“Coach, why are we doing pull ups? When, in real life, will we need to use this exercise?”
THE HANGING FROM A LEDGE ANALOGY
It can be an exercise that may save your life! That’s what we tell people (I have at least) when they ask what the “real world” application of a pull up is. You could accidentally slip on a steep hiking trail and find yourself hanging off of a cliff. All of a sudden, you need to perform a pull up in order to save your own life! You haven’t used this analogy before? Whatever, maybe I’m the crazy one.
Could it happen? Definitely. The likelihood that it will? Doubtful. When is the last time you read the headline, “Man/Woman hanging from cliff, saves own life by doing a pull up!” That sounds crazy because it is. If you are hanging your hat on the old “I may need to save my own life by pulling myself up” in order to justify doing pull ups, you’re fooling yourself.
I’m not saying that pull ups are a waste of time, because a strong argument could be made that they are the best upper body exercise on the planet. What I am saying, is that we may be prioritizing getting someone’s chin over the bar TOO SOON. We, as coaches and trainers, have been placing a heavy emphasis on doing a pull up for way too long. This creates pressure for athletes to get their chin over the bar by any means necessary.
ARE YOU READY?
Many people do not have the required shoulder, lat, forearm, and bicep strength needed to safely perform a pull up. So what do we do? Kip! We teach them how to kip and use a little hip engagement in order to get their chin over the bar.
The biggest problem I see with this is that the kipping pull up is a much more advanced movement than the strict pull up. Yes, that’s right, a MORE advanced movement! You should be able to perform strict pull ups BEFORE you even attempt a kipping pull up.
Kipping is a full body movement that requires shoulder AND hip mobility, stability, and strength. Not to mention a ton of coordination. Without the prerequisite strength and mobility, the kipping pull up is a recipe for disaster. This is a high level gymnastics movement that should be treated with respect.
I believe that the “hanging from a cliff” analogy puts a strong emphasis on getting one’s chin over the bar any way they can. This is a huge problem that must be addressed immediately with coaches and athletes alike. Here are some ways to find out if you are ready for the kipping pull up.
SCAPULA STRENGTH AND CONTROL
Having full control over your scapulae (aka wing bones or shoulder blades) is the most important part of performing the kipping pull up. Your scapulae (singular is scapula) are triangle shaped bones on your upper back that connect your collar bone (clavicle) with the humerus (upper arm bone). The four rotator cuff muscles attach to your scapulae. Having awareness and control over these and rotator cuff muscles are the first step in the safe execution of a kipping pull up.
STEP 1 – “ACTIVE” SHOULDERS?
CrossFit coaches often refer to having “active” shoulders during the kipping pull up. “Active” shoulders simply means using your shoulders to apply force towards the pressure being placed on the shoulder itself.
In the overhead press, active shoulders means pressing your shoulders up towards the weight you are lifting over your head. In the pull up, it means pulling your body (the weight being lifted) back up towards the bar you are hanging from, using just your shoulders. This happens without bending your elbows, using just your scapulae and rotator cuff muscles.
STEP 2 – KIP SWINGS!
Kip swings, when done properly and with an active shoulder, are freaking hard! I love scaling people to just a kip swing during pull up or toes to bar workouts because they are almost always in for a huge surprise. After workouts where someone does this, they always say something like, “Damn, those were harder than I thought they’d be!” Here’s how to properly do a kip swing.
Pick a bar that you need to jump to reach and hang from it with “active” shoulders. From there, you need to hold a “hallow body” position. This means tightening your stomach muscles, squeezing your butt, and flexing your quads. Sound tough? It is! Remember in the beginning I said the kipping pull up was a full body exercise?
Now, using your shoulders, pecs, and lats, push your head forward in a straight line. When you push your head forward, squeeze your butt as well. This ensures that you are staying tight throughout the entire movement. Once your head has passed through and is in front of your arms, press away from the bar while flexing your quads and stomach.
Notice how you are always flexing pretty much your entire body. This require a ton of strength, coordination, control, and stability. If you are able to do this once, try stringing together multiple kip swings in a row. If you can perform 20 kip swings with full control and stability, you can move on to the next step in the progression.
STEP 3 – KIP SWING WITH LAT PULL
The next step is to display strength after performing a kip swing. This requires a ton of lat, forearm, and core strength. Being able to perform these with control is a very good indicator if you should be doing kipping pull ups or not.
After performing the “press away from the bar” phase of the kip swing, continue to apply force on the bar with your hands. Keep your arms fully locked out and aggressively drive your hips upwards towards the bar.
I like to tell people that you should pull down on the bar and “pop” your hip so hard that there will be a moment of weightlessness on the bar. If you wanted to, or feel comfortable doing so, you could release your hands off of the bar just a quarter of an inch because you are so “weightless” at the top.
Once you come down from the top, go directly into the “push your head forward” portion of the kip swing as described above. All of this is happening while keeping your shoulders “active” and body tight. This is a pretty difficult movement!
Try stringing this movement together multiple times in a row, in a fluid and controlled fashion. If you can do 10 of these types of kip swings with complete control and stability, I can confidently say you are ready for a kipping pull up attempt!
STEP 4 – KIPPING PULL UP TIME!
Here’s the moment you’ve been waiting for, how exciting! It’s because not only are you about to get your chin over the bar for the first time, but you’ve demonstrated that you can do it safely.
After that moment of “weightlessness”, pull! It’s as simple as that. If you’ve done the first three steps properly, all you have to do is pull your chin to the bar using your arms. Once you get your chin at the bar, that’s the tricky part. Many people get their chin to the bar, then drop straight down and have no clue what to do in order to string multiple pull ups together.
First thing to remember, always stay active in your shoulder, abs, butt, and hips when performing this movement. The the tighter your body is, the more efficiently it will move. It may feel harder when you do this, because it is! You’re using more muscle.
To string multiples together, when your chin is at the bar, push your body away from the bar. If someone is looking at you from the side, the path your head takes should represent a “C” shape.
Doing this puts your head, shoulders, and hips in a very good position to go straight into the “push the head forward” portion of the initial kip swing. Once your head is pushed forward, now let it rip for another kipping pull up! Here’s a side view of the “C” shape I am talking about.
Being able to string these together is a very challanging movement to perform. It takes time and practice. Most importantly, it takes all of the prerequisite strength, mobility, and coordination from all of the previous movements discussed above. Do not attempt this right out of the gate. You have to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Be patient and stay injury free!
INCORPORATING KIPPING INTO A WORKOUT & WARM-UP
Now that you have kipping pull ups in your repertoire, how do you implement them into your training? As tempting as it is, do not go from 0 pull ups in a workout to attempting “Murph”. This is an injury waiting to happen.
Initially, I would keep your kipping pull up volume to 30 reps or less during a workout. If the workout calls for more than this, stop at 30 reps and finish the workout with the scaled variety (ring rows and jumping negatives are my favorite). Keep the reps in the 30 range for approximately 1-3 months before increasing to 50 reps in a workout.
If you are very consistent, injury free, and feeling awesome with 30 reps then by all means increase it to 50 reps! If you are inconsistent, have stiff shoulders, and have a lifestyle that forces you to have little sleep, then I’d recommend waiting until you are fully prepared for more volume. Be realistic and honest with yourself. The last thing you want is an injury to halt your progress.
AVOID TEARING YOUR HANDS!
Lastly, when doing any type of kipping movement, hand care is essential. You are now going to be placing a ton of strain on your hands. For more information on how to care for your hands, check out my article on Hand Health for CrossFitters!
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