Worrying about your pullups? Can’t do too many? In the DEP and stressing about the pullup portion of the USMC IST?

 I was the same way and was oh so very bad at pullups. But I did find a way to increase my pullups after several attempts to increase them. Trust me I know exactly what you are going through if you are stressing out about pullups. I tried many different ways to try increase my pullups and most didn’t work. Actually, only one way worked. I will tell you what ways I tried to increase my pullups, and which actually worked.

Different Ways I Tried

So, a little info before so you can understand the pullup situation, I was in. So, I started out doing zero, yep zero, pullups. I also did not improve my pullups for a long time, but it was not for a lack of trying. For the first three months I was in the DEP, I kept getting a big zero written out on the back of my hand when my DEP would do the IST. Was it embarrassing? Yes, yes it was. But I will also tell you I did end up leaving the for bootcamp doing 17 pullups. Which is a big freaking difference from not even passing the Marine physical requirements to almost having a perfect score. This was back when the max score on pullups was 20.

First Plan to Increase Pullups

My first idea to increase my pullups was simply going to the DEP workouts. I don’t know how your DEP worked but at mine, the recruiters conducted PT 3 times a week Monday-Wednesday at 5. So, when I found out I needed to work on my pullups my plan to improve was simple. Go to the DEP workouts, don’t mess around, work hard, and my pullups will increase. Yeah if you were to guess if this helped, it did not. At least not for me. I honestly felt embarrassed because I was that one poolee who went to mostly all the DEP workouts and usually did well during the DEP workouts. I was pretty fit, but I just couldn’t do pullups. (To be fair, I was never strong to begin with) So this method did not work for me. Small note- the DEP workout did help get more fit, but I just struggled personally with pullups more than most.

Second Plan to Increase Pullups

So, after about two months of just going to the DEP workouts I had to do something different to help my pullups. So, my next idea was, “oh I will just do a lot of pushups, and my pullups will go up since they are both bodyweight exercises”. I thought it was a logical solution. So, I was doing pushups usually at night and was still going to the DEP workouts.

Yeah this didn’t work for me either. I’m not kidding I may increase to doing 1 pullup, but it was barely a pullup.

Third Plan

At this point I will admit I hated pullups and I even hated even going on a pullup bar. I really did. My pushup idea was not working out either so I figured I should try something else. My next idea was assisted pullups. At the time I had a gym membership and there is a machine where you can do assisted pullups. I did this for around 4-6 weeks. But I was using this machine to help me increase my pullups. This helped a little bit, but not much. I believe I finally got to 2 pullups. But at this point I was still was failing the IST. Was I discouraged…yep. Embarrassed….yep. I frequently went to the DEP workouts and would usually be second in the 1.5 mile run, but still would fail this portion of the IST. So, I was very embarrassed.

Fourth Plan That Worked

At this point a couple months had passed since I first DEP’d in. I had just graduated high school and was still failing the IST. My ship date was around five months from graduating high school and I was still struggling with pullups.

After summer the recruiters at the recruiting station told the poolees that we could come in the morning to workout for the recent high school graduates. They were also having the evening PT’s too. I was not going to school since I graduated, and I decided to go to the morning workouts too plus the time was ticking for me and I needed to pass my IST.

The morning workouts were just pyramid pullups with 15 pushups in between. The way we started was we do 1 pullup, 15 pushups, then do 2 pullups, 15 pushups until we got to 5. Then go back down with 15 pushups in between. So, once we hit 5 and did the 15 pullups, do 4 pullups the 15 pushups, going down until 0.

Right off the bat I hated this workout. Because well I could not do pullups, I mean I could barely do 2 pullups. The way I completed this workout and mostly everyone was the person behind waiting to do pullups would spot you. By spotting a buddy would pretty much place their hand on your back and help you up. This was the only way I could do this workout. I will admit I was kind of embarrassed because there was usually only 3 other poolees at this DEP workout and I always needed someone to spot me.

The next day I came again to the morning DEP workout and this time we were to do the same thing, pyramid pullups. But this time we had to go up to 6. Same thing happened. I needed a spotter most of the time.

Third day same thing, except we were to again increase by one. So, we would do pyramid pullups going to 7. So, Monday through Wednesday I would do this for I don’t know how long. I will admit I did miss some workouts because it was a bit hard for me, but I did end up continuing doing the morning PT’s.

I eventually and proudly do pyramid pullups going up to 10 with 15 pushups in between all by myself, with no help from a spotter. Yeah that is right. I was even impressed with myself when I did this.

So How Did I Do Pyramid Pullups

Let me tell you it was not easy. And I did so many pullups I actually popped a callus (might have been a weird blister) on the pullup bar. Gross? Kind of, was I proud though…yes. So what I am basically saying was that it was not easy.

I caught on pretty quick on what the morning DEP workouts we going to be. Which were just pyramid pullups. I decided to keep going to them even when I did feel embarrassed that I always needed a spotter. So I pretty much left my ego and pride freaking somewhere. Where? I don’t know.  

However, what I also did to try to help my pullups was this workout program: USMC

Twenty Pullups in 6 Weeks

This program does not cost anything, and I think it really helped. Trust me I was a recent high school grad so I couldn’t pay for anything. It’s also easy to do and it helped me get results. Also at the time the max pullups that were needed was 20, so I thought this was perfect. It was almost like a sign, haha.

I did the initial test, bought a pullup bar from Walmart and did this program.

The combination of the pyramid pullups and this program helped me to eventually get to 17 pullups before heading to bootcamp.

My Tip To Get Better At Pullups and Pass the USMC IST

To get better at pullups, you will simply have to do pullups. Get on the bar and do them. If you need someone to spot you do that.

All of the other ways I tried to help with pullups didn’t work. What helped was when I got on the bar and tried to do it myself.

I really do believe this would work for anyone. If you have a buddy I would recommend to spot each other on pullups similar to the way I did. If you don’t have a buddy or want to do more. I would suggest doing the 20 pullup program in 6 weeks.

Also this is how I thought about pullups once I could do 6. Once I was able to do 6 pullups I realized it was all mental. For example, when I was able to max out on pullups at 6. I thought’ “Huh, I am pretty sure I can do just 1 more next time, it’s just one more”. So that’s the way I thought. Like just give me time and a bit more training and I can get to 7. Then with continuing with my training and I ended up leaving the DEP doing 17 pullups.

Other links about USMC IST on Enlisted To EAS: Joining the Military After High School and USMC IST – Running

USMC IST Pullups
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Physical Standards Running

3 Miles
Males                                                              Females
Maximum – 18 Minutes                  Maximum – 21 Minutes
Minimum – 27:40 Minutes              Minimum – 30:50 Minutes
are the PFT standards for both males and females with the maximum and minimums


When you decide to join the Marines you will be put in the DEP (Delayed Entry Program). Once you are in the DEP you will do the IST (Initial Strength Test) during your poolee functions and throughout your time in the DEP until you ship to bootcamp. Usually your recruiters will test you and everyone else in the DEP once a month during a poolee function. The only difference between the IST and the PFT (Physical Fitness Test) is just the running portion. In the PFT you will run 3 miles and in the IST you will only run 1.5 miles. So, throughout your time in the DEP and when you first go to Bootcamp you will only be tested by IST standards.

Don’t worry if you are not in shape from the beginning. Recruiters understand this and are there to get your ready for boot camp. I failed my IST for the first 6 months of when I was in the DEP, as I couldn’t do more than 1 pullup, yes 1 pullup, haha.

Side note- You will finally do a PFT later in bootcamp but keep the PFT in mind. Since you are reading this I assume you are trying to do more than just the minimum so understand that you will be tested for the PFT.

If you struggle with the running portion, I do have some tips in running faster. I will admit this was the one portion of the PFT that I didn’t struggle with. I was pretty decent in being able to run somewhat fast for a while, it is probably my only physical ability that could be considered a gift. I did very bad on the pullups and on the crunches for months in the DEP until I got better and figured it out. (Later posts I will explain those).

If you have trouble running just be honest with yourself and understand you just need to work on it. To get faster I would do and did wind sprints.

Wind Sprints

Wind Sprints: Just running at an increased pace compared to your normal pace for 20-60 seconds, then returning to your normal pace. Do this repeatedly during a run.

You don’t need to run your max speed to get faster all the time, just an increased pace, faster than your normal pace for the 20-60 seconds. I would sometimes run full speed just to make it harder for myself, but don’t do it every time unless you feel really motivated that day. The key here is progression and if you are going to exhaust yourself where you don’t consistently go for runs then doing this would not benefit you. Then return to your normal pace and do it throughout your run. So, I would do this either with a watch, but really, I would just run around my neighborhood and increase my pace by two different points. Like, this tree and that tree or I will run faster at that house until that other house. Keep it simple. This is the best way I found to get faster.

Sprints work well too, but I just never really liked to do sprints. Sprints are hard let’s be honest. Wind sprints incorporate sprints obviously but really doing sprints is what will make you faster. In my DEP workouts we would usually do suicides (if you have done sports you will know what they are), and this would be a good time to work on getting faster.  


But remember, as this is important, focus on progress. Progression is what matters. You will not just start hitting max times or being the best runner after a couple of runs. It does take time and just focus on progression. With progress you can start seeing improvements. This is the best advice I would give is to focus on progress and adjust if you are not getting results. This is how I went from 0-1 pullups in my first 6 months of being in the DEP to doing 17 pullups once I left for boot camp. Lots of adjusting of the types of workouts and exercises I would do.

Feel free to comment below on anything and if you want to ask any questions. These are the USMC IST/PFT Running tips that will help with speed. Also if you want to subscribe to get emails when I knew posts go up, go down to this page and subscribe!

Marine Running IST PFT
* By the way Officers for some reason that is probably logical, like they run a lot in their bootcamp, are usually really better runners. If I had to bet on who was faster between an officer and an enlisted… I pick the officer and I dont like officer just on principle. 🙂
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