The Truth About Kipping Pull-ups - The Barbell Physio
 

The Truth About Kipping Pull-ups

The Truth About Kipping Pullups

The Truth About Kipping Pull-ups

Kipping pull-ups are among the most controversial exercises in CrossFit and other extreme fitness workout programs. Non-CrossFitters bash the movement as being a non-functional, injury-causing movement that allows CrossFit athletes to cheat.

On the other hand, many CrossFit coaches and athletes ignore the pull-up and kipping pull-up recommendations and prescriptions laid out by the educational departments of CrossFit headquarters.

I’m constantly asked about the safety of kipping pull-ups. So let’s break the movement down, analyze the arguments for and against its use, and outline some best-practices for kipping Pull-ups.

 

What Is A Kipping Pull-Up?

According to CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, the kipping pull-up is a full-body movement that increases the demands on coordination and agility compared to a strict pull-up.

In his CrossFit Journal article, Glassman states that whether strict or kipping, every pull-up requires the same amount of mechanical work (Work = Force x distance). Performing the kip allows for each repetition to be done faster, and more work done in less time leads to higher power outputs (Power = Work / Time).

“In a pull-up intensive CrossFit workout such as Fran or Helen, strict pull-ups would substantially increase the time to completion. We’d be doing the same amount of work in more time. The same amount of work in more time is a reduction in average power. Power is intensity. We’d have reduced the intensity of the workout.” – Glassman

Based on his analysis, many proponents of kipping Pull-ups will argue that for metabolic conditioning workouts, the kipping pull-up is a better option.

Perhaps more importantly, kipping pull-ups are a requirement to succeed in the sport of CrossFit for those being competitive. But outside of CrossFit, the kipping pull-up is not necessary.

Kipping pullups are not only useful for speed in CrossFit, but are a great building block to higher-level skills. To be successful in the kip, an athlete must understand and execute the arch and hollow movement. These two shapes are important in creating tension, strength, and form that translate to the kipping muscle-up and the bar muscle-up. Without the knowledge of a strong kip swing, plus the strength of strict pull-ups, your foundation may not be sound enough to develop higher-level skills properly and safely.

 

What Are Kipping Pull-Ups NOT?

The follow-up questions to what kipping Pull-ups ARE has to be what they are NOT.

CrossFit Headquarters will tell you that kipping Pull-ups are NOT a substitution for developing strict pull-up strength. The HQ stance is that athletes should develop strict pull-up strength and control before learning to do kipping pull-ups. The rationale for this being that they want athletes to have the eccentric control needed to protect the passive soft tissue structures of the shoulder. During pull-up descent large amounts of force are generated. And we need strict strength to control them.

Any good coach wants an athlete to have good bodyweight squat mechanics before adding extra resistance. And CrossFit HQ wants the same to happen with kipping.

You’ll also hear it stated that even after an athlete can do a few strict pull-ups, they should still work on increasing strict pull-up strength.

These are two closely related skills, but we must recognize that they are different, and if you are a CrossFitter, you should develop BOTH skills.

When we recognize this as a separate skill, we can then understand that this is NOT a CHEATING PULL-UP as many call it. Rather simply a way to use full-body motion to perform more work in less time. This is similar to how a push press allows athletes to lift more weight from their shoulder to overhead than is possible with strict overhead presses.

Are Kipping Pull-Ups Uncontrolled?

In response to the argument that kipping pullups are an uncontrolled movement when performed with proper technique, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Jeff Tucker, subject matter expert on gymnastics for CrossFit, further discusses the control aspect in this video.

Important note: CrossFit gyms run as very unsupervised entities. Just like with every NSCA or ACSM certified trainer having different levels of skill and knowledge, CrossFit gyms vary widely in their following of the above CrossFit HQ recommendations. Some CrossFit gyms will not emphasize control and proper progressions to developing pull-ups. Just like some strength & conditioning coaches teach horrible technique with a variety of other exercises.

View this post on Instagram

| ALL THE PULL-UPS | ——————————- ▪️Although I only butterfly pull-up in wods – I try to always work in kipping bc they use different muscle groups, use arch to hollow in a different way & require a different cadence of swing. ——————————- 🔺4 max sets of: ✔️kipping – 1 pull-up +1 CTB ✔️butterfly – 1 pull-up +1 CTB ——————————- 🤸‍♂️@reebok 🙌🏼grips @wodndone———————————————————————— ✔️Too difficult? Need better strength? Scaling options? 🔺Join me & @thebarbellphysio 4x/week as we guide you through amazing prehab/strengthening drills. link in bio 🔺Check out @cfgymnastics & training.crossfit.com/gymnastics to join a weekend course! ———————————————————————— #cfgcoach #cfgymnastics #mastersgamesathlete #crossfitgames #crossfit #crossfittraining #reebok #wodndone #gymnasty #gymgypsyjournal #fleoshorts #risingcrossfit #reebok #pamelagnon

A post shared by pamelagnon (@pamelagnon) on

 

Are Kipping Pull-ups Safe?

The biggest argument against kipping pull-ups outside of the argument that they are cheating is that kipping pull-ups are inherently unsafe and cause numerous injuries.

This one I get and think we must seriously consider.

If you search the interwebs for videos of kipping pull-ups, you are sure to see some uncoordinated flailing around performed by athletes who don’t have control of their kipping pull-ups. Because of their lack of control, they are surely placing unnecessary stress on their shoulder structures.

But we can also find a million examples of uncontrolled squats with heavy weights performed throughout the fitness world, and we aren’t throwing squats outs due to the poor form demonstrated by a few individuals.

When properly coached, performed, and progressed to following the recommendations we’ll discuss below it is my opinion that kipping pull-ups do not pose any more significant health risk outside that which we see with any other movement progressions where we increase the dynamic nature of the movement.

For example, running injury rates are very high and would be a more dangerous exercise form than walking, yet we don’t hear the entire fitness work arguing against running.

CrossFit Injury Data

But unfortunately, we don’t have any proper research on the kipping pull-up. We do, however have a few studies that have looked at CrossFit injury rates as a whole. They determined that it is no more dangerous than other recreational fitness sports such as powerlifting. And these injury rates are FAR below that of which we see with sports like running. Based on this research, claims that kipping pull-ups are “labrum destroyers” and “surgeon’s retirement funds” appear exaggerated opinions.

Research has shown the shoulder to be most frequently injured with gymnastics movements in CrossFit. Still, no studies have further broken this down to specific movements, or to determine if proper progressions were programmed in those that were injured. And considering gymnastics movements are 1/3rd of off CrossFit movements, it isn’t surprising that a large number of injuries would happen during gymnastics skills.

Let me re-emphasize this; we cannot state based on anything other than an opinion that kipping pull-ups are dangerous. BUT with almost any movement progression, going to a more dynamic or higher load may increase injury risks. For example, how often do we hear of people injuring their back during squat warm-ups? Very little. But as they get to their heavier working sets, we do get occasional injuries. It happens.

 

How Do We Properly Perform and Progress to Kipping Pull-Ups?

So if we want to do kipping pull-ups properly, we need to develop a few skills. First, strict strength to do at least one pull-up to be able to control the forces generated by the body as the athletes lower. And then continued progression of strict strength after earning your first strict pull-up should happen. Then, we need to own and control all the individual positions that make up the kipping pull-up.

For those that cannot currently do strict pull-ups, I must highly recommend our FIRST PULL-UP PROGRAM created by a Lead CrossFit Gymnastics Coach & former gymnast, Pamela Gagnon.

We also need sufficient shoulder flexion and thoracic extension mobility. I’ve written extensively about this in the past, and you can search my website for further information. For this article, I’ll share a few potential mobility movements if you need help.

Master the Positions First

Next, we want to own the hollow and arch positions while hanging from a bar and realize that the kip is a shoulder-generated movement. When the shoulders lead the kip, the musculature stays highly active and protects from the forces generated during the full movement. Pamela explains this in more detail in this video:

Here’s another great video focusing on hitting proper positions:

Once you have the basics…progress

Once those positions are controlled, athletes can begin to work on mastering the kipping pull-up. Pamela explains some of the finer points of the kipping pull-up in the following clip (taken from a full educational video on the KPU available to Performance Plus members).

 

Skipped to the end? Here’s your summary.

  • Kipping pull-ups aren’t cheating reps. When properly programmed are probably not significantly more stressful on your body.
  • But we must recognize that they are a completely different skill done for the purpose of increased work done in less time during CrossFit workouts. 
  • Kipping doesn’t replace the need to develop strict pull-up strength. 
  • Kipping pull-ups are a must if you’re a competitive CrossFit athlete.
  • If they don’t match your goals, then you don’t need to do them (just like any exercise).