The 4 Toughest Push-Up and Pull-Up Workouts

by Eric Bach

Can You Handle Them?

These aren't just workouts, they're also strength and stamina tests. Grab your best friend or your worst enemy and see who comes out on top.

100 Straight Push-Ups

This benchmark is a true barometer of relative strength and muscular endurance. You’d be hard-pressed to find a lifter capable of doing 100 straight push-ups who’s not lean, strong, and built like a tank.

But push-ups are more than a great upper body exercise; they also increase anterior core endurance. The 100 push-ups challenge will expose any chink in your armor. Notice sagging hips? You’ll need to boost anterior core strength and endurance. Head diving forward? Time to improve thoracic mobility, shoulder health and posture.

How to Do It: We’re not talking about your little sister’s head-diving, half-twerking push-ups. Do the reps the way they need to be done. Each rep requires:

  • The elbows tucked at 45 degrees
  • Alignment from your cervical spine to your tailbone (a straight back)
  • Full reps: Chest to the ground at the bottom and a full lockout at the top

How to Get Better: Fall short of 100 reps? Add two all-out sets of push-ups (with 90 seconds rest between) to the end of your workout. If you’re failing to get at least 25 reps, make them easier by elevating your hands until you build sufficient strength and endurance.

25 Consecutive Clap Push-Ups

The clap push-up is a unique exercise, challenging muscle fibers by requiring rapid, explosive contractions while fatigue builds during longer-rep sets. Pursuing this test will bust you through a training plateau, build power, and add muscle to your chest, triceps, and shoulders.

How to Do It: Get in a push-up position, lower yourself to the ground, and explode up with maximum force, clapping your hands before returning to terra firma. Pretend your hands are touching hot coals. Do the reps quickly, exploding back up into your next rep as soon as you reach the down position. If you can do 25 reps in a row with good form, you’re a badass.

How to Get Better: Not there yet? Start doing 3 sets of 6-10 reps before upper body lifts. Then add one all-out set at the end of your workout. If you struggle, use a less challenging angle by elevating your hands onto a flat bench and build your endurance. Once you can do 10 consecutive reps in that position, move to the floor.

18 Straight Pull-Ups with 10 KG Added

Should you rise to the challenge and master this, you’ll acquire a vice grip, V-tapered lats, and serious biceps development.

This one was popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline. The 18-rep pull-up test with a 10 kg kettlebell (about 22 pounds) was a requirement for Russian Special Forces because 10 kg approximates the weight of the body armor worn by operatives. It’s a beast of a test, requiring relative strength, absolute strength, and muscular endurance.

How to Do It: Simply attach a 10 kg kettlebell or around 22 pounds of plates to your body any way you can and see if you can get 18 strict reps.

How to Get Better: Do weighted pull-ups twice per week. Then build endurance by finishing your workouts with a total rep goal of 40 pull-ups. Break up the sets to preserve technique. The idea is to never hit failure, always leaving a rep or two in the hole. Try 10x4, 8x5, 5x8, or 4x10, whatever works to get the job done with solid form.

Do 1 Chin-Up to Match Your 5RM Bench Press

Every lifter benefits from adding chin-ups to his workout. (By “chin-up” I mean palms facing you using a supinated grip.) This leads to better muscular and strength balance. And while the lats still aid in internal rotation, chin-ups do a great job of teaching lifters to keep the shoulder blades retracted rather than rounded, while also firing the traps and rhomboids.

This test gives you what you want most: jacked biceps and lats. It also gives you what you need most: more upper body pulling volume to counteract years of unbalanced training.

How to Do It: Try to perform at least one chin-up with the same resistance as your 5 rep max bench press. So, if your 5 rep bench max is 275 pounds and you weigh 185 pounds, your goal would be 1 chin-up with an extra 90 pounds on your waist. Use a weight belt to add the external weight. This external weight plus your body weight = total weight.

How to Get Better: Not there? Build strength in your chin-ups twice per week with 4 sets of 6 reps, progressively adding weight. Add inverted rows for 50 total reps into your training twice per week for improved strength, posture, and shoulder health.

Conditioning Bonus! 500-Meter Row Test

Few lifters attempt conditioning tests these days. Too many are terrified that elevating their heart rate will erase their gains. But is that the real reason? I’m calling them out and saying they just don’t want to get out of their comfort zone.

The row is the great equalizer. Unlike running or biking, few people row regularly, so baseline of efficiency is low. That makes it a great standard for testing total body endurance and mental toughness. Despite its simplicity, this test will make your legs quiver, forearms burn, and lungs scream for mercy.

How to Do It: Hop on the rower and turn the resistance all the way up. Warm up with one sprint to 100 meters, then rest about two minutes. Now the test begins. Perform one set to 500 meters as fast as possible. Your first goal is to do it in 2 minutes or less. Do it in 1:30 or less and you’re a stud.