Considerations for the Kipping Pull Up

With regards to the growing popularity of cross fit,  and more specifically, the attraction to the kipping pull up, I would like to offer the following considerations. This is not meant to discredit the exercise or anyone who uses it.

First and Foremost. Make certain that the pull up bar is firmly secured. OUCH.

On a more serious note: Healthy shoulders are a swimmer’s greatest asset.  As with any exercise, I urge coaches to simply use a Risk vs Rewards filter, and stay within the scope of their coaching abilities.  There is certainly merit to the strong resemblance to the short axis undulation of swimming as seen in the kipping pull up. These similarities make this a sensible exercise for certain highly functioning competitive swimmers.

With the correct execution,(emphasis on correct) this exercise can prove safe and effective for some. Conversely, when used by the wrong individuals, and with improper guidance, the kipping pull up could be jeopardizing.  Recently, Dr. John Mullen wisely presented this exercise as a specific and technical speed-strength exercise, not to be confused as a generalized, high volume, conditioning exercise done to failure.

It’s important for coaches to recognize that the kipping pull up may not be a universally suitable exercise for every swimmer.  This should go without saying; any pull up variation should be approached with caution for individuals with any pre-existing shoulder pain or dysfunction. An athlete should  demonstrate orthopedically sound shoulder and scapular stability before progressing to this particular style of pull up.  Athletes presenting with laxity in the capsulo-ligamentous structures of the shoulder ( a 67% finding according to Olivier N et al.) should use careful consideration when looking to implement the kipping pull up.

The ballistic nature and the sometimes high velocity descent, seen in some poorly executed kipping pull ups, may present problematically for the shoulder joints.    All sports involve anatomical adaptations. Some more severe than others. Given the high number of overhead repetitions of  year round competitive swimmers, it’s not hard to image that the Glenoid Labrum has some unique abnormalities inside this population.

Back in 2009, The Stanford University School of Medicine conducted a small study involving swimmers. They found 83% moderate abnormalities in the labrums of 6 asymptomatic elite swimmers.  Small, yet noteworthy, findings like that make me a bit hesitant when prescribing exercises that exhibit high velocity forces at the shoulder joint. Additionally, athletes swimming at particularly higher volumes should consider the state of health and recovery of their rotator cuff tissues before executing the kipping pull up. It’s also wise to consider that with overhead athletes it’s possible to have partial thickness rotator cuff tears with no associated pain.

As I understand it, the kipping pull up has a few particulars and variations with regard to technique.  Furthermore, there are different styles, namely “Regular chest-to-bar Kipping” and “Butterfly Kipping.” If you plan to implement either, be sure to have a clear understanding of the desired technique and have a plan for progression. Implement on an individualized basis. Safely control the descent. Avoid over extending at the spine.  Keep volume within reasonable limits. With any style of pull up, the athlete should remain in control of the movement and not be over-dominated by the forces of gravity.

In closing I’d like to mention that swimming is biased towards the concentric (shortening of the muscle tissue under load) contraction of the latisimus dorsi during the pull phase.  On the other hand a traditional pull up can allow for a deliberate focus on the eccentric (lengthening of the muscle tissue under load) contraction during the decent. Swimmers with self proclaimed “tight lats” could benefit from emphasizing the lowering portion of the pull up to encourage tissue length.