Get your toes to the bar – Sun 7.09.17
Thunk. Thunk. Thunk.
It’s like listening to Dom Howard set the beat for “Stockholm Syndrome” when you can barely keep time to “Hot Cross Buns.”
Your coach’s toes smack the bar overhead with a precise, satisfying rhythm; you’re lucky if you get a couple of uneven taps between wild, uncontrolled swings.
While perhaps not as famously coveted as sexier movements such as muscle-ups, toes-to-bars are key for any CrossFit athlete. Executed well, the movement demands substantial core and lat strength, as well as hamstring flexibility in some cases. Mentally, the athlete must be devoted to mastering the subtleties of technique and timing.
“There is so much bang for your buck with this movement,” said Tommy Carter, owner of CrossFit Immortal in Pleasantville, New York, and a CrossFit Level 3 Trainer. “Our core, grip, lats, hip flexors and shoulder are all being worked. Program toes-to-bar in a met-con and it becomes a great conditioning tool as well.”
Though the movement can be performed strict, here we focus on the kipping version, wherein the rapid transition between extension and flexion generates tension and momentum to help propel the feet toward the bar.
But where to begin if you feel like a small tornado must rip through your gym for you to get your feet high enough?
The arch (extension) and hollow (flexion) are the building blocks of the kip, “and they should be learned first on the floor,” Carter said.
In the arch, the athlete lies prone, squeezing the glutes and engaging the legs. The chest, hands and most of the legs rise off the ground. Carter cues his athletes to “get long” in this position. In the hollow, the athlete is supine with the upper shoulders, shoulder blades and legs off the ground. The chin is tucked and the arms are extended overhead. A strong core contraction locks ribs and hips together.
Carter might have the athlete hold each position for 5 sets of 30 seconds each.
“If they look good with that on the floor, we’re gonna bring them to the bar,” he said.
But before you can kip on the bar, you need to be able to hang from it—something Carter said isn’t always possible for new or deconditioned athletes.
“You might have a client who comes in, and you can watch them just hang from the bar and that’s a struggle,” he said. “That’s an indicator that the strength has a ways to go.”
For that athlete, simply maintaining a hang for increasingly long intervals is a good way to build grip strength on the bar. This is an “active” position, in which the athlete maintains a hollow position and pulls down on the bar to depress the shoulder blades and raise the body slightly. An inactive position is characterized by elevated shoulder blades, with the shoulders stuffed in the athlete’s ears as he or she hangs on for dear life.
Once an athlete can hang with relative ease, Carter introduces the scap shrug to build strength in the lats. From a dead hang, athletes engage the shoulder blades without bending the elbows, resulting in a slight vertical motion or shrug.
“Imagine if you were hanging from the bar and I cued you to try to break the bar in half,” Carter explained.
If you can hang, it’s time to add some movement—and here’s where many make their first mistake.
Consider this scene: Eager to perform the movement as prescribed, Becky jumps on the bar, swings wildly and throws her legs up as far as she can. They get halfway to the bar before Becky swings backward like a trapeze artist without the sparkly leotard.
While it would be easy to dismiss the issue as a timing problem, Carter said it’s about strength more often than not.
“You see that a lot—people almost spinning their wheels a little bit trying to kip a toes-to-bar, and the prerequisite strength just isn’t there,” he said.
Instead, he has athletes work on strict hanging knee raises to develop lat and ab strength, increasing their range of motion over time.
“Once you can get your knees all the way up to your elbow, it’s essentially just like a flick of the feet to get your toes to make contact with the bar,” he said.
Say Becky’s built some strength and she’s ready to work on her kip. She wants to jump on the bar and swing straight into a full rep—and still she’s getting too far ahead of herself. It’s essential, Carter said, that athletes develop a tight, compact kip—a beat swing.
“A big misconception about the beat swing is that a bigger swing—or bigger range of motion from arch to hollow—is better,” he said. “This is false. Ideally, a tight, compact swing … is way more efficient.”
While the swing inevitably gets larger as we fatigue and use momentum to compensate for failing strength, a smaller kip equals a shorter line of motion and a faster cycle time. Athletes might question this concept, insisting they need a big kip to generate enough power. But tension is a more efficient generator than momentum.
To create tension, Carter said, athletes should squeeze their butts and feet together, keeping knee bend to a minimum.
“Think of your body as like a rubber band,” he said. “When we hit our arch, we’re essentially pulling that rubber band to try to create as much tension and elasticity on the band.”
Keeping the feet together increases that tension, which we then release by leaning back and engaging the lats—imagine pushing down on the bar like shutting a car trunk—while moving from arch to hollow, keeping the arms straight and causing the body to rise up and back. It should be noted that the kipping motion should be driven by the upper body, not the legs and hips.
If an athlete has trouble keeping the feet together, a corrective drill involves having him or her perform small sets of kips with a mobility band or T-shirt pinched between the feet. To teach lat activation, Carter will also have athletes pair up for one of two other drills:
- Athlete A extends her arms out straight in front. Athlete B places her fists beneath athlete A’s hands while Athlete A attempts to drive Athlete B’s fists down.
- Athlete C lies on the floor with PVC pipe extended overhead on the floor. Athlete D anchors the pipe with a foot between athlete C’s hands. At the call of “push,” Athlete C attempts to drive the PVC pipe forward. (To take this drill a step further, Athlete C can tuck knees to chest, then raise the hips to bring his or her toes overhead and to the “bar.”)
After an athlete can consistently demonstrate a quality kip, he or she is ready to begin elevating the knees, gradually increasing range of motion until the knees can be extended to bring toes to bar (some athletes are able to keep the legs relatively straight throughout the movement: video ).
If an athlete is strong and can generate a tight, controlled kip but still can’t make contact, it might be a flexibility issue.
To increase flexibility, Carter might have athletes lie on their backs, holding a mobility band with one end looped around the toe. The athlete then elevates the leg, keeping it as straight as possible, pulling the toes toward the face to stretch the calf or extending them toward the ceiling to work the hamstring.
Carter also recommends the Jefferson curl. In this post-workout stretch, athletes stand on a box, toes at the edge. Holding a very light weight—even a PVC pipe will do for many athletes—the athlete then does a stiff-legged, round-back deadlift, letting the weight travel down and past the feet to get a deep stretch of the posterior chain.
Killing the Double Kip
It’s the curse of the mid-level athlete: She’s strong and flexible and can whack the bar with the best of them but can’t add a second rep without an extra swing in the middle to wind up again. It’s a problem of tension and timing, Carter said.
“I haven’t met a person who can’t do toes-to-bars when those two things are in line,” he said.
Athletes who get stuck in a double swing typically let their legs fall naturally from the bar after making contact, doing nothing with their hips or lats. This allows momentum to take over, and the body gets swept into a pendulum-like swing, all tension and direction dissipated. After the toes contact the bar, Carter recommends pulling the knees back to the chest and intentionally driving the feet down and back—feet together and butt squeezed—while simultaneously opening the shoulder and the hip, pushing the head through the arms.
“(The) focus must shift to re-engaging all that good tension in our arch,” he said. “We accomplish this by actively driving our knees and legs back down and not just letting them fall … . When performed correctly, we feel this natural elasticity throughout our body, and usually the next rep feels easier.”
If an athlete is having trouble re-engaging, Carter suggests a focus on kipping knees-to-elbows or even a kipping knee-raise rather than toes-to-bars. Though an athlete might not be enthusiastic about perceived scaling, “The key is to just take a small step back and work with a little bit of a smaller range of motion and own that range of motion before going to that next step,” he said.
Athletes must also remember to keep their midline tight and engaged as they return to the arch position.
“Think of the arch during the swing like the descent of a GHD sit-up,” Carter said. “This is the eccentric phase of the movement, where our abdominals are lengthening under tension. Keeping the tension on and remaining braced is critical to creating that rubber-band effect, which allows us to link reps together and keep the tempo of the swing.”
So what should you do if you’re still working on toes-to-bars and the movement comes up in a workout? Scale the range of motion to something you can consistently perform well—even if it means sacrificing the “Rx” on the board—and save the rest for practice.
“Just as with the charter of ‘mechanics, consistency, intensity,’ we need to be able to do (toes-to-bars) when we’re not doing it for time,” Carter said. “We spend so much time on one-rep maxes, heavy doubles, heavy triples—we work on weightlifting in isolation all the time; few spend time working on (other) skills in isolation, and that’s key … . It doesn’t happen overnight, but this approach will get them there.”