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Pull-ups

A major fitness milestone for some, just another bodyweight movement for others.

Either way, a hotly debated topic in internetland for sure. Particularly in recent years, pull-ups have come to the forefront of CrossFit hate because of the gymnastics kip we often utilize. “Cheating,” it’s called.

Not in the know yet? Google kip or kipping, or worse, CrossFit and pull-ups, and familiarize yourself if you like. YouTube comments are a proverbial blackhole, so watch out.

What you find under the message board bridge is a pull-up troll fight of epic proportions… but also some quality insight. Depends where you land.

Proponents of kipping cite the athleticism it requires (and develops), namely coordination for hip recruitment in order to use body momentum correctly. The kip fosters a body awareness akin to other muti-joint movements we see in Olympic weightlifting or sport specific actions like throwing or jumping.

Negative aspects of kipping are reported as well.  These include infringing on shoulder socket health with rotator cuff issues like bursitis or shoulder impingement. Also listed (and debated) is the potential for the eccentric, or “negative” action of the muscle groups to cause extreme muscle breakdown in a condition known as rhabdomyolysis. CrossFit, Inc. chronicled this issue as far back as 2005 from a CrossFit Journal article by Greg Glassman himself. Do even more research and you’ll find that rhabdo can come from a plethora of other exercises and fitness programs, and is not at all unique to the CrossFit community or any specific movement we utilize.

While on the topic of injuries, keep this math equation in mind: chalked hands + a pull-up bar = ripping.

I don’t have data or percentages on how many beginning CrossFitters tear their hands while learning to kip, but my bet is it’s somewhere in the 100th percentile. Check out more in a previous article on the topic here.

OWIE!

All in all, point be clear: the strict pull-up is a different movement than the kipping pull-up.

Both styles of the exercise have their merit, in a fitness sense, so both can and should be used in a general strength and conditioning program.  As a blanket statement, strict pull-ups are a safer movement for a beginner.  A strict pull-up helps develop muscle strength in the latissimus dorsi, the biceps, and to some extent the rhomboids and teres major.
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In a coached athlete, however, it is argued that the movement of the gymnastic kip can be taught on the pull-up bar simultaneously as the strict movement to help embed the concept through routine. While upper body strength is acquired, so is the idea of generating momentum.  Kipping practice can be done before or after a workout, although afterwards would generally mean a person works while fatigued.  Not unsafe, per se, but it needs to be noted that higher rep kipping pull-ups get the magnifying glass from the online fitness community, where negative feedback is aplenty. Overtrain while already muscle fatigued and the consensus agrees that’s a recipe for potential disaster.

Does that mean shy away from kipping pull-ups?  No.  Well, maybe.

I do agree and maintain the personal opinion that it’s possible to work kipping pull-ups at the same time as strict strength. Yet when we see newbies flailing on the pull-up bar, incorrectly swinging in order to barely clear their chin, as coaches we step in. We have to. It’s tough to check your ego sometimes, but that’s why a coach is so necessary– we can do that for you.

Kipping without a basis of strength is not productive.

The same goes for you butterfly wannabes as well.

pro pull upIf a CrossFit athlete has a kipping pull-up, it seems like the butterfly technique witnessed in competitive CrossFit events becomes an immediate goal.  Yet keep in mind it’s the shoulder socket that takes the brunt of the force being applied by the elliptical movement of the body in a butterfly pull-up, making it the most dangerous even though it can be the most efficient style of getting the chin over the bar. Strike that: potentially the most dangerous. In a strong and healthy shoulder, the butterfly technique seems to initiate a “normal” amount of extra stress on the shoulders, similar to Snatch work or throwing a baseball.

Facing the barrel of a loaded clock during a high repetition competitive event, and that decision needs to be yours as an athlete: am I skilled and strong enough to handle this? Am I moving efficiently and pain free?

To elaborate, pull-ups are elusive for beginners; it’s a movement that takes practice, like anything. And since much of the general public hasn’t performed bodyweight pull-ups since their grade school days, many newcomers have trouble at the start. Likewise, jumping into a butterfly pull-up too early doesn’t make sense if your range of motion is short-changed or you are arching and breaking at the spinal midline in order to make the rep. Form and function first; strength follows.

Even if someone walks in off the street with basic pull-up experience, with a sound work capacity, and with above average athleticism, it still may not be smart to attempt butterflies right off the bat. Some recommendations exist as prerequisites, but it’s always a bit of a grey area… like being able to perform 10 consecutive strict pull-ups or 20-25 gymnastics kipping pull-ups.

Whatever the benchmark, the butterfly pull-up is definitely not in the CrossFit starter kit.

baby pull up

Great news, though, no matter what experience level: pull-up development is like everything else in the gym. You put some attention towards the exercise and gains are made. What you put in, you get out.

The bad news?  That strength development takes time.

To obtain a kipping pull-up or to sequence multiple strict pull-ups or to be ready for a butterfly pull-up we need time. Sometimes even six months or more to garnish necessary pull strength.  However, depending on a person’s inherent genetic strength and days spent in the gym refining the movement, it’s definitely a realistic three month goal. Even from scratch. Which makes pull-ups a perfect focus for the start of summer.

In fact, so many of our Amplify members list this as a huge personal goal… to be better at pull-ups.  Or in some cases, to get their first pull-up ever.

And for reference, a “pull-up” refers to an overhand grip (palms facing away, in supination), whereas a “chin-up” uses an underhand grip (palms facing inward, in pronation). Chin-ups have a place in functional training as well; they utilize more bicep action and are generally an easier exercise of the two to clear one’s chin over the bar. Kipping is more difficult with the arms blocking the swing by basic shoulder anatomy, but strict chin-ups are a definite tool to use just like strict pull-ups.

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So, whether you’re looking to develop your strict, your kip, an efficient butterfly, or simply your first pull-up ever, let’s check out some ideas behind the movements and quick guidelines on the road upwards.

 

Ring Rows: A great start for the absolute newbie.  The more horizontal the body, the harder the ring row, but also be careful to try and emulate a more upright pull-up motion to work the lat muscles correctly.

  • Do keep the core tight and complete the full range of motion for best results.
  • Don’t think these are for wussies. Ring rows can be brutal, even for the experienced.

Assistance Bands: Used correctly, this can foster some of the greatest strength development for those without a free-hanging pull-up, but does limit the kipping movement a bit during the learning process. Scaling: more pros than cons, for sure.

  • Do know when it’s time to use the band (figure out your limit on total rep count) and when it’s time to drop down in band size.
  • Don’t let this become a crutch or take the place of your pull-up attempts without the band.

pull-up-with-bands

Hollow Body Position: Underrated, at least on the pull-up bar, and usable not just as an exercise in itself. A good counter balance (instead of feet pulled behind, breaking the midline), the hollow position builds core stability while keeping posture on the bar. This transfers to many other aspects in gymnastics and CrossFit.

  • Do practice hollow rocks on flat ground and apply it to your starting position at the bottom of the pull-up. Particularly, strict pull-ups… although a tight midline aids the stretch reflex during the loading phase of a kip as well.
  • Don’t get frustrated. Hollow positioning is not easy.  (Unless you grew up a gymnast… lucky.)

Strict Pull-ups: These should never leave your repertoire.  Once obtained, hit strict pull-ups at least once a week to maintain the upper body strength that can spread to other movements in the gym. Make this the basis of pull strength, even as a CrossFit athlete whose default is to kip. Chin over bar counts, chest to bar is the gold standard.

  • Do maintain good positioning and research strategies or set/rep schemes to foster pull-up growth. Early on, three times a week at 3 or 4 sets of 3-8 reps, even “negatives,” is a great start. Be wary of too many slow negatives (downward action of the pull-up.)
  • Don’t be embarrassed to hit small sets of 1 or 2 when working on these as supplemental work in warm-ups or after a conditioning workout.

strict pull up

Gymnastics Kip: A kip can be small or big in terms of the swing, and therefore can be used to eke out just a few additional reps on a set of strict pulls ’til failure or as a first pull-up attempt with a humongous “load-up.” Hips are essential.  Check videos here, here, and here. Working on stringing more consecutive kips?  Remember to push away at the top, especially as you fatigue, and use a bigger “chest through” swing in the later rep numbers as you near your max.

  • Do work shoulder mobility to allow the chest to come forward and through the window of the arms to gain swing momentum.  Also, generate power from the hips to get them up and turned over.
  • Don’t worry if you get a pull-up, or multiples, and then “lose” them for a day or more.  They come and go sometimes. Stay at it.

pull up kip hollow

Butterfly Kip: A challenging move since it generates more power from the body and thus more of a metabolic need, the butterfly pull-up is faster in its turn over but taxes the cardio system for sure. Butterflies make clearing the chin easier in short numbers and are almost always used for high rep workouts and/or CrossFit competitions. This is not really a pull-up, in the traditional sense of the term.  The butterfly is its own entity now, and more of a test of skill and work capacity than anything else.

  • Do continue to work shoulder mobility, gymnastics kip, and strict pull-ups. Also, to increase efficiency, make sure you are coming through the bar as you pass under it while prepping for your next rep. Heels pull back immediately for your next kick and kip. Ride the imaginary bicycle backwards while midair, if that analogy helps.
  • Don’t count a butterfly as a pull-up if you’re no where near clearing your chin. Even if you are close, how is your overall strength with strict pull-ups?

butterfly snapshot 1

Realize the hate that exists of this move, even if you can hit 100 in a row.  (This video of Chris Spealler shows an incredible feat but one that has the internet at each others’ throats over the butterfly pull-up.)

I toyed with using kipping pull-ups as a strength and fitness developer for a year on video.  With a max test each month, I put together a kipping pull-up compilation of my progress.  Mostly butterflies. The outcome was somewhere around 10-11 added reps in a year’s time, which wasn’t too significant unless we consider the starting number. All the while my strict pull-up max remained the same at 16-18, for reference.


You decide: cheating or not?

 

And so you’re off– decide on your goals and where you fit in the pull-up spectrum, then keep at it.

The only thing left is to celebrate your success, kiddos.  Do a good job and you get a treat.

– Scott, 6.23.2014

huggies-pull-ups

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