This is an updated version of my answers to questions asked by BodyweightCulture.com about strict versus kipping pull ups. The following are their questions (in bold), my answers, and some additional comments.
Exactly how are pull ups executed, when you and your pupils do them?
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 just inside of 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.
Additional comments: There are a few reasons for this angle, and a similar body position relative to the angle of pull should be used for underhand-grip pulldowns. First, because of the structure of the shoulder joint and the angle of the glenoid fossa this is about as high as most people’s shoulders will go when the shoulder is actively flexed when the upper arms are moving in the planes resulting from this grip width. Going higher than that in that plane can aggravate the shoulders. If a wider grip width is used to provide a better shoulder angle the degree of supination can be uncomfortable for the wrists. The hands can be pronated to allow a wider grip, but then the biceps are in a weaker position and the upper arms become more of a weak link.
Second, when doing a chin up or pulldown with this grip width this torso angle results in the muscles of the upper back and shoulders working against a larger moment arm and staying under more tension in the finished position than if the torso is straight up and down.
In the bottom position, at the start, the elbows are just barely bent, and the arm, shoulder and back muscles are kept tense – no “slack” is allowed in the system.
Additional comments: It is important for the safety of the involved joints that extremes of range of motion are not attempted. All of the benefits of full range exercise – including improvements in or maintenance of flexibility – can be achieved with only a moderate degree of stretch and that stretch should only be felt in the muscles and not in or near the joints. Start conservatively, work up to a moderate stretch in the muscles, but do not force it. Be especially cautious during exercises where the moment arms increase significantly as you approach the stretched position.
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, gradually transferring their weight from their legs to their arms. Once they have transferred all their weight from their legs to their arms, they are told to slowly begin to pull their throat towards the bar and raising their chest to their forearms – concentrating more on their biceps and bending the elbows at first, and then on pulling the elbows towards the sides of the ribs as they approach to top. The positive movement should take approximately ten seconds. When they get to the top they are told to hold the position for about three seconds, then slowly “turnaround” and lower themselves in approximately ten seconds.
Additional comments: The best option for this is the UXS-15 body weight station which has an angled chin up bar of optimal diameter which can be gripped from a standing position by most
The second best option for this is the Nautilis Omni Multi Exercise, which has an adjustable chin up bar to accommodate users of different heights and steps to start from.
It is important to be able to start without jumping so both the width and hand positioning of the grip are as good as possible, and jumping is not practical if wearing a dipping belt with several heavy weight plates suspended between the legs. A bench or step of appropriate height also makes unloading and dismounting safer.
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 rep they are told when they get to the top or “end point” to hold motionless and squeeze the biceps and back as hard as they can for a full five seconds before gradually “unsqueezing” and slowly lowering themselves.
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 contract as hard as possible 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.
If a trainee can’t perform at least 3 strict repetitions with bodyweight I’ll have them perform a static hold in the top position instead, periodically testing their ability to perform dynamic chin ups. When a trainee is able to perform eight or more repetitions in good form weight is added using a dipping belt.
Additional comments: For those who use bodyweight as their primary form of resistance due to convenience, travel, etc. I recommend an adjustable weight vest rather than a dipping belt and weight plates, as it is less cumbersome for travel and more versatile (can be used for many other bodyweight exercises.
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 far 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.
What is your preferred equipment for pull ups? (Stable bar, suspended bar, rings, etc.)
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.
Have you tried both kipping and strict vertical pull ups in your own training?
I’ve done kipping pull ups to demonstrate how not to do them on occasion, but only perform strict chin ups in my workouts.
What purpose do pull ups serve in your program?
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.
Additional comments: Weighted chin ups hit the abs harder than most people realize.
What advantages do you see of kipping pull ups over strict vertical pull ups?
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.
Additional comments: Over nearly two decades of training I have never had a client injured doing chin ups as I describe here. However, I have trained and spoken with quite a few people who have sustained shoulder injuries doing kipping pull ups.
What advantages do you see of strict vertical pull ups over kipping pull ups?
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.