If You're Not Into Crossfit (or Cirque Du Soleil), Quit Kipping Pullups

Why are you doing pullups? Are you doing them to build muscle and add fundamental pulling strength? Are you trying to create a stronger V-taper for your beach body? Or are you trying to compete in a CrossFit competition, or learn some high bar gymnastics maneuvers?

If you’re chasing parlor tricks and the Crossfit Games, then skip this column. But if your long-term fitness goals involve back strength and muscle, then reevaluate how you’re doing your pullups — and ditch everyday use of the kipping pullup.

Don’t worry, CrossFit Nation, this isn’t the interwebs’ bazillionth story trashing the most spastic-looking pullup in the game. The kipping pullup isn’t “cheating,” because it’s within the rules of its main arena. (Oh, and bodybuilders have little pullup “cheats” too.) The kipping pullup is a legit exercise, and a challenging one.

It’s just not the pullup that every guy needs, no matter what’s printed on some workout board in a box or gym, or what some two-day-clinic-certified trainer tells you. (Curious how I train back for muscle? Check it out here.)

Kipping Pullups vs. Strict Pullups

What’s the difference between a kipping pullup and a strict pullup? A strict pullup is the classic version of the move: You hang from a bar with an overhand grip, hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keeping your core tight, you pull your chin toward the bar.

You’re primarily activating your lats to do this version of the pullup. Other musculature fires, too, rhomboids and lower lats helping you squeeze your shoulder blades, and rotator cuff muscles stabilizing your shoulders, arguably the body’s most delicate joint.

Kipping pullups introduce lower-body momentum. A kip essentially has you swinging forward, then translating swing energy into momentum that helps drive your chest to the bar (FYI: chest-to-bar on the pullup isn’t necessary or useful if you’re not competing for some arbitrary standard, but that’s a column for another day).

This kip can compensate for a lack of upper-body strength (many score their first pullup like this, a problem). But it’s less demanding on the muscles that pullups traditionally target, because you’re exploding up with assistance from your lower body and greater speed. That means less time under tension for your back muscles, but . . . more pullups!

When you can do more pullups, who cares about time under tension right? Never mind that you’re ripping through muscle and really challenging your back muscles through nearly every second of a classic strict pullup. Because who cares about muscle, right?

Kipping Pullups Aren’t Totally Awful

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Kipping pullups have value. The kipping pullup is key to learning the muscle-up, and a great many other bar skills. Gymnasts must understand the kip, and trapeze artists or aspiring parkour athletes need to understand how to pull it off, too. It’s fun.

Watch plenty of guys, and you’ll see a hint of hip explosion (the precursor to the kip) in their pullup, especially as they fatigue. Crossfitters just take slight hip explosion and maximize it for one reason: The more explosive they can be transitioning from arched to hollow body positions, the less actual back strength they have to utilize.

The goal of those who love the kipping pullup is to minimize time-under-tension and muscle activation in favor of zounds of reps into 20 or so minutes of EMOM or AMRAP or the latest alphabet soup in fitness. And that’s fine, because the goal of such workouts isn’t muscle. It’s just sweat, Soulcycle on perspiration steroids. If that’s all the pullup is to you, a Point A to Point B movement that’s you just need to get done with to run back to the Assault Bike, that’s fine.

Not every workout needs to be about muscle.

But Not Everyone Is Ready to Kip

Let’s give the metcon crowd their metabolic-focused kipping pullup (even though the strict pullup, if done with full-body tension the way my pal Don Saladino teaches it, is quite a workout in itself). That still doesn’t erase the main problem with it: That most people use it wrong.

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If you want to improve your pull-ups… whether you want to get your first pull-up or improve and do 10, 15 or 20 in a row… ⠀ These techniques and progressions are going to help! – And like we talk about in the video… the KEY to pull-ups is CONSISTENT PRACTICE 💪 ⠀ So take a few of the exercises and start using them frequently so that you can start improving your pull-ups 🔥 ⠀ #suitupwithdon #pullupprogressions #weekendmotivation #superherotraining #girlswholift

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The kipping pullup, even according to Crossfit, is meant to be learned after you’ve mastered the strict pullup. It’s not a progression. If you reverse the order, yes, fitness baby gets their first pullup more quickly, and everyone in your Crossfit box drops muscle-arm emojis on your Instagram.

But start this way and you also don’t actually have the requisite back and lat strength to pull yourself up. You have a percentage of that back strength, which, coupled with momentum, gets you to the top of your pullup.

The issue with that arises when you try to lower yourself. The controlled convulsion of the kip pullup is fine with a proper strength base, because it insures that, when you lower from the bar you can be in control of your shoulder blades. Without that, there’s greater chance your lower lats, lower traps, and rotator cuff muscles can’t maintain control. And if you can’t maintain full control in any exercise, whether a pullup or a biceps curl or a bench press, you’re inviting injuries.

That’s more true on a movement that demands you operate in overhead positions, where risk of shoulder injury is greater. To be clear, the narrative that kipping pullups lead to more shoulder injuries than, say, insanely heavy bench presses is unfair. A host of things, such as throwing a baseball, can also lead to serious shoulder injuries, so that’s no reason to never attempt a kipping pullup.

Then again, observe how we treat baseball pitchers. Coaches watch their pitch counts, partly to prevent injury once they’re throwing under fatigue. And the last thing baseball wants is for its athletes to senselessly risk injury.

If your gym calls you an “athlete,” don’t you want them to value your shoulders as much, too? Especially since a myriad of other moves can be done in WOD situations? Unless, of course, you’re aiming to try out for the Flying Graysons.

Is That Kip Worth It?

Proponents of the kipping pullup will compare it to the military press-push press relationship. Just as the push press lets you recruit leg drive to shoulder-press more weight, the kipping pullup lets you recruit your lower body to help you do your pullups . . . faster.

Except the kipping pullup isn’t exactly mechanically identical to the strict pullup, because there’s a slight adjustment to the target pulling muscles. A classic pullup is primarily a vertical pulling exercise driven by the lats, although the rhomboids and other back muscles do assist. Part of the kip involves a slight shift in planes, and thus target muscles.

The kipping pullup, in addition to the momentum it adds, lets you incorporate your horizontal pulling muscles (the muscles you use to, say, row a dumbbell or barbell) slightly more. On the one hand, pulling in the horizontal plane is kinder to your shoulders, a definite plus. And again, the kipping pullup helps set up other moves; pulling in the horizontal plane helps with the kipping muscle up, one of those hero moves that just looks cool (although if you want a strict muscle-up, because that is fully doable, check out our tutorial below.)

But it’s not setting you up to build pure pullup muscle. Key thing to note about kipping pullups: You cannot load it with weight. You can eventually load that heavy push press to enhance your military press. Try kipping with a weight strapped to a belt, or a weighted chain around your shoulders and things get wild and ugly.

So Why Are Kipping Pullups In WODs Anyway?

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Here’s the thing with the strict pullup: If you do it in your next Crossfit WOD, you’re going to get far fewer rounds than anyone else. But you’ll still get a good workout, even if you’re struggling to do pullups. Doing a strict pullup in your WOD is going to challenge your entire body in a safe way. True strict pullups are like planks, demanding that your abs be engaged the entire time. That results in a full-body move that will wear you out faster than you think.

Some will say that’s the issue with strict pullups in WODs. If you’re so worn down that you’re coming off the pullup bar every rep or two, your heart rate is gradually leaving its stratosphere, too. That’s the strongest case for the kipping pullup.

The counterpoint: If you can’t do the bazillion strict pullups at the pace required to keep that heart rate up, maybe it’s time to go to a move that actually naturally fits in with a WOD. There are a wealth of exercises that you know, don’t place the shoulder at risk like the kipping pullup and can easily be done with great volume.

That might be as simple as a slight pullup regression. Walk into a smart Crossfit box, and you’ll see this too; my favorite box digs ring rows. No, these don’t hit the same muscles, but they do smoke your back. Really, a case could be made that the pullup period just isn’t ideal for the general population in some sort of WOD structure. I’ve probably made that case pretty well already.

What’s Your Goal?

That’s the big question. It’s a Crossfit competitive advantage to do kipping pullups, so you can’t blame Mat Fraser from rocking the ultra-kip at the Games every summer. But if you’re Joe Dad-of-Three, all those spasms on the pullup bar, practiced or not, are developing . . . what exactly? They’re not the best way to pack on muscle, and over-focusing on them is going to cost you time spent in more muscle-building, smarter flat-blasting fitness.

The kipping pullup isn’t so much bad as it is a waste of time. The time you spend learning to kip could easily be spent honing your strict pullup form, learning to continue to pull throughout the range of the pullup and fully contracting your lats.

Or start each set with as many strict pullups as you can, then throw in a few kipping reps at the end, only after you’ve done strict reps, essentially a mechanical dropset. If muscle and strength is your goal, that’s the way to go.

Chasing your Cirque du Soleil dreams? Kip away.

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