Updated: Jul 20
I’m going to start this with something akin to a disclaimer because some of you might disagree with what I’m going to say.
I know how hot under the collar people can get when they feel their ‘thing’ is being scrutinised. Do not interpret the following as an attack.
In an increasingly polarised space, influenced heavily by algorithms and clickbait content, we must be open to challenging our own beliefs if we are to find a healthy balance of opinion.
If you feel triggered positively or negatively, I invite you to stop, think and then comment and contribute for the betterment of all who choose to engage with this blog.
As with any subject that divides opinion, context is essential, and I can’t cover all scenarios and eventualities in one blog.
Honestly, I have been debating whether to even publish this blog.
But given the number of personal coaching clients who come to me with shoulder problems which are in some way caused, exacerbated or related to kipping movements, I feel it is a conversation I need to have. Here we go…
The manifesto for kipping pull ups may date back to April 2005 where Greg Glasman (Co-Founder of CrossFit) published an article in the CrossFit Journal Issue 32.
Calling it the CrossFit Journal makes it sound scientific and academic. Let me assure you that it is not.
Usually, journals are peer reviewed and come with an impact rating to rank the quality of research, reflect the difficulty of being published and the prestige associated with it.
Greg Glasman published his own thoughts in his own journal and in doing so, perhaps ignited the beginning of the fitness industry’s indoctrination of kipping pull ups.
If we stay within the timeframe of when the article was published, if this is what was being taught during the explosion of CrossFit and through low entry requirement coaching courses, a lot of philosophy and practice was influenced by a thought process and rationale plagued with bias.
Let me pause to reiterate: This is not an attack on CrossFit or kipping movements. Both have their place.
My issue is around the potential limited recognition and appreciation of an individual’s physical readiness and the subsequent decision-making process around exercise prescription.
TRAINING HISTORY MATTERS
Perhaps we have arrived in a place where programme designers and coaches give less consideration for individual training history and instead prioritise ‘work’.
In a group exercise format, it might be challenging to individualise whilst achieving the desired session outcome and maintaining the ‘essence’ of what the training methodology is all about.
As a result, coaches must decide where to compromise. Quality, intensity or complexity.
There are a small number of people who can simultaneously execute all three. In the context of this conversation, these are the phenomenal athletes who make their way to the CrossFit Games and whom I have a huge amount of respect and admiration for.
But not everyone is built to do that. For the rest, their introduction to kipping probably comes because that is what a coach programmed. Kipping also makes sense because on face value it makes a tough workout more achievable. Finally, and possibly most significantly, kipping is what everyone else is doing.
Coaches, will say:
‘We always provide scaling options’.
That’s hopefully true. But let’s be honest, when the clock starts people (mainly men to be fair) aren’t always very good at making those decisions for themselves. Some of the scaling options I see are also performed technically poorly as intensity across the workout means quality has no choice but to compromise.
You simply cannot effectively learn or develop a skill or movement pattern in which you lack competency under the stress of intensity, whether that be force, volume or velocity.
Of course, you can try as many do, but it will never look pretty. Do this repeatedly and it’s likely you’re going to run into problems down the line.
STRICT PULL UP VS KIPPING PULL UP
One rationale for using kipping pull ups as stated in Glasmans article is
‘For any given athlete, every manner of pull-up requires the same amount of mechanical work to perform. The kipping pull-up is faster than the strict pull-up and therefore elicits more power from the athlete. The kipping pull-up makes a contribution to workouts of super-high average power that the other pull-ups cannot. In a pull-up-intensive CrossFit workout such as “Fran” or “Helen,” strict pull-ups would substantially increase the time to completion. We’d be doing the same amount of work in more time. The same amount of work in more time is a reduction in average power. Power is intensity. We’d have reduced the intensity of the workout.
I’d like to suggest that ‘for any given athlete’, utilising a power-based upper body movement designed to increase the intensity of a workout is not a good option if that athlete doesn’t have the foundation strength to ensure safety and competency.
In my opinion, a minimum standard for strict pull ups should be set and achieved before kipping pull ups are introduced. Full stop.
This sounds logical but I don’t think it’s what is happening on the gym floor.
In a 2019 article published in Sports Biomechanics journal, researchers examined the alterations in kinematics and muscle activation patterns with the addition of a kipping action during pull up activity.
They found that strict pull ups had generally higher upper body muscle activation whilst core and hip/lower body muscle (rectus abdominus, external oblique, iliopsoas and tensor fascia latae) was significantly higher in kipping pull ups.
‘The incorporation of the lower body muscles during the kipping phase of the kipping pull up likely contributed to the increase in momentum, observed in the kinematic analysis, allowing for the reduced upper body muscle recruitment.’
To be fair, the article contradicts itself slightly but when the results are combined with real world application, it’s evident to see that the addition of the kip increases contribution from the lower body.
But what happens when the kip is introduced without a sufficient basis of vertical pulling strength?
Instead of ‘eliciting more power’ as Glasman states, the kip becomes a ‘strategy’ which uses the lower body generated momentum to complete a movement that the upper body is not strong enough to execute by itself.
Which, from a task outcome perspective (because that is really what the brain cares about), is to get the chin above the bar.
APPLIED EXERCISE SCIENCE
To understand the potential pitfalls of this strategy, we need to talk about length tension relationships.
The ability of a muscle to generate force is optimal through mid-ranges. It is less able to produce high levels of force at end ranges, such as in the bottom hang position of a pull up.
Getting out of that hole is the hardest part of a strict pull up.
The addition of the kip introduces momentum generated by the core and lower body to help the individual bypass the strength demand in this bottom position as it ‘flicks’ the upper limb into a more mid-range position where force generation capability is more optimal.
Why is this a potential problem for the shoulder?
If the individual isn’t strong enough to repeatedly pull themselves out of a dead hang and into a strict pull up, they likely lack the strength to dynamically stabilise and eccentrically control the shoulder as their entire bodyweight rapidly descends through that same range of motion. That’s a red flag for shoulder health.
At this stage I am discussing a movement pattern in isolation. All the potential problems are exacerbated when we factor in existing or accumulating fatigue.
The difference you see when someone with strict strength competently performs kipping pull ups is a controlled deceleration phase and appropriate maintenance of tension in the hang which allows effortless cycling.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
For me it is simple, from an athletic development, shoulder health and performance perspective, strict strength should always come before kipping.
As we apply this in a workout format, we should aim to achieve intensity whilst maintaining an acceptable level of quality. Both of which need to be balanced with appropriate complexity.
Coaches need to get harder lined on this by providing appropriate programming options and making sure they are adhered to. Sometimes as coaches we need to make decisions for people.
You might say, ‘But it takes too long to get strong enough to do that’.
Yeah it does. It takes time…and?
If you take an altruistic approach and decide it’s not such a problem because people are exercising and they’re benefiting from being part of a community, I of course agree.
Physical activity and community are essential however, a recent research study showed that 60% of CrossFit related injuries were to the shoulder.
Busted shoulders mean people can’t train or spend time with the community and that’s a problem.
Coaches would do well to remind themselves of the Hippocratic Oath often pledged by medical students.
‘First, do no harm’.
Minimising risk of injury should be the primary consideration in how we design and deliver exercise.
Let me sign off with this.
There is nothing wrong with kipping pull ups within the activity specific and competitive realm of fitness.
Most people who are at the level where they want to compete, likely have enough strict strength in the locker to have earnt the right to kip.
45 year old, John who hasn’t trained too much in the past and whose 30’s weren’t very kind to his body, probably hasn’t.
I’m hesitant to think that programming and coaching approaches around kipping for individuals with a limited strength training background will change.
Why? Because it fundamentally causes a significant problem for how group-based workouts are currently being designed.
A large portion of the fitness industry is hellbent on volume and intensity. These things are important, the problem comes when you add complexity in a group environment.
For those who have a training history of note and possess basic athletic competency, you’re good to go.
To the coaches and programme designers, please don’t ignore the fact that this is not everyone, regardless of how ‘savage’ a workout you fancy designing because that is the kind of stuff you like doing.
One thing I have learnt from training athletes of all ages from grassroots to elite is the best progression and performance comes when they earn the right to progress.
That is regardless of how inconvenient it might be or how long it might take.
In the end, shortcuts only lead you down a longer road.
If you do want to work on your kipping, here is a video with Bulldog Gear where I give you three ways to improve your kipping pull ups.
GYMNASTIC SHOULDER PAIN: MUSCLE UPS
In this webinar, we take a look at muscle ups and the demands it places on the shoulder, covering the most common problem points and the principles to pain-free movement.