We do things a little bit differently at NorCal Strength and Conditioning. One thing you'll notice in our group classes is the absence of something very familiar to the CrossFit world - kipping.
Why We Don't Kip
I’d like to take a moment to explain why we pulled kipping off the menu: specifically why you won’t see it in our general programming and why we only recommend it to those specifically training for CrossFit competition.
We were the world's 4th CrossFit affiliate. For the first 5 years of the journey, we we "all in" on the CrossFit style of training. We sent teams and athletes to the Games, our owner (that Robb Wolf guy) even worked for CrossFit HQ. So yeah, suffice it to say, we kipped the shit out of everything.
Editors Note: NorCal Strength and Conditioning de-affiliated 7-years ago. They are no longer a CrossFit Affiliate.
And let's be honest for a minute: kipping is FUN.
Once you get it down, you feel like a badass. It takes a little practice to learn to kip well and to learn to butterfly kip, but getting the movement down is something akin to getting your CrossFit yellow belt.
However, when the reality of risk versus reward starts to set in it becomes clear that kipping isn’t something everyone should be taught right away, nor is "kipping everything" the best way to perform that exercise in every workout. In fact it’s debatable whether or not we should be kipping at all.
Every exercise you program needs to have a purpose within the bigger picture. You have to ask yourself what will be gained by doing this exercise and is there risk involved - if so, is the risk worth it?
Which leads us to the big question: why would you kip in the first place?
When Is Kipping Appropriate?
We’ve established that it’s fun and has intrinsic ego-boosting factors, and yet, from a training standpoint, there are really only two reasons to kip:
- Accomplish more reps in less time
- Complete movements you aren’t yet strong enough to do without the help of momentum
Accomplishing more reps in less time is only useful in a CrossFit competition when speed of completing the work is of utmost importance. But as with all sports, competitive athletes are concerned with accomplishing something better and faster than anyone else. How good it is for your body today or down the road typically plays second fiddle to top-end performance.
Just to be clear, I’m not knocking athletes and competitors with performance goals who make sacrifices to accomplish something they dream about. I feel that it’s important to point out that competiting in fitness is a noble goal, but there should be a whole lot of prep work done to protect your shoulders and elbows if a competitive career is your aim.
What I am saying is that if you do not have perfect ACTIVE range of motion in your shoulders, impeccable shoulder girdle health, and really well developed shoulder muscles and connective tissues, you have no prayer of kipping without damaging your shoulders and elbows.
Every time you kip, you add multiples of bodyweight force to a passive range of motion; this is the end range where you have no real strength. By passive I mean that you are not able to move the shoulder into this position while standing without the help of some other force or object to press, or swing, or lock your joint into end ranges. The rings, the bar, the wall, or good old momentum give you an illusion of strength and control that you don’t actually posses. Layer on very high volumes of pressing and pulling and you've got a recipe for disaster in the shoulder girdle.
To give yourself some better metrics of active range, try this shoulder flexion test we use at our gym:
If you can’t touch the wall with the back of your hands, it would be better for you to gain that range and ACTIVELY strengthen the position before you hang bodyweight on it from a pull-up bar, or put weight overhead, let alone kip.
Scaling vs. Progression
Our main goal at NorCal Strength & Conditioning is to improve the long term quality of our clients lives. We want people to look, feel, and perform at their best, eat well, sleep well, and work smart in the gym.
With that it mind it has become clear that it is irresponsible to teach kipping soley so an athlete can "complete the movement". We also believe that kipping has no use outside of competition, which touches a smaller and smaller portion of our clientele.
What if you or your client can’t do strict pull-ups yet?
You may have heard some discussion about exercise progression versus scaling.
The basic gist is “scaling” refers to creating a simplified or assisted version of any exercise to meet the exerciser at their given fitness level. In our opinion, this is where a lot of bad ideas come from.
At this point, finding a different pulling exercise that this person CAN do without modification (exercise progression) combined with active stretching, will build better strength, scapular control and active range without as much negative consequence to the shoulders.
Once they have mastered this exercise, they move up to a more challenging exercise, and so it goes, until they progressively have strict pull-ups.
Kipping is generally thought of in the context of pull-ups and muscle ups, but let us not forget about kipping handstand push-ups. Once you have surpassed your capacity to push yourself from a headstand to a handstand and lower yourself back down with control, you should stop…unless of course you’re doing “Diane” at Regionals. But most of us aren’t ever repping out strict handstand push-ups; we move straight into kipping (rocket-launching your legs into the air to get back up, and then dropping back down on your head with a little resistance from very fatigued triceps).
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say that kipping handstand push-ups hurt their neck and the gut-wrenching response from ‘top-level’ coaches is that they’re just not doing it correctly.
Needless to say, kipping handstand push-ups are one of the best ways known to man to intentionally jack up your neck. No matter how strong your neck is, repeatedly dinking back down onto the top of your head, especially while you're fatigued, is going to add compressive forces to cervical disks without real reward or purpose.
There is no magic number of ab mats to take away this risk.
So long as you have impeccable shoulder flexion, why not do sets of heavy strict press until you can attain a few strict handstand push-ups?
Lots of reward, low risk.
If you still want to train the old classics, or continue to program them for your clients, consider lowering the volume that would necessitate kipping and just go about the business strict.
Instead of 100 pull-ups for non-competitors, why not do 25- or whatever number is challenging but do-able per round or set? Consider the Why and ask yourself if there isn’t something better for building strength without the risks of injury and joint damage, given your current goals or your clients’ goals.
If learning to kip well is needed to meet these goals, make sure the necessary groundwork of basic strength and useable active range, without compensation, is done before training this as a skill, not the exclusive way to perform this movement.
Your shoulders, elbows, necks and theirs will all appreciate it down the road when the kipping Piper comes around to collect.