This Program Is Your Best Shot at Performing 20 Pull-Ups

Major Charles Lewis Armstrong's regimen remains legendary

July 31, 2023 6:21 am
An image of hands gripping a pull-up bar.
Major Armstrong's program is predicated on variety, overload and regularity.
Artwork by Olivia Sheehy; original image via Getty Images

Before guys like David Goggins and Truett Hanes brought competitive pull-up counts to the YouTube masses, there was Major Charles “Chuck” Armstrong, USMC, banging out at an outrageous 1,435 repetitions in five hours to secure the single session world record.

The pull-up whisperer’s regimen was so prodigious, Marine Corps hopefuls started following it in order to pass the branch’s notorious Physical Fitness Test (PFT). Depending on a trainee’s age group and gender, the maximum point score demands an effort of 20-23 pull-ups in a single try.

Armstrong came to be known for a lot of things over the course of his life, before passing away in 2011. He served in 22 foreign countries, received over 40 decorations, was an accomplished parachutist and scuba diver, advised Fortune 500 companies and was survived by a pet wolf named Ringo. But it’s his pull-up program that people still remember him by, and good for reason. It’s still the best way to get better at strength training’s most despised exercise.

And while the program is definitely on the intense side, it’s structured in a way that you don’t have to be a pro athlete or part of the armed forces to have a chance conquering it. Those types will likely see progress quicker (say, within a month). But any civilian off the street could begin Armstrong’s program today, and get close to that golden 20-rep number within eight weeks. Here’s how it works:

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The Armstrong Pull-Up Program

As this regimen follows a five-day-on, two-days-off cycle, trainees typically plug it into weekdays and rest on the weekends. While five days of pull-up training probably sounds a little extreme, Major Armstrong discovered that cycles of regularity followed by rest was the best recipe for (a) cresting the initial “tear down” period (wherein the body gets a little fatigued/weaker at the outset) and (b) avoiding plateaus as the weeks drag on.

To the latter point: you’re also not just walking up to a pull-up bar and doing the same exact number of reps, at the same level of intensity each day. Armstrong designed the program to continually “shock” the body, interweaving a mix of maximum efforts, low-rep counts and varying grips. The cadence in full:

  • Monday: Plain and simple, you’re going for five maximum effort sets. Perform each set to failure, with 90 seconds of rest in between. Don’t worry about numbers and be honest with what you’ve got left on each set.
  • Tuesday: This is the “pyramid” day. Start with one repetition, rest 10 seconds, then perform two repetitions, rest, then three, and so on. Follow this model until you can’t finish a set. Then knock out one last set as maximum effort (with whatever you’ve got left).
  • Wednesday: Three different grips at whatever your “training set” rep count is. (It’s the number of reps you can perform for a ton of sets. Even experienced athletes shouldn’t go beyond three here. Beginners should stick with one rep.) First: do three training sets with a normal overhand grip. Rest a minute in between each. Then do three training sets with a close chin-up grip. Rest a minute in between each. And finally, do three training sets with a wide grip, repeating that minute rest in between each.
  • Thursday: This is where it’s important to have landed on a low, reasonable number for your training sets. This is an all-out effort day: perform as many training sets as possible, resting a full minute in between each. Keep going as long as your form is perfect. If all goes well, you’ll be there a while.
  • Friday: Wild card day. Repeat the most difficult day from that week.

What to Keep In Mind

As this sort of regimen is self-selecting, those who are drawn to it are probably training their bodies in some other capacity — conventional strength training, rowing, cycling, what have you. But be careful. It’s extremely important that you don’t overtrain your back muscles, as they’re already shredded from their workday workload.

As for those who traditionally follow a “push-pull” lifting routine, it might feel imbalanced to suddenly devote so much time to pull movements and muscles. Well, Major Armstrong being Major Armstrong, he had a solve for that. Each morning, he’d devote his time and energy to another infamous bodyweight exercise. In his words:

“After rising, I would drop onto the deck and do my first set of push-ups. I would then move into the head and start my morning toilet. I would return after a few minutes and do my second maximum effort set after which, I would go back into the head to shave. After shaving, I would return to the bedroom and complete the third and final set. Having completed all of the push-ups, I was awake and ready for a relaxing shower. ”

These were maximum effort sets of push-ups, by the way, which Armstrong swore by in order to build strength in the shoulders and help alleviate soreness from all the pull-ups. Take note: your work capacity in push-ups doesn’t have a direct carryover to pull-ups. So if the idea of knocking out an extra push-ups workout each morning is too daunting, skip it. You’re here for the pull-ups.

As for the pull-ups themselves, it’s critical that you choose a reasonable rep number for your training sets and always observe proper form. (It’s critical to lead with your chest, shift your elbows forward slightly as you pull yourself up and engage the force of your grip inward, which will activate the chest.) Don’t relax into dead hangs, if you can avoid it. Loosening the shoulders at the bottom, “unpacked” portion of the movement puts a lot of pressure on their stability…something that’s especially risky if you have a history of injury. (If worried about that, consider performing these on wooden rings, which will move and twist with you.)

What’s Your Reward?

The lightest possible training day within this paradigm would be Wednesday. For a trainee who’s defined their training set as one rep, Wednesday would only call for nine reps total. Still, that day requires a variety of challenging grips, which…isn’t nothing. Some of the other days, meanwhile, will require far more reps than that. And by the end of a week, you could be looking at dozens upon dozens — if not over a hundred — of pull-ups, total.

What’s your reward for all those pull-ups? Beyond colossal gains for your back muscles, your grip strength and your sheer mettle, the main reward is a newfound capacity to do a lot of pull-ups — ideally to the tune of 20 reps per set. That’s it. It’s the sort of goal that only seems dubious until you set out to achieve it. And it’s a reminder that some of the most impressive things you can achieve with your body don’t require much tutelage or fancy tools. A PDF and an iron bar can get you in the most functional shape of your life.

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