"It looks like they are having a seizure and they're unable to let go of the pull-up bar".

If you watched some of the most proficient athletes in the world perform kipping/butterfly pull-ups, it's far from just thrashing about on the bar. These skilled movers are smooth, controlled and some would even go as far to say graceful. 

Kipping/Butterfly pull-ups are a very dynamic pull-up variation that utilises the entire body to generate power and dynamic efficiency.   Kipping/butterfly pull-ups require a high level of strength and skill  - which means more drills and LOADS OF STRICT WEIGHTED PULL-UP repetitions.  It surprises me that many CrossFit programmes I look at do not contain strict weighted pull-up variations or even horizontal pulls.  We see a lot of Olympic lifting, but we don’t often see weighted rows or weighted pull-ups.  Structural balance for posture and performance is a valuable aspect of a smart training programme.

Kipping/Butterfly pull-up variations can often be very bad for shoulder health, primarily if we have not built robust, stable and highly mobile shoulders.  Repetitively falling down into the bottom of the pull-up and forcing the shoulders into extension (taking the arm behind the body) will cause serious injury, just do a quick Google search for "slap tear” and digest the number of injuries caused by plyometric pull-ups in CrossFit. How is your shoulder mobility?

 

How often do we see an athlete reach the “global extension” position, the bottom of the pull up when the shoulders, spine and hips are all in extension) with their elbows slightly bent and the shoulders are internally rotated?  Why does this happen?  The athlete's shoulder mobility is limited due to tight lats, pecs and/or biceps stopping the shoulders from moving into extension.  The plyometric load (anywhere between 3-6 x bodyweight) is now being placed on the tight muscles and it's not long before an athlete will start feeling elbow or shoulder pain.  Left unchecked this can soon lead to a shoulder series injury that will put an athlete out of training for months. 

Did you catch the critical point about 3-6 x bodyweight passing through the muscle and joints? Can you do a 3-6 x bodyweight pull-up?  Are you strong enough to be doing kipping/butterfly pull-ups?  The dynamic pull-up movement must be very smooth and controlled so there is no jarring sensation when the athlete hits the bottom of the pull-up.  Failing to control this movement is a one-way ticket to shoulder pain and eventually injury.

Let's get one thing straight, kipping/butterfly pull-ups are NOT for everyone. If you are looking to lose some weight, look good at the beach, hit the gym 3-4times a week, and predominantly train for the quality of life, the kipping/butterfly pull-up is useless to you.  The risk (the negative) to reward (positive) ratio is firmly in the negative.  If you're an athlete who wants to compete in The Sport of CrossFit, you will need to learn to master these movements. The risk to reward ratio is still not in your favour, but the high-level sport is not healthy and athletes put their bodies on the line every time they compete.   All athletes should have high levels of strength before performing a very dynamic movement such as kipping/butterfly pull-ups.

A couple of points to consider:

  • The shoulder joint is more susceptible to injury when its structures aren’t adequately developed. For this reason, I highly recommend NOT attempting any sort of kipping prior to being able to do 10 full range of motion strict pull-up. Also, be sure to mobilize/stretch as needed for your shoulders.

  • Getting better at pull-ups, push-ups, muscle-ups, dips, and handstand pushups is about building strength with strict movements and adding increasing volume, it's not about adding momentum (kipping) to be able to achieve the movement.

  • Take care of your hands, remove the calluses to help prevent skin tears.

  • The most important part of learning advanced movements is to follow a progressive programme and not jump straight to the end result. Gradual adaptations will make the body stronger and prepare it for the task ahead.

  • Warm-ups are essential before performing plyometric exercises as the load being placed on the joints is significant.

  • A high Body Fat Percentage (BFP) will increase the time it takes to improve your pull-ups, start by taking a look at your nutrition and digestive health.

  • Do not rush. Only move on once your body has adapted to the current phase. Those who rush towards the finish line often rush towards injury.

  • Escalating Density Training (EDT) and Every Minute on the Minute EMOM protocols are a great way to build strict strength and improve skill work. Slowly increase the volume of quality repetitions before you add intensity.

In our next blog post, we are going to demonstrate some of the skills and tools we are using in the new block of Team Steam - Sport of Fitness Training” to teach the butterfly pull-up.