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Push / Pull Balance in Training

Having a muscular – skeletal strength imbalance can cause injury and other complications in your performance athletically or on the job.  Here is a question from an officer seeking to improve his performance keeping balance in mind.

pullupup.jpg - 12078 Bytes“Stew, I have a question on how I should be progressing with opposing muscle group exercises. The last 3 set Dip/ Pull-up workout on the “assist” machine, my Dips increased to 8-10 per set and my Pull-ups are (stuck) at 6 per set and struggling. Should I be getting “even/equal” increases in strength and development of these "opposing" muscle groups and should I worry if I’m not?”

In a nutshell, no, I would not worry about it too much, but it is something to consider on how you tackle the next few months of your workout.  Depending on your athletic history your push muscles could be stronger than your pull muscles.  I know people who are just the opposite.  In fact, a buddy SEAL of mine who was a heavy weight crew captain could do pull-ups all day.  In fact, at 230lbs he could still do 30 pullups. However, he could not bench press his bodyweight for 1 rep.  So he had the opposite imbalance of the push / pull muscles.

Dips are likely just easier for you than pull-ups.  Typically, dip max rep sets will double pull-up max rep sets.  One thing you can try is to mix in another push exercise like pushups into the workout and you might find that the numbers are closer to even.  But you should still balance out the workout with a few more pulling exercise reps like dumbbell rows or machine pull-downs.

He continues, “Also are there inherent problems with assist machines? Is there something else I should be doing? I have tried changing up the set order pull-ups first, dips first, alternating, but see no difference.”

The assist machines like a Gravitron are great for getting in reps of pull-ups or dips when you cannot do them with 100% of your body weight.  But over time as you lose body weight and you get stronger, the ability to do non-assisted pull-ups and dips will be created.

If you think about the muscle groups you are using for both exercises you actually use your chest, triceps, and shoulders mainly for your pushing exercises (dips, pushups).  For pulling exercises like pull-ups and pull-downs it is mainly back, biceps, and some smaller rear shoulder muscles.  These have the ability to be super strong, but are usually not due to lack of work or athletic history of use.  This simple truth is – If you do not practice pull-ups, you likely will not be able to do them – especially if you are overweight.


Some ideas on working push – pull muscles together in balance is to create your workout so you complete sets or circuits that equal each other.  For instance, I like to do a push – pull – leg – ab exercise circuit with different exercises.  For instance:



1 minute of each exercise:

Set #1 – pull-downs, bench press, leg press, abs of choice

Rest with 3-4 minutes of cardio

Set #2 – pull-ups, dips, squats, abs of choice

Rest with 3-4 minutes of cardio

Set #3 – Dumbbell bench press, dumbbell rows, wood chopper squats, weighted abs of choice

Rest with 3-4 minutes of cardio

Set #4 Lightweight Shoulder Workout and MJDB#2

See links for how to do the Set #4 workouts

If you are a beginner, use an assist machine for the pull-ups and dips set and light weights for all the other exercises.  If you are

intermediate level, repeat Sets #1-4 a second time.  If you are advanced, try a 3rd round of above for a balanced workout.


Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. If you are interested in starting a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle - check out the Fitness eBook store and the
Stew Smith article archive at To contact Stew with your comments and questions, e-mail him at

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