Banded Pull-ups: To Band or Not To Band?

To Band or Not To Band?
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Kipping Pull Up

Over the last two years, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting many different CrossFit boxes throughout the United States. Plus, I’ve been a solid member of three different CrossFit boxes. As a result, I’ve been able to experience many different coaching and programming styles in which each gym brought their own specialty to the table. However, I found something universal among most gyms: the banded kipping pull-up.

Kipping pull-ups are a high-skill exercise that requires coordination and strength to keep the shoulder supported under a dynamic load. This seems to be a major struggle for most novice and some intermediate CrossFitters. I know it was for me, especially coming from a bodybuilding background where strict isolated movements were most common. Whether it’s because of a lack of knowledge on how to properly teach the movement or the patience to do so, I’ve noticed that members get thrown on the bands almost immediately.

Being educated in human anatomy (I have a CPTS from Fitness Institute International and am ACSM certified) with a special interest/knowledge about the shoulder, I questioned this coaching style and whether banded pull-ups were actually affective and safe.

Recently, my fiance and I relocated a bit north of Fort Lauderdale to the Delray Beach area in Florida, and we became members of CrossFit Delray Beach. While finishing up a workout session one day, I started a conversation with Laura Canteri, one of Delray’s head coaches. Laura is a former collegiate athlete who is passionate about human performance and program design. Once she had completed her Master of Science in exercise physiology, she enrolled in James FitzGerald’s OPT (Optimum Performance Training) assessment and program design courses. After learning about her background in exercise science, assessment, program design and coaching, I was anxious to hear her opinion on the banded kipping pull-up.

“I can’t speak for every coach, but I believe bands do more harm than good in terms of an athlete’s development,” Laura said. It was a breath of fresh air to hear my concerns validated.

Laura and I discussed how the most challenging part of a pull-up is the initial pull, which requires scapula retraction and depression. Band tension is highest at the bottom of the movement, so the initial snap of the band causes you to bypass the most important part of the pull-up. Athletes who continue to use the band will never learn how to fully activate the muscles needed for a strict pull-up and, in turn, will never build true strength. Laura and I then went on to discuss the importance of strength and skill in the movement.

“Its important to improve strength and skill simultaneously in all movements,” Laura said. “However, I stress the importance of strength before skill for kipping pull-ups due to the nature of the shoulder joint. If someone is unable to perform a strict pull-up, they will not possess the strength to support their shoulder in a dynamic load such as the kipping pull-up.”

Because the shoulder is a shallow socket joint and the most mobile joint in the human body, it’s highly susceptible to chronic shoulder problems and/or injuries. I’m not suggesting the removal of bands from your gym altogether, but I challenge you, whether you’re a coach at a box or a member of one, to hold yourself to a higher standard. Teach your members the importance of building strength and activating muscles that support the joints before you put them under the stress of a ballistic movement such as the kip. Program exercises that teach scapula retraction and depression such as ring rows and, of course, strict pull-ups.

If you’re a member of a box that allows you to use bands, start practicing without them. Add in strict pull-ups on your own, and if you can’t do a strict pull-up, then do jumping pull-ups and try to hold yourself up to the bar as long as you can. I guarantee you will get stronger and be able to do a bodyweight pull-up on your own.

Being fit and healthy is what we all want to achieve. On that journey, we hope to stay injury-free.

Stay enlightened, my friends!

MHP-sponsored athlete Sarah Grace has an extensive background in competitive athletics, ranging from boxing to women’s figure. Currently, she spends her time training and competing in CrossFit and working as a fitness model. She’s also an online fitness and nutrition coach. She holds her CrossFit Level 1 Certificate as well as ACSM CPT and CPTS credentials from Fitness Institute International. You can find her at sgtrainingzone