Kipping: Legit Exercise or Circus Act?
Want to start an augment? Just bring up the topic of kipping pull-ups. Want to cause a fist fight? Expand the conversation to butterfly kipping pull-ups.
On one side you have traditional strength athletes and bodybuilders. On the other, CrossFitters. Let's bridge the gap and objectively discuss the pros and cons of kipping.
A kipping pull-up is when you use a leg swing and hip snap to propel the body upward, helping you get your chin over the bar. It drastically decreases the force production required of the arms to get up to the bar.
There's also an advanced variation called the butterfly kip pull-up which uses continuous motion to go even faster through the reps. It uses more stretch reflex and momentum to move the body through the air.
Here's Jessica Cote-Beaudoin demonstrating a strict pull-up, the kipping pull-up, and a butterfly kip pull-up, in that order:
For CrossFit competitors, kipping helps them get more reps faster. It's within the rules of their sport, so in that sense it makes it "legit" for them. But is it legit for us, the "I just want to build muscle and strength" population? Is there value to this movement? Is it safe? And more importantly, should you learn to do it?
A kipping pull-up is to a pull-up what the push press is to the strict overhead press.
In both a kipping pull-up and a push press you're using the momentum created by the lower body to help with what is normally an upper body movement. And the more momentum you can create with the lower body, the easier the movement becomes -- you can do more weight or more reps.
So, is the push press also cheating? Or just a different exercise than the standing military press? One thing is for sure: in both cases, the person doing it can either look very athletic, coordinated and powerful, or look like someone having a seizure.
Heck, I'm very fond of the snatch-grip high pull, which is pretty similar to the kipping pull-up: you're using a lot of lower body drive to get the bar upward to your chest without having to use that much arm strength. Am I cheating?
A true kipping pull-up isn't just a cheated pull-up. It's actually a very technical movement. Proper execution requires timing, power, and coordination, especially when you're linking them together (no pause at the bottom between reps) and even more so if you're doing a butterfly pull-up.
The same thing can be said with the push press. A proper push press isn't just a cheated military press. It's actually a very precise movement requiring specific body positions as well as a lot of timing - you have the engage the arms at just the right time, not too soon and not too late.
Not many people criticize the push press, yet the kipping pull-up receives more hate mail than every other exercise combined. That's odd. In both cases you're doing the same thing: using momentum to help the upper body do the job.
In both cases we're talking about a compound movement. In both cases, those doing it wrong look like epileptic patients and run the risk of injury. But if done right, both are doable safely.
Maybe it's because kipping pull-ups were popularized by CrossFitters and the push press by weightlifters? It seems like every hardcore wannabe wants to hate on the CrossFitters. But to me it's exactly the same idea.
However, I'm not ready to say that the kipping pull-up is a good exercise and that everybody should do it. Just like I'm not willing to say that the push press can and should be done by everybody.
The kipping pull-up was developed to allow one to get more unbroken reps faster on pull-ups than if one does them strictly. People have been doing them forever in gyms. They weren't "real" kipping pull-ups, just pull-ups done with a little lower body swing.
When CrossFit competitions started, the pull-up rule simply stated that the athlete had to pull himself up until the chin went above the bar. Because of that, cheated pull-ups were allowed. And athletes, known to manipulate the rules to gain an advantage, developed the more sophisticated kipping pull-ups that we're seeing today.
Nowadays you'll rarely see someone do strict pull-ups in CrossFit competitions, unless it's specifically mentioned as "strict pull-ups" in the WOD description. At first that was fine because the kipping pull-up was developed by competitive athletes who could easily do lots of strict pull-ups. The kipping just allowed them to go faster through competitive WODs.
They were done by athletes who had solid muscle structure around the shoulder joint and had the muscle strength to absorb the force created during a kipping pull-up.
Problems started to arise when CrossFit became popular among the general population. Oftentimes these people do not have the muscular strength/integrity and shoulder mobility to do kipping pull-ups safely. But what's really problematic is that because of its use of momentum, even fairly weak individuals (who can't do more than one or two strict pull-ups) will be able to do kipping pull-ups once they learn to use their lower body properly.
But just because they can do it does not mean that they should!
Let's go back to the push press comparison. If someone is weak and can't hold a 65 pound barbell pressed overhead without looking like he's lifting in the middle of a tornado, it's not a good idea to have him do push presses.
Sure, he'll be able to get the barbell high enough because of his leg drive, but the risk of a disaster happening will be high because he has trouble controlling that load... just like someone who can't do strict pull-ups can't control their body during a kipping pull-up.
So, do not perform kipping pull-ups until you can get a decent amount of strict pull-ups, performed from a dead-start and with a pause at the top of each rep.
How many? At least five. Doesn't sound like much? Well, try it. Start from a dead hang. Pull yourself up with zero momentum, bring your chin above the bar, hold for two seconds. Lower yourself under control back into a dead hang and repeat four more times. Much tougher than it looks.
It's not enough to be able to lift your body; you must be able to fully control the load in all phases of the movement - lifting, lowering and both transitions. If you can't do that, you have no business doing kipping pull-ups.
I'm not an expert on kipping pull-ups and don't plan on becoming one. However, I know the human body and how it should be trained to optimize performance and minimize the risk of injuries.
If you're doing CrossFit you'll likely have to learn to do kipping pull-ups to maximize performance. And hopefully your coach will be able to show you the proper technique when the time is right. But when is that time?
You have a few steps to go through:
1. Be able to do 5 strict pull-ups.
Dead hang, chin over bar, pause at the top, controlled lowering. When you can do that for a few sets then you're ready to start learning and integrating kipping pull-ups.
2. Learn to do kipping pull-ups with minimal impact.
Do them one at a time, pause for a second or two at the top and lower yourself under control, coming back down to a dead hang before doing the next rep. Do not try to link them together. Focus on getting each rep solidly and lowering yourself under control. Lowering under control will help you build the structural strength and motor pattern to do kipping pull-ups safely. You should be able to do solid sets - good timing, chin over bar, hold for 1-2 seconds at the top, lower under control - of 7-10 reps before moving on to the next step.
3. Blend strict and kipping pull-ups.
Do sets of strict pull-ups and when you aren't strong enough to do them strict, start kipping. Still hold at the top and lower under control. When you can get a total of 15-20 reps this way (7 strict then 8 kipped for example) you're ready to move to the next step.
4. Learn to link the kipping pull-ups together.
As you become more comfortable, shoot for maximum speed.
5. Learn the butterfly pull-up.
Note that not everybody needs to learn it. Some CrossFit competitors are more efficient with regular kipping pull-ups and stick to them in competition.
The longer you stay on each of the first three steps, the safer the high-performance kipping pull-ups will be.
CrossFitters tend to be overprotective of their unique exercises. If you say that one of their variations of an exercise is not optimal to build muscle they take it personally. If you take an Olympic lifter and tell him "A split jerk is not a good way to build shoulder mass" he'll agree with you 100%.
Pointing out that an exercise isn't optimal for adding size isn't attacking the overall value of the exercise; it's just being objective. Get used to it.
For those involved in CrossFit competition, the value of the kipping pull-up is obvious: it allows you to get more reps without stopping, and get them quicker while fatiguing the upper body much less.
If someone kips properly - using a powerful hip snap to create a lot of upward momentum - the actual amount of upper body pulling is very small. Good for getting a high number of fast pull-ups. But not good if you're doing pull-ups to build your upper body!
There is some lat involvement when doing kipping pull-ups because you're doing a "front lever-like" action to push on the bar as you're snapping your hips. And if you control your body on the way down, the arms and back are being loaded during the eccentric.
But let's be honest here: the value of the kipping pull-up for hypertrophy is limited when compared to the strict version.
Where I see value in the kipping pull-up for someone simply focusing on getting more muscular is that they allow you to get more reps once your muscles are fatigued at the end of a set of strict pull-ups.
For example, let's say that you do strict pull-ups. After 8 reps you know you won't be able to get another strict one, but with proper kipping technique you'll be able to get a few more. Now, if those extra reps are lowered under control they'll make the set more effective at stimulating growth. It's not unlike having a partner help you lift the bar on a bench press, helping you get a few more reps once you hit failure.
So for someone simply wanting to get bigger, kipping pull-ups are an intensity technique to add at the tail-end of a set, like you would add forced reps, negatives, or do a drop set.
When it comes to hating on the kipping pull-up, the following thus applies:
Let he who has never swung a little at the end of a set of curls throw the first stone.
The butterfly pull-up evolved from the kipping pull-up. Remember that the rule is to simply to get the chin above the bar, doesn't matter what happens with the body. Chris Spealler was the first CrossFitter to use the butterfly kipping pull-up in competition and since then it has become the primary method for competitors.
It's designed to allow you to do the reps in even less time. In a kipping pull-up you do (briefly) come to a halt as you reverse direction, both at the top and bottom. In the butterfly pull-up you're constantly in motion. So if you can do it right, it's much faster than the kip.
However, not everybody is built to be efficient at the butterfly: you need to be very strong in the shoulders, and people with shorter arms are at an advantage. And it requires more timing and rhythm than the kip, so those with gymnastics backgrounds normally do better.
The possible negative impact on the shoulder joint is much higher with the butterfly than with a regular kip. Only athletes who are very strong and have good shoulder mobility should attempt to develop it.
That's one of the reasons why you'll see some top level competitors still doing kipping pull-ups instead of the butterfly, even if the latter is more efficient in theory. There's also a greater risk of getting a "no rep" on the butterfly because you have to raise your chin to rapidly go over the bar as you're moving toward it.
Now, the butterfly pull-up actually does involve the delts quite a bit, and can thus make them grow. But it's a very complex movement to learn. It takes a lot of time and effort if your goal is only to build muscle!
- The kipping pull-up by itself is not a good way to build muscle. However, it's a necessary skill to master for CrossFit competitors.
- If the individual doing the kipping pull-up has plenty of shoulder strength and mobility, then it can be done safely - or at least as safely as other ballistic lifts like the Olympic lifts and jumps.
- The kipping pull-up can be used to gain muscle by using it as an intensification technique added to the end of a set of strict pull-ups, like one would use forced reps or negatives at the end of a set. This should only be done with advanced athletes with plenty of strict pull-up strength and who master proper kipping technique.
- The butterfly pull-up is mostly a technique used in competition to go even faster than the regular kipping pull-ups. It's a very complex motor skill that isn't worth learning if you're not an advanced CrossFit competitor.
- The butterfly is also hard on the shoulders and should only be attempted by those with very strong and mobile shoulders. If any pull-up variation is going to cause an injury, it's the butterfly pull-up.
- If you want to learn the kipping pull-up variations for whatever reason, first get strong at strict pull-ups. This will make your shoulders much more resilient to injuries.