Wednesday, June 13, 2012

CrossFit and the Need for Strict Pull Ups

Franco Columbo and perfect pull up form
Let me ask you a question. Be honest. Can you do a pull up? I don't mean a kipping pull up. I mean an honest-to-goodness, no kip, strict pull up.  If you're a CrossFitter and are saying something to the effect of "no, but I have kipping pull ups," then we need to have a chat.

One of the staples of CrossFit is the kipping pull up. While it can be a movement which generates a lot of power and be an efficient way to move your body from point A to point B, it is not a pull up. I repeat, it is NOT a pull up. Yes, it's a way to get your chin over a pull up bar and generates more power, blah blah blah... I even say this stuff as a CrossFit coach, because while it is true, there is STILL a clear difference between a kipping pull up and a pull up. Unfortunately, a lot of CrossFitters have become complacent and are perfectly content with their kips, usually on bands. This doesn't make sense since the kip itself is an assist to the pull up, and/or it's a transition to something else (e.g. bar muscle up) Doing it with bands means you're doing an assisted assisted pull up. It also means you're now head of the Department of Redundancy Department.

Some of you might be angry or defensive right now. This post is not meant to belittle your accomplishment of the kipping pull up, but rather, it is meant to spark a fire in you to get stronger. Because here's the deal, being stronger is better not only for performance, but for safety. With a huge range of motion in the kip, the shoulder girdle better be strong or it's going to suffer from injury at some point. And let's face it, if someone walks in with strict pull ups, I can teach them to kip in 10 minutes. However, I can't get someone with only kipping pull ups to do a strict pull up in the same amount of time.

Kevin B. of CF KoP on a chest to bar pull up
As a side note, I differentiate a pull up from a chin up as the former with a pronated grip (palms facing away) and the latter with a supinated grip (palms facing towards). Since you most likely kip with a pronated grip (unless you're OG firebreather Greg Amundson), it would behoove you to work on the pull up. However, if you would like to work on your biceps, the chin up is an excellent exercise. (what, no bicep curls??)

So what do you do now? For one, you need to see the bands as a good way to assist your strict pull ups. If a workout comes up with pull ups, resign yourself to doing strict pull ups (yes, you will probably need to use a thicker band to get that chin over the bar.) This is where you need to leave your ego out and get on the path towards being a badass. What if the WOD doesn't have pull ups? I tell people to come to class early or stay late and do 3 sets of 5 strict pull ups with bands. The bands you use should make you struggle on that 5th rep to get your chin over the bar.  do 3 sets of 10 reps of ring rows (or body rows) before or after a workout. This is a movement where you setup gymnastic rings (or TRX straps) about chest height and lean back with a flat body, fully extending your elbows and then pulling yourself back towards the rings. You can make this movement progressively harder by starting further and further forward. Once you can do all three sets fairly easily, move your feet forward. In addition to the ring rows, you can also do negative pull ups. Get on a box and jump up to chin-over-bar and slowly lower yourself down. You may simply fall straight down at first, but don't be discouraged. Working negatives is easier than starting at the bottom, however, don't do high reps (more than 3-4 sets of 5). This eccentric movement (lowering of the body) can wreak havoc on your muscles if done at high, intense reps.

[Another thing to consider is weight. Yes, it's harder to do a pull up if you have excess body weight. There are plenty of articles on this blog and other more-qualified sites to discuss losing weight, but this probably plays a big factor with many of you]

anatomy of a pull ups (engage the lats and retract the scap!)
While you're doing any of these movements, make sure you retract your shoulder blades (like you're trying to pinch an penny between them) and are engaging your lats (muscles under your arm pits). Doing so will make you stronger in the right places and create a stable shoulder girdle. (the whole dang point of doing these!) The ultimate goal is to have more than a few strict pull ups. I'm vague here because some people will eventually have 15+ strict pull ups while others have 4-6. For my goal of getting you not only strong, but also SAFE(r) from shoulder injuries, "more than a few" is something you should interpret for yourself. From there, you can play around with variations such as chest to bar, weighted, L-sits, wide grip, narrow grip, one armed, etc.

me with an L-sit pull up variation
As you are working on your strict pull ups, also work on tightening up your kip form. Too many people flail about and have extremely loose midlines and no hollow body. This is usually due to lack of shoulder and lat strength. What SHOULD your kip look like? Just check out the video below from gymnastic guru Carl Paoli and the following vid for progressions.

Carl Paoli demonstrating proper Kipping Pull Ups:

Carl Paoli on Kipping Pull Up Progressions:

Robb Wolf's podcast about Kipping Pull Ups vs. Strict (skip to 24:54)
Pull Up article - Catalyst Athletics
Perfect Pull Up - Ido Portal
The Road to Pull Up Domination - Element CrossFit
Get Strict with your Pull Up - CrossFit Brea
Get Strict - CrossFit Virtuosity 


  1. Hey Chris, one of my athletes showed this to me, so I thought you would appreciate a blog post I wrote recently on a very similar topic:

  2. Love the article, Chris. Definitely something I need to work on. Going to take your advice on this!

  3. you wrote this just for me : ) btw, its the blue muscles that are holding me back...JNa

  4. Nice blog! Gymnastics has grown to be very popular and people actually value the science and art in it. We love watching these athletes do amazing, graceful tricks and exhibitions on television or in videos.

  5. Thanks for the link Cody!

    Melinda, anything to spark that fire to getting better

    JNa, only trying to make you better!

    Dan, I agree, gymnastics holds a ton of value in lots of contexts even outside the sport

  6. Great post, Chris. We have the same issue at CFDV. Everyone wants to get a kipping pull up before they're strong enough. I just recently tested out kipping pull ups in a workout after only doing strict pull up variations over the last five months, and my kip is much more efficient now because of that added strength base.

  7. funny how that works. Good stuff Larry, thanks for the testimonial.

  8. You are DEAD right on this. I can't wait to see if they start programming the games with dead hangs. I finally decided to get dead hangs after the upteenth argument with someone about whether or not I could do pullups, and I've quite willingly said all along they're not the same thing and are not supposed to be. I still think it's best to build the strength for any full movement before learning the's why I'm probably never going to get a muscle up but my pull ups are getting a lot better just from the training.


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