Building Athleticism through the Kipping Pull-Up

By: John Rozelle

Building Athleticism through the Kipping Pull-Up

The pull-up is built into our DNA, just watch any 5-year old placed in front of a great climbing tree. While it may seem unattainable as an adult I’m here to tell you, in all but the most extreme cases, it won’t take you longer than 2 months of dedication.  The benefits are worth the effort. You will see improved strength in your arms, shoulders, neck, back, core and grip. You will see improved mobility in your shoulders, neck and spine. You will also see a reduction in many common back problems due to the traction provided while hanging from the bar, and likely see an improvement in your posture. Lastly, by focusing on a gymnastic style “kipping” pull-up versus a strict pull-up you will also improve your coordination and ability to generate power through the hips.

First, what is a kipping pull-up? Kipping is the coordination through the hips and torso of a swinging motion that assists you in generating upward momentum. Here’s the key, your pivot point for the swing is not your hands it is your hips. Imagine you have a rubber band stretched between your thumb and index finger. With the other hand you pull at the middle of the rubber band and release. That’s the energy we are harnessing. Grab a friend. Have them hold one hand in front of your belly and one hand behind you, each about 40cm away from you, while hanging from the pull-up bar. Bend at the hips, arching your back, to push your belly forward towards the hand. At the apex of your movement, switch to pushing your back towards the other hand. Continue alternating as you build momentum until you are touching each hand. You’re doing it right if you are in control of the swing, in other words, your friend should be able to say “STOP” at any point and you can bring yourself to a halt in the middle between the hands.

You should practice building this skill each day until you can swing rhythmically like a child at play. You will get to a point where you are pushing your head through your arms as your belly moves forward, and your legs will swing back behind you. Remember our rubber band? You too should have a nice bowed arch.

Before we talk about how this converts into a pull-up, I want to insert very important injury prevention instructions. Until you can do 3 strict pull-ups I want you to be very careful with how hard you come “down” from your pull-ups, whether kipping or strict. That’s the one danger point in a pull-up, because there’s the potential to tear small muscles, tendons and ligaments in the arm, shoulder or even neck if you allow your full body weight to repeatedly jerk down at the bottom of your movement. Stay in control. If you’re getting really tired it’s ok to drop off the bar at the top even, so you remove that sharp stop at the bottom.

Building Athleticism through the Kipping Pull-Up

So, how do we build our strict pull-up? (NOTE: If you can do more than 7 strict pull-ups in a row, follow the “scale-up” instructions.) First, we will work jumping pull-ups. Use a bar that allows you to hold on while standing flat on the ground with your elbow at a 45-65 degree angle. Start with 3 sets of 12 and add a set each week. To scale up, complete 4 sets of max rep strict pull-ups – so 4 times do as many strict pull-ups as you can. Second, grab something to stand on so you can place your chin over the bar in the “finished” position. Remove your feet from the support and lower yourself down to a count of 5, so you come to a dead hang with your feet off the ground at 5. These are called “negative pull-ups”. Do 5 sets of 5, and once you can actually complete each negative at a count of five add a set each week. To scale-up do 5 sets of 12. If you aren’t scaling up, when you are done with both of these exercises, complete 3 sets of max rep strict pull-ups. Your max reps could start out as half way up once. That’s ok. Someday it won’t be.

Converting the kip into a pull-up involves a motion much like the old break-dancing move “the worm”. You’ll start your kip, pushing your chest forward, then as you swing back you will raise your knees and push down on the pull-up bar so as to bring it more in front of you than over your head. From that position you will snap your hips forward and up while pulling the bar to your collar bone. We’ve included a picture that has exaggerated this hip snap forward. It is a very explosive movement. This will transfer your side to side momentum into an upward force. At the top you will push away from the bar so your chest moves back and is ready for you to then engage your kipping motion again by pushing your chest forward. You may have to try this and reread this paragraph and try it again a few times as it’s difficult to explain.  I encourage you to jump on YouTube where there is a good number of videos that will show you what we’ve described. I think this is one of the better ones.

Make sure you warm up with some arm circles and gentle shoulder stretches both before and after doing pull-ups.  The soreness from extensive pull-ups can make it somewhat painful to straighten your arms – we call this T-Rex arms. A little bit is ok, and it might last a few days. But you don’t want to be terribly sore every time. This is an indicator you’re coming down too hard. So make sure you’re stretching and stay in control, and you are sure to notice improvements in your posture, back comfort and, of course, your golf swing within 4-6 weeks.

About John Rozelle

John Rozelle is a native of Los Angeles and one of Indonesia's top CrossFit coaches. As an active athlete his whole life in both competitive team and extreme sports, he has always enjoyed coaching. He is passionate about helping people understand the practical application of fitness science to develop athleticism.

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