Functional Strength: Developing the Pull-Up - ITS Tactical

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Functional Strength: Developing the Pull-Up

By Bryan Black

Pull Up

We’ve recently talked the importance of physically being able to save yourself, and one of the most important aspects to this is upper body strength and the pull-up.

Again, functional strength movements are movements the body makes naturally. Let’s talk realistically here for a second, is the guy that grunts and groans way to loudly while bench pressing 400 lbs. going to be able to climb a rope? Probably not unless he’s devoting some time to working on his functional strength.

Is that ogre going to be able to get his ass over a wall in a hurry? Again, probably not. Now don’t let size fool you because I’ve seen some pretty huge dudes able to do 20+ pull-ups. It all comes down to one thing, practice.  Yes, practice. There’s no pill, shake or other dietary crap that will help you here, despite what infomercials say. Having good functional upper body strength is what’s going to help pull you out of harms way. The bench press is dead to me.

Before I go any further, I’ve been doing pull-ups now for a very long time and have a lot of time invested into technique and mastering the pull-up. When I started though, I couldn’t do one. Now on a good day I can hit around 24, but there was a time when I could do 30. I say that because it’s all about repetition and practice, your numbers will be directly proportional to your time spent training.

Mine have decreased because of the frequency I do pull-ups now. I’m not actively training for a program or a standard that i’m trying to meet, so for me right now its about maintenance. This article though will give you some good techniques to develop your pull-up whether your goal is good functional strength, or to crush the next Military Fitness Test.

Proper Technique

When we’re talking about pull-ups in this article, we’re talking about grabbing the bar with your palms facing out, thumbs next to your index fingers, arms shoulder width apart, starting from a dead-hang position (arms fully locked out) and pulling yourself up until your chin is over the bar. Coming back to a dead-hang before starting the next rep is also proper form.

You should always focus on looking up at the bar to help lift your chin over the bar and to also help to activate your shoulders. Active shoulders start from the beginning of the movement and the video below will help you understand what active shoulders means. The video also explains how your elbows tuck behind your body helping to open your chest and propel you further up and over the bar.

Let’s deviate for a second and I’ll explain what a pull-up is not. A pull-up is not done by bending your legs while hanging and using momentum to carry you over the bar. A pull-up is not using a swinging motion to propel you over the bar. A proper pull-up is not done by kipping, despite what CrossFit says.

I’m a CrossFit Certified Level 1 Instructor, and you’ll never hear me say that a kipping pull-up counts. Yes, after getting out of the service I was naive enough to try to implement them, but quickly dismissed them as a real pull-up. If you know anything about some of the ridiculous times that people claim to do workouts like “Fran” in, go watch the YouTube videos of what their pull-ups look like.

Here’s a demonstration video I put together for this article:


If you’re starting with nothing, can’t do one pull-up, think you’re too overweight to try, think again. It’s never too late to start developing functional strength because your body is already making these movements, you just have to build on them. Having a ton of extra weight around is never a good thing, and obviously you’re going to be working harder than you should.

For starters, you can do negatives, negatives will help your arms get used to supporting the weight of your body. To do a negative, stand on something or get a friend’s help to get your chin over the bar. Once you’re holding that position, slowly lower yourself down until you’re in the the dead-hang position. It’s important that you not come down to quickly either, shoot for about 5 or 6 seconds.

If this is all you can physically tackle, then stick with negatives. If you’re not able to last 5-6 seconds coming down, let that be your goal. You have to set small goals for yourself, and building on those is what’s important.

You should be working on pull-ups at least 3 times a week, and it’s important to give your muscles time to recover between pull-up days. For negative workouts, again you’re building so start small. Go for two sets of 10 three times a week.

Assisted Pull-Ups

No, I’m not talking about that pull-up machine in the gym or lat pulldowns. Neither of these will replicate the natural movement and balance your body has to have while doing a pull-up. The assisted pull-ups best for replicating the true pull-up form are either a friend pressing-up/holding the toes of your feet, or finding a low hanging-bar and pulling yourself up.

There are also big rubberbands that can be girth hitched onto a bar and you can stick your feet in to assist you. Again, I’m not a fan of these because they are a crutch and not letting the body balance on its own.

When a buddy holding your feet there’s still a pivot point where some balance is lost, but not the same as with the other assisted methods. It’s important that while I say “holding your feet,” your buddy really isn’t holding your feet. Really they’re just providing a surface to give you some lift from and not trying to grasp and stabilize your feet.

The low-hanging bar can be anything 3 to 4 feet above the ground that you grab and lift yourself up to. It’s important here to bend your legs behind you and pivot off your toes as you come up, not press off your toes. The assist comes from the decreased height, not the lift from your feet.


PyramidOnce you’re able to successfully complete a pull-up, it’s time to really start increasing your numbers. There are a few workouts I’ve always followed that have helped me along the way.

A pyramid workout is very simple, yet powerful. If you look at the diagram to the right you’ll see a series of numbers increasing up the left side of the pyramid and decreasing down the right side of the pyramid. These are the repetition numbers. So in the case of this pyramid workout, you’d do 1 pull-up, rest, 2 pull-ups, rest, 3 pull-ups, rest, etc. When you reach the top, you start falling back down the pyramid with 4, 3, 2 and then back to 1 pull-up.

A good rest period to start out with is 1 minute to 1:30. The pyramids can be as easy or complex as you’d like, and just to give you an idea, I typically do a 1-10-10-1 pyramid or 2-4-6-8-10-10-8-6-4-2 repeating 10 at the top.

Obviously again the importance here lies with building. Don’t put your max rep number at the top of the pyramid, you’ll never make it up and down. By the time you’ve done a complete cycle of the 1-10-10-1 pyramid, you’ve knocked out 110 pull-ups. Not too shabby for a pull-up workout. It takes time to get there though, so don’t get discouraged.

Different Grips

GripPositionsA second workout I do is almost like a mini pyramid but using the five different kinds of pull-up grips. These are regular, reverse (chin-up), close, wide and commando (or mountain climbers).

Using a 2-4-6-8 pattern, you do that for each of the five grips. So regular 2-4-6-8 then once finished with regular grip, you move on to reverse grip and do 2-4-6-8, etc. This workout also gives you 100 pull-ups total, but can be scaled up or down very easily. Simple doing a 2-4 with each of the five grips is a great way to start.

Lately I’ve been sticking with the 2-4-6-8, but can be bumped to 2-4-6-8-10 or 2-4-6-8-12 if you’re feeling frisky.


I definitely can’t take credit for designing these workouts. They were first shown to me by Stew Smith’s 12-Weeks to BUD/s book which I used to follow religiously. These are great foundational programs for increasing your pull-ups and I’ve had a lot of success with them over the years.

I also want to mention that these workouts are not just for guys, women can also show tremendous gains using these workouts and not worry about looking like the cover of muscle magazine. Functional strength is for everyone and should not be overlooked in planning your fitness goals.

How do you guys implement functional strength training? Do you have a favorite pull-up workout?

Click here to view the photo set on Flickr.

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  • Jesse

    In my mind kipping should be trained as well as dead hang pull ups. The kipping pull up makes you able to move your body more efficiently. Have you ever seen a guy try to kip that has never done a kipping pull up? It’s pretty ugly and kind of scary. How is that going to help him when his life is on the line and he’s dead tired? I’m just looking at it from my point of view. Not trying to defend CrossFit, just defending the need to train both ways.

    • Alchemyguy

      You should watch me try to kip; it’s an awful, flailing thing. 2 months into regularly doing Crossfit and I’m finally getting the swing (you see what I did there?) of doing them. I personally believe they’re cheating, but you’re right; if you need to get over something, there is no cheating. Now, if only I could do double unders…

  • Lasse B

    Any safety tips on mounting a bar in the garage (wooden beams)?

    • Mike

      If you’re wanting to hang from overhead beams, one thing I would say is to not use lag bolts as the video at the link below seems to suggest. I trust lags a lot more in shear than in tension. If you would give a little more info I (and I’m sure others) could help out more.

  • Jesse

    I have one of these and it’s super solid.

  • theblackknight

    We do multi grip pull ups everyday.

    Nothing like this tho

    Good article

  • Buck Hempel

    Good article and video. The “20 plull-up Challenge” is a good program for all, but especially beginners: It will take you through a 6 week program to get to 20 pull-ups (longer for some)

  • One thing I tell people that are new to the pull-up, or that are struggling with them is to change their hand spacing. Personally, I recommend they figure out the specific spacing by holding their arms out straight to the side, and then bending at the elbow so that the hand it now straight up. Looks like this =>|_o_|

    The distance for their hands there is what I have them use on the bar. Two reasons I say this. First, closer grip is harder, so they can work up to that. Second, at the top of the pull-up, this seems to be the most naturally aligned position, and allows them to utilize their back and lats in the pull. If you look at the motion of the pull-up on a grip that is anything closer than that spacing, once the upper arm gets parallel to the ground, you begin to exclude the back, and add a lot of additional work to the biceps and lats.


    Good article. I do pullups nearly every day, and am a firm believer in them and their benefits. It’s refreshing to see that this site’s administrators and some of it’s followers focus on survivalist techniques as well as exercise. Both are key. There are too many “survivalist” websites (in quotations because many are simply wannabe-type) that are full of fatties who focus on fancy gear and nothing else. They will be SOL when the sh** hits the fan. Glad to see some like minded individuals on this site. Keep it up.

  • I am drawing from memory here but I believe that The Bodybuilding Encyclopedia’s (the definitive text for meat heads) intermediate chest/back workout includes 50 pull ups.

    Moral of the story is pull ups are important even if you are going for bulk.

    Lat pull is a good place sympathetic exercise if you can’t do a pull up or want to progress.

  • Jasper Pettit

    I have a bit of a desk job, but one of the things I like to do has been pretty good for my upper body. (If I had a camera I’d use it now) When I’m the only one in the room, I sit on my desk. Putting my hands on the edge of the desk (gripping the edge; knuckles towards chair). I put my feet on the chair, and support my weight on my arms. Putting my torso ahead of my arms, I dip down as far as possible (to the shoulder blades) and come back up to my starting position. Repeat. 🙂

  • Failure Drill

    Dude did you go to BUDS?
    No kipping was one way to tell a sailor for a marine when i was in.

  • dougr

    I like to switch through each of the 5 grips each rep without coming off the bar. (i.e. 1 regular, 1 wide, 1 close, 1 chin, 1 mountain, repeat to your ability.) Somehow it seems to work a lot of the core, hands, etc. as well as what you get with each type of pull-up.

  • jono

    Great writeup! I am currently in the service in a Signal unit and am constantly preaching about the power of the pull-up. It bothers me to no end when we have fitness programs put together with no pull-ups. To me its the foundation of upper body strength. I don’t kip personally, it strains my shoulders on the down swing, but it can be helpful to develop a beginners muscle.

  • 5Solas

    I’m a huge fan of the pullup and functional strength; I train with pyramids like you and they have taken me from barely 7 to over 15 in about 4 weeks. Overall, my take on physical fitness is that it needs to have a purpose…pulling, pushing, high-impact and resistance all have a place in that they prepare your body physically for the real world and the challenges contained in it. I don’t have one but I’m purchasing it as soon as I finish this deployment as it seems to really fit the bill.

  • Graham Monteith

    Hey man this is just a follow up on the “building the pull up bar” I would love for you to post on how you built that. Looks like you did a really good job on it. Right now I only have an IronGym and that limits me to only a certain amount of pull up styles. Thanks


  • You might be interested in a book called Never Gymless by Ross Enamait. It’s geared toward combat athletics like boxing and MMA. The idea is functional strength via various bodyweight exercises, negating the need for gym memberships and fancy equipment. It’s helped me over the past couple years.

    • Matt

      Big thumbs up for Ross’ stuff. It’s definitely worth visiting his site as there’s a lot of very good stuff there.

  • Skuzzy G

    Another way to “up” your pull ups.
    Go to wal-mart or another retail store and buy the $20 door frame pull up bar.

    Mount it above your bathroom… every time you (go in) to take a dump, piss, shower, or vomit from the wild party last night… you do 5, 8, 10, 12, 15 pull ups… every time you (leave) you do another set.

    Before you know it you will be doing 48-60 pull ups a day. Granted its not all at one time… but it will help your body quickly train those muscles to know how they need to be used. Then when you return to the gym and are able to utilize a better set of bars and or handle arrangements do other sets on top of your bathroom sets. I watched my pull ups grow tremendously quick just from the fact that I was doing them every day all throughout the day.

    — Skuzzy G

  • Zane Chelsen

    Great article, I just wanted to throw some of my own experiences in here.
    My brother and I have been training full time for BUDs for a little over 8 months now. When I started out I was maxing at 5-6 dead hangs. In order to get past that sticking point I was doing 50-60 a day, 3 days a week. My max started raising by 1-2 every week until i hit my next sticking point, 20 reps. To get past 20 I began adding weight, ranging from 10-40lb dumbbells hung between my knees. I’m currently maxing at 32 weightless and 20 with a 40lb vest on. Some other techniques I used to better my pull-ups were pulling up to my chest instead of my chin, negatives, switching grips, and dropping to one arm to shake out and regain some strength. Hope some of this helps. Good luck.

  • Matt

    Here’s another workout:

  • Charlie G

    I’m 17 years old and from Britain. I’m currently getting fit in order to join the Royal Marines but need to get my pull ups sorted. I’m trying to find a chin up bar for the exterior of my house but I can only ever find indoor bars or really expensive outdoor ones. Being a student I don’t have a lot of money but I need to work on my pull ups too.

    Any advice or helpful links will be greatly apreciated.
    Many Thanks

    P.s. Love the website, it’s both useful and fascinating

  • When I worked out with STPT here in Richmond, Va, we used two methods to spot during pull ups. After you got beyond needing the foot spot you describe, we could always get one more rep for our buddy by giving a slight push up between the shoulder blades to help get his chin over the bar. Pretty soon, you didn’t need that spot to get one extra in.

    The door jamb bar is great. Just keep it free of hanging clothes.

    I’ve got a bit of a shoulder injury now, any ideas how to work around that? Just the right shoulder.

  • Dunce Cap Aficionado

    Thanksf or the awesome webstie.

    Started out not being able to do a single pull up and made the tiniest of progress on a gravitron machine.

    Then I stumbled across some info that suggested doing 10 sets of 1 rep. First time I did it it was challenging and got progressively easier. Then suggested doing 10 sets of 2 reps… so on so forth.

    I can do about 6 pull ups (at this moment the 6th one would probably be pretty ugly) and I’m going to try your pyramid style sets (with small numbers) to try to get that number up because I’m running a Touch Mudder in May.

  • PaulPacheco

    If the goal is to physically save yourself,  then how you get up there does not really matter does it?   In fact,  if the goal is to save yourself,  it would be very handy to learn to pull yourself up in the most efficient (least effort) way possible, thus learning to do kipping pull ups makes total sense to me.

    Also,  note that kipping pullups are not easy at all.  It takes months of practice to master them.  It is more about technique than strength.   If you don’t learn to do them ahead of time,  when the day comes when you need to do a muscle up to escape from that lion,  you will be in trouble.

    That said,  dead hang pull ups are awesome too, you don’t learn as much technique, but you get stronger, so I practice both.

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