Kipping pull ups!
Is there anything more divisive in the fitness community than a CrossFitter kipping their pull ups? Is there anything a new CrossFitter wants more when they start than to nail out a solid set of 20 kipping pull ups, top off, in the sun – (maybe muscle ups)?
The kipping pull up is a misunderstood movement that can shave minutes off your WOD times, but also shred your shoulder capsule, leaving you in pieces 😩 It is important to understand the background to this movement, its function in CrossFit and whether you are at the appropriate stage in your fitness to start working on them.
The gymnastic origin of the kipping pull up is the Beat Swing. This is a basic of the basic gymnastic movement used primarily for warming up the shoulder and building awareness of the body. The beat swing is moving from a tight hollow body position to the “superman” arch position while on the rings or a bar. Even though this is called the swing, you will find that when a proficient gymnast performs this movement, it is anything but a swing. They can stop solid at any position and hold it, without losing form. It is certainly not a swing and if someone tells you to swing while learning to kip, pick up your bag, go home and hide under the bed. I will explain why later. A true kipping pull up is not cheating, and it is not a swing. It is a technical movement, proper execution of which requires timing, power, strength and coordination, especially if you are linking them or doing butterfly pull ups.
The kipping pull up is simply a way of getting more reps in quicker, during a workout. If you do them strictly, they will just be slow. When CrossFit competitions started up, the movement standard stated that you had to get your chin over the bar, and full extension at the bottom. Because of that standard, people began to find ways of manipulating the rules to gain advantage. Nowadays, you rarely see anyone doing strict pull ups in a competition, unless the person is mad, resigned to failure, or they are supposed to be doing it. We will talk about shoulder strength later but kipping pull ups were traditionally done by athletes that had solid muscle structure around the shoulder joint and had the muscle strength to absorb the downward force generated by a kipping pull up. Controversy of the movement began when CrossFit became popular among the general population. Individuals who did not have the muscular strength and integrity and shoulder mobility to do kipping pull ups safely, discovered that momentum from swinging on the bar could propel them up above the bar, even if they can barely string together one or two strict pull ups. The temptation is to focus on the kipping pull ups, rather than invest time and sweat into developing the strict pull up. This is like buying a Ferrari for a 17 year old who has just passed their driving test.
So, do not perform kipping pull-ups until you can get a decent amount of strict pull-ups, performed from a dead-start and with a pause at the top of each rep.
How many? At least five. Doesn’t sound like much? Well, try it. Start from a dead hang. Pull yourself up with zero momentum, bring your chin above the bar, hold for two seconds. Lower yourself under control back into a dead hang and repeat four more times. Much tougher than it looks. It’s not enough to be able to lift your body; you must be able to fully control the load in all phases of the movement – lifting, lowering and both transitions. If you can’t do that, you have no business doing kipping pull-up. I know that sucks, and is a bit of a scrooge/grinch 👹 thing to say, but your health and longevity in the game will thank you.
So here are some milestones to indicate if you are near the stage to progress toward doing kipping pull ups.
Strict pull ups. I would recommend being able to do 5-8 strict consistently as described above, with strength across the full range of the movement. Once you hit these, keep doing it for a month or two more to ensure you have developed solid strength in that shoulder.
Shoulder overhead range of motion. As you reload the kip from the hollow body into the superman position, our shoulder will go into passive flexion as the momentum of the body transfers through. Adequate range is needed here to allow the full movement. This can be tested in many ways. Are you able to keep your ribs down as your raise your arms up past your ears and not extend through the lumbar spine? Can you stand flat against the wall, raise your arms and touch the wall with your hands together? Improvements here can be achieved in many ways and is important because a lack of range here can cause injury.
Have you got a nice supple thoracic section of the spine, as in can it flex when you move into the superman phase. If not your body will rely on other joints to flex and extend, such as the shoulder and lumbar spine, to get that movement, neither of which you want.
Are you able to hold the hollow and superman at any phase of the kip? If not you are relying on a swing to get you through the movement. A proper kip relies upon body tension created by the superman and hollow to get it don’t rather than simply swinging around.
Once you have these points down consistently and with strength, we can look to developing the kip. Injury Active clinic stresses that the kip at the bottom position used the lower half of your body to get you up to the bar primarily however the reload of the kip requires a strong level of control and power to make sure you are in the right position. A lack of control here can dump you at the bottom. If we drop into these positions with no control, then we expose our tissues to excessive forces and therefore injury. Along with some accessory work, performing the kipping/butterfly with less range of motion but more control should be helpful. For example, instead of completing the full movement and slamming down into the bottom position, perform small kips, and then bigger kips. Only progressing when the movement and control is perfect.
In summary, prior to performing this skill, get your movement checked out. Figure out if you have any movement restrictions and then get the homework to work on them. Load slowly through a structured programme once you move when and efficiently. Have patience.
Feel free to message Coach Tom V if you have any questions or leave a comment for him below.