The Kipping Pull-Up: Debate and Application

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by MISSY ALBRECHT, DPT, CSCS, FMS| Physical Therapist/Coach

The Kipping Pull-Up: Debate and Application

When is the correct time to start kipping pull-ups? Is there a recommended number of strict pull-ups an athlete should have before they kip? Are these rules actually enforced and do they need to be?
The PT’s opinion: I err on the side of caution and try to recommend 5 strict pull-ups before kipping with every athlete I encounter, which was a common response from most of our coaches.
After asking our coaches at CrossFit Southbay about these questions related to the kipping pull-up debate, I was reminded that you are all in good hands. The real answer to this debate is that you as the athlete have to take matters into your own hands. Our coaches have the knowledge, have educated all of you (if you haven’t been educated please ask), and are there to continue watching your form, giving cues and corrections as they see necessary.
The take-home message (so that it’s in the back of your mind as you read this discussion): coaches can teach you and give you recommendations for what they see safe and applicable to your movement as an athlete. They do their absolute best to keep you safe and stop you when they see something wrong, but after that it’s your responsibility to take what they say and apply it to your workouts.

The reason I wanted to bring up this topic is because there seems to be a pretty large debate on whether an athlete needs to be able to do a strict pull-up before doing kipping pull-ups. My PT mind automatically goes to “Well, yes of course they need a base strength so they don’t swing on their ligaments and stretch them out, among other issues.” I’ll save my full opinion till the end, but I wanted to share what your lovely coaches think in order to help answer any questions/concerns and help educate those who have not really thought too much about their pull-ups.

I’ll start with the most “strict first rule” and work down to the “strict is not necessary.”

  • Everyone should be first tested for their ability to hold hollow rock and superman on the ground. Then test their ability to do this while hanging on the bar. While practicing this, they are also working on 10 strict pull-ups before they are allowed to kip. Eccentric pull-ups are used to increase strength in low volumes. (This is a Navy SEAL theory.)
  • Another thought is recommending 3-5 strict pull-ups but not requiring this in the athlete before they teach the kip. The coach will teach the kipping progression and also have the athlete work on their strict pull-ups either with a band or with eccentrics. If the kipping progression is not going well, the athlete may be told not to do kipping pull-ups until they get stronger (in the arms and core) but they are not forbidden from doing kipping (which means it’s up to the athlete to ultimately decide). “Encourage athletes to build pre-requisite strength through strict pull-ups instead of relying on the kip before they are ready or capable.”
  • The last major thought was that some athletes may be able to build enough strength through kipping first and working on strict later. The idea behind this is that muscle adaptation occurs through the kip, and some athletes have seen improvements with their strict abilities while just working on the kip. “It may be the case for some that full range of motion kipping pull ups done at high reps CAN cause the lats and biceps to adapt more aggressively than strict alone.”

Coaches’ Thoughts on Those Who May Not Be Ready

Coaches' Thoughts on Those Who May Not Be Ready

Most coaches will stress the importance of getting the strength for the strict but also want you all to be able to learn the technique of the kipping pull-up so you can practice and improve.
“The best thing you can possibly do as a coach is educate the athlete of the possibility of injury if their shoulders are not ready for a kip yet.” Then the athlete takes whatever part of that they wish and modifies his/her workouts as they see necessary. Again, safety is also about the athletes taking responsibility. Also keep in mind that strict, controlled movements are always the first step AND the end goal.”

The overall theme from the coaches is that it’s case-by-case. “I don’t have a hard and fast rule. I take it case by case and teach the kipping swing before the pull-up.” No athlete is the same and has the same fitness background, therefore what works with one athlete may or may not work for another athlete. Most coaches will stress the importance of getting the strength for the strict but also want you all to be able to learn the technique of the kipping pull-up so you can practice and improve. “Proper technique with any movement (e.g.- snatch) can largely compensate for what an athlete lacks in strength.”

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