Armstrong Pull-Up Program Results & Review

A lifter grasping a pull-up bar.

Table of Contents

The following represents my experience during my second time running the Armstrong Pull-Up Program. I decided to document my Armstrong pull-up program results since there is still considerable interest in this program, all these years later.

For those of you who are just interested in the results, here you go:

In four weeks, I was able to:

  • At a body weight of 245, I increased my 25lb pull-up rep-max from 7 full range of motion, dead hang pull-ups to 11.
  • This represents a 57% increase.
  • Increase my “training set” number from two repetitions per set to four.

I also successfully pissed off my elbows and realized that I operate much better on a three-day-per-week plan, which allows for recovery on non-consecutive days.

What follows is an account of the real-world results you can expect from doing the Armstrong pull-up program.

Before we begin

Note that the following represents my experience during my second experience in the program. I did do the program once in the past (back in 2014, I believe), with good results. However, at the time I did not keep a training log and therefore opted not to discuss those results here.

What follows is an account of my experience on the Armstrong Pull-Up Program early this year, with the specific goal of improving the maximum number of repetitions I could do with a 20lb weight vest.

Why I decided to do the program

Every year for the last few years, I have trained up for The Murph Challenge. Not only do I have a lot of respect for the tradition itself, but I find that the annual challenge provides a good yearly benchmark of my fitness level which covers (generally) all the bases: cardiovascular conditioning, total body strength, and endurance.

My goal this year is to do fewer sets of pull-ups – which required me to improve my repetition maxes on all the exercises. Since the challenge requires both lifting and running in a 20lb weight vest, I opted to use a 25lb weight plate, held between the legs, for the duration of the program (including the push-ups).

Ground rules

For my second go at the program, I decided to utilize the following ground rules:

  • I would test my 25lb pull-up max before beginning the program, and write it down.
  • I would keep a training log during the program.
  • I would utilize a good, full range of motion repetitions only, with momentary pauses at the top and bottom of each repetition. No kipping, bouncing, or bent elbows on pull-ups (or push-ups). If I could not complete a repetition with a full range of motion, I would end the set.
  • I would not get caught up in rep counts, choosing to focus more on exhausting the muscles properly (the program itself mentions that this is important, but I doubt most people actually do it this way).

How to do the Armstrong pull-up routine

For full details of how to do the program, you could visit the program’s official source. For the sake of completeness, I’ll outline it briefly here:

There are two parts to the program, consisting of daily micro-workouts focused on a single exercise:

  • Pull-ups, five days per week (done in the evening)
  • Push-ups, five days per week (the morning routine).

The actual pull-up program is in the five-day system, done on consecutive days, in the evening:

  • Day 1: Five maximum effort sets of pull-ups with 90 seconds rest in between.
  • Day 2: Pull-up pyramids, with 10 seconds rest for every repetition in the previous set. Continue the pyramid until we fail a set, then do one more final maximum effort set (after resting 10 seconds for every repetition in the previous “missed” set.
  • Day 3: Nine “training sets” with 60 seconds rest in between sets. Three with an overhand grip, with a supinated grip (chin-ups), with a wide grip. Rest 60 seconds between sets (more on what constitutes a training set later).
  • Day 4: Complete the maximum number of training sets possible, resting 60 seconds between sets.
  • Day 5: Repeat the day during the week that you found the hardest.

For training sets, use the number of repetitions that allows you to successfully complete all nine sets on day three. If you complete all nine sets on day three, you can feel free to try and bump the number up by one on day four, thus setting a new training set number (one higher).

For the morning routine, the program calls for three maximum-effort sets of push-ups every morning. Major Charles Lewis Armstrong (the creator of the program) notes that these sets of push-ups are to be done at any time in the morning (for instance, one set before a shower, one set after, one after breakfast, etc).

This is to be done during the entirety of the program.

Training log: my experience with the Armstrong pull-up program

A workout journal, displaying the days of the week.

I completed four total weeks of the Armstrong pull-up program, using a 25lb weight throughout (in order to help prepare for this year’s Murph). As a fan of minimalistic routines involving pull-ups, push-ups, squats, etc., I felt the spirit of the program would lead to positive results.

The Friday before starting the program, I tested my initial maximum with this weight:

Initial pull-up test with 25 lbs: 7 full range of motion repetitions.

Armed with this information, I began the program:

Week 1
Day 17, 4, 4, 3, 2
Day 21-5, 4 (attempted 6), 3
Day 39 sets of 2 (success)
Day 418 sets of 3 (bumped training set up one)
Day 51-5, 4, 3

Notes about week 1: Got the expected 7 repetitions on my first maximum effort set on Monday. I apparently set my training set number too low (two repetitions), and successfully bumped it up to three repetitions on Day 4. On Friday, I repeated the pyramid day, as I found the short rest periods on this day very taxing.

Week 2
Day 19, 5, 4, 4, 3
Day 21-6, 5 (attempted 7), 3
Day 39 sets of 3
Day 47 sets of 4
Day 51-6, 5, 3

Notes about week 2: My maximum jumped by two repetitions from week one. Makes me think that my initial test of seven reps was likely due to a technique issue that got ironed out by doing frequent pull-ups. I was also able to make it to the sixth “rung” of the ladder on week two. On Day 4, I opted to bump the training set number up to four, but failed to get nine sets.

Week 3
Day 19, 5, 4, 4, 3
Day 21-5, 4, 4
Day 39 sets of 3
Day 49 sets of 4
Day 51-5, 5, 4

Notes about week 3: Max effort day was identical to week two. I also “regressed” on Day two, only getting to the 5th rung of the ladder. I was beginning to feel significant fatigue in the elbows this week, likely leading to the regression. Nevertheless, I was able to successfully bump my training sets up to four repetitions per set on Day 4.

Week 4
Day 110, 6, 5, 4, 4
Day 21-6, 5 (attempted 7), 3
Day 39 sets of 4
Day 410 sets of 4
Day 51-6, 5 (attempted 7), 4

Notes about week 4: Added another repetition to my max on Day 1. Showing significant progress. Also was able to make it to the 6th rung of the ladder on both Day 2 and Day 5 this week, showing some good adaptation. Successfully completed both Days 3 and 4 with four repetitions per training set.

At this point, I had been doing the program for one month. I decided to stop the program at this point, as my elbows were feeling extremely cranky (one of the notorious drawbacks of a high-frequency program such as this).

Final pull-up test with 25 lbs: 11 full range of motion repetitions.

Armstrong pull-up program review (final thoughts)

A man doing wide grip pull ups.

In conclusion, I think this program can be very beneficial for people who want (or need) to increase their pull-up numbers quickly. If you struggle to do just a few pull-ups (read: one or two), I would not do this program. Opt for using alternative exercises to help develop your pull-up strength first, and then return to this program later.

As stated above, I increased my 25 lb. repetition max from 7 to 11 reps, which is a 57% increase in the number of repetitions I could do.

The positives of the program are many:

  1. It works. If you stick with it, your repetition max will go up.
  2. The workouts are short, and they fit perfectly into a micro-workout routine.
  3. You’ll be using basic, proven calisthenic exercises, push-ups and pull-ups, without any fluff.

However, I think the program comes with some drawbacks:

  1. My rep-max jumped from 7 to 9 within the first week. This leads me to believe that the initial improvement was more neurological than strength-related. Not a bad thing, just something to note.
  2. Despite the fact that the workouts are very quick, the intensity is very high (you’ll be hitting failure on almost every workout, five days per week). I found that my 36-year-old-elbows did not agree with this level of frequency, which led me to quit after four weeks and switch to a more traditional program.
  3. I often found myself doing these workouts at night after my girls went to bed. While I don’t generally mind doing late-night workouts, doing them five days per week got old, really quick.

You may find that you have a different opinion – perhaps your recovery capabilities are better than mine and you won’t develop any injuries. Perhaps you love working out every day, as opposed to non-consecutive days.

If these two things describe you, give it a shot – your Armstrong pull-up results will likely be very good. I do think this program is worth trying for anyone who desires to increase their pull-ups very quickly, which is essentially what it’s designed to do.

Good luck!