All the Hype Behind Kipping Pull-Ups

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I’ve got an interesting topic today that may or may not win me some friends. I’m guessing the latter, but that’s okay.

Below is an email I received a few weeks ago about kipping pull-ups (what are they, is there any efficacy behind them, would I ever program them? Short answer:  Um, no.), and I’ve been sitting on it for a while now trying to think of a judicious, fair, and un-biased way to answer.

Most people who read this blog probably already know what I’m going to say, but at the same time I feel I’ve done a damn good job in my career keeping an open mind and not pigeon holing myself into one thought process or the other.  So hopefully I won’t come across as stepping on too many toes.  We can all get along, right?  Right?

Okay, let the madness begin.

Q: Hoping that you might be able to help me out with this topic that has been coming up a lot lately in my area and facility. Could you give some detail on what a kipping pull-up is good for?

A lot of people having been asking about its advantages and disadvantages. Is there even a scenario where you would add these into a program? What are the major differences between a standard pull-up and a kipping pull-up?

Sorry, I don’t mean to throw a ton a questions at you but I am pretty lost on how to answer. People keep asking me saying, “they seem more functional as it incorporates a total body movement, and that it helps with muscle timing,” (WTF is that?).

I have held out for a while, but the more people keep talking to me about it, the more I’m getting confused. Might not be the worst blog post, even though 99% of the people that read your site would just get a good laugh out of it.

Lets face it Crossfit isn’t going anywhere and I would like to be armed with some serious knowledge about how to answer. Thanks for the info that you consistently post on here. I enjoy reading your site on a daily basis.

Thanks 

A:  Okay, lets kick things off with the nicey nice stuff.

There are a fair number of CrossFit peeps and affiliates who routinely read my blog, support it, and go out of their way to link back and spread my message, and for that I am always appreciative.

I like to pride myself that I am a “middle of the road” kind of guy, and I’ve never gone out of my way to openly bash CrossFit or insult the people who enjoy it.

Contrary to belief I’m with you dear reader: I agree that CrossFit is here to stay and I’m perfectly fine with that. There are a lot of things about CrossFit that I really like and respect.

Case in point: I was walking in downtown Boston the other night in the pouring rain running some errands.  It was miserable outside, the kind of weather where you think to yourself, “I can’t wait to just get inside, plop down on my couch, put on my Pjs, and watch The Notebook, Steel Magnolias, The Matrix,” when I happened to walk past the doors of CrossFit affiliate.

I peeked inside and saw that the place was filled to the brim with people getting after it.  Granted I can’t say I approved of the exercises nor the technique involved, but it was impressive nonetheless.

I dig that!  I dig that people are so excited and jazzed up to train that they’re willing to brave the elements and train no matter what.

Even more the point, CrossFit has done an outstanding job at building an overwhelming sense of passion, unity, and camaraderie amongst its members and it’s hard for me as a fitness professional to poo-poo on that aspect.

Moreover, you’d be hard pressed to find any population that works harder. Like I said, people GET AFTER IT, and I really like that CrossFit advocates people to incorporate compound movements and introduces people to a wide variety of training stimuli (and gets them off the elliptical machine!!!).

Additionally, I have some good friends and colleagues who are CrossFitters who speak very highly of it.  One such person is Jen Sinkler, fitness editor of Experience Life Magazine and overall badass.

To her credit, she dabbles in everything (Olympic lifting, Parkour, yoga, every sport and hobby imaginable) and I can’t say for certain whether or not she still participates in CrossFit, but she did write an AWESOME article a few years ago titled Confession: I’m a CrossFitter which I felt shed positive light into the discussion.

Too, I also recognize that there are plenty of CrossFit affiliates out there who go out of their way to actually assess people, coach them up, and offer proper progressions and more importantly, regressions, depending on one’s ability level and injury history.

Unfortunately, at least in my eyes and experience, this is generally the exception and not the norm.

And frankly, if me stating that happens to offend you, and you’re going to get your panties all up in a bunch, then you’re probably one of those affiliates that does stuff like this.

I realize the above is a bit of an extreme example, but that kind of stuff happens in the CrossFit culture a lot, and to me doesn’t even come close to passing the eyeball test.

If it looks like shit, and smells like shit…… then it’s probably shit.

And let me just state before I move on:  I also recognize that there are a lot of strength and conditioning facilities who do a crappy job too and don’t coach their athletes properly nor provide an iota of sound programming, so I’m not insinuating a “holier than thou” mentality here.

But I don’t want this post to turn into a walking ball of fail here, so lets get to the heart of the matter here.

Kipping Pull-Ups – The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

If asked what they are, I’d reply, with a straight face:  it’s where someone looks like they’re having an epileptic seizure in order to cheat a pull-up.

Done.

Listen, I don’t doubt that there’s a certain technique to perform them properly, nor do I think it’s unimpressive that there are some people out there who can bust out 50+ reps and not blink an eye.  But lets not delude ourselves into thinking that they’re something they’re not.

Funnily enough, I was having a similar discussion with Boston University head strength coach, Glenn Harris, earlier this week and he mentioned to me a conversation he had with a family friend of his.

When asked his thoughts on kipping pull-ups, he replied, “well, they’re a way to cheat.”  To which she replied, “yeah but, they allow you do more!”

Uhhh, exactly!

Why do people cheat on tests?  To theoretically get a higher score.  Why do powerlifters use bench shirts?  To theoretically bench press more weight. Why do people continue to buy Nickleback albums?

Seriously, why? I want to know!

And, taking it a step further, fellow CP strength coach, Greg Robins, noted to me that the above CrossFit video (the one where all those women are performing the clean and press) demonstrates how strongman competitors “cheat” the clean and press in order to do more reps.

Does this cheating apply to Strongman and CrossFit?  Well, yeah, kinda.  The objective is to do more reps for the sake of doing more reps.

Does this apply to general fitness?  Hell no!  Why would I want to coach someone how to cheat?

As I noted above, I don’t doubt that there’s a bit of “mastery” involved when it comes to performing a kipping pull-up properly.  But that doesn’t mean they’re a good idea for about 99.5% of the population.  I mean, I could make a case on how to perform a rounded back deadlift correctly (in order lift more weight), but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Lets look at a video I came across on Youtube:

Pretty innocuous video for the most part – nothing that made my eyes bleed or made me want to throw my face into a wall (that much).

In fact, the guy coaching seems like an awesome coach.  His cues were spot on; he was concise; and I really liked how he broke everything down.  He’s obviously someone who takes the time to properly coach his athletes.  Weird how that works!

And on an aside:  how cool is it that a husband and wife are at the gym together and enjoying themselves!?!

This is in stark contrast from many of those couples you see eating at a restaurant together not even acknowledging each other’s existence.

Nevertheless, why not just coach/teach someone on how to (eventually) perform a strict pull-up?  What’s wrong with that?

Of course, I get it:  not many programs (outside of CrossFit) call for 10-50 rep pull-ups, so it kind of makes sense why kipping pull-ups enter the picture. As well, I don’t know many people who could perform ten strict pull-ups, let alone anything higher than that.

So again, the whole “cheating” aspect enters the picture here.  Don’t deny it.  Don’t you do it!!!!

And this isn’t even taking into considering the joint distraction forces taking place.

Holy mother of god, I haven’t even touched on that yet.

In the context of the population that I work with (baseball players), kipping pull-ups would be an absolute nightmare.

Throwing a baseball is one of the more violent motions placed on the human body – in particular with regards to what’s going on in the shoulder and elbow.

Baseball pitching is the single-fastest motion in all of sports, as the humerus internally rotates at velocities in excess of 7,000°/second.

What’s more, if we look at the elbow, the amount of valgus stress placed on it is equivalent to if we hung a 40 lb dumbbell from the hand towards the ground.

It’s pretty significant stuff, and explains why we’re very, very careful with the type of exercises we place into our programs at Cressey Performance. Kipping pull-ups would be a disaster.

In fairness, most people don’t make a living staring down professional hitters and could care less about throwing a baseball 95 MPH, so what about them?

Well, the same thought process still applies.  Most (not all) people have really poor tissue quality, move about as well as a pregnant turtle, have the joint integrity of a paper cloth, and can barely press a barbell over their head without some major compensatory patterns.

Looking at the amount of “stuff” that takes place during a kipping pull-up (repetitive lumbar hyperextension, as well as the joint distraction forces mentioned above), it’s just something that’s not worth the risk or effort in my eyes.  For many, they’re  just not capable or “ready” to do such an advance movement without hurting themselves.

If that doesn’t apply to you, fantastic!  I’m certainly not implying that these can’t be done safely and without incident.

Even still, I can think of a thousand and one different ways that my time would be of better use to my athletes and clients.

I’d much rather spend my time working on helping people move better, get them stronger, and, if it’s something they want, progress them to performing a STRICT pull-up.

So, to Recap

1.  I’m not adamantly against CrossFit.  I recognize that there are some redeeming qualities about it that I like and think are pretty cool.

2.  Conversely, there are a lot of things about it that are less than to be desired.

3. Nickelback is just god-awful.

4.  As with anything, it comes down to coaching.  I’d much rather someone perform a crappy program really well – and get coached really well through it – than to just do “stuff” for the sake of wanting to feel like you’re going to shit your spleen or to feel tired.

5. I “get” why kipping pull-ups are a part of the CrossFit culture, and that’s not to belittle anything.  It is what it is.  How else is one supposed to perform 25 pull-ups after running two-miles (on your hands) after deadlifting a tank 47 times?

6.  If you’re a CrossFitter and that’s your bag – cool, have at it. I respect you and the things that you can do, and I’m really happy you’ve found something you’re passionate about.  But please don’t delude yourself (or others) into thinking that a kipping pull-up is some magical exercise that makes you better than everyone else.

You’re cheating – get over it.

NOTE:  An important distinction that I should make (and something Alison commented on in the comments section which I should have hit on in the first place) is that CrossFit does differentiate between pull-ups and kipping pull-ups.  Which is to say, they do actually program “regular” pull-ups as part of their programming.

UPDATE

It’s been two years since I wrote this article, and since it’s still one that gets a fair amount of traffic I wanted to update everyone on my thoughts.

Still not a fan of kipping-ups.  But I DO recognize they’re their own “thing.” Comparing a kipping pull-up to a strict pull-up is like comparing a push press to a strict military press.  They’re in the same ball park, but not quite the same.

Having said that, I still feel adamant that perfecting a STRICT pull-up should come first. What’s more, if someone can’t do a strict pull-up (preferably for reps), they really have no business doing a kipping pull-up.

For further reading I really like THIS article written by Christian Thibaudeau which I feel is a fair and well-written expose on kipping pull-ups and where the fit into the equation.

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