Be Strict Before You Kip – Wes Kimball

A couple of months ago we instituted a new rule of having 3 strict pull-ups before you can do kipping pull-ups in a workout.  While this caused a bit of hub bub around the gym we don’t shy away from the importance of developing strict pull-ups (chin-ups).  The idea is to set you up for long term success with kipping pull-ups as opposed to short term accomplishment accompanied by bad habits. Additionally, having the upper body pulling strength for strict pull-ups reduces the risk of shoulder and hand injuries when you perform pull-ups of the kipping variety. Three strict chin-ups is a huge accomplishment and something that any reasonably fit person can accomplish if you have a good plan of attack.  My goal for this article is to give you a quick simple plan to accomplish just that.

Heavy, Light, Medium

The concept of a heavy, light, and medium day is something that has been used in strength training for years and years.  Popularized by BIll Starr, it allows for continual development by maximizing recovery through the training week. As might be expected the plan calls for three training days : a heavy, a medium, and a light day (in terms of volume & intensity), separated by 1-2 days of rest between, throughout the week.

Heavy Day

This will be the first day of your week, and the day you feel the most recovered and fresh. For most folks Monday or Tuesday is that day, but any day that is preceded by two days of rest will suffice. On heavy days you will do  5-7 sets of 2-4 reps with 3:00-5:00 minutes of rest. For beginners (no strict chin-ups) the choices are static holds for :30-:60, or negatives for a :15-:20 descent. Novice folks (1-3 strict chin-ups, barely) should utilize weighted negatives for :15-:20 descents. Our advanced folks  (multiple strict chin-ups) will be doing heavy weighted chin-ups. This day will be taxing not just on your muscles, but on the CNS as well, so make sure you don’t get in a hurry and skimp out on the full rest time.

Light Day

Light days are all about form, mechanics, and range of motion.  Work with 3-4 sets of 5 reps  w/ :90-3:00 of rest.  The only rule is every rep should be picture perfect and you should never hit a point of considerable muscle fatigue and definitely do not hit failure.  Our goal with this day is to groove and coordinate the movement while actively recovering and improving range of motion.  Therefore, our light day will always follow the heavy day after 1-2 days of rest.

Medium Day

The medium day will follow the light day after a full day of rest.  On this day we introduce some volume into the mix, with the goal of getting your joints and muscles accustomed to a higher volume of work. For this day we will use sets of 3-4, a rep range of 8-12, with :90-3:00 Rest . The goal will simply be to accomplish as many reps consecutively in each set with the least amount of assistance. Assistance should come in the form of partner pull-ups (*not bands – see below), progressing from holding two legs for assistance to 1 leg or spotting at the waist. For the more advanced, experiment with more difficult grips variations, hand positions, and pulling angle.

*We have evolved beyond the band as an assistance device in the chin-up/pull-up primarily because it provides an uneven curve or resistance (i.e. it helps you more in the bottom where you need it least, and less at the top where you need it most).

Framework and Considerations:

A sample four week framework for this program looks like this:

Week 1

M:  x2-4 reps x 5 sets rest 5:00

W: x5 reps x3 sets rest  2:00

F: x8-10 reps x 3 sets rest 3:00

Week 2

M:  x2-4 reps x 5 sets 5:00

W: x5 reps x3 sets Rest 2:00

F: x8-10 reps x 3 sets Rest 3:00

Week 3

M:  x1-3 reps x 7 sets Rest 5:00

W: x5 reps x3 sets rest 2:00

F: x10-12 reps x 3 sets rest 2:30

Week 4

M:  x1-3 reps x 7 sets rest 5:00

W: x5 reps x3 sets rest 2:00

F: x10-12 reps x 3 sets rest 2:30

Remember also that specific weakness, imbalances, and mobility issues will need to be addressed not only for continual progress, but for long-term shoulder health while training; most commonly (but not limited to) the scapular stabilizers and the rotator cuff.

So the moral of this story is simple. We know strict chins are important, and we want you to get better at them. A wise man once told me this: “If you let people continue to set PRs with half squats, the only thing that is growing is the ego.”  The same rings true of this debate. Hopefully now you have another tool in the box to attack those pesky kipping pull-ups.