25 weighted 45 lbs. pull-up reps every day for 10 days? It would be ideal to increase my reps within two weeks. I have purchased a couple of your programs already, and they are awesome. Hope you are well. Thank you. -Will

Will -- Thank you.

If you are not familiar with the pull-up push, it is a protocol I created over 20 years ago to help people quickly add repetitions to pull-up and push-up tests with no additional weight by using body-weight calisthenics. The pull-up push requires daily pull-ups for 10 straight days, which usually will increase your normal weekly volume by 200% or more.

This program is not sustainable for long periods and is why we cap it at 10 days, followed by three days of no pulling activity at all. Then, you test on day 14. Many have seen 50%-100% increases in pull-ups in that time, depending on their starting reps.

Often, the overload principle is just the thing to get someone off the plateau of 12 pull-ups and get them closer to 20. The best part about this challenge is that it's free and only costs you time and effort.

This is a version of the overload principle for calisthenics and can be used for weighted pull-ups, but I would recommend doing it differently.

The overload principle with daily calisthenics is a matter of volume and building muscle stamina by training to turn a strength exercise (1-2 pull-ups) into an endurance exercise (multiple reps: 10-20).

The weighted version of that is a combo of volume and strength, so strength equals endurance. Focus on strength building, with recovery days between, on the heavier pulling test. Adding other weighted pulling workouts every other day is recommended to increase pulling strength.

Heavy rows, heavy pull-downs and biceps curls done on normal upper-body days (every other day or three times a week) will be a good addition and help you build the needed strength. But you also will need to mix in some additional weighted pull-ups, and you can do that every other day as well.

However, if you are not seeing progress in a week of trying the every-other-day method, add only weighted pull-ups to the days in between. Limit your reps and focus on a total of 10-15 reps spread throughout the normal workout of your testing weight.

I also would recommend training for the other elements of the test as well and not only worry about pull-ups or weighted pull-ups. If you have time and excess weight to lose, consider losing some fat to make you a lighter weight to lift over the bar. Good luck.

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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