Two Workout Combinations That Will Help You Crush Push-ups and Pull-ups

US Marine Corps candidate does push-ups.
Officer candidates perform push-ups during the Medal of Honor run at Officer Candidates School aboard Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia. (Marine Corps/Phuchung Nguyen)

When taking fitness tests, the toughest repetitions will usually be the last 20-30 seconds of maximum effort exercise. This is especially true if you're taking a two-minute test.

If you are trying to max-out on fitness tests that require 20 or more pull-ups or 100 push-ups, you will always get stuck on a plateau at some point in your training process. Many people get stuck at getting pull-ups past the 15-repetition mark. With push-ups, people tend to plateau in the 75-80 zone for a two-minute test.

If you have similar points of frustration, try these two workouts that use both weights and calisthenics.

Bench Press Plus Push-ups

No matter what kind of bench press workout you do, immediately follow your last rep on the bench with a max rep set of push-ups. This will only be a few push-ups before you hit that serious fatigue or failure mark. Most of our test group can barely get to 10 push-ups after any type of bench press set.

Here are some of our favorite bench press rep protocols:

5 sets of 5 reps (5x5) at roughly 70-80% of your 1 rep max (1RM)

This one is a struggle. Many start to fail within 4-5 reps in the later sets of this workout, making push-ups near impossible. Try as many as you can anyway, even if you can only do fewer than 5 reps.

3 sets of 8-10 reps with roughly 50-60% of your 1RM

This one is not too difficult, so you should be able to do more than 10 push-ups after each bench press.

5 sets of 20 reps (95-135 lbs.) for a total of 100 reps

You will find it difficult to complete even 5 push-ups immediately after your 20th repetition.

Bodyweight Bench Press

Another difficult challenge is to build up to lifting your body weight in a bench press and then doing that for maximum repetitions. Jumping into push-ups after that is only going to yield 5-10 reps maximum until you completely fatigue to the point of failure.

Usually, it takes a good warmup of a few push-ups and 1-2 sets to build up to body weight. Try 2-3 sets with as many reps as you can at your bodyweight once you have gotten there.

You can do this next supplemental max push-ups set after any bench press set and rep scheme, but I would not do it if you are trying to build up to your bench press 1 rep max in a workout session because you need recovery time between those sets and do not want to burn out with push-ups.

Weighted Pull-ups Plus Pull-ups

Do a max rep set of weighted pull-ups with a 10-20 lb. weight vest, followed by a max rep set of pull-ups with no added weight. You may feel lighter when you drop the vest, but that illusion will be short-lived once you try 1-2 reps of pull-ups immediately following the weighted version.

The goal is to max with maybe one rep left in the weighted pull-up, then to take only a few seconds to take off the weight vest and jump back up on the pull-up bar to see if you can come close to matching the weight set of pull-ups. Some can. Some can only do 1-2 reps after the weighted version.

I do not recommend going much heavier than 20 pounds, as you can wind up pulling too much and tweaking a bicep tendon or worse. If you find you can't do any regular pull-ups after the weight vest set, try heavy pull-downs for 4-5 reps or heavy rows for 4-5 reps to follow up the combination of harder-to-easier superset models.

We typically do this on "Weight Vest Wednesday" (or Thursday) in the middle of the training week. Usually once a week is enough, but you can push to twice a week with a few days off between pulling days.

Do these types of workouts once (maybe twice) a week out during your normal three-days-a-week of upper body PT training. We typically do the weights and calisthenics option on Monday and sometimes Thursday. Our third upper body workout is on Saturday and is just calisthenics and cardio focused.

Remember, both pull-ups and push-ups are initially a strength exercise, but your 20th or 100th repetition is purely an endurance and muscle stamina exercise. Building up your endurance is the goal when you're looking to max two-minute fitness tests.

This weight and calisthenics combo is a way to hit both elements of fitness (strength and endurance) and reach a level of fatigue without having to do hundreds of repetitions to get there.

You will see that the transition to regular pull-ups (after weighted pull-ups) and push-ups (after bench press) will be very similar to how you feel during your last few seconds and final reps of both the push-up and pull-up fitness test.

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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