The Kipping Pull-up: How to Do It Safely and Use it in Training
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.