The kipping pull-up has become famous thanks to CrossFit. While many people outside of the CrossFit community look at it as “cheating” where an athlete flails his or her body around aimlessly, trying to pull themselves above a pull-up bar, we know that this isn´t completely true. Only Joe P. flails around aimlessly.
The kipping pull-up is a combination of strength and technique, allowing an athlete to demonstrate his/her coordination in conjunction with strength to perform a more efficient movement that allows for higher volume training. Just like a push jerk being the application of technique and coordination to a pressing movement to be able to lift more weight overhead, the “kip” allows us to do a variety of gymnastics movements more efficiently.
HOWEVER….there is a time and place to do kipping pull-ups. Not everybody should be doing them, and my general rule of thumb is this: if you cannot do 3 strict dead hang pull-ups, you should NOT try to kip. Here´s why:
These are two images of your shoulder. I´m no doctor, but I did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. The picture on the left shows the shoulder joint with a bunch of its connective tissue, bursa and ligaments. I have no idea what I´m looking at, but even I can tell it’s complicated. The picture on the right is your labrum, I´m vaguely more familiar with the labrum, having ripped it once.
Around your shoulder joint, and all of this connective tissue and ligaments, you have your rotator cuff. The rotator cuff is a series of 4 muscles that help keep everything in place and moving as it should. Doctors, correct me if I´m wrong, but I´m pretty sure that the shoulder joint has the most range of motion out of any joint in the human body. Lots of range of motion + lots of ligaments and there are plenty of things that can go wrong. So we need the rotator cuff muscles to be strong in order to keep everything in place when we competitively exercise.
So back to my point about pull-ups. I have seen SO MANY ATHLETES knocking out kipping pull-ups, but when I ask them to do a strict pull-up, they simply can´t do it. This is a huge problem. These athletes’ muscles that surround their shoulders aren´t strong enough to handle pulling their bodyweight above the pull-up bar. Fast forward to an athlete using their hips to get them above the bar. No harm done. What about on the way down? The downward phase is where things go wrong! You have your entire bodyweight moving quickly downwards, and now we are adding in gravity and the downward momentum of our bodies…what do we expect is going to bring us to a halt?? If the musculature isn’t there to even get you up in the first place, then it is your shoulder joint that is going to take the beating, trying to stop your body’s momentum to get ready for the next big kip.
Anyway, like I mentioned above, the kip that we use in CrossFit is not all bad. There is definitely a time and place for it, but we need to make sure we are strong enough to handle it. If you cannot do 3 dead hang pull-ups, you need to start working on strict banded pull-ups, negatives, and ring rows until you are strong enough.
Once you have 3 strict pull-ups, learn how to kip. Once you have 20 unbroken kipping pull-ups, learn how to butterfly. Once you have 3 chest to bar pull-ups and 3 strict ring dips, learn how to do a muscle-up.
Note: the same logic is mostly true for toes to bar as well. Don´t kip your toes to bar unless you can do a few dead hang pull-ups, and you are capable of holding an “active” position in a dead hang for at least 20-30 seconds.