This post is the direct result of a great deal of knowledge acquired over the course of my CrossFit athletic & coaching career.
Seeing as how I’m reasonably good at pull-ups (30 strict, 62 kip) and I’ve been doing this CrossFit thing for awhile now,
I think I can present a fairly intelligent viewpoint on the topic.
- Kipping pull-ups are fine…for qualified athletes only. For novices, they’re not worth the risk.
- If you’re training for competitive CrossFit, you need consistently high pull-up volume.
- Chest-to-bar pull-ups are better than neck-to-bar for all applications.
Pros and cons
Coach Glassman gave a lengthy argument several years ago in justification for kipping pull-ups in lieu of strict.
I’ll give you the shortened version of the argument circa 2005.
Kipping pull-ups, pros:
- greater work output = better for conditioning
- builds posterior chain
- requires more coordination & athleticism
- more applicability to climbing skills
- great for developing grip endurance
Kipping pull-ups, cons:
Now that CrossFit has been around the block and accumulated a fair share of casualties,
I believe we have more insight into kipping pull-ups.
The benefits of kipping pull-ups are all still valid; that much has been quite extensively proven.
Kipping pull-ups, cons:
- incredibly stressful on unprepared connective tissues
- virtually useless for building concentric pulling strength
- leads to stupid amounts of eccentric overloading at high reps (thus causing gnarly cases of DOMS)
Want to tear your labrum?
Do a whole bunch of aggressive kipping pull-ups without first having the strength to do 5-10 strict pull-ups…
or the shoulder flexibility to do a good gymnastic kip swing.
Want to be sore for a week?
Forget to do large volumes of pull-ups for awhile, then kip out 100+ in twenty minutes or less.
I’ve made that mistake a few times. I don’t recommend it.
Those uncomfortable experiences got me thinking about the nature of kipping pull-ups from a muscular loading perspective.
You’re using hip drive to hurl your center of mass up to the bar then lowering yourself with the upper body,
going well past the point of concentric muscular failure.
It’s similar to jumping negatives, which are great at limited rep prescriptions for a novice to accumulate volume
and build some level of strength; however, do too many of them and you run a high risk of rhabdo.
Bad news bears.
Time for the gym-geek shit.
Strength periodization is all about volume and intensity (the scientific definition, percentage of 1RM).
|High volume||Low volume|
|High intensity||-best for strength development
-needs to be carefully managed to avoid overtraining
|-good for peaking
-bad for loading
|Low intensity||-good for muscular endurance and sarcoplasmic hypertrophy
-bad for strength development
|-good for recovery
-bad for everything else
High volume taken to its extreme at any intensity will lead to excessive muscle damage, overtraining,
stalled progress, and men in black suits coming to your house to kick your dog and drink all your liquor.
High-rep kipping pull-ups constitutes high eccentric volume with artificially low concentric intensity.
Don’t make them kick your dog. Be nice to Fido.
On a side note, as long as you sensibly progress your pull-up volume and maintain a relatively high workload,
you can do a positively stupid amount of pull-ups with no ill effect.
In fact, to be a competitive CrossFitter I’d argue it’s a necessity.
Power output vs. good coaching
There’s a lot of ego in CF, as much as everyone (including me) says to leave it at the door.
We’re human and it’s natural, but we do have to deal with it.
Higher numbers are better, right?
I mean, it feels way more badass to say I can do 62 pull-ups than 30.
But 62 kipping pull-ups is absolutely meaningless from a strength-endurance perspective;
it’s more about movement economy, hip power, and grip endurance than anything related to pulling.
Originally, Coach G had everyone doing strict pull-ups—his CFJ article from 2003 where he rants
about the effectiveness of the pull-up referred to the dead-hang version, and the rant was well-deserved—
but then somewhere along the way we got obsessed with work capacity at the expense of everything else.
Make no mistake, work capacity is damn important…
But replacing the strict pull-up with the kipping pull-up is like replacing the strict press with the jerk.
Somehow the former became common practice while the latter is properly recognized as idiotic negligence.
Coach G accurately remarked that the jerk is more athletic than the press and that
the kipping pull-up is similar to the jerk in its athleticism.
But with body movements, “more athletic” = “more coordinated and complicated” = “easier to screw up.”
Consequently, good coaches progress their athletes from simple movements to complex ones to facilitate learning and safety.
Doing kipping pull-ups and jerks without first attaining thorough competency at the strict pull-up and press
will lead to plateau or injury.
Development of upper body strength through strict movement is the only way to
ensure proper movement patterns and connective tissue integrity.
Gymnasts get ridiculously strong by doing lots and lots of strict pull-ups, push-ups, dips, and handstands—
getting not only stronger muscles, but thicker tendons and ligaments to support and distribute the load.
In the CF Gymnastics cert (a damn important seminar for any CF coach), they don’t beat around the bush—
kipping pull-ups are cheating from a strength perspective, and they require a given level of
prerequisite strength and flexibility to avoid injury.
Granted, right after that disclaimer they teach you how to kip, which would be ironic if they didn’t also
stress rigid hollow-body position and active shoulders to manage the load.
I taught myself that same kip years ago by watching mainsite videos, and it quickly improved my
core control and shoulder flexibility.
I could also do 10 dead-hangs at the time, meaning I didn’t hurl myself at the bar to get my first “pull-up,”
and my shoulder flexibility was acceptable.
I was ready for the more advanced skill, which I didn’t even realize was an issue for most people.
Oh, don’t think I’ve forgotten about you, C2B.
The groans elicited when I write those three characters on the whiteboard are fantastic.
What separates C2B from neck-to-bar (N2B) kipping pull-ups are about 4-6 inches of pulling distance
and an order of magnitude of difficulty.
All the benefits that N2B kipping has over strict pull-ups are magnified with C2B.
When you fail on C2B you end up with N2B.
This indicates that there is a significant concentric component to the movement even with a powerful kip;
you have to complete the contraction of the lats and scapular retractors to finish the pull.
It’s also much harder to butterfly C2B pull-ups, which in itself mitigates injury potential.
The eccentric work is indeed somewhat greater, but the upper body has more concentric work per rep through a longer range of motion;
this reduces the insane disparity between concentric and eccentric load so prevalent with N2B.
Another bonus to C2B is the fact that it’s very damn hard to kip one out without being able to do a strict pull-up
(I haven’t seen it done)—this should tell you something about the prerequisite strength involved.
The caveat here is that all kipping pull-ups present similar risk to connective tissues if done sloppily,
but because C2B requires more upper-body input and control the de facto risk is diminished;
people are less likely to do them unassisted and unprepared.
In any event they won’t get as many done as quickly, which will reduce the likelihood of an overtraining effect
even in a proficient athlete.
I’ve never gotten cripplingly sore from C2B pull-ups, which is more than I can say for N2B.
At RWS, we do all kinds of pull-ups – strict, kipping, C2B, regular, weighted, you name it.
But nobody learns how to kip until they can rep out strict pull-ups with added weight.
- Don’t be stupid. Stay within your strength limitations.
- Do be careful. Make sure you move well or your shoulders could pay a high price.
Stay safe, and kip kip hooray.