Preaching the pull-up: Dead-hang vs. kipping

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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.

No shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Bad!

No shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Bad!

Here is what a dead-hang looks like with proper shoulder pack.

Proper shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Yay!

Proper shoulder pack from the dead-hang position. Yay!

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.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088

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18 thoughts on “Preaching the pull-up: Dead-hang vs. kipping

  1. I know we’ve had lengthy discussions about this already, Bob, and I certainly appreciate and respect your point of view. There’s a lot in here I agree with, and I think it’s all about context. Meaning, it completely depends on the purpose of the exercise, which you touch on, and what you’re training for.

    In CrossFit, we use kipping and butterfly pullups when our goal is to get our chin over the bar as efficiently as possible during a timed workout, i.e. using the least amount of effort, requiring the least amount of work. We also absolutely train dead hang pullups and chinups as well as weighted pullups and chinups because, as you say, they’re ideal movements for developing strength. It completely depends on what your goal is. If it’s to get a boatload of reps in a timed workout, using dead hang pullups would be incredibly inefficient. If it’s to build your overall strength, dead hang pullups are great.

    I’ve never heard trainers say the kipping movement specifically is more functional with respect to movements you’ll use in real0life, unless they’re referencing the fact that kipping is a faster, more efficient option for a specific workout with a specific goal.

    I’m equally impressed by someone who can do 12 dead hang and 30 kipping pullups because the skill required to link that many kipping pullups takes a long time to develop! I wrote this piece on my CrossFit training log/blog a while back when I was faced with a similar question/comment from a non-CrossFitting friend this winter. He had one of the same issues you do with the concept of whether it’s impressive or not to kip a giant set of pullups.

    http://www.theunspecialist.com/2012/12/word-to-world-kipping-pull-ups-are-not.html

    Would be interested to hear what you think, and thanks for getting this discussion going!

    • I’ll be sure to read this, and I appreciate your input! I know your Crossfit experience is a good one for a lot of reasons. That said, you have to ask yourself the question: Is doing a set number of reps in a given time period productive? In some case, yes. In this case, I’d say no. The pull-up is a critical exercise in developing posterior chain strength. Simply put, I’ll take quality reps over quantity, mostly because quantity often leads to form breakdown and injury. And among *some* people (definitely not all), a false sense of ability/accomplishment.

      I’ll be sure to read your post. I’m sure it will be a good one!

      • I think it depends on what you mean by “productive.” For me, as a competitive CrossFit athlete, if getting through a set of pullup faster by kipping puts me ahead of the competition, it’s absolutely productive! But if, to you, it’s more productive to develop strength, then dead hang pullups are the way to go. Looking forward to your feedback on the post!

      • That might beg the next question: What is the goal of the competition? What does it do? If everyone was forced to do dead-hangs in a competitive format, would that not feed to competitive need while also giving you the fullest fitness benefit?

      • I’d imagine the goal of athletes in most competitions is to win 🙂 And a demonstration of overall fitness is the goal of some CrossFit competitions, like the CrossFit Games, which is why athletes are tested in so many different disciplines, time domains, and skills.

        I’ve absolutely been a part of competitions where dead hang pullups were required, it just depends on the competition and what the workouts are. I’ve done competitions where they give you two minutes to do as many dead hang pullups as possible, and others where range of motion requirements (chin over the bar or chest to bar) are the only requirements.

        I think the biggest difference is you’re more focused on the best pullup technique for developing strength and fitness while I’m focused on finding the best technique depending on what I’m being asked to do.

  2. If there is a move that consistently makes me feel like a failure, it’s the pullup. There’s a class devoted to pullup technique this week at my gym, I’m fascinated and terrified at the same time. Thanks for the primer!

    • No problem! Keep working at it, and find those transitional exercises to help you build a base that will get you there. This is a difficult exercise. But if you can get it down correctly, it will reap huge dividends for you.

  3. One thing many kipping enthusiast fail to realize is this: ask ANY gymnast if they use kipping in training, and they will tell you that if they did it was ONLY as a last resort and it wasn’t anything to be proud of.

    • For gymnasts, the kip is a means to an end: to get you to a position to begin an exercise or to transition from one move to the next. How that went from its utilitarian roots to a staple exercise, I’m not sure. But it seems to me the “numbers game” has a lot to do with it.

  4. On my bucket list I have a line that says:
    DO A PULL UP

    Hope I can do a dead hang one 😉
    Question: If you’re a girl who can’t do a single pull up how do you work up to that?

    • There is an exercise I mentioned, with a video at the bottom of the post, about an inverted row. This is a great way to build up that strength.

      You can also work other back exercises: lat pull-downs, seated rows, dumbbell rows.

      Finally, you might try going up to a pull-up bar and doing a flexed-arm hang for time. Hold that position above the bar as long as you can, then slowly lower yourself down. Then repeat for a couple of more sets. You can use a chair to get you into position to start the exercises.

      Doing these exercises, and eventually pull-ups, is a great way to take care of your body. The entire posterior chain — back, glutes, hamstrings and calves — is a sorely neglected part of people’s bodies.

      Try these things and good luck! And thanks for reading and commenting!

    • If dead-hang pull-ups are bad for your elbows, I haven’t heard of it. However, I will say this: If a dead-hang pull-up is bad for your elbows, then all pull-ups are bad for your elbows. The dead-hang gives you the ability to at least have constant tension on your muscles and joints throughout the exercise, whereas with another form, like the kip, you would have fast switches between no tension and very high tension.

      Like I said, I’ve never heard anyone say a word about strict, dead-hang pull-ups being bad for your elbows. But it is something that, to me, is worth investigating, if for no other reason than to see why someone would claim this.

      Thanks for chiming in!

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