Kipping vs Strict Pull-ups

by Ross Gentry SPT, CF-L2, CSCS

A pull-up is pretty simple. You hang from a bar and pull yourself up to that bar. However, with the rising popularity of the kipping pull-up, often associated on social media with CrossFit gyms and various fitness competitions, battle lines seem to have been drawn with one side pledging allegiance to the strict pull-up, and the other advocating for this newer variation. To someone unfamiliar with the movement, kipping pull-ups may seem fairly nonsensical. With so many moving parts, can we even call them “pull-ups” at all? The debate has surged, but clarity still seems to be lacking. The two pull-ups are very different, and, the truth is – one of them is better.

A strict pull-up is marked by an individual keeping the midline of their body, or “core”, rigid and unmoving as pulling force is generated from the upper body and arms alone. Classically, most gym-goers use this as an effective exercise to develop strength in the lats (latissimus dorsi), biceps (biceps brachii), and in hand grip.

A kipping pull-up is distinct in that one will see the individual utilizing a swinging motion at the bottom of the movement to generate additional upward force toward the bar, thereby reducing the pulling strength required to bring the body up to the bar. These pull-ups often allow athletes to perform more repetitions at a faster rate.

Are kipping pull-ups even real pull-ups?

A. By the simple definition of a pull-up, of course kipping pull-ups are real pull-ups. You start at the bottom, and you pull your way to the top. Pull-up.

So which variation is better?

In order to improve your fitness, one of these two pull-up variations is the better option for you as you get in the gym and start putting in the reps. The catch is, the variation you need to work on in order to get better may not be the same variation your gym buddy needs. Both movements have important aspects of fitness to offer. The answer simply lies in what an individual’s current needs are.

As stated earlier, one would be hard-pressed to find a better movement than a strict pull-up for developing compound strength of upper body pulling motion and core stiffness. Not the mention the fact that if you ever find yourself precariously hanging on fingertips off the edge of a cliff, you’ll be glad you got those extra reps in at the gym.

If you are a person who struggles with general upper body strength, strict-pull ups should definitely be one of your biggest time investments in the gym. Can’t get that first strict rep yet? Grab some bands to assist you, place a stool under you to lighten the load, or knock out some horizontal rows on a TRX

trainer or some gymnastic rings. There are plenty of fantastic strict pull-up progressions out there. Find one (preferably one that uses compound, multi-joint exercises), and get to work.

Kipping pull-ups aren’t fantastic for developing strength. They do allow you to do more reps, but if strength is your goal, it would be more prudent to spend extra time under tension with strict pull-ups. There is a lot happening in a kipping pull-up. Arms, torso, hips, legs – everything is moving, and that’s partially the point. The best way to sum it up is this: The kipping-pull up is not a strengthening exercise, it is a gymnastic movement.

Gymnastics is about body control. If a person doing kipping pull-ups seems to be flailing wildly, they are probably still working toward more efficient reps, or at least we hope they are. In order to perform any gymnastic movement, an athlete must possess a certain consciousness of where their body is in space and also have to ability to make corrections if anything is out of place. A kipping-pull up is, comparatively, a simple gymnastic movement and provides beginner athletes with a great opportunity to get exposure to this type of athletic demand.

Gymnastics is also about core-to-extremity power. Core-to- extremity describes an athlete’s ability to generate most of the power of a movement from their torso and hips and translate that power to their arms and legs which finish the work. For example, to swing a baseball bat, an athlete generates most of their power from the fast rotation of their core (abdominal obliques and spinal erectors) and the arms follow through with the swinging motion. In a kipping pull-up, an athlete must use two quick instances of core and hip generated power to effectively drive their body up toward the bar.

The first instance is at the bottom of the kip swing. Once the athlete is hanging from the bar, they initiate a swing from their shoulders that pulls their head and chest in front of the bar and feet behind the bar. With the body now in this “C” shaped arch, the athlete must maintain tightness in their abdominals and use them to store elastic energy from this position. They can then use this elastic energy to forcefully swing into an opposite arch that mirrors the first – with their head and chest behind the bar and feet in front. This is similar to if you took a wooden ruler, bent it back slightly, and then released it with a quick “thwack”.

The second instance is when the athlete, now in this reverse “C” position, rapidly extends, or straightens out, their hips, creating an upward thrust power. This drive from the hips may make the athlete feel weightless for a moment, which is a great time for the arms to take over and pull the body up the remaining distance to the bar. The end result: Pull-up.

If an individual lacks this global (total) body coordination, kipping pull- ups may be a helpful way to create body-awareness and control. Additionally, if an athlete wants a higher overall intensity and work output in their workout, there is no doubt that the increased reps and speed kipping pull-ups afford you will accomplish the task.

There is one caveat to kipping pull-ups. Most well-informed gymnasts, coaches, and trainers do agree – an athlete should be able to perform at least one strict pull-up before attempting a kipping pull-up. Possessing this requisite strength and stability helps to ensure that when an athlete does attempt their first kip swings on the bar, their shoulders will be better adapted to this new dynamic movement.

So yes, to all you pull-up fans, there is a better pull-up for you. What’s best for you depends on your goals and your current ability. Get that first strict pull-up under your belt. Get multiple. Load some extra weight on your back and do a few more. Don’t, however, forget or underestimate the benefits of the increased control, coordination, and work output that the kipping pull-up has to offer.

Now, go forth and pull-up.

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As a 78-year-old man who found my path to fitness just seven years ago, I’ve got a message for every American: We all get older, but we don’t have to get old. The good news is you can keep living your life and doing the things you enjoy if you know how to be functionally fit. And if you’re 20-, 30-, or 40-something? The same message applies—but with one big difference. You’ve got the next 20 or 30 years to work at getting and staying functionally fit, rather than trying to counteract decades of couch-potato living in a matter of months, like I did.         

Functional fitness is a straightforward concept, but one I only discovered late in life. It means training your body for the activities of daily life, rather than trying to improve how fast you can run a mile or how good you look in a bathing suit. It’s about being able to handle everyday movements with ease, and without pain or risk of injury. The way to do that is by working on all five dimensions of fitness: core strength and stability, flexibility, balance, muscular strength, and cardiovascular endurance.

Being physically equipped for your day-to-day activities may not sound like a big deal right now. When you’re 30 or 40, you can take your body’s strength and suppleness for granted. But trust me, it doesn’t stay that way. Consider, too, that you don’t have to be an AARP member to start noticing some effects of age. Our bodies typically begin losing lean muscle mass and strength sometime in our thirties; that’s one reason the average American gains a pound a year, every year, after about age 25. Then there’s our ability to balance, which typically peaks in our twenties and gradually spirals downward from then on.

Functional fitness isn’t a new idea; physical therapists and a subset of athletic coaches and physical trainers have understood it for years. But training that’s “well-rounded” and “balanced” doesn’t generate the same media buzz as “five moves to make your body bikini-ready.” As a result, many people across all age groups still come at fitness from a relatively narrow perspective. Some are convinced all they need is cardio machines, or a spin class, or a daily run. Others, mostly men, go in for old-school bodybuilding, ignoring how often they get hurt. Still others, often women, swear by yoga and never go near a dumbbell. The hoary notion that strength is “unfeminine” has had surprising staying power.

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On a positive note, functional fitness seems to be catching on with this younger generation. Compared with the baby boomers I know, millennials strike me as much more intent on balancing intense career work with vigorous, varied physical workouts, no matter how early they have to get up to do it. A lot of young guys seem smart about strength-training, too, focusing on whole-body movements, endurance, and agility work rather than showing off with heavy weights. I’ve also been impressed by how many young women put into practice the belief that “strong is beautiful.”

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