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Progressions and Variations for Pullups,
Pushups, and Sit Ups
By Courtenay Schurman, MS, CSCS February 2003
One of the questions we get most often on our Ask Body Results Forum is how to go about increasing the number of pullups / pushups / sit ups an individual can complete at one time. Some of those readers are probably considering taking a fitness test of some sort (i.e. military, school, Presidential Fitness, police, or firefighter) and want to perform well on a specific strength endurance test mixed into a test battery that includes running and other strength assessments. Others may have a performance agenda for their particular activity, such as climbers wanting to do a certain number of pullups to increase their ability to stick to the wall for a longer period of time. Still others of you may simply have a goal of doing a certain number of repetitions “just because.”
So what are some ways to go about increasing endurance in bodyweight resistance exercises including pullups, pushups and sit ups? The keys lie in 1) varying the exercise program at regular intervals, 2) progressing the exercise properly from the easiest to the hardest (or most specific) variations, and 3) tricking the body into getting those extra repetitions once you’ve reached a “plateau” or sticking point. Below we examine each exercise separately, suggest numerous variations and proper ways to progress each exercise, and then address ways you can add repetitions or strength endurance in each case.
Abdominal curls or crunches (“sit ups” and their infinite variations) are perhaps the easiest of the three bodyweight exercises discussed here to increase endurance because of the lower percentage of bodyweight you must move with each repetition. However, some people may have other issues related to core strength that limit their ability to increase strength endurance, including having lower back problems, poor posture (resulting from tight abdominals or psoas muscles and loose or weakened erector spinaes), or excess bodyweight around the middle which makes the typical sit up movement awkward or even uncomfortable to perform.
If you are just beginning an exercise program, in order to increase the number of abdominal crunches you can do, first start with the easiest version of the exercise, a partial torso curl, with hands across the chest and knees bent, feet on the floor. On an exhale, peel your shoulders and upper back off the floor in a fluid movement without jerking the head or neck, pressing the lower back into the floor and concentrating on pressing the ribs down into the hips with each contraction. If you will need to do crunches of a certain type (i.e. feet held down by a partner, on an incline board, etc.) you will want to start doing that type as soon as possible to maximize your practice time. Once you can do 10-15 unweighted torso curls, you can make the exercise more challenging (in increasing order of difficulty) by 1) propping the feet up on a bench, 2) holding knees in the air, keeping feet crossed and close to the butt; 3) adding a brief pause at the top of the movement; 4) adding a dumbbell, medicine ball, or band resistance to the chest or behind the head (holding the weight behind the head increases the lever arm, making it harder than holding the weight at the chest); 5) increasing the range of motion by doing prestretched curls on a ball, pillow, AbMat or Bosu, or 6) extending the legs straight up in the air.
Pushups require strength endurance in the pectorals (chest), anterior deltoids (front portion of the shoulders) and triceps (back part of the upper arm), not to mention strong abdominals and lower back held isometrically while performing the exercise with proper form. To figure out what is your “weak link” that requires more strength endurance, pay close attention to where you fatigue on a set to failure (meaning, do as many repetitions as you possibly can). If you start to sag or collapse in the middle, then your core (abs/back) needs work; if you can’t push up from the floor, your chest is weak; and if you can’t lock out at the top of the movement, your triceps are the limiting factor.
The easiest way to do pushups is to do them against a wall (so that the movement is more horizontal rather than vertical against gravity) or a high bench (so more of your weight is on the feet), then moving to floor pushups on your knees, and on to the toes for “traditional pushups.” Once you have mastered the traditional pushup and feel “stuck” there are all sorts of ways to increase the difficulty, including 1) elevating your feet onto a bench so that more of your weight is on your hands; 2) wearing a backpack or having someone place a weight between your shoulder blades for added resistance; 3) do handstands (particularly for shoulders and triceps); 4) hold the lowered position without touching the nose to the floor (in a “hover” position); and 5) go to free weights pressing exercises such as bench presses with dumbbells or barbells, inclined, declined or flat; 6) try squat-thrust-jumps www.bodyresults.com/s2skiadvanced.asp. For the advanced lifter wanting a challenge for the obliques as well as the chest and triceps, 7) try doing several 1-armed pushups (use a wide leg stance for tripod balance, and start as for pushups with hand on a bench, then on the floor on your knees, before moving to your toes). To develop more explosive power, 8) try pushing up off the floor and inserting a clap before you land again, known as “clap pushups.”
Pullups are perhaps the hardest exercise to increase repetitions (particularly for women) because in order to complete one, you must move your entire bodyweight the smaller muscles of the upper body. The muscles recruited are the latissimus dorsi (or “lats” for short), posterior deltoids (back part of the shoulders), biceps (front part of the upper arm) as well as small muscles of the forearms and hands.
The first step in being able to do a bodyweight pullup is to start with lat pull downs (for perhaps 2-4 weeks of basic conditioning) and then moving on as quickly as possible to either Gravitron (machine assisted) pullups (which also, like pullups, require that you pull your body up, rather than pulling a bar to you), floor-assisted pullups, negatives (the lowering-only portion of the movement), or single pullups. (Please visit www.bodyresults.com/e2floorpullup.asp and www.bodyresults.com/e2ladder.asp for additional tips for increasing pullup endurance.) If you have a spotter or training partner, they can give you a small boost by pushing at your waist or supporting your feet. Once you can complete 1-3 bodyweight pullups on your own, then move from (easiest to hardest) 1) parallel grip pullups, 2) supinated grip chinups (i.e. palms facing your chest in a narrow grip), 3) pronated grip pullups (palms facing forward and narrow), and 4) wide grip pullups (shoulder width or greater.) Those REALLY wanting a challenge can progress to towel, dowel (for ice climbing) or fingerboard pullups, or even 1-arm pullups.
Increasing Strength Endurance
In addition to properly progressing the exercises to get the most from your efforts, it’s also important to change up the repetition scheme, frequency of training, number of sets and rest intervals that you use to make regular progress with your strength endurance. Below are several sample work set schemes that you can try. See what works best for you. Remember, these ideas will work for any bodyweight exercise you’d like to see increased strength endurance, but the numbers will likely be largest for situps, medium for pushups, and smallest for pullups according to amount of bodyweight moved.
If you are just starting out and can do 3x10 situps, 2x5 pushups and 2x1 pullups, your goal for the first 2-4 weeks may be to increase your endurance to 3x15 situps, 3x6 pushups and 3x2 pullups. How? Add a repetition to each situp set, each workout, until you can complete 3x15. For pushups, you might choose to do 4-5 sets of 4 pushups (for 16-20 total repetitions, just short of your maximum number of 5 per set but completing more sets of them with 1-2 minutes in between), then see if, after 2 weeks, you can successfully do the 3x6 of your goal. For pullups, use a floor-assisted or partner-assisted method for a second and third repetition after you’ve done the single rep on your own – this will increase your endurance until you’ll be able to do sets of 2 on your own.
If you are more advanced and you’d like to do, say, a certain number of pullups in a given workout, then try the following: do as many pull-ups as you can in your first set, then rest 2 minutes; do another set of as many repetitions as you can, rest 2 more minutes, and keep going until you've reached the desired number of pullups. Be careful that you don’t increase the volume too quickly, however, as you can experience tendon strains from overuse.
Increase in Weight
Once you’re able to do 5 or 6 pullups (or 12-15 pushups) but can’t seem to move beyond that point, try adding resistance to build raw strength. This, in turn, will help increase your endurance as bodyweight pushups and pullups will start to feel easier compared to repetitions with the added weight. Try adding weight to your body in the form of ankle weights, a weight belt to which you can attach plates, a fanny pack with water or light dumbbell inside, weight vest, or light backpack, and do a standard workout protocol like 5 sets of 3 reps (assuming you can complete 5-6 pullups) or 4 sets of 6-8 (if you can do sets of 12-15 pushups).
Try cranking out a couple of pull-ups, pushups, or abdominal crunches several times a day, every day. This is a favorite method of Pavel Tsatsouline. Or, if you’ve been doing exercises daily, you may want to decrease the frequency and give your body more time to recover in between workouts. Some people react favorably to more frequent stimulus early in their lifting career (whatever age that might be) while others need more recovery time the harder and heavier they train.
Analysis of Weakness
Find the “weak link” in doing pull-ups, pushups, or abdominal work for you, figure out what specific muscle group fatigues first, and then do exercises to specifically strengthen that range of motion. If you feel a general sort of fatigue and you know that you’re a little heavier than you would like to be, reducing the weight you’re lifting (especially crucial for pullups, as the heavier you are, the harder they are!) will help immensely. Experiment with pullup grips to find the grip that best suits your body in terms of shoulder comfort and direct line of force to the biceps and lats; if during pushups you notice your shoulders hurt when you use a narrow grip but not wide (or vice versa) that could be an indicator that you have a muscle group that would benefit from specific training (or rehabilitation) in order to see improvement.
Finally, if you know that you’re going to have to do a certain number of repetitions in a given amount of time, one way to train for such an event is to get your body used to going BEYOND that time. In other words, say you have to do 60 situps in 2 minutes (30/minute) and you can currently only do 35 in the first minute and then peter out to 15 the second minute (for 50 total.) One strategy would be to practice moderation and timing in the first minute so you don’t tire yourself out too quickly – in other words, one workout might consist of doing 3 sets of 30 repetitions with a minute of rest between sets, decreasing the rest interval by 10 seconds each time you do your workout, so that by workout 5, you do 30 repetitions, rest 10 seconds, and do 30 more – by workout 6 you should be at goal. Another way you can build endurance is to do as many repetitions as you can, rest 10-15 seconds, do another set of as many as you can, and keep going until you can no longer link 5 repetitions together. Finally, if speed is the limiting factor, try doing sets of 10-15 repetitions as quickly as possible, rest 15 seconds, and continue for 4-6 sets so you get your 60 repetitions in, and gradually link them together with shorter rests until you have reached your goal.
Happy training, and let us know how you do!