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    Pull-ups and Combat Fitness

    By: Nathanael Morrison


        I will never forget Butch McUmber’s combat fitness advice. He said, “You need to be able to run, swim, and climb with your gear on. Every time I’ve been in a jam I had to run, swim, or climb out of it.” This was very good advice, but as most of us know, it’s a tall order. Butch was in great shape and I admire him for that. I have no doubt that his superb physical conditioning saved his life many times. I don’t know what his routine was that kept him there, but I am going to shed some insight on pull-ups for you.

        How many pull-ups can you do? It is a fact that being able to do high rep pull-ups prepares you for…high rep pull-ups. How many times in your career are you going to need to do pull-ups with no weight? Not too many! A better question would be, “how many weighted pull-ups can you do?” We like to think we’re pretty strong when we can crank out 13-20 pull-ups on our PT test, but John Allstadt puts us in our place with the following information.

        “Consider the following pull-up and chin-up performances of some of the strength game's true greats. John Grimek and Olympic lifting legend John Davis could both chin themselves six or seven times with EITHER ARM, at bodyweights of around 200 pounds. Eugene Sandow could perform a one-arm chin with ANY ONE OF HIS TEN FINGERS, at a bodyweight of around 190. Marvin Eder could perform 11 one-arm pull-ups at a bodyweight of no less than 195, and also do 80 (that's right, 80) consecutive two-arm pull-ups. For you smaller guys, consider the many gymnasts out there who can perform numerous one-arm pull-ups, or even more frightening, the rock climbers of today who can chin themselves with as much as 150% of bodyweight.... with ONE arm! And of course, for you really big guys, think about this: Bert Assarti, a strength legend from the early 1940's, could chin himself three times with either arm at a bodyweight of 265 pounds! Mr. Assarti could also do a two-arm pullup with over 200 pounds of additional weight strapped to his body. Keep in mind that all of these performances were done well before anabolic steroids reared their ugly heads.”[1]

         Kind of sobering isn’t it? Any serious fan of strength training knows that these men were greats back in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s so that pretty much eliminates any arguments about chemical enhancements. John goes on to give his own scale of what’s good and what’s simply marginal performance.

    The John Allstadt Guide to Pull-up Greatness[2]

    Bodyweight pull-ups...

    Weighted pull-ups for 5 reps....

    15 = decent

    120% Bodyweight = decent

    25 = good

    145% BW = good

    35 = very good

    170% BW = very good

    45+ = physical badass!

    200% BW = physical badass!

    One-arm pull-ups.....


    1 = good


    5 = very good


    10 = physical badass!



        Further more, consider that in Soviet Spetsnaz units the minimum standard was 18 pull-ups wearing 25lb body armor! Pavel Tsatsouline takes it a bit further (as he did with his men in Russia) stating that as an operator you should shoot for 10 reps with 54lbs of weight. He also says that you should test weighted and unweighted pull-ups. For those of you who are thinking that this means they had sloppy form, you don’t know Pavel and you don’t know about high-tension principles. Keep reading.

        By now I’m sure many of you are thinking that this is complete BS. Don’t! Its possible to break down those pull-up barriers by using Russian training principles and a few tricks of the trade from those who have been there. Here we go!

        The main principle you need to get familiar with is the Principle of Volumization. The Russian have always been more concerned with volume of work and weight than with silly rep/set schemes. In it’s most simple form, the principle states that it is better to do more work through out the day than to burn yourself out in one session. The epitome of this can be seen in Eastern European lifters who bench eight times a week! In order to apply this principle you have to do a couple of things.

    1. Never train to failure!
    2. Do more sets but with less reps.
    3. Train more than once or twice a week. Train every day or every other day.
    4. Vary the intensity (that’s a whole different article).


        So, the best example I can give you is Ins and Outs. We all remember those! Where we went wrong with them was the number chosen each week was often at or too close to the failure point. Do a set of pull-ups every time you leave the section, and if you were gone more than an hour, do a set as you come back in. Or you could set the timer on your watch and do a set every hour. As for reps, lets say you can do 15 pull-ups. Do only ten each time.

        What if you don’t have time for that or you are bad with staying faithful? (To pull-ups!). Try out Pavel’s powerful tool called “Ladders”. Here you and a partner (or simulated partner) go to the bar. You do one rep and get off. He does one. You do two, he does two. And so on and so forth. When one of you gets close to failure on a set (within a rep or two), stop. Rest for minute or two (or not) and start again at one. This is far more effective than going up and then coming back down as is popular in most gyms today. Go until you can go no more for risk of training to failure or your body tells you you’ve had enough.  As always, bad form does not count. If your form is suffering, stop and start over. Speaking of form, grip and technique, consider this from Pavel and John Allstadt:

        “Vary your grip. I know that Pavel believes in overhand pull-ups first and foremost, and I do too. However, if you are not a member of SWAT or the Military, and do not have to climb walls and ledges on a regular basis, go ahead and vary your grip. Doing so will ward off boredom, and train your neural pathways to a wider degree. Grips worth using are: 1) Overhand or underhand, with or without thumbs. 2) Neutral grip--the best way to do these would be to drape a thick towel over the bar for maximum grip work.      

         Worthless techniques 1) Wide grip pull-ups and 2) Pull-ups behind the neck. For some reason, bodybuilders think that a very wide grip makes for very wide lats! Ha! This is bogus for a few reasons, the first being the greatly reduced range of motion, the second being the greatly reduced leverage, and the third being the extreme stress on your rotator cuffs. Optimal leverage is extremely important in strength training.

         Question: would you try to pull a heavy deadlift on your toes with a rounded back? I didn't think so. As for pullups behind the neck, the same reasons apply. Do yourself and your shoulders a favor--keep your grip slightly wider than shoulder width or less, and pull to your chest, not to the back of your neck. And no grip aids please! (Chalk is o.k.)”[3]

        A great technique to build strength, explosiveness, and raw power in the pull-up is to use the “Pink Panther” technique. Get on the bar and start pulling. Your buddy pulls on your legs for resistance. Unannounced, he lets go and you will fly up to the bar! When you train for weighted pulls, and you use this and other techniques, the volume principle is very important. Do lots of sets with low reps, 3-10 sets of 3-5 reps. You can simulate a partner in the Pink Panther by hooking a KB on your feet and letting go. Play with it. Another good way to add weight and realism is to put on your med ruck and do several sets of 3-5 reps.


    [1] John Allstadt, 2001, “Pull-ups, a Matter of Function”


    [3] John Allstadt, 2001, “Pull-ups, a Matter of Function”

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