One of the biggest controversies is the way pull ups are performed. Most of us are used to strict pull ups, as they are taught in Physical Education classes and fitness facilities. Lately more and more people are performing the kipping pull ups. Kipping pull ups is not a new invention, but it has not been entering the main stream until now. There are both proponents and opponents of kipping pull ups. Crossfit has employed the kipping pull up for a long time.
We’ve decided to get a new perspective from experts who use them and those who don’t. Below are the questions and answers which provide inside view on the king of the back exercises. Giving the interview are two expert trainers.
Joshua Newman from CrossFitNYC, the Black Box
Drew Baye from Drew Baye’s High Intensity Training.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Joshua Newman: I co-founded and own CrossFit NYC / The Black Box, the oldest and largest CrossFit affiliate on the East Coast. In 'real life', I also run Cyan Pictures, an indie film finance company. I fell into CrossFit back when I was competing in MMA - there's nothing like the threat of getting the crap beat out of you in front of a crowd to keep you honest at the gym - but by now mainly use it as cross-training for a slew of other sports I love (like surfing, rock climbing, skiboarding, and mountain biking), as well as an effective and efficient way to keep looking good naked.
Drew Baye: I started working out when I was around 12 for martial arts and sports, did some bodybuilding in college, and have been training people since 1994. Since then I’ve been fortunate to work with or learn directly from some of the top experts in the industry, including Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones and several of the people who worked for him, including former IFBB pro bodybuilder Mike Mentzer.
Over that time I’ve trained hundreds of men and women across a broad spectrum of ability, from the severely debilitated to professional athletes. I’ve contributed to or been featured in several books on strength training and bodybuilding, and have worked as the director of education for a national personal training franchise and am currently a certification exam administrator in FL for the Sports Performance And Resistance Training Association (S.P.A.R.T.A.).
Q. How exactly are pull ups executed, when you and your students do them?
J.N. One of the basic goals of CrossFit is to develop a broad and inclusive base of fitness - we want to be able to take on physical and athletic challenges well in the real world, whatever they are. So we tend to practice a wide array of movements, each in as many ways as possible.
For pullups, that means we do strict pullups, gymnastics kip pullups, butterfly kip pullups, weighted pullups, clapping pullups, one-arm pullups, and movements that build from the pullup like rope climbing and the muscle-up. (For beginners, we also use variations like band pullups and jumping pullups, as stepping stones towards unassisted movements.)
Within each of those skills, we then try to vary things up further: changing equipment, changing grip, even changing things like level of fatigue. (For example, try testing your single-set dead hang pullup max; the following day, run a mile at a reasonable pace, and re-test your single-set max again immediately after the run. Does your max drop off precipitously in that second test? If so, you may find that your 'gym strength' doesn't translate well into the real world.)
One thing we do care about, a lot, is range of motion. In our world, a pullup starts with completely straight arms - and, if on the rings, with hands turned out - and ends with at least chin above the bar, and, in many cases, chest touching the bar. I see a lot of people elsewhere who do pullups only going down about three quarters of the way down, never entirely straightening out their arms. Turns out, strength is specific to range of motion; those people who never practice the end range of the pullup never get strong in the end range - which often comes back to bite them in athletic and real-world applications.
Additionally, flexibility is tied to range of motion, too; a lot of those folks who practice huge numbers of partial pullups eventually reach the point that they can no longer straighten out their arms, which in turn leads to a slew of shoulder and wrist problems. So, in our world, it's all the way, up the way down.
D.B. I prefer to have trainees perform chin ups (supinated grip) to pull ups (pronated grip) since this puts the biceps in a stronger position making the upper arm less of a “weak link” in the exercise.
The grip is roughly shoulder width – too much closer or wider and you start to lose some range of motion – and the torso is angled back so the arms are about 20 to 30 degrees off the body in the starting position.
In the bottom position, at the start, the elbows are very slightly bent, and body is allowed to “sink” so the shoulders are elevated and protracted somewhat, but the arm, shoulder and back muscles are kept tense throughout the exercise - no “slack” is allowed in the system.
Trainees start on a step or use a bar that they can reach from a standing position without jumping. At the start, they are told to tense their biceps, back of the shoulders, and upper back, and slowly lift their feet while keeping the body motionless. Once they have transferred all their weight from their legs to their arms, they are told to slowly begin to pull their chest towards the bar – concentrating more on their biceps and bending the elbows at first, and then on raising the chest and pulling the elbows towards the back of the ribs as they approach to top. When they get to the top they are told to hold the position briefly, then slowly “turnaround” and lower themselves.
As they get close to the bottom they are told to anticipate the start point and slow down to meet it, so when they get there they can immediately but smoothly start the next rep, without allowing the muscles to relax at any point, and without any yanking, jerking or body sway that might increase force on the joints or provide any assistance from momentum.
Starting with the third or fourth rep they are told when they get to the top or “end point” to pull their elbows together like they’re trying to touch them to the back of their ribs and squeeze the biceps and upper back during the pause.
The exercise is continued to the point where it is impossible to perform another repetition in correct form. At that point the trainee is told to continue to try for a few seconds (without cheating) and if there is no movement after about 5 seconds or so they are told to lower themselves as slowly as they can. Some more advanced trainees might be assisted in completing the final rep and told to hold at the top for as long as they can before doing a very slow “finishing” negative.
I have trainees aim to take approximately 3 seconds to perform both the positive and negative movements. I start them with a 7 to 10 rep range (which ends up being about 40 to 60 seconds of continuous work) and adjust this range up or down over time based on how they respond.
If a trainee can’t perform at least 7 strict repetitions with bodyweight I’ll have them do negative-only or rest-pause reps until they can. Weight is added using a dipping belt whenever a trainee performs 10 or more reps in good form.
The goal of the slower, stricter reps is to maintain constant tension on the target muscles throughout the exercise while minimizing the stress on the joints, as opposed to distributing the work throughout the body which occurs when kipping.
Although less mechanical work is performed, the metabolic demand is still very high. The ideas that one must perform a lot of mechanical work to increase metabolic demand and that fast movement in exercise is necessary to improve or transfers to more power in other movements are wrong.
Mechanical work is not necessary for metabolic work – if you hold a heavy weight or hold yourself motionless in the mid-range position of a body weight exercise you will not be performing any mechanical work, but the muscles are performing metabolic work to maintain tension. You can increase the metabolic work by increasing mechanical work or by increasing tension – both are effective if metcon is the goal, but increasing tension and maintaining a controlled speed will be safer for the joints in the long run. You don’t need high power production for metabolic conditioning as long as you have adequate tension for an adequate duration.
Additionally, if the goal is getting as strong as possible and improving the development of the arms, shoulders and back, it is more effective to maintain a higher tension on the muscles continuously over the full range of the exercise than to “cheat” the body up.
How you perform each repetition is far more important for both effectiveness and safety than how many. A few high quality reps will provide far more benefit than a much larger number performed sloppily. The goal is to make every second, every inch of movement as demanding as possible for the specific muscles being targeted and as metabolically taxing as possible on the body as a whole.
Q: What is your preferred equipment for pull ups?
J.N. As I said, we're in favor of switching up equipment. Though, for logistical reasons, we tend to do at least the majority of our pullups either on a giant monkey-bars setup we had custom built, or on rings hanging from those monkey bars; it's the only way we can fit in a few dozen people all doing pullups at the same time.
D.B. I prefer a stable bar – less skill is required so trainees can focus more on contracting the target muscles and less on trying to adjust to a moving bar.
Q. Have you tried both kipping and strict vertial pull ups in your own training?
J.N.Absolutely. We do both, regularly, and tend to see them as complementary - not contradictory - movements.
D.B.I’ve done them to demonstrate on occasion, but only perform strict chin ups and pull ups (neutral grip) in my workouts.
Q. What purpose do pull ups serve in your program?
J.N. We think pullups serve two many purposes: First, they're a great training tool for the entire pulling musculature. By varying how they're executed, they can be used to build strength, power, or endurance. At high reps and high speed, they can even create a serious metabolic load, for general conditioning.
Second, they serve as a fundamental building block for a lot of movements in the real world. Our law enforcement, first responder, and military members, for example, put a pullup to work each time they climb up and over some obstacle. Whereas our stay-at-home mom members use a pullup motion each time they close the back gate of their minivan or SUV.
D.B. Specifically to increase the strength of the upper arms, shoulders, back and abs (when additional weight is used), and generally to improve metabolic and cardiovascular conditioning as part of the overall workout.
What advantages do you see of kipping pull ups over strict vertial pul ups?
J.N. We think kipping pullups are helpful for both of those purposes - as a training tool, and as a building block towards other movements.
On the training side, kipping pullups allow people to do a greater volume of work than they might with dead hangs alone. They also allow people to do that same work faster, increasing power output. And they form the basis of more advanced movements - like clapping pullups and muscle-ups - that are initially much harder to learn from just the strict pullup, and that we think are hugely beneficial training stimuli.
On the building block side, we think the kipping pullup is simply a more athletic movement, and can be better applied in real world contexts, where efficiency matters. It also reflects what we find to be a general principle of effective movement: generating power in the stronger, larger muscles in the middle of the body, then extending that power out towards the extremities.
A good punch, for example, isn't punching with your arms - it's actually punching with your hips, then driving that hip power out through the arm. Similarly, rowing isn't pulling the oars (or the handle of a C2) with your arms - it's driving with your legs, then allowing your arm pull to follow behind. We think kipping follows a similar logic: you can generate more power by including the large muscles at the middle of your body (like your glutes, hip flexors, abdominals, quads, hamstrings, etc.) then you could with your arm and upper back muscles alone.
D.B. Kipping pull ups provide no advantage from a purely physiological standpoint – they are less effective for building strength in the involved muscles and no more effective for metabolic or cardiovascular conditioning, while increasing the wear and tear on the joints.
However, the kipping movement is a component of some gymnastic and parkour skills and should be practiced by someone with an interest in developing those skills. General strength and conditioning and skill practice should be considered and practiced as separate activities though.
Much of the confusion about exercise, functionality, etc. results from ignorance of transfer and failure to distinguish between the two.
What advantages do you see of strict vertical pull ups over kipping pull ups?
J.N. Here, too, we think there's an argument as both training tool and movement building block.
Once you hit a high enough number of kipping pullups - I can do 72 in a set, for example - you're no longer really building strength with that movement, simply endurance. Strict pullups - and weighted strict pullups - are an excellent tool for training limit strength.
Additionally, in some real-world contexts, kipping simply isn't possible. From some holds and positions, for example, it would be impossible for a rock climber to kip, as the rock face is in the way. In those cases, being able to perform a solid strict pullup is crucial.
In our experience, however, so long as athletes continue to mix strict pullups into their training, gains in kipping pullup reps spills over to dead hang reps, too. In our estimation, theres certainly room for both in a smart, effective approach to training.
D.B. Strict pull ups or chin ups are safer for the joints involved and more effective for increasing the strength of the arms, shoulders and back. As long as an appropriate load and duration are used, due to the continuous tension they will produce a comparable metabolic demand to a set of kipping pull ups involving more mechanical work.
We hope you have enjoyed this interview and got a deeper understanding of what many consider the best general upper back exercise. Let us know what you think by posting your comments below.
We also want to thank Joshua Newman and Drew Baye for giving this interview.
Please visit http://www.crossfitnyc.com/ for more information on Joshua Newman and CrossfitNYC, the Black Box and their training schedual in NYC area.
Please visit http://www.baye.com for more information on Drew Baye, his training methods, blog and and One-on-One Training in Orlando area.
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