I am hanging from a pull-up bar. This much I know to be true, even though, in this moment, my brain feels jumbled and I’m trying to make sense of where my body is in space. You see, I am working on my kip.
The kip is a combination of two shapes: an arch and a hollow. In the arch position, the chest, hips, and shoulders extend wide open to create a bow shape, with the hands and feet behind the midline. The hollow position is an opposing, boatlike shape that draws the front of the body inward, resulting in the midline curving behind the hands and feet. The hips and shoulders work in tandem, requiring strength, mobility, and coordination.
The kip occurs when the arch and hollow flow into each other with control, until enough power is generated to create an almost weightless feeling. This power can fuel a number of movements, such as kipping knee raises, kipping toes-to-bar, kipping muscle-ups, and kipping pull-ups.
But first, the kip. It’s where I’m stuck, because I refuse to do it wrong; I refuse to swing myself into oblivion just to get the job done.
“Mechanics before intensity,” drills David Freeman, the creator of Life Time’s Alpha program, as he tutors me to become an Alpha Strong coach.
Alpha Strong is one of Life Time’s small-group offerings, combining traditional strength training, Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and recovery. It’s a great way to learn new skills and get pretty darn fit — if you can resist putting intensity above all else.
“Earn your ‘beast mode,’” says Freeman, alluding to the all-out intensity that athletes display in competition. Put in the practice and reap the rewards of precise training.
Squatting double your body weight isn’t impressive if it leaves you broken. Swinging the heaviest kettlebell isn’t beneficial if it sidelines you with an aching back. Flinging yourself over a pull-up bar using momentum, hope, and the last vestiges of the connective tissue in your shoulders isn’t helpful if you get hurt.
To guide people to discover their own beast mode, Freeman developed a goal checklist that reads more like a step-by-step guide to practicing patience. For instance, if you want to achieve a kipping pull-up, then make sure you have achieved these steps first:
- Hold an active hang for at least 30 seconds.
- Perform at least three strict pull-ups.
- Demonstrate a controlled and powerful kip, with its requisite mobility.
- Then, and only then, attempt to combine the mechanics and add intensity by doing kipping pull-ups.
For some people, it’s a huge downer to be told, “Slow down,” “Take it step by step,” or “Wait.” It’s hard to show people that every step toward achieving a goal is an achievement — and a cause for celebration — in and of itself.
I’ve noticed a paradox among new exercisers: low confidence paired with high expectations. Most people underestimate their skills and strengths while also expecting to turn their fitness around in 30 days.
There is no strict timeline when it comes to fitness. Step one is getting the mechanics down. Then practice those good mechanics consistently. In time, add intensity by increasing weight, reps, and speed.
Mechanics, consistency, intensity is not just an order-of-operations mantra — these three pieces are inexorably linked. Good mechanics allow for consistent practice. Consistent practice makes it possible to turn up the intensity without saying goodbye to good form and hello to possible pain and injury.
The longer I overthink the kip, the harder it gets. I let go of the bar, land softly on the floor, and give my arms (and brain) a good shakeout.
“You’ve got this,” Freeman whispers to me. He knows I’m in my head. He’s seen me kip, and kip well. I have the rhythm. I understand the timing from a visceral place. He’s seen it make sense in my body, even if in this moment it doesn’t make sense in my head.
I jump back onto the bar. Arch, hollow, arch, hollow. I stay tight. I stay in control. I feel the rhythm. I feel the weightlessness. Slow as I go, I know I’m earning my beast mode, and it’ll be worth every step along the way.