HOW STRONG DO YOU NEED TO BE FOR KIPPING PULL-UPS?
By: Matt Unthank, M.S., CSCS
Is there anything we aren’t divided over these days? Politics, religion, nutrition, what color was that dress (clearly black and blue), and then of course…The Kipping Pull-up!
The movement was introduced well before the dawn of CrossFit to get more reps on back and bi days, but has become commonplace in HIIT training communities and garage gyms. On the outside looking in, people point fingers at the lying cheaters who are missing out on all the gains, but even on the inside fights have ensued over the kipping pull-up.
Quickly, for the kipping haters, it shouldn’t be such a debate! Stop trolling the comments section and just accept different training goals and methodologies. The strict pull-up is for building strength, while the kipping pull-up develops work capacity (I realize that is a very generalized statement, getting into the intricacies of each movement is outside the scope of this article.).
However, the bigger question around the safety of the kip is an important one.
Seeing that we developed a company around building stronger and pain free shoulders – I thought it was time we weighed in on the Kipping Debate!
THE COMPETITOR VS. FITNESS PARTICIPANT
Let’s be clear, the athlete who views CrossFit as a sport is a different animal from the person who shows up everyday just looking for a good workout. Despite the potential injury risk, the competitive CrossFit athlete needs that movement to perform, just like a Baseball Pitcher needs to throw hard.
Also as a side note, anyone (general fitness participants as well as competitors) with shoulder pain need to step away from any kipping movements and figure that out first, and did I mention we have something that can help with that?
Moving forward we are going to focus on general fitness participant (although this will definitely apply to the CrossFit competitor who wants to keep crushing pull-ups). More specifically, I want to address the idea that a beginner needs X amount of strict pull ups before they start putting a kip into their game.
I will agree with the critics that the kipping motion can be a cause of injury, but for the same reason that something like a push press can increase injuries. It allows an athlete to increase volume and use momentum to push through mobility restrictions.
So the first question: Does the kipping pull-up add enough benefit to outweigh the increased injury risk?
For the person with zero interest in pushing that level of intensity, no, it’s simply not worth it….
But if an athlete at any level is feeling the kipping mojo, it’s a really great movement to develop athleticism and coordination, overall strength, and most importantly an overwhelming sense of accomplishment.
So should every noob be allowed to swing like a banshee? Definitely not! But neither should the CrossFit Games hopeful without exhibiting the following prerequisites, one of which is not X number of strict pull-ups.
WHEN TO GET YOUR KIP ON…
1. Do you express the mobility?
One of the biggest injury issues related to the kipping motion is the necessary shoulder mobility for the bottom of the swing (not only shoulder mobility, but you need thoracic extension and good scap movement as well).
Without the necessary mobility, your shoulder ends up slamming into the end range with speed and load, which over the course of several reps can definitely cause some shoulder pain issues.
Additionally, many naysayers point to potential labrum issues related to the downswing of the kip (for more specifics on SLAP tears check out this article by PT Mike Reinold: How do SLAP Tears Occur
Diving into this deeper, we will need to consider two mechanisms that could create a labrum problem with the kip. One is to the traction force of the movement (we will discuss this shortly), and the other is the windup of the biceps tendon from extreme abduction and external rotation, which is referred to as the peel back mechanism (a common issue for Baseball pitchers).
For the latter, I don’t necessarily see someone with a good kipping motion exhibiting the extreme ranges of motion needed to create the peel back mechanism that generates the progressive tearing of the labrum. However, we have all seen the nasty bent elbow swing to compensate for poor mobility of the shoulder and biceps, and this does indeed look eerily similar to the torsions generated by Baseball players in their layback. Yet another reason to work on mobility before the kip swing.
So before introducing the kip, it would be wise to assess passive end range of the shoulder. To measure this, lay on a foam roller and take the arms overhead. Your arms should be able to clear the ears without an extreme arch in your back
2. Do you have shoulder stability?
A strength prerequisite may be the goal of applying a strict pull-up governor on anyone wanting to try kipping; however, in my opinion, that is pretty non-specific when looking at the overall injury risk for the movement.
If you are going to hurt yourself doing pull ups, it will be while coming down not going up. Other than the mobility issues we just discussed for this position, the traction force can be large if you just drop into the bottom position.
So rather than looking at the ability to do any number of strict pull-ups, look at the ability to come down under control. This doesn’t necessarily mean a super slow rep, but rather if the athlete can maintain a smooth controlled movement from one rep to the next. Typically if an athlete is missing shoulder stability their kip will look jerky and rigid.
3. Are you overloading?
The third issue with the kipping pull-up relates to the extra volume that gets placed on the shoulder, again this isn’t necessarily a bad thing but rather something that simply needs to be monitored.
First, it is best to look for any meltdown in technique. The two signs I look for are:
- Is the palm gripping the bar?
- Is there still a fluid kip?
Once these things are lost I believe it is safe to say that shoulder position has been lost as well and it’s time to look for scaling options.
Second, keep track of weekly volumes. Just like any aspiring runner shouldn’t go out for a 20 miler after just 1-week of training, someone who has just got their kipping pull-up probably shouldn’t throw down Fran on their first go. So follow the 10% rule just like a runner would, which states: never increase your weekly mileage by over 10%.
Applying this to the kipping pull-up….
- Develop the movement outside the context of a timed WOD. This removes the competitive pressure to do more faster.
- Start conservative and build progressively! Limit your kipping pull-ups to only 5 per workout and include them in no more than 3 workouts per week. So your first week working on the movement should be roughly no more than 15 reps. Then add a 10% increase every week, which over the course of 12 weeks puts you at roughly 50 reps per week and probably a good baseline to start adding them into metcons. (Note: This is based on good ‘ol common sense, I encourage you to apply this to your progression as well).
BUILDING THE BULLETPROOF SHOULDER
I hope this has provided a bit more context around the kipping pull-up and its application, and if you are missing any of these prerequisites the Crossover Symmetry System can help. We offer 5 programs that will improve stability, mobility, and motor control of the shoulder, which I have pointed out are necessary for high level shoulder performance. You can learn more about what makes us different right here: https://crossoversymmetry.com/learn/how-cs-works/
Any thoughts, comments, or questions please send them my way at firstname.lastname@example.org.