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Ah, the endless debate continues… which is better, the kipping pullup or the strict, deadhang pullup? Also, where do we draw the line between strict, deadhang pullups and kipping pullups?
First, let’s define the two:
a) conventional pullups (aka strict, deadhang, military PT style pullups)
The strict, deadhang pullup is a bodybuilding-style pullup in which the purpose is to maximally contract the muscles of the back and arms – mostly the lats, biceps, and forearms. The rest of the body is meant to remain in enough tension to maintain a rigid structure. With the deadhang pullup, the body should not move except for those joints which are required to perform the movement itself, the elbows and shoulders. All other joints should remain relatively stationary, as they shouldn’t contribute to the force production required to execute the exercise. This is the classic exercise that people think of when they hear about pullups.
b) kipping pullups (aka hip snap pullups, gymnastic pullups, or Crossfit-style pullups)
The kipping pullup is a little more sophisticated than the deadhang pullup. Done correctly, it involves a hip snap that radiates up the spine and into the arms, effectively lifting the body with minimal upper body pulling. From a movement-standpoint, it is a much more efficient technique for elevating the chin over a bar. This is evident in that athletes who practice kipping pullups can achieve much higher numbers with a kip, than with a strict deadhang pullup. Unlike the deadhang version, the kipping pullup is a full body exercise. There is no room for muscle-isolation in kipping pullup performance.
So, which is better?
As is often the case in fitness debates, the answer is that it depends on a lot of factors – pre-existing conditions, goals, etc. While we cannot draw absolute conclusions for EVERY situation that may or may not require kipping versus deadhang pullups, we can draw some conclusions.
As you can see above in the example of the deadhang pullup, she is gradually shifting more towards a kipping pullup as her set progresses. It is obvious from the very first rep that there is a slight hip snap, but it gets very obvious around repetition 16 as that hip snap begins to radiate throughout the rest of her legs. By the end of her maxed out set, the only way she can get those last few reps in is to resort to a inexperienced version of kipping pullups.
I have never seen someone test a max set of pullups without some form of a hip snap, either from the start or near the end – even when the trainee is only doing “strict, deadhang pullups.” There’s a good reason for this, which I alluded to above. The kipping pullup is a much more EFFICIENT technique. Put simply, you can do more total work when kipping than when doing deadhang pullups. To someone who is interested in functional training, this is great – more efficiency is always better.
Even for someone who is mindfully trying to do strict, deadhang pullups, like in our example above – it is nearly impossible to actually perform them with a perfectly rigid body. This is because the body has a natural inclination (aka survival mechanism) to 1) work as a whole, not in isolation, 2) find the most efficient technique to execute any physical activity, and 3) to relax the areas that are not needed for work (the deadhang pullup is a tension-creating activity, the kipping pullup is properly performed with a balance of tension with relaxation). In a way, you could say that deadhang pullups are “hard style” and kipping pullups are “soft style.”
We know that both hard and soft styles of exercise have benefits, and that optimal performance in any activity lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Someone who ONLY does kipping pullups (soft style) will need to learn deadhang pullups (hard style) to realize the advantages that they are missing out on – and vice versa.
In the end, I think if you held a gun up to a group of people standing in front of a pullup bar, and demanded that they all perform a max set of pullups, and that the lowest number would be the first to “get it” – I’m pretty sure that the whole group would be kipping their way up the bar. Nobody would debate semantics, and each person would look for the most efficient way of getting their chin over the bar as many times as possible.
But isn’t it cheating by using momentum?
First off, there aren’t any rules that say you must do a pullup either way. Sure, if you’re in the military, you may have a drill instructor give you a hard time, and the guys at the gym will probably mock you for doing anything other than what they understand to be true. For most of us, it’s just a matter of preference.
I will also ask you…
Is becoming more efficient in your movement a bad thing? Sure, you may have to give up the dogma that deadhang pullups are the tried-and-true original and BEST version – but it’s clear that the kipping pullup is the superior of the two from a movement efficiency standpoint. That’s not to say that the deadhang pullup doesn’t have value as well, and in some cases it is the better choice.
If you compete in bodybuilding, chances are you’ll stick with the deadhang pullup for your own good. You may also want to stick to a deadhang pullup if you have injuries, especially lower back injuries which can be easily aggravated by an explosive hip snap. However, if you’re not a bodybuilding competitor and NOT injured to the point of being unable to do kipping pullups, then it’s probably for your own good to sophisticate your movement quality since aging is the process of losing complexity. The more sophisticated your movement quality becomes, the healthier and more effective/efficient you’ll be for life’s physical activities.
We all want strength that is APPLICABLE to real life situations. In athletics and in real life, we don’t ever try to isolate certain muscles to do work. For those that have a manual labor job like I used to (I owned a landscaping company), you’ll know what I mean when you try to use as much of the body as possible to accomplish a laborious task. When you have a stone wall to build, you’re not thinking about how best to activate the proper muscles to move the stones – you’re more concerned with conserving your energy to make it to the end of the day. That means using your entire body to accomplish the task as to prevent fatigue from setting in.
Exhausting local muscles like the lats and biceps from deadhang pullups is one way to get a training adaptation – the body will adapt to anything we subject it to. However, that training adaptation will be quite minimal compared to one that is focused on movement quality, coordination, and with efficiency in mind.
Here’s a brief tutorial on how to do kipping pullups:
Obviously, the best and safest way to learn the kipping pullup is to seek out a qualified coach. As with any new exercise, ease into it. Do not jump right into a new skill that you may not be prepared for. With high-skill exercises like the kipping pullup, you must use incremental progression to aid you in staying injury-free – think baby steps.
To your health and success,
Health-First Fitness Coach