The expert is breaking down what it takes to earn this staple CrossFit move...and whether Michaels had it right all along.
Photo: Shutterstock / Denis Kornilove
A couple months ago, Jillian Michaels opened up to us about her issues with CrossFit—kipping, in particular. For those who might not know, kipping is a movement that uses bucking or jerking to utilize momentum in an effort to complete an exercise (typically aiming for a high number of reps in a restricted time frame). In kipping pull-ups, specifically, which is what Michaels had the most beef with, the movement is used to help you lift your chin above the bar. Michaels told us that she doesn't understand why some would choose to perform a kipping variation rather than the strict version of the movement. She listed off a slew of reasons she feels kipping is not the appropriate choice: It doesn't help you build functional strength. It doesn't apply the full range of motion. There are more effective ways to target multiple muscle groups. There are better and safer ways to train for power. The risk of injury is high.
"One can argue that with a good base of athleticism and proper form, these injuries can be avoided," she said. "But I say the forces on the shoulder and lower spine are extremely high during kipping movements, so the risk is there for even seasoned athletes."
A heated debate ensued shortly after she made her stance known, with CrossFit fans coming out against her remarks. But the controversy over kipping isn't a new one. In fact, fitness pros have been debating whether kipping is actually beneficial for ages. Some even think it's not a fit for 95 percent of the population, which is why the movement is reserved for professional gymnastics and CrossFit. (Related: This Woman Nearly Died Doing a CrossFit Pull-Up Workout)
So, we wanted to know: What do other body pros think about Michaels' take? After all, if her biggest issue with kipping is that it causes a host of potential risks for injury, then they must have some thoughts on the subject, right? To get the inside scoop on both CrossFit's love of kipping and the real injury risk, we tapped Michael Vanchieri, D.C., a practicing chiropractor at Physio Logic in Brooklyn, NY, who after a successful collegiate baseball career became a Level 1 certified CrossFit coach, writing programming for elite CrossFit Games athletes competing at the highest level.
First, we had to ask what he thought when he heard Michaels' comments about kipping. Vanchieri called it "the lowest hanging fruit." "It's the thing everyone talks about when they want to prove how crummy CrossFit is and how bad it is for your body," he says. "So when I heard her take on kipping, I had to take it with a grain of salt and give it a little chuckle."
If doing a kipping pull-up is your goal though, Vanchieri isn't going to stop you. "Even as a chiropractor, I always kind of see things through a bit of a coach's lens, through a bit of an athlete's lens," he says. "So from an exercise progression standpoint, I'm probably wildly liberal when it comes to recommendations in telling someone what they can and cannot do."
Kipping is no joke.
But that doesn't mean Vanchieri thinks anyone and everyone in a CrossFit box should be kipping. In fact, he emphasized that this move means serious business. "A kipping pull-up is this big sexy move that looks cool, but the rule of thumb is, if your shoulder girdle can't handle five strict pull-ups, you have no business doing a kipping pull-up," he says. "That's kind of my guideline of when you can start kipping or start thinking about it."
Even if your pull-up game is strong, that's only the beginning. Vanchieri says there are a whole set of rules you must follow before you're ready to start kipping. "Kipping is something you have to earn," he says. "I don't think anyone walks into a gym, without knowing how to do a strict pull-up and bypasses to a kipping pull-up." (Related: 6 Reasons Your First Pull-Up Hasn't Happened Yet)
You have to progress up to doing kipping pull-ups.
"First and foremost, you have to own the beginning shape and end shape of the entire movement," says Vanchieri "So, very specifically, for a pull-up, you should be able to hang from a bar in a nice active position for about 30 to 45 seconds. You should also be able to hang and hold yourself in the finishing position of a pull-up (a chin-up position) for around the 30-second range as well." (Related: How to Break Down the CrossFit Murph Workout)
From there, you need to develop pulling strength, he says. "Some ways to do that are mastering bent-over rows, Australian (inverted) rows, or upright rows."
And last but not least, you should be able to do negative pull-ups as well. "You should be able to jump yourself up on the pull-up bar and slowly do an eccentric contraction on the way down," he says. One big issue Michaels had with kipping is that it doesn't use all planes of motion, including eccentric and concentric, so this would be a good way to utilize that eccentric, or lowering, phase of the movement.
These prerequisite moves are hard enough on their own, but key when it comes to building strength if kipping is your goal.
This move isn't for everybody, and there are risks involved.
So you've built up the strength to do a kipping exercise, but what about proper technique? That's an entirely different story, but equally as important to injury prevention—something Michaels and Vanchieri agree on. "Developing that kip and the deep swing on it are easier said than done," says Vanchieri. "You have to get yourself to the point where you can kip and then pull up over and over again. Moves like hollow body holds and arch holds will give you the requisite core strength and skill to build the technique needed to do a proper kipping pull-up to avoid injury."
Something worth noting is that a kipping goes above and beyond CrossFit's usual intensity of workouts, and it takes time and effort to build up to this level. "Anything that has an enlarged component of speed will, by definition, always pose an increased risk to injury," says Vanchieri. "In this case, improper technique mixed with that speed means you'll have immense pressure on your shoulder and lower back."
You shouldn't be kipping all the time.
Whether you're new to CrossFit or a seasoned athlete, when it comes to kipping, one thing holds true for everyone: "Every CrossFit athlete, assuming that they have a clean bill of shoulder health, needs to probably do a good balance of kipping work and strict work," says Vanchieri. "The way I like to look at it is that kipping should be done when you're competing, whereas your strict work should be kind of practice. You also have to take into consideration that you'll have to practice the kip in order to do it while you're competing, but you shouldn't be purely kipping every day. If you're coming into your season, increase your kipping work. If you're in your off-season, focus on that strict work."
At the end of the day, though, it's up to you to decide the kind of risk you want to take. "There is always a safer way to do things," says Vanchieri. "But if every decision you make is based on whether or not you're going to be safe or unsafe, you'd be living a pretty boring life. I don't think there is any better way of doing as many reps of pull-ups other than while kipping. So if your goal is to do as many pull-ups as possible in one minute, then you've got to kip. There is no easier, better, or safer or effective way to do it."
But as Michaels pointed out, is that really the point of exercising? To do more reps? "Or is the point to build functional strength?" she said. "Obviously, I'd say the latter is much more important for your physical activity. When are you going to need to hoist yourself up or over something 50 plus times in a row in everyday life?"
To that Vanchieri would like to point to the CrossFit Games, which, no isn't real life for most people, but it is a setting where AMRAPs are king.
The bottom line: Whether kipping is something you want to try or entirely avoid is a personal fitness decision. But if it's extremely important to realize that Michaels was right in that there are inherent risks involved and—more importantly—there's an expansive amount of work you need to put in before you give this advanced move a shot. Pros like Michaels feel like it's simply not worth it when there are so many other safer movements you can master without risking long-term injuries that can end up being expensive and put you out of the gym for weeks, months, and sometimes years. Chiropractors like Vanchieri might tend to agree, but CrossFit coaches and athletes, also like Vanchieri, might tend to say, that's not always the point. To each their own fitness journey, though, so if you want to give kipping a shot, and stay safe, here's how to avoid CrossFit injuries and stay on your workout game.