CrossFit has taken the world by storm in the last couple of years and has grown from a relatively underground sport to an almost universally-recognized household name. Unfortunately though, this success has come at the cost of notoriety: not all of its fame has been earned for the right reasons and it seems the training system has just as many critics as it does die-hard fans.
The reason for this divide is the intensity of the training regimes, coupled with a relatively low amount of 'quality control' at its gyms. Many people believe that the training programs and moves encouraged by the sport are themselves dangerous and ill-conceived, while it appears that many of the gym (or 'box') owners aren't qualified enough to tell the good advice apart from the bad.
One move in particular that has come under a lot of fire, is one known as the 'kipping pull up'. This is a type of pull up that deviates from the normal technique and which forms the basis for many CrossFit workouts. At the same time, there are those who believe the move to be 'cheating' at best and potentially dangerous at worse. And that's before we've even considered the closely related 'butterfly' pull up.
So who's right? Is the kipping pull up a useful variation on a fantastic exercise? Or is it a potentially dangerous, pale imitation? Let's cut through the hysteria and find out the truth…
How to Perform a Kipping Pull Up
First, what precisely is a kipping pull up? Essentially, it is a pull up but with a few tweaks designed to make it slightly easier, thus enabling larger sets filled with more repetitions. Whereas you might be able to perform say ten 'regular' pull ups (called 'strict pull ups' in CrossFit), you would more likely use kipping pull ups in sets of twenty or even fifty.
This possible is because kipping pull ups allowing you to use momentum in order to 'help' yourself up. While a regular pull up requires you to keep your legs straight, the kipping pull up has you swing the legs forward first and then 'snap' the hips forward to provide a burst of momentum taking you up and over the bar. It's difficult to explain, but the movement comes fairly naturally once you have seen a few people do it on YouTube.
The 'butterfly' meanwhile is a similar movement that takes the concept further. This time, you bring your hips backwards and then forward creating a circular movement and constant momentum to help you perform multiple repetitions.
Is the Kipping Pull Up Useful?
The first criticism aimed at the kipping pull up, is that it isn't as 'difficult' as the pull up and therefore isn't 'useful'. Because you are using momentum to help yourself over the bar, there is not as much resistance placed on the lats or biceps and this in turn isn't as likely to generate as many microtears in the muscles, or to contribute to as much hypertrophy or muscle growth as a result.
For these reasons, the kipping pull up is thought of as some to be an ineffective alternative to the regular pull up – and especially if your main goal is to build muscle.
However, this is actually looking at the kipping pull up in the wrong way. The kipping pull up is not 'wrong' in any way, but rather it is simply different. It has different benefits which serve different objectives and it needs to be used differently in order to be effective.
What the kipping pull up is really, is a form of 'resistance cardio'. In other words, it is a form of cardiovascular training that combines light resistance with continual movement. So although the kipping pull up is not optimal for building muscle by any means, it actually is useful for burning fat and for toning the body in order to create a more 'ripped' physique and lean mass. The butterfly is the same, but moves the dial even closer to CV. Rather than comparing a kipping pull up to a pull up, it actually makes more sense to compare it to something like jumping jacks.
Another benefit of kipping pull ups is that they require a lot of coordination, timing and core strength to perform safely. What this means, is that they can be used in order to train the nervous system and your 'proprioception' or awareness of body in space. Like a clean and press then, this is actually a highly skilled movement.
Another point to remember is that CrossFit is actually a sport with the 'CrossFit games' providing a type of formal competition for CrossFitters to test their skills. One of the smaller contests that make up the CrossFit games challenges participants to perform as many pull ups as they possibly can using any technique. Here, the only rule is that the participants' chins must come up past the bar – and it doesn't matter how they accomplish that (there used to be an equivalent lift in strongman competitions called the 'anyhow lift').
How Kipping Pull Ups Can Be Used to Build Muscle
While it's not their primary goal, kipping pull ups actually can be used to build muscle if they are used correctly. That's because they can be used as a form of 'cheat' or 'mechanical drop set' as in bodybuilding. Essentially, a 'cheat' in bodybuilding is any exercise performed using momentum to help you through the movement. This is one way that lifters can push themselves past failure, and it's actually a useful tool that can enable them to create more microtears and again to trigger more growth as a result of that. A mechanical drop set is a similar technique, wherein the position or precise technique is slightly altered in order to make it easier so that you can carry on going.
What either of these systems do, is to allow the bodybuilder to go past 'failure'. In other words, they have trained to the point where most of their muscle fibers have become fatigue to the point where they have to stop. If you could find a way to continue past this point however, you would likely find that you could tear even more muscle fibers. The point is that some are not yet fatigued, but enough are fatigued that you can't continue with the movement. Thus, by using an altered and 'easier' technique, you can keep going using something easier enough that you can continue, but difficult enough that it can continue to provide sufficient resistance.
The kipping pull up is ideal for this, because it is similar enough to the regular pull up in that it targets the same muscles, while the added momentum means you can use it to go past failure. As an added bonus, the kipping pull up is a very quick and explosive move, which means it can be used to target the most fast-twitch muscle fibers, which wouldn’t necessarily get trained from performing very slow and very strict 'normal' pull ups.
On its own, the kipping pull up is not sufficient for building muscle. But when used at the end of a set of regular pull ups, it can actually be very useful in this capacity.
Is the Kipping Pull Up Safe?
The other criticism that gets levelled at the pull up is that it involves 'bad technique' and thus isn't safe. Likely the complaint here is that it involves a rapid jerking movement for the back. In fact though, this is a movement that the human body should more than be able to handle. There is a risk that you could put your back out and there is also a risk that you could hit your teeth on the bar while doing such rapid, momentum-driven movements… but these are risks that exist with most exercises. The secret is not to blame the exercise, but just to ensure that proper form is used and that there is an adequate warm-up beforehand.
So Why All the Hate?
The kipping pull up then seems to be a useful exercise that is perfectly safe as long as it is practiced correctly. So why all the hate?
Mostly, this animosity comes from a lack of understand and a lot of misuse – and both outsiders and CrossFitters are guilty of this. Attempting to use the kipping pull up to build muscle or comparing it to regular pull ups are both misguided actions. Likewise, teaching the move to absolute beginners who can't yet do a 'strict pull up', or using them with high repetitions before delicate powerlifting moves, are both bad ideas.
The other reason that kipping pull ups aren't popular is simply that CrossFit isn't popular. CrossFit has a lot of problems as a sport and as a training regime, but both the company and the die-hard followers would often ignore these problems rather than working to rectify them (which would require first admitting to them). Unfortunately, the kipping pull up gets 'tarred with the same brush' as CrossFit at large, when actually, this move should be taken as a clear example of something good that has come out of the movement.