I’ve been in a bit of a mood lately, kind of ranting about things that drive me a little crazy. I’ll spare you that misery in this space and keep my inner Louis Black in a cage. But there is a subject I want to examine, and I want to speak plainly.
I’m talking about pull-ups.
Awhile back, I crowned the pull-up as one of the four kings of strength training. Any bodybuilder worth his/her salt does them. Pull-ups are a staple in military training. And not surprisingly, many popular exercise programs incorporate them. Needless to say, they are heavily represented in my workouts.
The reasons are pretty clear: Pulling your bodyweight to where your chin gets over a bar is hard work. Do it right and it works your back, shoulders and biceps. Good, efficient hard work.
But there are two very different ways the pull-up is executed.
The first is the dead-hang, or tactical, pull-up. Here’s a video demonstrating what that looks like:
Then you have the kipping pull-up, which is pretty popular in Crossfit circles. Here’s video showing that:
These are very different techniques. A dead-hang pull-up is hard to execute. Many people cannot do it without assistance from bands or a spotter. It takes time to build up the strength to perform enough reps where you can do sets of dead-hang pull-ups.
The kipping pull-up is also very technique-oriented, often used by gymnasts to help them perform certain exercise routines on the bars and the rings. If you can’t do dead-hang pull-ups but learn kipping technique, you can perform kipping pull-ups in multiple sets with lots of reps.
I’ve never been shy about espousing the superiority of dead-hang pull-ups over kipping for training purposes. But it deserves some explanation. So what I’m going to do is break down why you should move away from the kip and go old-school on the pull-up.
For building strength, the dead-hang pull-up is superior. Dead-hang pull-ups isolate multiple muscle groups and in so doing, force them to do the work. A kipping pull-up will do some muscle isolation, but the momentum of the body swing actually does a huge part of the work. You can do a ton of kipping reps and not do the work of far fewer dead-hang pull-ups.
The “functional strength” aspect of the kip is highly overrated. A lot of trainers who incorporate the kip say they’re teaching a more useful physical “skill” than a dead-hang. I’ll concede that there aren’t many real-world moves that look like a dead-hang pull-up (unless you’re a climber/boulderer), and compound movements (where lots of muscle groups are working together to execute an athletic move) are meritorious. But outside of gymnastics and Crossfit competitions, where in the real world do you see a kipping movement used? Getting over an 8-foot wall? Nope. Rock climbing? Not really. Anything? Well, there is one thing…
The kip is used to get lots of reps, usually for the sake of getting lots of reps. Train enough, and you can do a boatload of kipping pull-ups. There are videos of people doing scores of reps in a single set. And that’s fine, except I don’t think it serves much purpose unless you’re measuring progress solely on numbers. For powerlifters, race athletes (run, swim, bike, etc.) and other similar sports, numbers matter. But in training? If being able to kip 100 times really signified progress, then why don’t we all do 1,000 crunches, 400 bodyweight squats and 500 jumping jacks every day? Because while all those feats are impressive, they don’t amount to much in terms of really improving your fitness. If you want to do an exercise that builds strength, you’re better off using progressive loads of weight rather than doing reps of an exercise that start piling up into multiple dozens per set.
There are injury concerns that tend to accompany lots of kipping. Kipping pull-ups, done right, are safe. But poor form causes shoulder problems, and doing lots of reps creates lots of fatigue, which of course leads to a breakdown in form, which gets particularly hairy on the downward part of the move. See where this is going? And one of the most important aspects of form on any pull-up is good “shoulder pack,” or keeping enough shoulder tension to safely guard the joints. Once fatigue sets in, shoulder pack tends to degrade. You can mask that with exercises that use momentum, or at least hide it from yourself. However, you cannot protect yourself from injury. Hello shoulder problems. That’s not to say you can’t lose shoulder pack on dead-hang pull-ups or face injury, but muscle fatigue will stop you from “over-repping” before you get too far.
As an aside, what does shoulder pack look like? To illustrate that, here are a couple of photos. This first shows a dead-hang position without proper shoulder pack.
Here is what a dead-hang looks like with proper shoulder pack.
Moving right along…
Lots of reps might mean lots of work, but lots of work isn’t always effective. See the prior comments on tons of reps on bodyweight exercises. At some point, you don’t need more reps. You need harder reps, whether that is a modified version of the exercise or just a different exercise that works the same body parts. I’d say 25 reps of 135 pounds on the squat rack is not harder than 4 reps at twice the weight. And that 4-rep set will also be more effective. The same is true with pull-ups.
I know some people will say that the higher-rep nature of a kipping circuit also has an endurance component, but there are better ways to encourage cardio performance growth than throwing down on a bunch of kips.
By contrast, the dead-hang pull-up builds strength, and fast. And the strength that is built is real and functional. For those who cannot do these, there are good “entry level” back exercises (like the inverted row) to help build up to doing the real deal. A video of the inverted row:
I hope I don’t bum anyone out. But exercise programs that use kipping pull-ups need to rethink this strategy for the sake of their clients’ fitness and health. One prominent Crossfit advocate agrees with me, writing a detailed piece on this very subject.
It may be awesome to say “I can do 30 pull-ups!” But if those are kipping pull-ups, you really haven’t accomplished much. Show me a guy who can do 12 dead-hang pull-ups, and that is way more impressive to me.
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