Kipping Pull-up Debate

When is the correct time to start kipping pull-ups? Is there a recommended number of strict pull-ups an athlete should have before they kip? Are these rules actually enforced and do they need to be?

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The real answer to this debate is that YOU as the athlete have to take matters into your own hands. Most coaches have the knowledge, have educated all of you (if you haven’t been educated please ask), and are there to continue to watch your form giving cues and corrections as they see necessary. Take home message (now so that’s it’s in the back of your mind as you read this discussion): coaches can teach you and give you recommendations for what they see safe and applicable to your movement as an athlete. They do their absolute best to keep you safe and stop you when they see something wrong, but after that it’s your responsibility to take what they say and apply it to your workouts.

The reason I wanted to bring up this topic is because there’s always a pretty large debate on whether an athlete needs to be able to do a strict pull-up before doing kipping pull-ups. My PT mind automatically goes to “well yea of course they need a base strength so they don’t swing on their ligaments and stretch them out, among other issues.” I’ll save my full opinion till the end, but I wanted to share what your lovely coaches think in order to help answer any questions/concerns and help educate those who have not really thought too much about their pull-ups.

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Below are some opinions from an ongoing discussion I had with the amazing coaches at CrossFit Southbay. I’ll start with the most “strict first rule” and work down to the “strict is not necessary.”

  • Everyone should be first tested for their ability to hold hollow rock and superman on the ground. Then test their ability to do this while hanging on the bar. While practicing this they are also working on 10 strict pull-ups before they are allowed to kip. Eccentric pull-ups are used to increase strength in low volumes. (This is a Navy SEAL theory)
  • Another thought is recommending 3-5 strict pull-ups, but not requiring this in the athlete before they teach the kip. The coach will teach the kipping progression and also have the athlete work on their strict pull-ups either with a band or with eccentrics. If the kipping progression is not going well, the athlete may be told not to do kipping until they get stronger (in the arms and core) but they are not forbid from doing kip (which means it’s up to the athlete to ultimately decide). “Encourage athletes to build pre-requisite strength through strict pull-ups instead of relying on the kip before they are ready or capable.”
  • The last major thought was that some athletes may be able to build enough strength through kipping first and working on strict later. The thought with this is that muscle adaptation occurs through the kip and some have seen improvements with their strict abilities while just working on the kip. “It may be the case for some that full range of motion kipping pull ups done at high reps CAN cause the lats and biceps to adapt more aggressively than strict alone.”

Coaches thoughts on those who may not be ready

“The best thing you can possibly do as a coach is educate the athlete of the possibility of injury if their shoulders are not ready for a kip yet.” Then the athletes takes whatever part of that they wish and modifies their workouts as they seem necessary. Again, safety is also about you as athletes taking responsibility. Also keep in mind “strict, controlled movements are always the first step AND the end goal.”

The overall theme from the coaches is that it’s case-by-case. “I don’t have a hard and fast rule. I take it case by case and teach the kipping swing before the pull-up.” No athlete is the same and has the same fitness background, therefore what works with one athlete may or may not work for another athlete. Most will stress the importance of getting the strength for the strict, but also want you all to be able to learn the technique of the kipping pull-up so you can practice and improve. “Proper technique with any movement (e.g.- snatch) can largely compensate for what an athlete lacks in strength.”

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Kelly Starrett’s Opinion on Kipping Pull-ups  (Becoming a Supple Leopard 2013 pg. 171)

  • “Kipping pull-ups allow you to execute more repetitions in a shorter span of time, but if performed improperly they will wreck havoc on your shoulders, elbows, and lower back.”
  • ” Another reason why the kip is such a useful movement is it fits into our model of movement transfer exercises. [ ] you’ll notice that the back swing exaggerates a movement pattern that is expressed in a lot of sport activities, specifically throwing motions.”
  • “First, you need to have full range-of-motion in your shoulders, meaning that you can hang from the bar with your elbows straight, armpits forward, and spine braced in a neutral position.”
  • “Second, you need to start with the strict pull-up and address the basics before you start spastically swinging from the bar.

My Opinion

I’ll try to keep this brief. I want to set the stage with a patient example because that’s what I do. A crossfitter comes into me with shoulder pain, one side more that than the other. History of shoulder dislocation. Throughout his evaluation there were a good amount of issues that came up, but when I tested his shoulder ligament laxity it was extremely lax. Especially the more painful side. He also had a weak rotator cuff and scapular stabilizing muscles. Which meant that essentially every time he did a kipping pull-up he was swinging on his ligaments, tendons and nerves. No wonder he was in pain! So did I tell him never to kip again? No, but I recommended that he stop now before he stretches them out more and wait until his strength improved. You can’t tighten ligaments without surgery, but you can work on the stabilizing muscles of the shoulder to help protect the shoulder joint during the kipping movement. So not every athlete has stretched out ligaments and needs to be this protective. But if you know you do (double jointed, history of dislocations, etc.) realize how important it is for you to have the base strength before you swing! I would you under the 10 strict pull-up rule, only because I don’t want to see you with a shoulder replacement down the road.

Another example is those with history of shoulder injuries. What’s the point in risking it? There are plenty of other cool/exciting exercises to do at the gym meanwhile and if you work on your strict pull-up strength I promise you will get it. The coaches are there to guide you so pick their brains on how to get stronger. Having prior shoulder injuries doesn’t have to put you at a disadvantage. Some people coming out of shoulder rehab may actually be stronger because they’ve been working on their stabilizing muscles. I would say no matter what get 5 strict pull-ups before you kip. Call me conservative, but I don’t want to see you later with an injury. Which is why I error on the side of caution and try to recommend 5 strict pull-ups before kipping with every athlete I encounter, which was a common response from most of our coaches. Take a look at the shoulder page of Learn Yourself to see the ligaments surrounding the joint and the amount of muscles around the joint that need to be strong and coordinating at the same time. I  believe the the strict pull-up is where you can build this strength and coordination to protect yourself from injury. But back to the case by case scenario, just because you have 3/5/10 strict pull-ups doesn’t mean you won’t get injured doing kipping pull-ups. Stuff happens. But I truely believe you will be at much better odds with that base strength and be a better athlete.

One last thing before I wrap this up. Fixing the disconnect between your midline and upper/lower extremities is HUGE during the pull-up and kipping pull-up. Make sure your pull-up form is beautiful. Most of the fault during the pull-up comes from the initiation of the movement, where the ribs flare out, shoulder are unlocked and lumbar spine extended. This is your body searching for the stability that you are not giving it with your muscles, putting you in an overextended position which will 1) put you at risk for injury 2) not allow you the strength you need to progress your pull-ups (and definitely affect your progress towards getting your kip).

So the debate ends with another it depends. There’s no right answer for everyone, but trust what the coaches say and listen to your body. We are all adults and responsible for the decisions we make. CrossFit isn’t fun when you’re nursing injuries! So work your butt off to get to where you need to be (mobility, strength, etc.) so you can have fun doing the sport that you love!

Here are some other awesome resources for you:

Invictus Kipping Pull-up Progression (love this and gonna try it soon)

“We can give you lots of good cues, but there is no substitute for practice. We’re good coaches, not magicians”

Tabata Times

Additional CFSB Articles

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