Ask Stew: How Should I Prepare for Military Weighted Pull-up Tests?


Many military fitness tests include pull-ups or other pulling exercises. And nailing pull-ups is not just about the pull-ups themselves. As you prepare specifically for them, keep in mind that your ability to perform on obstacle courses, wall climbs, rope climbs, caving ladders and many other tasks will be improved by your ability to do both weighted and unweighted pull-ups.

Stew, I am preparing for both a regular pull-up test and a weighted 20-pound pull-up test. I am looking to max both events which will require me to be in the 10-20 rep ranges for weighted and unweighted respectively. Do you like more weighted reps (1RM heavy) or more non-weighted reps to prepare for these tests? Any workout suggestions? Thanks, Dave.

Dave, 20 reps is a solid number for successful candidates, so you're doing a good job to focus on the max score as your personal standard. Being able to do pull-ups is naturally going to help you with other more tactical tasks like grip, rope climbing, fence climbing, wall jumping and overall pulling strength and stamina.

I am not a fan of the one rep max (1RM). Too many people who go too heavy with 50-75 pounds or more as added weight to their pull-ups tear their bicep tendon off the bone. I have seen this several times over 30 years, enough to put it in the "not an accident" category.

I personally like 20-25 pound weight vest pull-ups as a safer added weight. It also approximates your basic gear carry (plate carrier, harness, ammo, weapon) and will be good practice for pulling yourself over obstacles and climbing caving ladders.

Depending on the job you have in the military, you will likely see this kind of weight carry on future tests. I try to get my guys to work up to the double-digit range of 20-25 pound weight vests.

For workouts, I recommend doing two to three upper body days a week. If you have a weakness in calisthenics or added weight pull-ups, add more of them to your workout. If you are stuck at 15 reps on calisthenics pull-ups, I would recommend three calisthenics-based pulling days a week to build overall weekly volume since you are trying to turn this strength exercise into an endurance exercise and boost yourself off this plateau.

Avoid daily pull-ups during these higher-volume workouts because you will be getting 100 or more repetitions in each pulling workout if you use the following methods:

PT Pyramid

Progress up the pyramid to a max event, then repeat in reverse order. A 1-10-1 pyramid will yield 100 pull-ups in 19 sets. If you are solid on the calisthenics reps, try warming up with the first half of the pyramid doing calisthenics only, then on the back side of the pyramid, get heavier each set with weighted versions of the pyramid.

PT Super Set

Make this a sub-max rep set workout where you do a set number of repetitions (say, 50% of current max reps). So, if you are at 15 reps, do seven to eight pull-ups each set mixed with a few other different muscle group exercises to act as an active rest. Do this as many times as you can until you fail to perform the seven to eight pull-up reps each set.

Repeat X times (X = as many times as you can. Stop at 10-15 sets if you do not fail) Pull-ups: 7-8 Sit-ups or plank pose: 1 minute Run: 400 meters at goal mile pace

This type of circuit is a pull, core, cardio circuit. Rest as needed, but try to make the other exercises your "active rest." If you can meet your calisthenics goal on pull-ups, make this one weighted for as many sets as you can (and reduce numbers as needed), then resort to regular pull-ups once you can no longer perform the weighted reps.

Max Rep Set Workout

Workouts like the Murph require a set number of repetitions for each exercise. Try to complete it in as few sets as possible with or without a 20-25 lbs. weight vest. This approach will typically put you over the edge if you are stuck at a certain level of performance and can help you set new personal records.

There is one last option. We typically do three upper body days a week (Monday, Wednesday, Saturday), but the one that we call Weight Vest Wednesday includes all calisthenics with a weight vest. I have found this method of doing consistent three days a week of training at moderate to high volume a better approach than doing fewer reps with more weight than is needed.

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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