Kipping Pull-ups: The good, the bad, the ugly
Out of all of the exercises out there, you’d be pressed to find one more hated and ridiculed by the general masses than the kipping pull-up. Look up a Youtube video of kipping pull-ups and the most up-voted comment will be something on the order of “that’s not a real pull-up”. For those of you who are unfamiliar with a kipping pull-up, imagine you’re back in grade school where you’re holding a chin up for time. From this position, you push away from the bar and swing down and use momentum from the swing to pull yourself back up to the bar. If this description is confusing, that’s because it is and you should just google kipping pull-up instead.
As someone who had previously done Crossfit for 2+ years but has been doing pull-ups long before I ever heard of Crossfit, I wanted to address some of the common criticisms I hear about kipping pull-ups and whether these arguments carry validity. Just for clarity, most of what I’ll be talking about is from personal experience and observation, and some of which I’ve learned through my curriculum as a Doctorate of Physical Therapy student. Don’t expect any references to highly regarded meta-studies on the biomechanics of kipping pull-ups because 1) they probably don’t exist and 2) that’s not the point of this article. If that’s what you thought you’d be reading, sorry to disappoint you. You can close this tab and go back to scrolling through Facebook, no hard feelings.
If you’re still reading, let’s first take a look at the most common criticism I hear and read about on the kipping pull-up; it’s not a real pull-up and you’re using momentum to help you. First of all, what is a real pull-up? I’ve yet to see it clearly defined but for the sake of this argument, let’s assume that a pull-up means hanging overhand grip from a bar and pulling until your chin is above the bar and return back to the hanging position. If we accept this definition, then there is nothing wrong per say with using your hips and legs to drive yourself towards the bar. Now what about using momentum? Well it depends on your purpose. If you want to develop strength in the pull, then using momentum could minimize your strength development in your lats, mid traps and biceps. However, if your purpose is to develop endurance in the pulling motion, then the kipping motion can be highly beneficial in assisting with higher repetition work, equivalent to performing hypertrophy work with lower weights. Think body building style of workouts. I’ve personally noticed the benefits of kipping pull-ups in developing endurance in my grip, especially in the forearms. This is a byproduct of having the kip remove some of that bodyweight during the concentric (pulling up) part of the movement.
To me, the kip also serves a second purpose. It helps the athlete develop a skill of transferring energy from the hip and from the stretch reflex of the shoulder into the pull. I find that people gripe a lot about how using momentum is a form of cheating. But cheating from what exactly? Cheating in getting the work complete? Using momentum is functional. Everytime you stand up from a chair, you’re using momentum from the swing of your upper body. Every time you walk or run, you’re using momentum from the swinging of your legs and hips to drive yourself forward. I’ve yet to hear people telling me that I’m cheating my walk. So for this reason, I find the “using momentum is cheating” argument a bit unsound.
But here is the main issue I see with the kipping pull-up. The issue is not the movement itself but with how it is taught at a lot of Crossfit gyms. The kipping motion should not be taught as an entry for completing a pull-up. As it currently exists, many Crossfit gyms will teach the kip as a means of assisting people in completing a pull -up but here is why that’s a backwards model.
If you pay careful attention to the motion of the kip, it places a huge demand on the shoulder and spine. The body performs a global extension motion, forcing the spine into extension and the shoulder into maximum flexion. But even more demanding is the fact that this end range of motion comes at the end of a downward swing of your body, placing a huge amount of gravitational force on the shoulder joint. Imagine raising your hands overhead as far as you can and now a huge amount of force is forcing it even beyond that point. If you’re lacking shoulder flexion, then you’ll compensate by excessively extending your spine to create the momentum. That’s essentially what happens during a kip.
But why is this such a big issue? To answer that question, we have to dive a bit deeper into the anatomy of connective tissue such as tendons and ligaments. Tendons are connective tissue that connects muscle to bone. Feel the back of your ankle for the Achilles tendon for an example. It should feel a lot stiffer than your muscle and is not built for withstanding a dynamic stretch. Tendons are particularly susceptible to injury as they are located at joints, where most motion occurs. And they are even more difficult to heal from a tear due to its low blood supply compared to muscles.
In the kipping pull-up, your bicep tendon is at a particular risk as it attaches at the front of your shoulder. For people who lack the full 180 degrees of shoulder flexion (me), have tight biceps (also me), and have never acclimated to the demands of the pull-up motion on their shoulder, the kipping pull-up is disastrous. Now add onto this the fact that beginners perform kipping pull-ups in WODs (workout of the day), where they’re completing as many reps as possible in a given time, this is just a ticking time bomb for your shoulder. You might as well just rip out your bicep tendon now. But before you do, here is what I suggest you do instead.
- Learn to perform at least 6–8 “strict” body weight pull-ups. If you can’t perform one, scale it back by using bands to support part of your body weight first. Look up banded pull-ups for details. Another option is to perform eccentric pull-ups (jump up to the bar and slowly descend down until your arms are straight).
- Check your shoulder range of motion. Make sure you have at least 180 degrees of flexion. To do this, stand against a wall with your heels touching. Raise your arm overhead and attempt to touch the wall without arching your back. However far you can get without arching your back gives you an idea of how much range of motion you may be missing.
- Learn to perform small kipping swings. Slowly progress to larger swings over time. By slowly I mean weeks, even months. It will take time for your connective tissue to get acclimated to the forces you’re putting on it. Be patient (I’m telling myself this).
- Slowly integrate kipping pull-ups into your routine. Don’t let the first time you trying them be in a WOD where you’re already fatigued from other movements. Not only does that compromise your form in the kip (there is proper form in the kip, shocking, i know), you place yourself at a greater risk of connective tissue injury as your muscles are already fatigued from completing other work.
That’s it. Have fun working on your kipping pull up or not. Comment below if you have questions or want to argue about whether a kipping pull-up is a real pull up.