The Ultimate Firearms Destination for the Gun Lifestyle

Pull Your Own Weight



The exercises and content expressed in this column are for illustrative purposes only. Consult your physician before trying any physical activity or nutritional plan. RECOIL and its contributors are not responsible for any harm or injuries sustained while attempting these techniques.

Athletes and beefcakes alike can sometimes fall into the trap of developing only “mirror muscles,” the ones guys look at when they pose in the mirror (e.g. chest, biceps, etc.). This means neglecting one of the most important components of one's physique: the back. This could lead to poor performance at the least and possible catastrophic failures at the worst, such as the inability to climb over an obstacle or to carry a downed partner. Enter the pull-up.


Few exercises command as much respect as the pull-up. It's a true test of body weight mastery and one of the most functional exercises you can do. There's a reason why Navy SEAL and Marine Corps physical fitness tests require them … because they're that important! Aside from it just being one of those exercises that everyone wants to be able to do, pull-ups can be great for back development and shoulder health. If you happen to be someone who's primarily focused on bench presses and biceps curls, then evening out some of that pressing with pull-ups can do great things for your shoulders and posture. You wouldn't want to be walking around with the posture of a jumbo shrimp.

Pull-ups also build the lat muscles, which run basically from your armpit to your lower back. It should be pretty apparent by the area this muscle covers that it's a key player in your upper body. It can play a significant role in stabilizing your shoulders, which can correlate to better groupings at the range, throwing a punch, or successfully bringing down an attacker.


We can't really talk about pull-up training without first discussing how to do one properly. First, there should be no kipping or anything else resembling a dry heave hanging from the bar. That's the perfect recipe for shoulder problems. The pull-up should be done under control as to not cause injury. Slowing the movement down also happens to fix many of the common problems that occur with this exercise.

To do a great pull-up:

  • Begin in a dead hang position with your shoulder blades pulled down like you're doing the opposite of a shrug.
  • Grip the bar hard, and brace like you're going to take a punch to the stomach. This may not seem like much, but this technique alone can improve your pull-up numbers and quality.
  • Keeping your chin tucked back, drive your elbows to your sides and squeeze your shoulder blades down and back. Don't let your elbows travel behind your torso.
  • Pause briefly, then slowly lower yourself. Stop just short of the very bottom.
Starting position - dead hang

Starting position – dead hang

Dead hang - right way

Dead hang – right way

Dead hang - wrong wat

Dead hang – wrong way

Pause briefly at the top

Pause briefly at the top

The pull-up requires a heavy emphasis on strength. It's considered a foundational quality because strength is a huge factor in most other fitness qualities. Strength will obviously need to be adequate to complete a few repetitions, but it also plays a significant role in increasing that number. The stronger you are, the less relative effort it's going to take to complete a pull-up, making repetitions easier.

Grip strength and endurance also play a huge role in pull-ups. We need to be able to hold on to a bar or ledge firmly for all of the repetitions you complete. If 20 pull-ups is the goal, that's quite a bit of time to be hanging on.


If completing one pull-up is a challenge, we have you covered. Getting that first pull-up can be the most rewarding, but also the most frustrating if it's been a while and you haven't achieved it. We'll first look at what a program would look like for someone who is unable to complete his or her first pull-up. Here, we're going to break down a muscle contraction, and focus on two of the three parts: an isometric and eccentric contraction. What this means is that you'll get a boost to the top position, hold yourself there for five seconds (isometric), then slowly lower yourself to the bottom position in five seconds (eccentric). Once you can complete five repetitions in a row, you should be able to do one full pull-up. Here's what that would look like:

Week 1 3 3 90
Week 2 3 4 90
Week 3 4 4 90
Week 4 4 4 90
Week 5 2 5 90

Straight sets are the most common way to program for any type of goal. This entails simply completing, for example, three sets of eight repetitions. You would do one set of eight, rest, complete another set of eight, rest, and finally complete the last set. This is one of the best methods to strength train, and should be the bulk of your program. The one thing to keep in mind is to vary your training stress (called periodization) to make sure you're able to continue seeing progress and ensure you're not always going balls to the wall in your training. That would surely impede your progress in the gym. Here's what a sample might look like:

Week 1 4 5 90
Week 2 4 5 90
Week 3 5 5 90
Week 4 3 5 90

Cluster sets are something a little different that can be beneficial in building strength and switching up some of the training if your performance has plateaued. Cluster sets are basically just like doing a set within a set within a set. So, for example, you would do a set of two reps, rest 10 seconds, do another set, rest 10 seconds, do another set, rest 10 seconds, and finally do your last set. This constitutes one full set.

This is great because it allows you to take a weight you'd normally only be able to lift a few times, such as a pull-up plus 25 pounds, and increases that number all within a single set. More repetitions with a heavy weight equates to increased strength. Here's what a program might look like using cluster sets:

Week 1 4 4 2 10 2
Week 2 4 4 2 10 2
Week 3 4 4 2 10 2
Week 4 3 3 2 10 2

Grip strength can be a key player in pull-ups, and can be one of the main reasons why you can only do a few. This gets even more important the more repetitions you are able to do. Luckily, training the grip is pretty simple. We'll use two exercises to focus on the grip, farmer's carries and dead hangs from a bar. For the farmer's carry, just grab two heavy weights and go for a walk.

Farmer's Carry 3 40 yds 3 40 yds 3 40 yds 2 40 yds 60 sec
Dead Hang 3 20 sec 3 25 sec 3 25 sec 2 30 sec 60 sec

The dead hang is exactly what it sounds like: hanging from a bar in the correct position outlined above.

Here's an example of how you would program for those two exercises. You'll complete the farmer's carry for three sets before moving to the dead hang.


It may seem daunting to get your first bodyweight pull-up, or maybe it's getting to double-digits that seems out of reach. More often than not, if you haven't been successful in getting more pull-ups, you need to prioritize them more in your training. Using the aforementioned techniques should push you up to that next level.


Ryne Gioviano is a frequent contributor to our sister publication RECOIL OFFGRID magazine and the co-owner of Welligee Personal Training & Lifestyle located in Naperville, Illinois. He holds a master's degree in exercise physiology and is certified through the National Strength and Conditioning Association. You can find more information at

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