by Dave Thomas
As the person in charge of programming for a gym of nearly six hundred people, I get a lot of training questions. One of the most common questions we receive in the gym from new faces at the gym is, “Can we kip?”
It’s a fair question since the CrossFit kipping pull-up is widely used in competition and is a very popular training tool for a lot people these days. Over the years, the pull-up has moved so far away from it’s traditional upbringing of strength-based pulling movement to a modern day morphing into a power and transfer movement that is often barely recognizable.
The kipping pull-up, while successful in its competitive role, is too often taught as the fundamental way to do a pull-up rather than competitive variation of it. Worse yet, it is often taught terribly and prematurely to folks who have no business doing them.
We have no desire to trash the kipping pull-up here today. Not by any means. Any comparison tends to create vitriol on both sides, making it nearly impossible to have a discussion on context of training and effectiveness. We’re gonna try, though.
With how quickly training evolves, I fear extinction for the strict pull-up. This would be a shame as it remains one of our most beneficial movements for upper body strength, and I urge more people to perform them as a measurable, frequent foundation of your program.
There are plenty of clowns on YouTube who post videos making fun of the kip with the main goal to anonymously mock from behind the safety of the internet, all while not suggesting an alternative or really even understanding them. This notion perturbs me just as much, if not more than the actual performance drawbacks of the movement. The kipping pull-up is very legitimate in the CrossFit community because it plays by the rules of “chin over bar” the bar, with the goal to complete the workout as fast as possible.
The objective is speed and intensity in a condensed time allotment, so emphasis is on getting on and off the bar as fast as possible. In a time emphasized environment you perform time emphasized movements.
But competition and “speed at all means necessary” aside? Is it a beneficial movement for training? Does it better you elsewhere? Is it the best option? Do they improve strength?
The effectiveness of a movement must always be put into context. We’ll examine all of that here today so stick around and try to have an open mind on both sides of the debate.
Here is a very quick test. Go stand up against the wall in your office with your heels, hips and head touching the wall as if you were taking a mug shot. Can you take your arms and make a snow angel up and down the wall, while keeping your elbows and wrists in contact with the wall all the way to full overhead extension?
The majority of gym goers find this difficult due to the mobility crippling cubicle life.
If you can’t do this, any motion that forces this overhead extension position is asking for shoulder or neck problems. Take that to past overhead like the kipping pull-up requires and you’re likely creating a debt on that shoulder girdle, and creditors always collect.
(Note: We refuse to find some hack job on YouTube of a kipping pull-up and paint the picture that’s how they are performed. That’s a disservice to the entire discussion, but if only most coaches and athletes taught and performed them in this manner. Here is P360 coach Caitlin performing them smooth for proper representation. Caitlin occasionally competes locally and has a requisite need for them. This is also a great time to stop and look at the shoulder demands. Caitlin is a former collegiate swimmer and has incredibly mobile shoulders that are better prepared than most novices.)
The kipping pull-up is not alone in its violation of immobile shoulders. Overhead squats, presses and snatches should all be performed only after a sustainable shoulder is developed. Folks who can perform the kip no problem are typically amateur or professional competitors. Individuals who take stretching and mobility seriously and thus have equipped themselves with shoulders mobile enough to handle the high velocity mobility demands of the kip.
This is borrowed from Dan Pope’s article, “Why Are Kipping Pull-Ups Causing Shoulder Injury and What We Can Do About It.”
“Niu and colleagues found that in the long swing movement in the still rings as the athletes swing past the bottom (lowest point) in the swing, peak forces reached 4.27 to 4.66 times bodyweight.
Cheetham and Sreden found forces at 5.1 to 7.9 times bodyweight.
A study by Caine looking at female gymnasts found that in the low swing forces were 8.5 times bodyweight.
Obviously this is a tremendous amount of force for your body to handle, especially by a joint that is known for tremendous mobility and not necessarily stability (shoulder).
Cerulli and colleagues in an article entitled, “A Biomechanical Study of Shoulder Pain in Elite Gymnasts” speculated that poor technique could lead to a SLAP lesion in the shoulder. The authors reported a critical phase when muscle activity was very low and thus stress on the shoulder joint was very high. The authors hypothesized that this coupled with large tension from the biceps tendon could be causing SLAP tears.” (1)
Now, I am not a scientist nor will I pretend to be. Pope is also willing to use the word “speculate” before assigning blame to anything. The point here is these studies are all following gymnasts, professional kipping athletes at a smaller size with greater force sensitivity and flexibility. Can 180 pound Joe from Accounting and his novice shoulder handle peak forces of four to eight times body weight?
I like to think there are no dangerous movements. Only dangerous people doing them and the thing is, the vast majority of those attempting to kip are average gym goers who are very athletically ill-equipped to do so. I come from a collegiate baseball background. Throwing is probably the worst thing you can do for your shoulder, but it’s part of the sport. Similar principle here. Baseball athletes are prepared for the rigors. So are most competitive athletes who kip. If you’re not, don’t.
The strict pull-up is performed by pulling the elbows as far down and back as possible, creating full scapular retraction on the finish with a non-violent landing that strengthens shoulder supportive musculature. The strict pull-up is a more controlled movement where the focus is not on changing planes and being explosive, but on pure vertical pulling and engagement of the extremely important lats. Any kind of pull-up can lead to sore elbows if you are tight in your lats or shoulders, but the strict pull-up is the far better movement on the shoulder joint.
Skill Transfer to Other Movements
A huge advantage of the strict pull-up is it’s raw targeting of the lat muscles. Along with the glutes, the lats may arguably be the body’s most used performance muscle. Lats are involved in everything from deadlift lockout, creating and maintaining a proper vertical barbell path on Olympic lifts, sprinting, slamming, jump propulsion, rowing and more. Strict pull-ups are like the Rocky Mountains. Pure, unfiltered source of ice cold, American lat development.
Because of the fact that tension is unbroken in the strict pull-up, it is very taxing on the grip and very developmental on grip strength (not tear-your-hands-up-grip, actual grip strength). The thumbs-under-the-bar strength required to rep out many strict pull-ups brings benefit to other pulling movements like deadlift, clean and snatch.
The claim that the kip is a power gateway to developing more athletic movements such as the clean and snatch doesn’t hold much water conceptually.
The premise is understandable, that total body control in an explosive movement is transferable to bigger, more complex movements. However, momentum, even in a coordinated, powerful fashion in no way, shape or form will equip you for power under tension like in weightlifting.
You’ll just get a lot better at continuing to kip, leading to the feeling it is “working”, but benefiting your strength it is not. A snatch is a creature all it’s own that requires the highest combination of speed, mobility, stability, force and power. It has absolutely no similarity to the minute athleticism of a kipping pull-up.
The kipping pull-up may have some carry over to your ability to generate body weight power in say, a medicine ball slam. One could argue that it could benefit other movements that have the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC) such as hang clean burst or a box jump. I don’t believe that personally, but one could argue it.
Do kipping pull-ups work your lats? Of course they do. If you are technically sound in your kip you will smoke your lats with high reps, but not nearly as much as the strict pull-up. There’s just no possible way they do, otherwise you wouldn’t be able to perform them in a CrossFit style timed, competitive workout. The question becomes, does the increase in volume allowed from the kip make up for that missed lat work on each single rep?
The power you develop will likely only transfer to being more powerful at kipping and faster at time crunched workouts.
Strength and Muscle Development
Let’s examine this from the description of a kipping pull-up from Greg Glassman via CrossFit.com:
“In its most elegant form the kip is a transference of movement first generated in the horizontal plane, where it comes cheap and easy, to the vertical plane, where momentum and a perfectly timed pull from the back launch the athlete forcefully upward…Strict pull-ups would likely reduce the fitness of CrossFitters if they were to supplant the kipping pull-up.” (2)
Cheap and easy? Launch forcefully? Horizontal plane? Perfectly timed?
I’d respectfully contend that the pull-up is not intended to be cheap and easy. It’s a vertical pull to build grip, lats and arms. As far as the statement of reducing one’s fitness, I have to assume he means speed intended for CrossFit workouts, which would be very true and obviously of high concern for CrossFit athletes. However, it will not contribute to greater strength, especially amongst high level athletes.
Stronger lats lead to more stable shoulders and better pulling strength. More stable shoulders lead to better proficiency in overhead movements like pressing, snatching, OHS, hand-stand pushups, Turkish get-ups and more. More pulling strength lends itself to better deadlifts, cleans and snatches. Strict pull-ups directly contribute to this. Kipping disengages a great portion of this through the swing.
If the goal is to be explosive or athletic, I would prefer an athlete do some light, high rep hang cleans, DB snatches, MB slams, box jumps or sprints for time.
Save the pull-up for its intention of upper body pulling strength.
What troubles me is when I see men and women come to P360 who, once we remove their kip, are kinetically clueless and muscularly unable to perform strict pull-ups (most of the time they end up quitting and returning to a place that enables their underdevelopment). It’s a near impossible habit to undue if one learned pull-ups by kipping. Because of the momentum of the kip, the force production on the arms, back and pulling muscles is greatly reduced and you eliminate the consolidated focus on the vertical pulling muscles, and in turn, a lot of potential for muscle hypertrophy.
“Kipping pull-ups and chin-ups have proven themselves to be useless as a way to strengthen the strict versions of the movement, and in the absence of enough strength to do the strict versions, they have proven to be dangerous for shoulder health. Resist the temptation to jump on any bandwagon that encourages short-term gratification at the expense of long term progress.” – Mark Rippetoe
One can rationalize the kip as a speed inclusion, but they will not contribute to broad strength abilities.
Pace & Conditioning
The kipping will complete reps faster and allow for a faster pace. It will teach some very basic coordination and athleticism. If the goal is competition, the kipping will be the inclusion and thus, you must train them. It will also leave you a bit better conditioned due to the high-speed nature. (This is not the pull-ups job and can be much better accomplished elsewhere.)
The kipping does a better job of developing the ability to maintain power over time. The question becomes, is it transferable power, or just the power to do more kipping pull-ups? I don’t know. The claim is that they do, but this is always a very empirical debate.
(By the way, if you examine Coach Caitlin’s pull-ups, she is able to maintain almost the exact same speed in both. Strict are not that much slower at a high level of strength.)
What About Butterfly?
Still the same basic premise as the kip. I actually find the butterfly to have far worse power output. You get slightly better biomechanics on the shoulder and lumbar but everything else that was said about the kip remains true of the butterfly. Advocates of it lead with it as, “useful for workouts where you have to do something fast for short duration of time”. There’s no concern for effectiveness, only speed. It has no functionality other than competition speed. You have no need to perform these unless you are an elite competitor.
Is Kipping Cheating?
The comparison of kipping pull-ups to the push press is a point that stops a lot of anti-kippers from forging onward. The argument is that the push press is to the strict press as the kipping pull-up is to the pull-up. It is a crutch a lot of pro-kippers use that I’d like to squash right now. It is not the same thing at all. The push press is assuming tension under a heavy exterior load. The push press allows you to go heavier in that load, thus improve strength. The same principle cannot be said of kipping, it is a strength regression of the pull-up, not progression. They don’t get you better at strict pull-ups and no one would argue the push press is meant for conditioning.
That said, no, the kipping pull-up is not cheating, it’s simply a different movement altogether that is intended for competition. It’s purpose is quite different than a strict pull-up, so it becomes extremely important we separate sport from training. Most gyms fail at this.
The strict pull-up is as close to a near perfect upper body strength movement as we have. It is pure vertical pulling lat development, making it the only movement of its kind aside from rock climbing (which is why rock climbers make for exceptional pull-up totals).
- Lat targeting for better performance carryover. Without strong lats we lose stability in the overhead position and our ability to adduct goes to mush. Without adduction we lose capacity in deadlifts, cleans and snatches. Strong lats lead to a better deadlift lockout, creating a proper vertical barbell path on Olympic lifts, faster sprinting, powerful rowing and more. Strict pull-ups are pure, unfiltered lat development.
- Greater force production by the arms and back. This leads to better strength gains.
- More swoleness. With the aforementioned improved force production you are able to target the muscles and tear them down.
- Better scalability. There are more than a handful of options for folks to develop at strict pull-ups slowly. Assisted bands, negatives and holds with scapular retraction to name a few. A strict pull-up on a challenging assistance band trumps a forced, premature kipping pull-up all day long.
- Grip carryover to other movements. Strict pull-ups with your thumbs wrapped underneath the bar, not resting over top of it, are a very good movement to improve your pulling strength for the deadlift, clean and snatch.
- Strength Foundation for Athleticism. Show us a man or woman who can rep strict pull-ups and we will show you someone with a great base for real athleticism.
- Shoulder function. By focusing on pulling the elbows as far back as possible on your reps, you initiate full scapular retraction which strengthens all of the musculature that supports the shoulders.
- Improving competition speed. If CrossFit is your sport and competition your game, the ability to kip well will improve your times because of the energy efficiency and reduced work on the muscle, keeping you fresh for the next movement. It will improve your carry over to other “perform as fast as possible” objectives.
- Power development. Using a brief recoil and exploding to the bar might assist in certain power modalities that include the SSC.
- Conditioning. The high-speed nature of the kip will better contribute to your conditioning.
- For mobility. If done right, low velocity kipping swings can actually be a valuable mobility tool when performed in slow isolation.
- If you kip, be absolutely certain you not only develop the requisite strength to perform strict pull-ups first, but in your sleep. High-rep sets, part of a workout, as second nature as breathing.
Many seasoned athletes can kip or butterfly without being worse for the wear, and if you are competitor then it’s necessary you be proficient in it for your sport. Problems arise when they are taught as the fundamental way to do a pull-up, rather than as their competition ready cousin. If you are not a competitive CrossFit athlete, there is little benefit to be had from kipping. Strength begets athleticism, and strength is improved in the strict pull-up. Being an athlete is learning how to do a more difficult movement, not the faster one.
The strict pull-up remains vastly superior for strength development, muscle growth, shoulder health, power lifting and Olympic lifting carryover, and an overall foundation for athleticism.
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Dave Thomas, CPT-NSCA, CNC, RKC, USAW is a coach and owner of Performance360 strength and conditioning gym in San Diego, CA. P360 was founded in 2011 and has two locations.