Is Kipping Really That Dangerous? Part 2 - Building Strength and Technique Across Different Kipping Movements

If we can change our mentality about what it means to begin kipping safely and effectively then I think we’ll keep more people healthy.

In my last article we covered the absolute basics of safe and effective kipping: establishing a baseline level of mobility in order to get into the correct positions.

Moving forward, it's time we talking about builing strength and technique across different kipping movements. Executing these movements will require a hefty dose of strength, but not just in the typical way we think of strength for the pull-up.

Allow me to explain.


The High Demands of Kipping Movements

When we perform kipping pull-ups and other kipping motions there is generally quite a bit of tension at the bottom portion of the exercise.  This is because most of the tension and strength to perform a pull-up is created in the bottom portion of the movement.  Once we create this momentum through a kipping hollow and arch motion, this momentum carries our chin over the bar.

After we get our chins over the bar we fall dynamically (push ourselves back into a hollow position) back into the bottom of the pull-up.  With the following rep not only do we have to decelerate at the bottom of the repetition but we also have to reverse the motion and create enough momentum to perform the next rep.

This reversal is where we need most strength and stability and also a place where I see people getting injured.  It makes sense we want to prepare ourselves and our athletes for this.

This is even more evident in higher level kipping movements like the muscle-up where we’re dropping from an even higher position.

As you can see, we need to drop quickly back into a hollow position so we can take advantage of our hollow / arch kip to perform the next rep.  Just looking at the motion you can see how strong the shoulders need to be in order to not pop out of the socket at the bottom of a muscle-up (I’m being dramatic here but you get the point).  

To sum things up, due to the dynamic nature of a kipping pull-up and muscle-up, we need additional strength and control at the bottom position of the pull-up, more so than with our strict pull-up counter part.  Now that we know this, how do we address it?

Building A Strong Base

One way to begin building this prerequisite strength is to be able to perform strict pull-ups.

I don’t believe there is a magical number for when you’re ready to safely begin advancing to kipping motions but being able to perform 3-5 strict repetitions is a good starting point.

I also like to perform my pull-ups in a hollow position to help not only strengthen our hollow but also because that’s where we’ll be landing in the bottom of our pull-up when kipping.  

When performing hollow pull-ups it’s also important to fully relax in the bottom position. Remember that in a lot of our kipping motions we’ll be finding ourselves down here and want to prepare for it.  The bottom portion of the pull-up is where most forces are acting on the shoulder and we need to build strength and stability there.

Given that the bottom portion of the movement is so important, we can use specific exercises to prepare for this.

Here are a few ideas that I like, I’ve placed them in order of easiest to hardest:

Hanging Body Tighteners

Hanging Hollow to Arch

Scap Pull-up

Scap Pull-up Plus

Hanging Scapular Half Circles

Hanging Bent Arm Mini Circles (Great for carryover to butterfly specific strength)

These exercises are great as accessory work and I also usually place some of these movements into my athlete’s warm-up for the day.  They’re great for building robustness and resiliency in the bottom position of the pull-up, allowing the shoulder joint to handle the shoulder stresses during more dynamic movements.

So now we’ve been practicing these movements and are now able to perform 3-5 strict pull-ups, what’s next?

Developing Proper Kipping Technique

Now we need to learn the technique behind kipping and apply that to toes to bar, pull-ups and muscle-ups.  This is where timing and motor control comes into play.  Finally now we’re getting to the juicy stuff!

The most basic drill for accomplishing this is a bar kip.

Again, Shane DeFreitas gives us a brief reminder of ideal kipping position on the bar.

When people have been getting used to the hollow and arch positions on the floor, it comes fairly naturally to do the same while on a bar.  However, it is an ongoing process usually to have people clean up their bar kipping as much as possible.

One set of drills I like to use as a warm-up to class:

  1. Hollow Variation on the floor 
  2. Arch Variation on the floor 
  3. Bar Kipping

I usually loop this for 3-5 rounds or have the athletes perform this circuit for 8-12 minutes focusing on skill and technique, not speed of execution.

Working these positions on the floor makes it easy to make the same positions once on the bar.

Once we have the kip down, we need to have it transfer over to toes to bar and kipping pullups. Check out Colin Geraghty performing toes to bar below.  Notice how he maintains his hollow and arch position while performing toes to bar.  

Now toes to bar is a pretty naturally progression from the standard kip but here’s the progression I like to use:

  1. Bar kipping
  2. Bar kip + knee raise in place of hollow
  3. Bar kip + knees toward armpits in place of hollow
  4. Bar kip + kick the bar (toes to bar)

The most challenging thing for athletes to learn during toes to bar is to learn that the kip has to be faster as we go through this progression.  In other words you have to bring the knees up quickly and back quickly in order to maintain the timing of your hollow and arch.  This will take some practice but your athletes will get it over time.  

The same technique goes for the kipping pull-up as well:  

  1. Power is created through the hollow and arch and utilized to get the chin over the bar  
  2. Once the chin is over the bar you’ll have to actively push away from the bar in order to end up in a hollow position at the bottom of the pull-up  
  3. Go from hollow back to arch to create momentum and power again
  4. Link the next pull-up

There are several kipping pullup progressions online you can follow but I won’t beat a dead horse and give you another.  I will say that it is uber important to try to keep your hollow and arch positions in the pullup though.  This is where the kipping pullup falls apart technique wise in my opinion for most people.  

As the set progresses and fatigue sets in generally the technique starts falling apart.  My recommendation is to stop at technical failure and not push beyond what you’re able to handle with proper execution.  Colin Geraghty shows form falling apart during butterfly pullups in slow-mo to help show you what I’m talking about:

Now that we have kipping pullups and toes to bar down, another layer of complexity is also added as we move toward muscle-up kipping.

As more momentum and power is needed to generate higher level gymnastics skills (Muscle-ups and Front Uprises) two things change:

  • Scapular Position
  • Kip size

1) Scapular Position

Watch Colin’s video below:

As we move from a shorter kip used for toes to bar and pull-ups toward bigger kips used in muscle-ups and front uprise, the shoulders go from more active to more relaxed.  (Relaxed is more of a misnomer given that your shoulders are elevated up toward your ears but the musculature within the shoulder will be working actively during the movement).  

The reason for the relaxed position is because it makes the body longer during kipping movements.  This length will help to produce more power to help propel your body up over the rings during these movements.  With movements requiring less power (toes to bar and pull-ups) we don’t need the same long body to complete the motion and can utilize more of an active shoulder position as shown in Colin’s video.

2) Kip Size

Another huge difference between kipping pullups and kipping muscle-ups is the size of the kip.  A larger kipping movement will create more momentum to help propel your body over the rings.  A cue I really enjoy and learned from the Power Monkey Fitness gymnasts is to wait for your toes to get to eye level before pulling into the muscle-up.  Check out my next 3 videos of ring kipping, ring muscle-up and ring front uprise.  Notice that in each of these videos I’m attempting to have my arch and hollow positions look identical and to get my feet to eye level before pulling into the catch or ring support position (It gets a little sloppy in the muscle-up video, see if you can spot the breaks in my hollow at reps 4 and 5):

Ring Kipping:

Ring Muscle-up:

Ring Front Uprise:

At Crossfit Verve we practice kips of different sizes all of the time.  We’re trying to build consistency of movement so all of the other pieces of the muscle-up can be performed without worrying about the kip (There’s already enough to think about).  Once we have the kipping hammered down, generally putting together the rest of the movement gets a lot easier and more fluid.

Final Words on Developing The Kip

As with practice of any other technical movements my recommendations stay the same.  Do not perform these movements past technical failure.  This is only building bad habits.  Building mastery of movement is something I wish was a higher priority on people’s fitness goals and can be very enjoyable.  As coaches this should be a huge focus of ours and not just faster times and heavier weights.

To wrap things up, building strength and technique are another 2 pieces of the puzzle for kipping efficiency and safety.  Hopefully the videos and instructions give you an idea of what I believe to be important and an idea of how to start building mastery in these movements.  Give the movements a try and let me know how they go!  Next part we’ll go over probably the most overlooked aspect of kipping mastery and safety, programming and fatigue tolerance.  Until next time.

Kipping Ain’t Easy,

Dan Pope DPT, OCS, CSCS, CF L1

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About The Author

Dan Pope, DPT, OCS, CSCS, CF L1, joins the TrainHeroic blog with a vast background that merges the worlds of physical therapy with strength and conditioning. He writes regularly at his blog Fitness Pain Free, and is the brains behind the Fitness Pain Free Performance Programming in the TrainHeroic marketplace.