The Perfect Workout

Twenty-five future sailors try to complete as many push-ups as possible in two minutes.
Twenty-five future sailors try to complete as many push-ups as possible in two minutes as the Navy Talent Acquisition Group Southwest Naval Special Warfare/Naval Special Operations team proctors a physical screening test at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, Calif., Nov. 9, 2020. (Public Affairs Specialist Todd J. Hack/U.S. Navy photo)

Many people like to do calisthenics-based workouts, using pyramids and super sets. With the right mix of exercises, you can create a perfect workout that balances the entire body. Here is a question that prompted the following article:

"Stew, do you have any lower-body workouts in the pyramid form? I would like to put together a program using your 'The Best Twenty-Minute Workout' and the pyramid program from the 'USMC-Basic School Six Week OCS/TBS Program.' Four days a week, 20-minute workout on odd days and the USMC workout on even days."

I love to do pyramids and super-set workouts. They are a great foundation builder as well as a proven maintenance method for calisthenics based programs. My workouts are primarily calisthenics based and supplemented by weights, stretching, running, swimming and biking for distance and speed. 

With the wide range of movements and exercises, you can work the entire body inside and out and create programs to improve fitness performance, athleticism and overall health.

For some workouts, I recommend focusing only on the calisthenics or weights and do a cardio option later in the workout. Here is a sample upper- and lower-body workout:

Upper body

Pick exercises that work well together like push-ups or dips, abdominal exercises and pull-ups. Arrange them in a way that you can perform an "active rest" by doing another exercise to "rest" the muscles worked from the previous exercise. 

Set #1 Set #2 Set #3 Set #4 Set #5
2 pull-ups 4 pull-ups 6 pull-ups 8 pull-ups 10 pull-ups
5 push-ups 10 push-ups 15 push-ups 20 push-ups 25 push-ups
10 abs of choice 20 abs of choice 30 abs of choice 40 abs of choice 50 abs of choice

... continue on until failure or just before and repeat in reverse order.

I recommend mixing some sprinting exercises into your workouts on some days. This helps with training for the PFT transitions that must occur when doing upper-body PFT and then running afterward.

You also can mix in the same exercises in one of my favorite workouts, which will help you reach max repetitions in these exercises during fitness tests:

Repeat until you reach these numbers using max-rep effort each set:

Pull-ups: In as few sets as possible, get 50-100 pull-ups by resting with:

  • Push-ups (max reps in one minute)
  • Sit-ups (max reps in one minute)


  • Running a quarter-mile at goal PFT running pace (i.e., nine minutes for 1.5 miles = 90 seconds for a quarter-mile)

Repeat this cycle until you reach your goal in pull-ups in the 50-100 range.

For lower-body workouts using a pyramid and super set, here is how I recommend creating a pyramid mixed with fast-paced cardio:

Run/leg PT

Repeat 5-6 times

  • Run a quarter-mile at goal PFT pace.
  • Squats 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 , 20 ... (increase reps each cycle for 5-6 cycles)
  • Lunges 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20

You could make each set harder if you like the pyramid version or keep each set the same and basically make it a super set.

Here are two more leg workouts I recommend that are non-impact aerobics:

Life Cycle pyramid workout

Get on a Life Cycle stationary bike. Perform a bike/leg pyramid by going on manual mode and start off at level 1 for one minute. For each minute, add a level of resistance until you cannot pedal anymore. Then repeat in reverse order. This usually takes 20-30 minutes, depending on your fitness level, and creates the perfect workout: a warm-up, max out and cooldown. That is one advantage to the pyramid: its simplicity and completeness.

Swim workout with fins

Another involves swimming with fins. Using any stroke, though the sidestroke or combat swimmer stroke works best, swim across the pool until your feet or ankles start to cramp. You may need to take some time to build up to 500-1,500 meters of swimming with fins, as it is stressful on the ankles and feet for the first few weeks.

But if you want to pump up your swimming workouts, try adding in a mix of leg PT/weights and pull-ups, dips, push-ups and abs between 200-300 meters of swimming with fins. This requires having a pull-up/dip bar on the pool deck.

Usually, we spend about 45 seconds rotating from exercise to exercise: Wood-chopper squats, pull-ups, dips, abs of choice and push-ups. Then swim for 4-5 minutes and repeat several times.

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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