Why Are Kipping Pull-ups Causing Shoulder Injury and What Can We Do About It?

Unfortunately there is not any research to be found that I know of for crossfit exercise and injury.  Luckily crossfit has pretty much stolen their exercises from other sports...

Unfortunately there is not any research to be found that I know of for crossfit exercise and injury.  Luckily crossfit has pretty much stolen their exercises from other sports where some solid research has been done.

When it comes to the kipping pull-up I’m just going to take my best guess as to why these injuries occur based on some of the gymnastics injury research, my own experience and some common sense.  If anyone has some other insight to add please share!

NOTE: I’ve since added some additional ideas as to why kipping pullups might be causing injury, you can find an updated article HERE:

There is some research in the field of gymnastics and the forces on the shoulder during some of the swinging motions that are commonly seen in the sport.  When comparing these movements to the kipping pull-up we need to look with a grain of salt because we’re comparing different but similar motions and the studies are using athletes from varying populations(age, performance level, gender etc).   I’m sure the general membership at your crossfit gym isn’t quite the same as the gymnasts in these studies.

Niu and colleagues found that in the long swing movement in the still rings as the athletes swing past the bottom (lowest point) in the swing, peak forces reached 4.27 to 4.66 times bodyweight.  Cheetham and Sreden found forces at 5.1 to 7.9 times bodyweight.  A study by Caine looking at female gymnasts found that in the low swing forces were 8.5 times bodyweight.  Obviously this is a tremendous amount of force for your body to handle, especially by a joint that is known for tremendous mobility and not necessarily stability (shoulder).

Cerulli and colleagues in an article entitled, “A biomechanical study of shoulder pain in elite gymnasts” speculated that poor technique (improper timing of muscle activation during a giant swing) could lead to a SLAP lesion in the shoulder (Fairly common crossfit injury huh?).  The authors reported a critical phase when muscle activity was very low and thus stress on the shoulder joint was very high.  (ie: shoulder muscles relax and the labrum/ligaments take the brunt of the load)   The authors hypothesized that this coupled with large tension from the biceps tendon could be causing SLAP tears (tear of the labrum that may include the  long head of the biceps tendon if the damage is great enough).   The authors went on to recommend proprioceptive training as a prophylactic treatment for these athletes, teaching the gymnasts to recognize the position of the humeral head into the glenoid fossa (ball into socket) during these movements.

Side Note:  In watching videos of elite gymnasts doing giants, it does appear as if their shoulders rise up by their ears in a shrug position at times.  This is definitely not what people like Gray Cook describe as a safe packed position.   Possibly this is a form thing for the judges?  I can’t really explain this.  Possibly this is a variable in the high incidence of labral tears in gymnasts?  If anyone has more information about gymnastics please feel free to chime in.

Obviously we aren’t elite athletes doing giants and intense ring work but I really think a lot of things could be learned from these studies and applied to making the kipping pull-up safer.

  1. Kipping pull-ups like these other gymnastic movements place a large amount of stress on the shoulder joint and it’s surrounding musculature
  2. Firing the musculature at the right time is important in minimizing stresses on the shoulder (Proprioceptive training)
  3. Technique becomes critical
  4. Learning how to position the humeral head properly into the glenoid is critical. (Sounds a lot like shoulder packing)

Why else might crossfit athletes get injured doing kipping pullups.

  1. Poor flexibility –  If you don’t have the mobility to put your arms fully overhead, kipping pullups end up being an end range stretching exercise under a lot of load(your bodyweight)
  2. Poor Technique and No Shoulder Packing – These studies emphasize the importance of technique and putting the humeral head into a healthy position
  3. Fatigue – It’s natural to lose form when you get tired.  Crossfit is notorious for fatiguing people.  Once the musculature that surrounds the shoulder fatigues, you won’t be able to maintain a shoulder packed, healthy shoulder position.  Now you’re hanging on the labrum and ligaments within the shoulder joint and those articular(joint) forces go up just as in the study above.

So what the hell can we do about it?

Shoulders Back and Down (Photo Left: Poor position – Photo Right: Shoulder Packed and war ready)

  • Learn how to kip properly – Here is an excellent progression from Jason Khalipa and his lovely wife Ashley.  Just make sure to keep the shoulders down and back during the progression.  Let’s keep those shoulders away from that shrugged, high risk position as best as we can.

  • Stop with technical breakdown.  If you fall out of the shoulder packed position the stress on the joint goes up.  When this happens, take a breather and get back to it when you can do the exercise with proper technique.  Rest or use some bands to assist you.  Whatever it takes to do it properly every time.
  • Learn the motor program – I probably didn’t need to put in this point because it goes hand in hand with technique.  Learn how to kip properly and reinforce this a few times per week.  I like putting kipping (just the kip, not the whole pull-up) into the warm-ups of the clients at Crossfit Tribe.  They learn how to shoulder pack and when workouts come up with kipping pull-ups, they’ve built the strength and the motor program to perform this movement properly.  More importantly they will be able to tell when they’ve sunken into a poor position and how to correct it. (People need to know what to do in a group training environment)

Hopefully this helps us get a better idea of why the kipping pull-up gets a bad name.  Like most other movements and with crossfit in general I feel like we can take the necessary steps to ensure our athletes and clients make the best progress in the safest manner possible.

Let me know your own thoughts about the kipping pull-up guys.  I for one really enjoy them because they’re fun and challenging.  How about you?

Lats for days brah,

Dan Pope

If you enjoyed this article please let me know by signing up for the newsletter found on the top right part of the page!

P.S. I’ve updated my thoughts on the kipping pullup.  To see the new information click HERE:

References:

Wilk, K. E., Reinold, M. M., & Andrews, J. R. (2009). The Athlete’s Shoulder . (2 ed., pp. 491-495). Philadelphia, PA: Churchhill Livingstone.

Niu J, Lu X, Xu G, et al: Study on gymnastic rings movements using force measuring system.  In Hong Y, Johns DP (eds): Proceedings of XVIII International SYmposium on Biomechanics in Sports, 2000, pp 72-109

Cheetham PJ, Sreden HI, Mizoguchi H: Preliminary investigation of forces produced by junior male gymnasts on the rings. In Hoshizaki TB, Salmela JH, Petiot B, (eds): Diagnostics Treatment and Analysis of Gymnastic Talent. Montreal, Sports Psyche Editions, 1987, pp 99-106

Caine DJ: Injury Epidemiology. In sand WA, Caines DJ, Borms J (eds): Scientific Aspects of women’s gymnastics. Basel, Karger, 2002, pp 72-109

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

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22 Comments on this post.
  • Why are Kipping Pull-ups Causing Shoulder Injury and What Can we do to Make Them Safer? | Achieve More Fitness
    14 June 2012 at 10:26
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    […] Why are Kipping Pull-ups Causing Shoulder Injury and What Can we do to Prevent Injury? Share This Post! Share this on Facebook Tweet about it Subscribe to the comments on this post This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ← How to get a Beach Body – Part 5: Sample Eating Plan […]

  • Friday 6/15 – CrossFit Tribe
    15 June 2012 at 10:26
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    […] Why are kipping pull-ups causing shoulder injury and what can we do about it? […]

    • djpope
      15 June 2012 at 10:26
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      Thanks for the share love tribe

  • Saturday 6/16 – CrossFit Tribe
    16 June 2012 at 10:26
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    […] Why are kipping pull-ups causing shoulder injury and what can we do about it? […]

  • Paul
    23 August 2012 at 10:26
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    I wish,wish,wish I would have know about your site and this article on June the 18th of this year. At 48 years of age, involved in sports for the past 40 years, and huge reader of many training journals you would think I would know about shoulder packing during pull up movments. I did not. Using the very same video you have here, I did the hip swinging portion of this kipping progression without packing my shoulders, and gave myself a severe AC joint contusion. (Just diagnosed today my Orthopedic 23 Aug) I have not been able to press or pull anything for the last 5 weeks. Because I did not know what was wrong I’ve been doing a ton of rotator cuff exercises and unknowingly making the problum worse. I will read everything on your blogs and hopfully my career as a powerlifter turned Crossfiter will be healthy from now on.
    Thanks for the time you put into your blogs.

    • djpope
      23 August 2012 at 10:26
      Leave a Reply

      Paul, thanks for your kind words. I’m sorry to hear about your shoulder. Let’s hope for a swift recovery! If I can help you in any way let me know.

  • Paul
    24 August 2012 at 10:26
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    Thanks for the offer Dan,
    I will lean on your knowledge because not only do I want to get healthy again, but I have this fantasy of competing in the crossfit games(at some level) in the 50 and over group. That is just a pipe dream right now, and I know once one turns to formal competitions the risk factors go way up. So I will evaluate the competing as I continue to get healthy.
    Most importantly I also train my 21 year old son, my 19 year daughter, and her 23 year old boyfriend. The last thing I want to do is tell them to do things that will get them hurt. Thanks again for your site and efforts to keep people healthy.
    Have a great and safe weekend.
    Paul

  • Paul
    24 August 2012 at 10:26
    Leave a Reply

    BTW,
    Your suggestion of have a little more structured programing in crossfit in your podcast was spot on in my opinion. Two years ago I saw some pics of me on vacation. My fairly lean 198lb class body had turn into a middleaged 22% Bodyfat 220lbs class LOL. Anyway I empolyed the old 5-3-1 protocal on a 3 day a week plan with short ,10mins at most, metcons afterwards. I added low intensity cardio (65-75% of my Heart rate) on the off days. After 9 months of that I celebrated my 46th Birthday with 185lbs @ 6% bodyfat with a resting morning heart rate of 48 to 52 BPM. Nothing was very ramdom. It was all planned out even my Deloads.
    Thanks again

    • djpope
      5 September 2012 at 10:26
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      Great work Paul, I know crossfit prides itself on having a ton of variety and it does but the exercises that you’ll see in a given competition are fairly predictable. That makes us able to use some tried and true methods to make progress (specificity, periodization, deloading, etc etc). Glad you’re whooping ass!

  • Fitness Pain Free Podcast Episode 9: Is Crossfit Dangerous? | FITNESS PAIN FREE
    16 September 2012 at 10:26
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    […] My recent article on Making Kipping Pull-ups safer […]

  • 9 Most Popular Posts of 2012 | FITNESS PAIN FREE
    31 December 2012 at 10:26
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    […] 1. Why are Kipping Pull-ups Causing Shoulder Injuries and What Can We Do About It? […]

  • 9 Most Popular Posts of 2012 « Fitness Pain Free
    31 December 2012 at 10:26
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    […] 1. Why are Kipping Pull-ups Causing Shoulder Injuries and What Can We Do About It? […]

  • Kipping Pull-Ups | Glenwood Springs CrossFit
    4 January 2013 at 10:26
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    • djpope
      4 January 2013 at 10:26
      Leave a Reply

      Thanks for the share love!

  • The Pull-Up: Traditional or Kipping? | Performance360 | P360 | Strength | Fat Loss | Athletes | Mission Beach | Pacific Beach
    19 January 2013 at 10:26
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    […] “Why Are Kipping Pull-Ups Causing Shoulder Injury and What We Can Do About it?”, from  his Fitness Pain Free’s website.  Dan shares my opinion on the risk of immobile overhead work and quotes some very telling […]

  • Doug Monaghan
    25 January 2013 at 10:26
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    Research how a SLAP tear is caused then watched a kipping pullup. Kipping pullup enhance SLAP tears.

    • djpope
      27 January 2013 at 10:26
      Leave a Reply

      Hey Doug, I agree with you. The only trouble is that all this research about SLAP tears comes from throwing athletes. Kipping is not throwing and the different kinematics lead me to believe that the injuries are not exactly the same (ie: no extreme peel-back mechanism) This is what the literature about gymnastic swinging movement says. I do believe that kipping poorly or without prerequisite stability/proprioception can create labral problems though. Thanks for your input.

  • 3 Reasons Kipping Pullups Cause Injuries | FITNESS PAIN FREE
    4 August 2013 at 10:26
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    […] 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 […]

  • 3 More Reasons Kipping Pullups Cause Injury | FITNESS PAIN FREE
    12 August 2013 at 10:26
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    […] of these factors are really going to open us up to shoulder impingement(4).  As described in my original article, proprioception is exactly what the authors of the aforementioned studies recommended as important […]

  • Ty
    15 June 2014 at 10:26
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    I know that this post is a little old but coming across it now I thought I would add a comment and hopefully share some experience in gymnastics that may shed some more light. I was an internationally competitive, elite gymnast for many years and now a CrossFit athlete. True, giant swings in gymnastics generate many times the normal g-force that a body experiences in everyday life. However a kipping pull-up does not come anywhere close to this. Additionally, shoulder injuries in gymnastics are not from the giant swings but the movements that follow, such as the release and recatches and other various technical movements. It is not possible to “pack” ones shoulders in gymnastics, on giant swings on bars or rings and if a gymnast attempted this, the coach would be cleaning them off the floor as it is simply not possible to hold this position through the bottom of the swing. The “shoulder shrug” that you are referring to is the relaxation of the shoulder muscles through the base of the swing and is necessary to allow maximum extension before the body goes into to flexion after passing through the bottom. This is to allow an increase of swing speed as the body shortens its rotation. From observation, it would appear that CrossFit atheletes suffering from shoulder injuries that are a result of kips have not developed the necessary mobility and strength in the back, rotator cuff muscles and lats. Underdeveloped muscle structures are going to put stress in the wrong areas. I therefore would tend to believe that packing the shoulders in a weak structure such as in these athletes could be even more damaging. Lack of gradient training is a big factor. A beginner lifter would not walk up to a 170lb barbell and attempt a few full snatches, so why then are they jumping onto a bar and trying to whip a 170lb body through an awkward bunch of jerking swings, where poor technique is not doing anything to help weak muscles??? Many people seem to forget this, all too glaring fact. Your body is heavy, heavier than most beginners and intermediate CrossFit athlete’s personal records in the lifting disciplines. So I think a little more respect needs to be given to the stress of the seemingly fundamental movements of pull-ups, muscle ups and kips. The same goes for handstand push-ups, if you can barely manage a 130lb push press, how do you think a 170lb handstand push-up is going to go. So gymnastics conditioning starts to be a critical addition to you training program. Strict pull-ups, with a band and without, spotter and doing negatives. Push-ups, ring dips, paralette work and midline stabiliser strengthening is important. Lots of mobility work as well. Start kipping once you have developed the necessary foundational strength to support the upper back and shoulder structures. I don’t struggle with kips causing pain or discomfort and my hands will go long before my shoulders. I do not “pack” my shoulders but I also do not fully relax through the bottom like a gymnastics giant as the movement is so fast and short that I maintain some tension in the shoulders to allow faster transitioning. Even more so in toes to bar. This, however is an efficiency choice and not an injury prevention choice, for me at least. Packing shoulders may feel helpful for this reason, but if your biceps and rotators are not strong enough you could experience considerable fatigue and in turn inflammation in the top of the shoulders. Hope this is useful, at least as a viewpoint.

    • djpope
      10 August 2014 at 10:26
      Leave a Reply

      Thanks for the great reply Ty, definitely good stuff.

  • Things I think about… how you should really be training your rotator cuff | Flight | A blog about Body, Mind and Flying Trapeze
    2 February 2015 at 10:26
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    […] Dan Pope’s Fitness Pain Free blog, he suggested that a part of what might lead to a labrum tear in that moment is poor technique. […]

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