First off, I want to say that I’m not against kipping pull-ups. If you are a competitive crossfit athlete then they are going to be a staple part of your program. I’m ok with that. I do kipping pull-ups regularly. Go ahead, make fun of me! I also do plenty of strict pullups, weighted pullups and other rowing variations.
That being said, if you have absolutely no desire to be competitive with crossfit, it may be helpful to stick with good old traditional pullups and their variations. This way you won’t run into any potential complications from the movement. However, the kip is an all around fun movement to learn and it’s been a large part of gymnastics movements for years.
There’s a lot of controversy out there with kipping pull-ups. I wrote an article on the subject over a year ago and it has easily been the most popular article I’ve ever written. I originally attempted to delve into the literature to find some answers to the age old question of why kipping pull-ups are dangerous, and how we can fix it. Since then I’m a year smarter, have put a lot more thought into it and believe I’ve got some greater insight to share. These are the reasons I believe kipping pull-ups get a bad rap.
Note: There are several ideas that float around in the crossfit world to try and prevent shoulder injuries. My goal was to try and inject some research and critical thinking into the mix and really get after the root of the problem. I’ve been reading a ton of shoulder research lately and am super excited to share. I’ll try to balance out the nerd in me with the meathead side and make the information a bit more reader friendly. I know you guys are smart and I don’t want to dumb things down to the point where I’m reiterating what everyone else says or am just flat out wrong. Sorry if it gets too sciency, I get excited.
1. Not Having Enough Pre-requisite Strength
Now I don’t really have much evidence to support this idea but it makes sense. If you don’t have the strength to get your chin, up and over the bar then I would also tend to think that you don’t have the strength to control yourself as you’re descending from the top position of a pull-up. This latter statement is the important one.
The issue with kipping pull-ups is that you can use a bit of momentum from your lower body to help get your chin up and over the bar. You don’t have to rely purely on upper body strength to complete the movement.
The problem comes from trying to control the descent of a kipping pull-up and then reversing the movement back into another repetition.
Unfortunately, the momentum that helped you get your chin over the bar really does nothing to help stabilize your shoulder joint as you attempt to control the lowering, or eccentric portion of the movement. As described in my first article, research from the gymnastics world shows that forces on the shoulder are greatest at the bottom portion of swing movements, similar to the bottom of a kipping pull-up. If you lack the strength and stability to complete strict pull-ups then buffering the increased forces on the shoulder in the bottom of a kipping pull-up will prove even more stressful.
Over time, it makes sense that some of the musculature that controls movement at the shoulder joint can be overused, pathological and damaged. A major proposed mechanism of injury of the rotator cuff musculature is eccentric overload of those muscles (1). When we lower ourselves into the bottom of a pull-up without adequate stability we’re doing exactly that, eccentrically overloading musculature.
What is more dangerous in my eyes is not just eccentric overload, but what happens when we lack the stability to keep our shoulder joint in a healthy position. Our bodies naturally try and complete the movements that we ask them to do (ie: If we ask our body to do a pull-up it’s going to try its darndest to make it happen, regardless of how ugly it may look). If our bodies lack the stability to remain in a safe position to complete the movement, it’s going to rely on other structures to get the job done and create more stability (allowing you to get through those pullups). For a more in depth explanation of why this happens, click HERE. My thoughts are that we are getting that extra stability from structures that shouldn’t be stressed. Some structures that come to mind are our ligaments, capsule and labrum. These structures are all super important for shoulder health and stability and we shouldn’t be putting them through too much hell.
Another unfortunate side effect of lacking dynamic stability of the shoulder is the humeral head misbehaving when we perform shoulder exercises. When we lack solid stability to control the humeral head, the humeral head is more free to move into positions that can promote both subacromial and internal impingement. For more information on the shoulder anatomy, why this might happen and probably way more information then you’d ever want to know about shoulder impingement, click HERE:
When we attempt kipping pull-ups without prerequisite shoulder strength and stability we’re torquing our shoulders into end range flexion and external rotation repeatedly without adequate control. One particular area that takes a lot of heat in this position is the anterior capsule of the shoulder. This chronic stress over time could potentially be lending itself to anterior instability (A fancy term that means the front of the shoulder loses stability). This is due to recurrent microtrauma to the anterior shoulder structures (after lots of kipping pullups). My worry is that this may cause permanent instability. Another thing to keep in mind is that instability can be coupled with impingement and rotator cuff pathology(4).
Nerd Note: This sounds a little eerily similar to the instability that pitchers and other overhead athletes acquire through repeated end range external rotation and horizontal abduction seen during throwing. To the other geeks out there: Do you think there is possibly a combination of internal impingement and a peel back mechanism (pulling from the biceps tendon) during kipping pull-ups causing SLAP lesions?
- Trying to complete kipping pull-ups without prerequisite strength will most likely lead to the inability our our shoulders to dynamically stabilize during the most stressful part of kipping.
- Without dynamic stability, the humeral head of our shoulder (ball) is more free to move around within the glenoid (socket).
- This may cause undue stress on the shoulder, most notably the anterior capsule.
- When we lack stability, we’re leaving ourselves more open to internal impingement, subacromial impingement, anterior instability and labral tears. (More on this later…)
2. Not Learning Proper Technique
In my last article I made a case for technique being a major cause of problems with kipping pull-ups. Obviously having good technique and motor control is going to be vital to complete the exercise in the most efficient and safest fashion. I think we’re all on the same page with this one. I really like Khalipa’s progression to learn the kipping pull-up and it’s what I use for my clients.
Crossfit Invictus also has a very in depth progression of the kipping pullup:
A big thing to keep in mind is that because you’ve learned how to properly kip doesn’t mean that your technique is perfect. I’m sure you guys have heard of the 10,000 hour rule. Obviously we aren’t going to practice for 10,000 hours before we start putting these into met-cons but it gives a bit of perspective of just how much practice goes into really mastering an exercise. If we’re cranking away on these exercises before we’ve got the motion down we might be running into some trouble.
On top of that, when we start a movement, our bodies are not necessarily conditioned for the movement, especially if we’re going to be throwing it into a met-con with other shoulder intensive exercises. This could also be a potential problem.
3. Not Knowing What Poor Positions Look Like
Several authors cited in the previous article hypothesized that it was critical for athletes to learn proper proprioception of the shoulder joint during a swing (2). What I believe they meant by this was learning what a safe and efficient position of the shoulder looks like and firing the correct muscles at the proper times. In this way we can keep our shoulders stable during the parts of the movement that create the most stress on the shoulder. In the past I thought most of this could be solved by shoulder packing. I still think shoulder packing is good stuff. However, since then I’ve re-evaluated some based on reading some more research and watching more athletes move.
First, take a look at these top level olympic gymnasts. They don’t look to be packing their shoulders, actually much the opposite. See if you can see what’s going on with these athlete’s shoulder during some of the swinging motions:
Second, some things from research to keep in mind:
- The musculature that supports our scapula (mainly the trapezius) is strongest when the scapula is in a neutral position, not specifically “down and back” (3)
- Our rotator cuff is strongest with the shoulder blades retracted slightly. Also, our rotator cuff is weaker with the shoulders protracted. (4)
- Shoulder protraction (Scapular anterior tilt and internal tilt for you geeks out there) reduces the subacromial space and can increase your risk of subacromial and internal shoulder impingement and rotator cuff tears. (1,4)
- Our shoulder joint is in it’s “closed pack” position (Position of most capsular stability/tautness) in full abduction and external rotation (5)
With these things in mind we can get an idea of what we should be doing with our shoulders and shoulder blades during kipping pull-ups in order to be efficient and strong.
Based on the article by Mey et al. (3) and our knowledge of how scapular position effects rotator cuff activity, our shoulder blades should probably be somewhere between completely shrugged and protracted (upwardly rotated, elevated, anteriorly tilted) and completely down and back (depressed, downwardly rotated, retracted). I would also say that keeping the shoulder blades slightly retracted and posteriorly rotated would keep us less prone to impingement and rotator cuff issues based on the above information. Lastly, maintaining an externally rotated position of the shoulder is most likely beneficial in order to maximize capsular stability (granted that your musculature is contributing adequately to shoulder stability and you have no history of internal impingement of the shoulder). I’m referring to the bottom position of a kipping pull-up for these shoulder positions as you can see below in the pictures.
Are either one of these positions correct?
Having our shoulders in the correct position is only part of the equation. As discussed previously, learning to fire the stabilizing musculature during the correct part of the movement is also going to be key. If your shoulder position is solid, but you’re hanging on your shoulder capsule during the most stressful part of the movement, you’re doing it wrong.
Well, that’s it for now. I thought this was going to be a fairly straight forward article and it turned into a bit of a mammoth. I guess I got my nerd fix for the day. Next week we’ll go over 3 more reasons kipping pull-ups cause shoulder injuries and then some fixes for this whole mess. You can find the article below.
My Lats Block Out the Sun,
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P.P.S If you guys have some other ideas to add please send them to the comments below. One of the major reasons I write these articles is to try and stimulate some thought on the subject so that we can all move forward together.
- Ludewig, P. M., & Reynolds, J. F. (2009). The association of scapular kinematics and glenohumeral joint pathologies. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 39(2), 90-104.
- Cerulli G, Caraffa A, Ragusa F, et al: A biomechanical study of shoulder pain in elite gymnasts. In Riehle HJ, Veiten MM (eds): ISBS ’98 XVI Internationa Symposium on Biomechanics in Sports. Konstanz, Germany, university of Konstanz, 1998, pp 308-310
- Mey, K. D., Danneels, L., Cagnie, B., Huyghe, L., Seyns, E., & Cools, A. M. (2013). Conscious correction of scapular orientation in overhead athletes performing selected shoulder rehabilitation exercises: The e.Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 43(1), 3-10.
- Kibler, W. B., Ludewig, P. M., McClure, P. W., Michener, L. A., Bak, K., & Sciascia, A. D. (2013). Clinical implications of scapular dyskinesis in shoulder injury: the 2013 consensus statement from the ‘scapular summit’. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 1-12.
- Gulick, D. (2009). Ortho notes. (2nd ed., p. 189). Philadelphia, PA: F.A. Davis Company.