What’s Worse, Regular Kipping Pullups or Butterfly Kipping Pull-ups?

xfitpullupsI’ve been on a major kipping pullup kick lately.  Another topic in the pullup world I wanted to touch on briefly (I promise I’ll stop talking about kipping soon) is the butterfly kipping pullup.  I know several people that won’t butterfly kip at all for fear of destroying their shoulders, and more specifically their labrum.

Is this really true though?  Is the kipping pullup a much safer variation then the butterfly pullup?  Will I tear my shoulder to shreds if I perform butterfly pullups?  Honestly I’m not sure.  I wanted to do some brainstorming and see if we can come up with some answers.

First things first, what is the butterfly pullup?  Who better to instruct you then Mr. Chris Spealler:

And some good old regular kipping pullups with Carl Paoli

I think the first question that comes to mind is, why the hell would I do either?  Well, you can obviously do more repetitions of kipping pullups then strict pullups.  On top of that, butterfly pullups are faster then kipping pullups.  When you put together a workout that requires a lot of pullups in a short period of time, the butterfly pullup fits the bill nicely.  So, it makes sense to be butterflying (one of my favorite past times).

The question I want to answer is which one is more stressful on the shoulder, specifically which one is more injurious to the labrum?  Great question.  First off, how do we injure the labrum in the first place?

Given the complete sparsity of research on shoulder injuries in the crossfit population, we’re just going to have to guess on this one (There is research on the mechanism of injury for other athletes though, so we can atleast draw some conclusions from that realm).  There are two ways in which I think we can injure the glenoid labrum.  (For more info on what the labrum is click HERE)

1)  Fatigue of the shoulder musculature and subsequent stress on the labrum

In part 1 and part 2 of my recent articles about kipping pullups and injury I talk a little about what happens in the shoulder when we get tired.  As we fatigue in the pullup the rotator cuff loses the ability to dynamically stabilize the joint.  Also when we fatigue our shoulder position starts to get worse until we default into some pretty poor positions.  The problem with kipping pullups is that we can continue to do repetitions in this fatigued state with the help of momentum.   Once this occurs we start to stress certain structures of the shoulder that aren’t meant to be stressed, namely the glenoid labrum.

Now, butterfly pullups are a little more difficult to perform then regular kipping pullups.  If you ask a high level crossfit athlete to do kipping pullups to failure they’ll usually start with a butterfly variation and once they’re too tired to perform the butterfly variation anymore, they’ll switch to a regular kip.  Just watch Chris Spealer’s journey for 100 pullups in a row:

My thoughts are that you can continue regular kipping pullups for longer periods of time after your shoulder musculature is shot.  To me this means that you’re more open to injury with regular kipping pullups because you can continue to complete more repetitions in a fatigued and vulnerable state.

So there you have it, regular kipping pullups are worse… But wait, is that the only factor to consider?

2) Peel-back mechanism of the biceps on the labrum

Now this idea is a bit tougher to grasp.  In overhead athletes (particularly throwers) SLAP lesions of the shoulder are very common.  In this scenario it is hypothesized that the nature of throwing places rotary forces on the biceps tendon which in turn stresses the labrum (the biceps tendon attaches directly to the labrum).  Over time this stress can pull the labrum away from the glenoid resulting in a labral tear (SLAP variety).  For a more in depth explanation you can read Mike Reinold’s article on labral (SLAP) tears in throwing athletes.

Largo-butterflyWhat I’m very curious about is whether or not this is occurring during kipping pullups and whether or not this is more pronounced in the butterfly variation.  During the butterfly kipping pullup, as you lower from a chin over bar position back to the bottom position of the pullup you’re actively pulling your body forward (Check out the picture to the left).  Now it makes sense to me that the biceps are going to be very active in eccentrically lowering your body back to the bottom of the pullup, possibly more so then in regular kipping pullups.  Will this increased biceps activity  eventually lead to labral injury?

The hell if I know, but maybe.  Great answer huh?

In all honesty I don’t think that we can be sure either way which pullup variation is more dangerous.  From my experience, more advanced crossfit athletes use butterfly pullups almost exclusively and if they get injured, the blame goes on the butterfly variation.  On the other hand, if a novice crossfitter who just learned to kip gets hurt, the blame goes on a regular kip.

I also think that learning the technique for the butterfly pullup is a bit more difficult.  When our technique is not hammered down completely, we’re also at an increased risk of injury.  Maybe this is a reason why butterfly pullups get a bad rap?

In all honesty I think both movements can be taught and utilized safely following the principles I outlined in my last article 6 Ways to Make the Kipping Pullup Safer.  I honestly see a lot more shoulder injury during exercises like snatch variations, muscle-ups and overhead presses.  Maybe we can give the kipping pullup a break and start taking a closer look at other exercises?  Perhaps I need to stop writing so much about them…

In the end I write a lot of these articles to stimulate others to think a bit about these things so we can continue helping people reach their goals in a safer way.  If you have some additional thoughts on the subject please write them below.

Butterflies are my favorite insect,

Dan Pope DPT, CSCS

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