How to Max the USMC Pullup Test

December 10, 2003 11:15 AM

Scoring a perfect score on the United States Marine Corps Personal Fitness Test (PFT) is not an easy task. For the males, the PFT consists of the following three events: pullups, crunches, and a three-mile run. Each event is worth up to 100 points. To max out on each event, the Marine is required to perform 20 pullups, 100 crunches in less than two minutes, and run 3 miles in under 18 minutes.

I was in decent shape after completing the Officer Candidate School (OCS) and The Basic School (TBS), but I was never able to score above the low 270's on the PFT's at either school. My main problem was the pullups. I was only able to perform around 15 pullups and that cost me 5 points per pull-up. My typical training routine at this time was to do my pullups two or three times a week with 3 sets of pullups to failure. My results had been stagnant for a couple of years. I had to find a better way to train in order to increase my pull-up numbers. Fortunately for me, I came across an article about pullups on Clarence Bass' website, www.cbass.com, during the summer of 2000. Clarence Bass runs an excellent website and it was where I originally heard of Pavel Tsatsouline and www.Dragondoor.com. In the article, which was called 'A Small Experiment in Synaptic Facilitation', Clarence told a story of how Pavel Tsatsouline's father-in-law was able to set a personal record with pullups after performing multiple sets of pullups throughout each day. Roger Antonson used the program to perform 20 pullups after just a few months of training, which was more than he had been able to do 40 years earlier in the Marine Corps. Clarence followed a similar program and was also able to perform 20 pullups after a few months of training, too. I was intrigued and had to try this program for myself!

The basic idea behind this program is to perform a selected exercise as often as possible without overtraining. In order to avoid overtraining, none of the sets should be taken to muscular failure. The formula Pavel gave was "Specificity + Frequent Practice = Success." Pavel's father-in-law did one set of pullups every time he went down to his basement, which added up to a total of 25 to 100 pullups per day. Clarence Bass' approach was slightly different. He "did three sets of chins each day (morning, noon, and late afternoon) and occasionally an additional set in the evening." Clarence began his experiment with sets of 10. I decided to try the approach Clarence Bass used. Things worked fine for a while. I was doing sets of 10 reps three times a day. It was easy the first week, but doing 3 sets of 10 reps became difficult towards the end of the second week. Copying Clarence's approach, or anyone's approach exactly, was a mistake for me. In hindsight, I could have reduced my reps per set and kept doing 3 sets per day. Instead, I changed my approach to doing just one set per day and adding 1 rep to my sets every 2 weeks. The approach might not seem like much, but my progress was steady and I always felt fresh. I had purchased a copy of Power to the People! at this time and read about a scientific study that found 1 set of 5 reps performed 5 days a week was more effective than 5 sets of 5 reps once a week. Therefore, my approach seemed logical. My experiment began on July 3, 2000 with 1set of 11 pullups per day. I was averaging 16 pullups a day a few months later and decided to test myself. I was finally able to do an easy 20 pullups, plus I scored a 300 on my next PFT! A friend of mine has used this same program consistently for over two years. In an e-mail to me, he wrote, "I have ran four 300 PFTs in a row the last one having been in June. I will do another in two weeks... I did do the workout with my Marines in Oki. I even let a few test out the kettlebells and they like them. In two short years I was able to get most of my PLT to 1st class PFT scores. When I arrived, I had half 1st class and half second class. We did pullups every day 1 set at 75% of max, then the pullup ladder on Fridays. We made it a competition. Most of the Marines saw great gains in their pullups like I did."

Begin the program by doing one set of pullups per day. The number of reps to start off with should be between 2/3 and 3/4 of your max. Add 1 pull-up to your daily set about once every 2 weeks. Adding reps too soon may lead to burnout. Use your intuition to determine what's best for you. The volume will increase gradually and allow your body to adapt. Test your pullups every 6 weeks and post your results on the Dragondoor.com forum. You can also use this program to maintain a given number of pullups. For example, many people can perform 20 pullups on any given day as long as they continue to do an average of 16 pullups per day. The program is quick and will produce good results. Plus, it won't interfere with your other training goals. Once you perform your 20 pullups, you have a few options other than just maintaining your ability to do 20 pullups. You can use more advanced training methods, like ladders, to add more reps to your pullups or you can begin doing pullups with additional weight attached to your body. Good luck!

Greg Donahue is a retired USMC officer. He has a degree in Physical Education from Northern Illinois University.

Learn the finer points of the GTG program in Pavel's book The Naked Warrior.