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The Kipping Pull-up: How to Do It Safely and Use it in Training
Greg Everett  |  General Training  |  December 31 2010

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The Kipping Pull-up: How to Do It Safely and Use it in Training, Greg Everett,
The kipping pull-up has been a point of vehement contention since its popularization by CrossFit; one camp tells the world it’s the only way to create complete elite athletic dominance and will possibly cure all known disease, and the other claims they will fail to develop much of anything athletic but will completely destroy your shoulders. It seems unlikely that either of these is entirely true.

I’ve never spoken up much either way before, except to express my distaste for the “butterfly” kip, and even that wasn’t too enthusiastic. Recently the heat seems to have been turned up a bit and I’m seeing more and more discussion on the topic, focused primarily on the injury potential of the exercise. I’ve avoided getting involved for a few reasons, not the least of which is that I feel it’s an unwinnable war and any opinions I share on the topic will piss at least a few people off. I don’t mind this exactly, but I have a hard time not then engaging in stupid internet arguments, so I prefer to avoid setting them up in the first place. But I’ll give this one a shot anyway.

First, I will reiterate my dislike of the butterfly kip. Its sole purpose is to serve as a competitive pull-up style (whether or not this is recognized or admitted), and this alone is enough to dissuade me from ever using it, teaching it or endorsing it. The idea of modifying an exercise to reduce effort and increase speed for the sake of beating a clock or another exerciser doesn’t make much sense to me. Exercises should have purpose and rationale; for example, a pull-up is a great way to develop upper body pulling strength, scapular stability and even muscular and cardiorespiratory endurance if performed in higher volumes. The butterfly kip minimizes the demands on the very things that the exercise should be used to develop. Additionally, it brings an element of stress to the shoulders and elbows of which the potential for injury is far greater than a more traditional kipping movement. Were I a CrossFit Gamer or some other type of competitive exerciser, I would use the butterfly kip. But again, that very notion tells me it’s not a good choice for training, other than periodic practice for impending competition.

(Interesting sidenote: Did you know that the existence of the butterfly kip is the product of one certain individual being unable to figure out the more traditional kip technique? The exercise is literally an accident.)

The pull-up is such a fundamental, foundational exercise that it belongs, in some form, in the training of just about everyone. Note that this might mean extreme modifications for some individuals—it doesn’t necessarily mean that grandma is swinging around on a pull-up bar after her shoulder surgery.

The strict pull-up should be considered the standard from which all variations stem, and it should be the standard to which everyone strives. That is, if you’re going to do pull-ups of any kind, one of your ultimate goals should be being capable of multiple strict pull-ups. Variations have their places, but never are they replacements for the pull-up itself.

The more traditional kipping style that was originally endorsed by CrossFit before the advent of the butterfly kip and the CrossFit Games should be considered a totally different exercise and discussed accordingly. That is, if we’re talking about injury potential, we can’t confuse the butterfly and traditional kip variations—the movements are too dissimilar, and I’m of the opinion that much of the increasing rate of pull-up-related shoulder injury is directly related to the increasing rate of butterfly kipping rather than traditional kipping.

In a properly performed traditional kipping pull-up, after locking out over the bar, the athlete pushes back from the bar into an arc that loads the forward push of the chest through the arms prior to the following rep. This is a smooth, controlled movement; by no means is it jarring or ballistic unless done improperly. There is continuous tension throughout the descent, and the force is fluidly transitioned between horizontal and vertical planes. The loading of the shoulders is neither abrupt nor directed in a way that subjects the shoulder joint to anything it shouldn’t be more than capable of withstanding.

The butterfly kip, on the other hand, sends the athlete forward under the bar into the bottom. There is an unavoidable moment of slack and freefall, followed by the shoulders being opened completely in a relatively jarring manner—being pulled closer to straight up from the body rather than stretched progressively with more horizontal movement. In theory this could be controlled more than it typically is, and the movement better guided, but the fact is that anyone doing a butterfly kip has clearly prioritized other things (or in many cases is simply unaware of any of this and is simply emulating CF superstars).

In any case of kipping pull-ups, adequate preparation is necessary for safety. This is not unique to the kipping pull-up; it’s true for any physical activity. Where this becomes problematic often is situations in which inadequate progression exists due to impatience or ignorance. Another great example of this that I’ve seen many times are middle-aged individuals with no athletic background and extremely brief training histories being instructed to perform huge volumes of plyometric movements. Like kipping pull-ups, plyometrics aren’t unavoidably injurious—they just require smart implementation, which involves proper progression, execution and programming.

With regard to kipping pull-ups, if an individual can barely string together a couple of ring rows at a high angle, jumping them into kipping pull-ups is ill-advised to say the least, yet this happens all the time. There is such a rush to get people doing pull-ups (or loose interpretations thereof) that simple, seemingly obvious things like this are often overlooked or ignored. Most importantly, the kipping pull-up, in my opinion, comes AFTER the strict pull-up in the order of progression, not before as it's so often used in CrossFit.

With new clients at Catalyst, the body row on rings is the initial introduction to the pull-up. This does a few things. First, it provides an opportunity for us to assess a client—it’s stunning how weak many are, both in terms of the ability to pull themselves to the rings and to maintain trunk rigidity. The body row is a chance for clients to feel what it’s like to really engage the upper back—to retract the scapulae powerfully, feel the lats extend the spine, and feel the shoulders engage to bring the arms back. These things are frequently missing from pull-ups, particularly kipping pull-ups, and even more so when kipping pull-ups are a client’s first introduction to upper body pulling exercises. The exercise also begins strengthening the shoulders and elbows and preparing them to withstand greater stresses like what they’ll need to manage with pull-ups of any kind.

The next thing our new clients are exposed to is strict pull-ups with whatever assistance is necessary. We use elastic bands at times, but I actually prefer leg assistance. The problem with bands is that the tension is exactly the opposite of what’s needed—that is, it’s greatest the bottom when the client needs it least, and it’s greatly reduced at the top when the client needs it the most. This exacerbates the problem of clients not engaging their upper backs as much as they should, and prevents them from ever developing the strength to do so. Instead, they finish the movement with all arm flexors, a forward roll of the shoulders and a reach of the chin. With leg assistance, the client can instantly adjust to provide exactly as much assistance as is needed. It’s impossible to objectively measure progress in this manner, but bands aren’t exactly great for this either—the jumps between band sizes are way too large. As long as you keep an eye on your clients, they’ll be using less and less assistance. It’s quite obvious when watching when they’re using more leg assistance than necessary.

Only after three weeks of body rows and leg assisted strict pull-up work do our new clients even get introduced to the idea of a kipping pull-up. This initial introduction involves teaching the basic kipping movement, which more than being movement instruction, begins to help stretch the shoulder girdle in a safe and controlled manner to prepare for the necessary range of motion for a safe and controlled kipping pull-up. The strict pull-up remains the target even after this.

To wrap up what was supposed to be a brief newsletter article, I don’t believe the traditional kipping pull-up is any more dangerous than many other useful exercises. Like any of these other exercises, though, it demands smart progression and implementation. Kipping pull-ups of any variety are also not substitutes for strict pull-ups and rowing-type exercises. They are a unique exercise that can have a place in many individuals’ training—just not the strict pull-up’s place.
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Greg Everett is the owner of Catalyst Athletics, head coach of the national-medalist Catalyst Athletics weightlifting team, publisher of The Performance Menu, author of the books Olympic Weightlifting: A Complete Guide for Athletes & Coaches and Olympic Weightlifting for Sports, and director/writer/producer/editor/everything of the documentary American Weightlifting. Follow him on Facebook here and and sign up for his free newsletter here.
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16 Comments
Josh Earleywine 1 | 2010-12-31
I really appreciate your thoughts, explanations, and rationale on this topic. You addressed everything quite objectively which I appreciate. You also reminded me of the need to ensure proper progressions and being adequately prepared before throwing "sexy" exercises at new and/or underprepared clients. Thanks for bringing us back to center.
Jake Rowell 2 | 2011-01-02
Thanks for jumping into the kipping internet battle. I've seen many people learn the kipping pull-up, and the only ones to experience any issues from the kipping pull-up are those whose dead hang pull-up numbers are low are non-existent, usually coupled with mobility constraints. This has led us to the idea of setting a dead hang pull-up standard before allowing the use of the kip. Those with strong and (I think importantly) mobile shoulder, have never had issues coming from the kip.
jeff tucker 3 | 2011-01-03
good solid views... i get where you are coming from and agree. i always teach basic strength and goals for any movement. know what you are doing and why you want to do it before you simply shoot out and begin any movement. i see the HSPU much the same way - why kip it at all? all you are doing with a kip in a HSPU is robbing yourself the gift of strength while inverted. i see a ring dip and a HSPU as basic strength moves and no kipping zone myself...
Tore Up 4 | 2011-01-03
Tore my labrum doing butterfly, had surgery and horrible recovery. I left cf behind afterwards and am better for it.
Kyl Samway 5 | 2011-01-03
It has been my experience that people who commit to learning the basics always make more gains than those who step beyond their ability too soon. I really like your rationale on using leg assist vs. band assist...lightbulb went off in my head on that one. Thanks for sharing Greg.
Dominic, Owner of CrossFit Central Manchester, UK 6 | 2011-01-04
Great article on a commonly argued topic. Couldnt agree with you more. Anyone who has progressed to do both both traditional kipping and butterfly pullups knows that it takes much less effort to do them butterfly style and that they are distinctly quicker. We held a small competition at our box last summer and one of our standards was that butterfly pull ups were not allowed in the WODs. Was a great leveller. Best Dominic
Geoff Long 7 | 2011-01-25
Good article. Thanks for reminding me to be patient with progressions with myself and my clients.
Rafael 8 | 2011-03-09
Great article. I've been sharing the link with every CF coach/owner I know. While I never needed bands myself, your article goes a long way in explaining the inexplicably slow progression I've witnessed in many new, 20- and 30-something CF athletes attempting to get their first kipping pull-up or dead hangs (as long as 2 years!!).
Stephen, Owner of Performance Therapy Ireland 9 | 2011-05-20
Great article Greg, couldn't agree with you more. We programme ring row efforts and strict underhand chin ups largely in our groups and one to ones and rarely encourage athletes to move towards a kip. Like you mentioned, the majority of people who start with us are very weak and have no concept of midline rigidity.
Colin McNulty 10 | 2011-06-22
I wish I'd read this article before tearing my rotator cuff doing butterfly pullups! I'm currently waiting for an MRI to see if it's a Labrum tear too. Details here if you're interested: http://www.colinmcnulty.com/blog/2011/06/22/butterfly-pullups-rotator-cuff-tear/
Ward Harold 11 | 2011-06-27
I'm living proof you don't even need to butterfly kip, which I've never learned to do, to jack up a shoulder. I injured mine when cf.com programmed Angie, Cindy, and Barbara on consecutive days. Even with a standard kip after reaching a certain volume form goes to crap and something gives. It took over nine months before I could get anything heavy overhead; I should've probably had an MRI but I have an aversion to knives so I waited it out.
Pär Larsson 12 | 2011-09-23
Nice article. Been training and coaching for some years now, and I'm not a big fan of the butterfly pullup either. More of a test of gymnastics specialist skill than anything else.
brian t 13 | 2011-09-28
great article! I agree with the idea of the progressions and not forsaking the deadhang or strict pull-up. One of the things that we focus on with our athletes is a hollow pull-up (strict or kipping) and teaching the initial contraction of the shoulder complex (depression and retraction of the scapula) versus breaking at the elbow complex. Kelly Starrett and Carl Paoli cover this "position" idea in greater depth. Very good read. Thanks!!
Scott K 14 | 2013-03-06
A kipping pullup is akin to a clean and jerk. Otherwise, the clean and jerk would just be a deadlift followed by a strict reverse curl. No one calls the clean and jerk cheating. "Cheating" has it's place. For example, when doing standing curls, the load decreases as you reach the top of the movement. In order to really tax the biceps muscles at the top of the range of motion, you need to use a weight that might be impossible to lift past the midway point of the motion with out a slight swing or body lean. That said, "cheating" should only be done by more experienced lifters. My friend, a chiropractor, recently said that CF has been the single greatest increase to his practice. Too many novices using too much weight and improper form.
Markus R. Schuster 15 | 2013-04-01
Love the article and the feedback / ideas in the comments! Any suggestions for the standard for dead-hang PU before teaching kipping / butterfly PUs?
Coach Sharon 16 | 2013-10-01
Thanks, Greg, you always have such a practical perspective.
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