The Fighter Pull-up Program Revisited

Last week we posted an outstanding article on training for the TSC by Jason Marshall, Senior SFG. Jason referenced the “Fighter Pull-up Program,” a plan by an unknown Russian author I wrote about a decade ago. The FPP is remarkable; you may have read how Amanda Perry, SFG progressed from 6 to 13 strict pull-ups in one month. We are reprinting the program by popular demand.

One look at Mike Tyson’s back when he punched should make it obvious how important the lats are to a fighter. The lat provides a connection between your arm and the rest of your body at the moment of the punch’s impact. If the “armpit muscle” is not activated, you cannot put your mass behind the punch and your shoulder is asking for trouble.

The pull-up is the logical choice of exercise to strengthen your lats. If you ask an experienced bodybuilder how to work the latissimus most thoroughly, he will tell you to look up, force your chest open, and draw your shoulder blades together at the top of the pull-up. This may be okay for bodybuilders, but what does this have to do with fighting?

You move in the ring in what gymnasts call “the hollow position”—the scapulae flared and the chest caved in. This is the way you should finish your pull-ups. Look straight ahead and hunch over the bar. Touch your neck or upper chest to the bar to make sure there is no question that you have completed the rep. Lower yourself under complete control and pause momentarily with your arms fully straight before going for another rep.

Pavel and the Fighter Pull-up Program
Pavel demonstrates a tactical pull-up at a course at the US Marine Corps base in San Diego.

Here is a powerful Russian pull-up program adaptable to any level of ability.

The 5RM Fighter Pull-up Program

Day 1     5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 2     5, 4, 3, 2, 2
Day 3     5, 4, 3, 3, 2
Day 4     5, 4, 4, 3, 2
Day 5     5, 5, 4, 3, 2
Day 6     Off
Day 7     6, 5, 4, 3, 2
Day 8     6, 5, 4, 3, 3
Day 9     6, 5, 4, 4, 3
Day 10    6, 5, 5, 4, 3
Day 11    6, 6, 5, 4, 3
Day 12    Off
Day 13    7, 6, 5, 4, 3
Day 14    7, 6, 5, 4, 4
Day 15    7, 6, 5, 5, 4
Day 16    7, 6, 6, 5, 4
Day 17     7, 7, 6, 5, 4
Day 18    Off
Day 19    8, 7, 6, 5, 4
Day 20    8, 7, 6, 5, 5
Day 21    8, 7, 6, 6, 5
Day 22    8, 7, 7, 6, 5
Day 23    8, 8, 7, 6, 5
Day 24    Off
Day 25    9, 8, 7, 6, 5
Day 26    9, 8, 7, 6, 6
Day 27    9, 8, 7, 7, 6
Day 28    9, 8, 8, 7, 6
Day 29    9, 9, 8, 7, 6
Day 30    Off

You start with an all-out set and then cut a rep in each consecutive set for a total of five sets. The next day add a rep to the last set. Then a rep to the set before that, etc.

The system is intended to be used for four weeks. At the end of the month, take two or three days off and then test yourself. It is not unusual to up the reps 2.5-3 times. In other words, you are likely to end up cranking out 12-15 reps if you started with 5. If you can already do between 6 and 12 reps, then start the program with the first day your PR shows up. For instance, if your max is 6 pull-ups start with day 7; if your max is 8 start with day 19.

If you run into a snag with this routine, back off a week and build up again. If you hit the wall again, switch to another routine.

Amanda Perry Fighter Pull-up Program
Amanda Perry, SFG, doing 13 strict pull-ups.

The 3RM Fighter Pull-up Program

Here is how the program applies to those who currently max at three pull-ups. The below is also excellent for anyone whose goal is pure strength rather than reps; just hang a kettlebell or a barbell plate on your waist to bring the reps down to three.

Day 1     3, 2, 1, 1
Day 2     3, 2, 1, 1
Day 3     3, 2, 2, 1
Day 4     3, 3, 2, 1
Day 5     4, 3, 2, 1
Day 6     Off
Day 7     4, 3, 2, 1, 1
Day 8     4, 3, 2, 2, 1
Day 9     4, 3, 3, 2, 1
Day 10   4, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 11    5, 4, 3, 2, 1
Day 12    Off

Now you are ready to move up to the 5RM program.

The 15RM Fighter Pull-up Program

For a fighter capable of fifteen pull-ups the routine would look like this:

Day 1     15RMx12, 10, 8, 6, 4
Day 2     15RMx12, 10, 8, 6, 6
Day 3     15RMx12, 10, 8, 8, 6
Day 4     15RMx12, 10, 10, 8, 6
Day 5     15RMx12, 12, 10, 8, 6
Day 6     Off
Day 7     15RMx14, etc.

The 25RM Fighter Pull-up Program

A stud with a 25-pull-up max would do it slightly differently:

Day 1     25RMx20, 16, 12, 8, 4
Day 2     25RMx20, 16, 12, 8, 8
Day 3     25RMx20, 16, 12, 12, 8
Day 4     25RMx20, 16, 16, 12, 8
Day 5     25RMx20, 20, 16, 12, 8
Day 6     Off
Day 7     25RMx22, etc.

You can see that the higher the RM, the quicker the reps drop off.  The reason is simple. You should have no problem doing four reps a few minutes after 5RMx5. But x24 is not going to happen after an all-out set of 25. The higher the reps, the greater the fatigue. Therefore, you need to start more reps down from your rep-max and cut the reps more between sets. Experiment. An extra day of rest here and there is also in order; the recovery from sets of fifteen or twenty is not nearly as quick as from fives and triples.

Yakov Zobnin from Siberia, the Heavyweight World Champion in Kyokushinkai, “the world’s strongest karate,” stands over 6’6” and tops the scale at 220 pounds. In spite of his basketball height and exhausting full contact training, the karateka maxes out at 25 strict pull-ups. What is your excuse?

Bodyweight power to you!

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

91 thoughts on “The Fighter Pull-up Program Revisited

  • As a judo guy for 30 years I can say that pullups/chinups definitely give you a lot of the strength and conditioning you need for this kind of fighting at least. Sometimes they’re about the only exercise you have the time and energy left over for outside of training. They take almost no time to do, keep your whole body under tension, and load a lot of weight onto your upper body; there are also variations that lead into other nifty things like L-sits and asymmetrical chinups and stuff. I am going to challenge people a bit by putting forward my idea that chinups are just as good as pullups or maybe better for some things because they develop your biceps muscles a bit more and these are useful in fighting also.

  • ‘If you run into a snag with this routine, back off a week and build up again’
    Does ‘build up again’ mean start all over again?

    • Do 1 or 2, and then for the rest do 3x eccentric pull-ups: Use a chair or box to start at the top of a pull-up with your chest to the bar, and then lower yourself slowly to the bottom of the pull-up. This also applies if you can’t do any pull-ups.

    • As this program is not meant to overwork the muscles, as long as possible. Too short a rest, and you might tire too soon, hit failure and reduce the quality of your practice. Too long, and you might overlap training days. Heh.

      * Minimum of 10 minutes between sets as per research.

      * One session in the morning, another at lunch and the last one in the evening might work for you. Whatever suits your schedule.

      • Hey John,
        is 10minutes not to long? I´m working on going above 15 RM and would like to try this Programm. So 10min rest per set or doing the sets over the Day is good?
        Thanks for the Programm!

  • Hey brother. 1 question. This program looks great. But I wanted to know that , “Does this pullup program gives results for a long term or just for a short term?”

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