Assorted Rants, vol. 1 (or, “why can’t I kip?”)

As a trainer/gym owner, I feel that my primary responsibility is to ensure that you achieve the results that you are looking for, and that you get there in the safest, quickest, and most effective way possible.  To accomplish this, I have certain standards and philosophies that I enforce.  Sometimes they may not make sense, but I assure you that there is a method to my madness. In response to several conversations that I have had over the last weeks, I’d like to take the time to make a few remarks outlining my thinking about different topics.  I hope this serves to explain in more detail why we do (and don’t do) certain things.  Please keep in mind, this is only my opinion, and I absolutely reserve the right to change my mind if presented with better evidence. So, the first of several topics to be discussed:  Kipping pull ups On Kipping: Even a cursory glance at any of thousands of YouTube videos will show that kipping pull ups are clearly superior to any and every form of pulling, right?  And hey, kipping isn’t just for pull ups anymore! Now, all humor aside, here are some things to consider: Q:  What exactly do we mean by a strict pull up? A:   Let’s turn for a moment to Ido’s explanation of the ideal strict pull up (see link below):

The real pull up is very difficult to master: 1. Start in a slightly wider than shoulder width grip. From a complete hang with shoulder blades elevated, while maintaining locked elbows, depress shoulder blades down and retract them together. Your head should elevate between your shoulders as the lats and scap retractors will ‘engage’. 2. From the position achieved in stage 1 start to pull up by thinking of bringing elbows to your sides. Do not concentrate on the upper arms. You should also avoid concentrating on the load - as research shows one should concentrate on the working muscles in order to achieve optimal activation, even if you are not interested in body building - this is an essential cue for you: concentrate on your lats. 3. Pull all the way up until your lower chest hits the bar with shoulder blades retracted backwards and shoulder rolled behind. The triceps of both arms should make contact with the lats and there should be a slight pause at this position for 1-3 sec. The come down will reverse the process, going down at least in 4 sec to complete hang.  4. Repeat for the required amount of reps.
The kipping pull up, on the other hand, uses a sharp snap of the hips to generate upward momentum, allowing the upper body to do significantly less work while distributing the load throughout the rest of the body. Q:  Why would you want to do pull ups in the first place? A:  Because a properly executed pull up will strengthen many of the muscles in your upper body, and wikipedia says they’re good for you.   Or you could just read about them here or here or here.  Heck, Google it.  Point is, they’re essentially concentrated upper body awesomeness in exercise form. Q: Given all that, why would you want to kip? A:  Because, relative to strict pull ups:
  • it’s faster
  • it allows for a greater volume of work to be done in a given time
  • it allows people who aren’t able to do a lot of (or a single) strict pullups to enjoy some of the benefits of pullups.
  • it is a large-scale, total body movement which requires coordination, power and timing.
What’s not to love, right? Here’s where things get interesting.  Properly executed, kipping pull ups aren’t necessarily evil.  There, I said it.  It might surprise some of you to know that I’m not completely anti-kipping.  In fact, I want everyone in my gym to be able to do kipping pull ups whenever they choose to.  Whaaaaa???  (I know, right?).  Why would I write that when I tell people not to kip? Because if everyone could kip, that would mean that everyone had achieved the requisite strength, flexibility, and coordination to safely and effectively utilize the kip when needed.  In other words, we have chosen to enforce a rule requiring a certain level of strength and mechanical efficiency before allowing the kipping pull up to be used. In the end, it comes down to a cost/benefit analysis.  On the plus side is the massively increased speed (and higher repetitions) which kipping allows.  Let’s face it, if you are at all interested in competing in CrossFit events, you are going to have to be able to kip. On the negative side is the increased potential for injury and the huge potential for just plain crappy movement to occur.  Let’s examine each of these in turn.
Kipping pull ups have been blamed for (or at least associated with) shoulder injuries for a while now, particularly SLAP tears (Superior Labral tear, Anterior to Posterior).  Don’t take my word for it, check for yourself (Google has a nice selection).  This type of injury is common with overhead throwing athletes (e.g., Baseball or Volleyball), or from a fall onto an outstretched arm.  If you look at the position of the shoulder/arm at the front of a kip, it’s similar to a throwing position. [caption id=”attachment_4168” align=”alignnone” width=”250” caption=”via CrossFit Kinetics”]via CrossFit Kinetics[/caption]
Now, imagine someone severely lacking in shoulder/thoracic mobility (aka Average Guy) trying to get into that position.  Someone who struggles to lockout an overhead press or hold a handstand.  As the body starts to swing through, the shoulder girdle hits it’s flexibility limit and his forward momentum stops as violently as if he had crashed into a wall.
So, one theory is that, just as with repetitive overhead throwing, repetitive kipping creates microtrauma on the joint, eventually leading to injury. Another potential mechanism for injury has more to do with lack of strength or technique (or both).  This is often seen as the athlete becomes fatigued, and they start to lose the ability to control their body weight.  They’ll manage to heave and grunt themselves up (near) the bar, and then  fall to arms’ length, with no attempt made to slow their descent, coming to a violent, jerking stop,and then into the next kip.  Every one of these falls puts stress on the shoulder, and has the potential to create an acute or chronic injury. Finally, there’s always the potential for this type of kipping injury: Crappy Movement You’ll notice that I like to throw out words like “properly executed” when talking about the kipping pull up.  It’s like the old Dan John joke, “Squats aren’t bad for your knees.  Whatever the hell you’re doing,  that’s bad for your knees.”  At their best, kipping pull ups are ballet.  At their worst, it’s an uncontrolled flailing, with eyebrows almost getting to bar level and the head about 2 feet away from the bar with approximately a 10degree elbow bend at the top, followed by a free fall back down.  I would post a video, but my eyes are already bleeding from watching the ones that I have.  You’ll have to venture into the YouTube kipping abyss on your own time.   The Wrap Up So, do I think kipping is inherently bad, and no one should ever do it?  Not at all.  Given a solid base of strength and proper mobility, I believe anyone is capable of pulling off the movement.  But that’s the key—there must be a base level of strength*, and the ability to safely move through the range of motion necessary, with control and joint integrity, in order to minimize the risk of injury (to you and to my soul, which bleeds a little every time I see some of these things people count as pullups). *For what it’s worth, the strength standard we’re going with is the ability to perform 10 strict, chest/collarbone-to-bar pull ups (6 for ladies), prior to being able to use a full kip during a workout.  Once you achieve that strength standard, whether you choose to use kipping pull ups or not is up to you (unless we have a workout which denotes strict pull ups).  Weight the pros and cons, decide which version is better suited to your goals, and go with it.   I hope that clears up any confusion about where I stand vis-a-vis the use of the kipping pull up.  Please feel free to take sides and fire away.