In Defense of the Kipping Pull-Up, CrossFit's Most Controversial Exercise

CrossFit experts say Kipping Pull-Ups activate muscles throughout the body and, when done correctly, pose no risk of injury.

I'd been attending CrossFit workouts for two months before I began to learn the Kipping Pull-Up. Until that point, every Pull-Up I'd ever performed had been the more traditional strict, dead-arm hang, pause-at-the-bottom-then-pull-yourself-back-up type, even during CrossFit WODs. More advanced athletes, who could rip off 20+ reps of Kipping Pull-Ups at a time during metabolic conditioning workouts, blasted past me.

As opposed to dead-hang Pull-Ups, in which any pendulum-like motion of the body is considered a form flaw, the Kipping Pull-Up is patently free from any such restriction. CrossFitters who are skilled at Kipping and have the strength, mobility and stamina to do it for an extended period of time look like they can rattle them off with ease. To certain exercise purists, it also looks like they're just cheating at traditional Pull-Ups—or worse, putting themselves at injury risk.

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"It's the most hated thing we do," CrossFit trainer Adrian Bozman recently said of Kipping Pull-Ups. Bozman, a senior member of CrossFit HQ's seminar staff, then rhetorically asked a workshop full of aspiring CrossFit trainers, "Why do we do this? Even though it's so hated?"

The answer, Bozman said, is hip drive. Where strict Pull-Ups exercise a smaller, more specific set of muscles, a Kipping Pull-Up is a functional movement exercise that activates muscles throughout the body.

"Max power output throughout the entire system," Bozman said.

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Mastering the move has three specific training benefits:

  1. You can do more Kipping Pull-Ups.
  2. You can do them more quickly than traditional Pull-Ups.
  3. Kipping Pull-Ups can be a conditioning exercise.

No. 3 gets to the "why" of using Kipping Pull-Ups, according to Bozman. Because the exercise is compound in nature—recruiting muscles throughout the body to generate power—it demands more high-intensity power output. That develops stamina. An athlete performing a CrossFit workout that requires a total of 46 Pull-Ups (the number required in the flagship workout, "Fran") performed as rapidly as possible inevitably gets a high dose of metabolic conditioning.

Therefore, the Kipping Pull-Up, according Bozman, isn't better or worse than a traditional, strict Pull-Up. It's an entirely different training tool.

"We're using more of our body to achieve the same result. It's similar to the Standing Press versus a Push Press," he said. "Each move has a different end goal."

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If the workout goal is raw strength, a dead hang or weighted Pull-Up is the way to go. "But if my goal is maximum power output shared across the entire system? What's going to be a useful tool? The Kipping Pull-Up," Bozman said.

Critics say the move looks uncontrolled or reckless, but my own experience with kipping was nothing of the sort. My coaches had me perform drills to get a feel for the kipping action and to develop the coordination to do it. Even after that work, during my first attempts at the move, I couldn't come close to doing a single one. When I tried to link the hip action through the kinetic chain and into a swing, it was like someone had taken the spark plugs out of my car. I eventually got the hang of the first half of the kipping motion, but it was still difficult for me to get through just six or seven.

It took me months before I finally did "get it." I was slogging through an attempt at 15 consecutive Kipping Pull-Ups when, about halfway through, something clicked. The power was flowing through the right channel. I was keeping a pace and rhythm and finally understood how to effectively transmit power from the hip drive into the motion of the swing. I was able to do more Pull-Ups in less time. But I noticed something different when I dropped off the bar—different in comparison to a set of strict Pull-Ups: My heart was beating like a vampire bat and I was gasping for air.

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Other Advantages of Kipping

Kelly Starrett, DPT, physical therapist and bestselling author of Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury and Optimizing Athletic Performance, makes the case that the Kipping Pull-Up, when performed correctly, offers advantages in addition to conditioning.

"The Kipping Pull-Up works within the framework of our movement hierarchy as a skill transfer exercise," he says, adding that it has particular value for sports in which a throwing motion is key. A pitcher throwing a baseball or a tennis player executing a serve both engage the fundamental flow of power from the hip drive, through the midline, through the shoulder and arm.

Starrett advises those new to the Kipping Pull-Up to first gain skill and strength with strict Pull-Ups, making sure you have full range of motion in your shoulder (defined as being able to hang from the bar, elbows straight and locked out, armpits forward and spine braced in a neutral position.)

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"A lot of strength and conditioning pundits criticize the Kipping Pull-Up as being unsafe," Starrett wrote in his book. "They're right, but only if it's done incorrectly."

My own experience suggests the same: Kip correctly and the move is safe and increases shoulder mobility and power. Kipping can be a valuable tool in building more awareness in how you can channel power from the hips into a range of athletic movements. Performed in sets through a circuit workout, they boost your heart rate into the upper range.

I'm an older athlete who harbors the wear and tear from competing in everything from 11-year-old pee-wee football to Ironman triathlons in my 40s, and the only injury trouble Kipping Pull-Ups have given me has been an occasional torn callus on my hands.

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Sample Kipping Workout

One of the many workouts in which Kipping Pull-Ups are used is the workout named Josh (named in honor of U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Josh Hager, who was killed during combat operations in Ramadi, Iraq, on Feb. 22, 2007.)

For time, the athlete does the following:

  • 21 Overhead Squats
  • 42 Pull-Ups
  • 15 Overhead Squats
  • 30 Pull-Ups
  • 9 Overhead Squats
  • 18 Pull-Ups

CrossFitters may use strict Pull-Ups, but those with the skill will usually opt for faster-style Kipping Pull-Ups to get through the workout.

Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock