Balancing out a Workout

Pull-up demonstration explains the muscle groups used during the exercise.
U.S. Marine Sgt. James Vincent, explosive ordnance disposal technician assigned to the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU), explains the various muscle groups used while performing pull ups as Lance Cpl. Ashley Vallera, a signals intelligence analyst assigned to the 26th MEU, demonstrates the exercise during a period of professional military education in the gym of the USS Kearsarge, at sea, June 7, 2013. (Cpl. Kyle N. Runnels/U.S. Marine Corps photo)

Having a musculoskeletal strength imbalance can cause injury and other complications in your performance athletically or on the job. Here is a question from an officer seeking to improve his performance, keeping balance in mind.

"Stew, I have a question on how I should be progressing with opposing muscle group exercises. The last 3-set dip/pull-up workout on the "assist" machine, my dips increased to 8-10 per set and my pull-ups are (stuck) at 6 per set and struggling. Should I be getting "even/equal" increases in strength and development of these "opposing" muscle groups, and should I worry if I'm not?"

In a nutshell, no, I would not worry about it too much, but it is something to consider on how you tackle the next few months of your workout. Depending on your athletic history, your push muscles could be stronger than your pull muscles.

I know people who are just the opposite. A buddy SEAL of mine who was a heavyweight crew captain could do pull-ups all day. In fact, at 230 pounds, he still could do 30 pull-ups. However, he could not bench-press his body weight for one rep, so he had the opposite imbalance of the push/pull muscles.

Dips are likely just easier for you than pull-ups. Typically, dip max rep sets will double pull-up max rep sets. One thing you can try is to mix in another push exercise like push-ups into the workout, and you might find that the numbers are closer to even. But you still should balance out the workout with a few more pulling exercise reps like dumbbell rows or machine pull-downs.

He continues, "Also are there inherent problems with assist machines? Is there something else I should be doing? I have tried changing up the set order -- pull-ups first, dips first, alternating -- but see no difference."

The assist machines are great for getting in reps of pull-ups or dips when you cannot do them with 100% of your body weight. But as you lose body weight and you get stronger, the ability to do non-assisted pull-ups and dips will be created.

If you think about the muscle groups you are using for both exercises, you use your chest, triceps and shoulders mainly for your pushing exercises (dips, push-ups). For pulling exercises like pull-ups and pull-downs, it is mainly back, biceps and some smaller rear shoulder muscles. These have the ability to be super strong but are usually not due to lack of work or athletic history of use. This simple truth: If you do not practice pull-ups, you likely will not be able to do them, especially if you are overweight. To work push-pull muscles together in balance, your workout so you complete sets or circuits that equal each other. I like to do a push-pull-leg-ab exercise circuit with different exercises. For instance:

1 minute of each exercise

Set #1: Pull-downs, bench press, leg press, abs of choice

Rest with 3-4 minutes of cardio

Set #2: Pull-ups, dips, squats, abs of choice

Rest with 3-4 minutes of cardio

Set #3: Dumbbell bench press, dumbbell rows, wood-chopper squats, weighted abs of choice

Rest with 3-4 minutes of cardio

Set #4: Lightweight shoulder workout and MJDB #2

See links for how to do the Set #4 workouts

The Best Shoulder Workout

Isolation Exercises the Right Way

If you are a beginner, use an assist machine for the pull-ups and dips set and light weights for the other exercises. If you are at the intermediate level, repeat Sets #1-4 a second time. If you are advanced, try a third round of above for a balanced workout.

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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