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Is kipping right for you?

Much like the kipping pull-up itself, opinions on the movement keep going back and forth like a pendulum. It started several years ago when Greg Glassman took the stand that kipping was the “default pull-up of CrossFit”. While those in other athletic disciplines either decried it as “cheating” or predicted mass incidence of shoulder injuries, the CrossFitters kept on kipping.

Engineman 1st Class Kevin L. Kibbe does pull-ups on the outdoor gym aboard the guided-missile cruiser USS Anzio (CG 68)
US Navy (official Flickr page)

Kipping refers to developing vertical momentum into a pull-up through horizontal force in the shoulders, hips, and legs. While it may be an excellent way for advanced athletes to use pullups as a conditioning exercise, beginner and intermediate CrossFitters and other trainees who jump into it too soon may find themselves injured or, best case, simply failing to make progress. In the video above, Evan Lee of DEFY!, a CrossFit gym in Broomfield, demonstrates the strict pull-up, the kipping pull-up, and a more advanced pull-up called the butterfly.

As stated, the arguments against kipping fall into one of three general categories: “cheating” (breaking a written or unwritten rule), “cheating yourself” (missing out on the benefit of an exercise by taking the easy way out), or “high-risk” (tears of the labrum are of the highest concern).

The aspect of rule-breaking can be disregarded; since CrossFit – both as a sport and as a training methodology – embraces kipping as a legitimate pull-up, no rule is being broken. That would be akin to calling a penalty for running with a football or a rugby ball just because the parent sport – soccer – prohibits it.

The claims of inferior training stimulus and higher risk of injury shouldn’t be so lightly discarded, because they are serious concerns. They are, however, concerns that can be alleviated with one simple sentence:

Kipping should be considered an advanced conditioning exercise, used by athletes who can complete several strict, unassisted pullups.

One of the extremely valid arguments against kipping is that athletes who start kipping before they have the strength to do unassisted strict pull-ups never seem to gain that strength. It’s not uncommon to see athletes at small local CrossFit competitions who can kip a dozen pull-ups in a row but can’t complete a single strict pull-up.

Once an athlete has the strength and shoulder stability to complete several unbroken strict pull-ups (coaches at DEFY! recommend a minimum of 7, with 10 being suggested), kipping becomes a great option for conditioning work – in or outside of CrossFit.

A major conditioning modality of CrossFit and similar training methods is to combine a variety of exercises to keep the athlete operating above their VO2max for several minutes at a time. One of the most effective ways to do this is to cycle the athlete through a series of complementary exercises with minimal rest between them; by including a lower-body exercise, a pressing exercise, and a pulling movement, the athlete can rest a fatigued muscle group and move on to a relatively fresh group of muscles, while keeping the heart and respiratory rate high. A great example is one of CrossFit’s benchmark workouts, lovingly called “Cindy” – a 20-minute circuit of 5 pull-ups, 10 pushups, and 15 air squats (squatting to below parallel with no additional weight). An advanced CrossFit athlete may do 20 rounds or more in the prescribed 20 minute time frame, for 100+ pullups.

If the primary goal of the pull-ups is to improve upper-body pulling strength (as it should be for all beginners and many intermediate athletes), strict pull-ups are absolutely the best choice for this workout. For advanced athletes, however, just doing more reps of pullups isn’t the most effective way to get stronger. Instead, working on their pulling strength using weighted pullups, no-leg rope climbs, and explosive, or “flying” pull-ups (along with deadlifts, cleans, and snatches) becomes a better way to build that strength, and kipping becomes an incredibly effective way to incorporate high-repetition upper-body pulling into their conditioning work.

Although it might have been easier had this distinction been made years ago, perhaps the simplest way to resolve the conflict would be to define kipping as its own separate exercise. If, rather than calling it “the default pull-up of CrossFit”, kipping were listed as the final step of a progression starting with ring rows and moving from strict assisted pullups to strict unassisted pullups, confusion over appropriate use of this potentially extremely effective exercise may have been avoided. As kipping has been brought into the CrossFit mainstream however, it becomes paramount to ensure that it is being used correctly, and by athletes who are physically prepared for it.

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