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Female fitness experts offer PFT training tips

Dec. 15, 2012 - 10:08AM   |   Last Updated: Dec. 15, 2012 - 10:08AM  |  
Sgt. Amanda McGhee, an intelligence specialist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., can do twenty pullups. She said the change to the female physical fitness test is overdue.
Sgt. Amanda McGhee, an intelligence specialist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., can do twenty pullups. She said the change to the female physical fitness test is overdue. (COURTESY OF AMANDA MCGHEE)
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Pauline Nordin ()

A plan to get there

To help Marines boost their upper-body strength and meet the service’s pullup requirements, the Marine Corps has set up a website that provides workout plans designed for women and men in the beginning, advanced and sustainment stages of pullup training. Here’s a typical day’s work for each of those stages:
Initial program (six weeks)

Exercise sessions should be done three times a week. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets.
Exercise       Reps       Sets
Weighted pushups       12-15       3-4
Single arm row       12-15       3-4
Front plate raise       12-15       3-4
Three way planks (seconds)       30       2-3       
Advanced program (six weeks)
Exercise sessions should be done three times a week. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets.
Exercise       Reps       Sets
Pullups (assisted)       12-15       4
Jumping pullups       50       3
Bent over row       12-15       4
Bench press       12-15       4
Pushups       20       4
Tabata-Burpees        20sec/10 rest       8
Sustainment program (four weeks)
Exercise sessions should be done five times a week. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets.
Exercise       Reps       Sets
Kipping pullups       15-20       3
Bench press       8-10       3
Sprints       30 seconds       10
For many more workout plans, and detailed descriptions of the exercises, click here.


Intimidated by pullups? Don't be. When the Marine Corps announced a change in the female Physical Fitness Test from the flexed-arm hang to pullups on Nov. 27, plenty of Marine women wondered how they would fare in the new system. Once it takes full effect in 2014, women will have to complete three pullups to pass and eight to achieve a perfect score.

Some women could rip off 20 pullups right now, the maximum required of male Marines on the PFT. But many more will need to do some work.

Now, we know what you're thinking: The buff, biceps-flexing fitness gurus on these pages make pullups look easy.

That's why Marine Corps Times reached out to Pauline Nordin, an internationally recognized fitness model and entrepreneur, and Marine Sgt. Amanda McGhee, a fitness enthusiast, for tips on building upper body strength. And their suggestions apply to men and women looking to max out their PFT scores.

Nordin, a former bodybuilder, is a native of Sweden and now lives in Los Angeles. She runs the fitness website, which sells nutrition e-books, supplements and a wide range of body-shaping DVDs, including "The Butt Bible," from her popular series on Exercise TV, the former cable and satellite channel for workout videos.

McGhee, an intelligence specialist with 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing out of Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C., was the female Marine winner in the 2010 Military Contest on

McGhee, who has always been athletic, said she can do 20 pullups now and thinks the change to the female PFT is long overdue.

Nordin doesn't keep track of consecutive pullups, but instead incorporates continuous sets into her interval training. She said she also likes to practice negative repetitions, starting above the bar and lowering herself down with a 45-pound plate to build more muscle.

Both women say good nutrition, proper training and confidence are essential for pullup success.

During the yearlong first phase of the crossover, which begins in January, women will work with their units on building upper-body strength. The men will be working right along with them these changes will impact unit training and promotions for all Marines, not just women.

But it is important to start now.

"Marines have a whole year. That's a lot of time and a lot of training," McGhee said.

Getting to where they need to be will take time, dedication and patience, Nordin and McGhee said, adding that training too hard, too soon, can lead to injuries.

By following these tips, Marines can be pullup-ready by 2014:

Be confident. "You have to have the right mental attitude," McGhee said. "You're setting yourself up for failure if you're automatically saying you can't do [pullups]. You've got to change your thought process. Be confident in everything you do. That will help you with your PFT, but also in general."

Eat well. The heavier you are, the harder it is to do pullups, said the 5-foot-2, 121-pound Nordin. She encourages women to get lean and said the easiest way to drop weight is to cut out grains and starches.

"No pasta, potatoes or bread. Just eat a lot of vegetables and lean protein. You can shed a lot of weight that way," Nordin said.

But for McGhee, who still eats whole grains, eating lean meats helps her stay trim and satisfies her appetite.

"I stay away from eating fried food. It's about a change in lifestyle," she said.

Train your upper body. Nordin said it's important to strengthen all the muscles in the back, not just the biceps, when it comes to pullups.

"Everything needs to be strong in order to do pullups because it's not just an arm and back exercise."

Pullups can be difficult for women who are muscular in their lower body, Nordin said. Making the lift up to the pullup bar can be a daunting task if the lower body outweighs the upper body.

Women should focus on exercises that target the back of their shoulders and rotator cuffs, she said. Working on the smaller muscles, said Nordin, is key to preventing injury and helps keep the entire shoulder joint strong.

Train your forearms. It's not uncommon to feel pain near the inside of the elbow if you start off too fast, Nordin said. To avoid injuries, which can set back training, she suggests training the muscles found on the outside of the arms.

"You can do that [by] doing reverse grip barbell curls. Take an overhand grip and curl the bar. That's really good for the forearms, and if you keep [them] strong, you won't get that pain," Nordin said.

Beat your best. "I'm always competing against myself," McGhee said. "I always try to beat my best instead of just going with whatever the standard is."

Although she acknowledges inherent strength differences between men and women, and realizes that the three pullups required to pass the PFT will be a challenge for many Marines, she believes women should train to meet the max, not the minimum.

"Marines are the best. We're a step above, and you've got to see yourself that way," McGhee said.

Get an assist. Nordin and McGhee recommend using an assisted pullup machine to build upper body strength.

"Let's say you weigh 140 pounds," said Nordin. "Start with taking half [the weight] off and then you take off one plate every week in order to get stronger."

As you begin to build strength, switching to a low pullup bar can be helpful, Nordin said. She encourages beginners to use a low hanging bar so their feet can still touch the ground.

"You just assist yourself up a little by jumping and then slowly release yourself down," she said.

Use a chair. Nordin said performing the pullup motion in reverse, or coming down slowly once you're at the top of the bar, helps build strength. She recommends standing on a chair under the pullup bar so the body begins in the pullup position, then slowly releasing down into a dead hang. The slow, controlled release can help boost an individual's strength by 30 to 40 percent, Nordin said.

Be patient. Nordin and McGhee didn't get ripped overnight. Nordin works out 12 hours a week, including six hours of weightlifting. McGhee said it took her several years to work her way up from eight pullups out of boot camp to 20.

"It's not easy," McGhee said. She has made fitness a priority, lifting weights and doing cardio six days a week.

"[Marines] can't depend on someone to get them into the gym," she said. "They've got to want it for themselves. You have to push yourself."

Nordin echoed that belief.

"Nobody is born strong. We become strong by putting ourselves through consistent, constant work toward our goal," she said.

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