An elusive movement for CrossFit newbies, and a frustrating one for fitness veterans.
For many, they just plain stink.
It should be so simple, right? Step 1: jump up and grab the bar. Step 2: raise your feet up to said bar.
Similar to Olympic lifting, however, gymnastics movements are hard to come by… at least for the general public who didn’t grow up on a regimented gym program. In the pursuit of adult fitness, our strength, range of motion, and body awareness can still be developed, but we’re possibly working against years of not doing certain activities.
Naturally, the major battle is with higher skilled movements. The ones that make you want to hit up a real bar and drown your sorrows in a drink.
To kip, or not to kip?
Like kipping pull-ups, toes to bar, knees to elbows, or any movement performed with momentum will receive its fair share of criticism. Before moving on, let’s default to a kipping toes to bar movement as our go-to T2B. The strict form of the movement exists and can/should be performed as a muscle strengthener of the abdominal and hip muscles (namely rectus abdomens, iliopsoas, and the hip flexor portion of the quadriceps), with additional help from pulling muscles in the back and arms (latissimus dorsi, the biceps, and to some extent the rhomboids and teres major.)
Proponents of kipping cite the athleticism it requires (and develops), namely the coordination for hip recruitment in order to use body momentum correctly. The kip fosters a body awareness akin to other muti-joint movements we see in Olympic weightlifting or sport specific actions like throwing or jumping. In this realm, besides needing core strength, one requires agility as well.
Negative aspects of kipping are also reported. These include infringing on shoulder socket health with rotator cuff issues like bursitis or shoulder impingement. This is usually discussed in relation to kipping pull-ups.
Both strict and kipping styles of pull-ups have their merit, in a fitness sense, so both can and should be used in a general strength and conditioning program. The same is true for toes to bar.
While on the topic of injuries, always keep this math equation in mind: chalked hands + a pull-up bar = ripping. Check out more about calluses and hand health in a previous article on the topic here.
All in all, point be clear: the strict toes to bar movement is different than kipping.
What you put in, you get out.
I have previously expressed that in a coached athlete the movement of the gymnastic kip can be taught on the pull-up bar simultaneously as the strict movement to help embed the concept through routine. While upper body strength is acquired, so is the idea of generating momentum. Kipping practice can be done before or after a workout, although afterwards would generally mean a person works while fatigued. Not unsafe, per se, but it needs to be noted that higher rep kipping, whether it is pull-ups or knees to elbows/toes to bar, receives the magnifying glass from the online fitness community, where negative feedback is aplenty. Overtrain while already muscle fatigued and the consensus agrees that’s a recipe for potential disaster.
Thus, kipping without a basis of strength is not productive.
Great news, though, no matter what experience level: gymnastics development is like everything else in the gym. You put some attention towards the exercise and gains are made.
The bad news? That strength development takes time.
So, grab a drink and a stool and belly up with your bartender. (That’s me.)
Here’s a mixture of movements to get the right concoction for toes to bar development, from simple core strengthening exercises to high rep efficiency tips.
Movements For Toes to Bar Development:
Hollow Rock Holds: A great start for the absolute newbie. This is a static global flexion that tightens from the legs through to the shoulders. Hollowing out is a set position in much of gymnastics and related exercise– in CrossFit, this is namely push-ups, handstands, ring dips, pull-ups, and muscle-ups.
- Do keep the core tight, the lower back flat on the ground, the shoulders active by the ears, and the quads and glutes on and activated.
- Don’t think these are for wussies. Hollow Rock Holds can be brutal, even for the experienced.
V-ups: Used correctly, this can foster some of the greatest strength development for those without free-hanging knee tucks, but it limits learning of the kipping movement. Scaling: more pros than cons, for sure.
- Do know when to scale. Knees can bend until a straight leg movement develops.
- Don’t forget your hollow position. This is meant to be a skill transfer; don’t lose sight of the correct positioning needed.
Kipping Swing Practice: A kip can be small or big in terms of the swing, and therefore can be used to eke out just a few additional reps on a set of toes to bar until failure. The swing itself can develop more than just a solid toes to bar technique. Plus, you don’t have to attempt to fold the body or raise the knees in any way to benefit from your swing practice.
- Do work shoulder mobility to allow the chest to come forward and through the window of the arms to gain swing momentum. Generate power from a tight hollow position into a globally extended position, and back again.
- Don’t worry if you get the rhythm down for a while and then “lose” it for a day or more. Kipping comes and goes sometimes. Stay at it.
Knees to Elbows: A challenging move in itself, some even describe these as more difficult than making bar contact with the feet. Since it generates more crunching of the body to raise the knees to the elbows, these develop hip and abdominal strength and flexibility as well as one’s pull strength with the lats in the upper back to down under the armpits. Kipping Knee Tucks are also a great scaled option as K2E develop.
- Do continue to work shoulder mobility and your gymnastics kip. To increase efficiency, make sure you are regenerating momentum through the window of your arms. Heels pull back immediately for your next kip.
- Don’t count knees to elbows if in the middle of the workout you’re only touching triceps. Keep yourself honest, if this is your skill level. How is your overall strength with V-ups and pull-ups?
CrossFit Efficiency Tips
Kipping Toes to Bar: Our default “Rx” movement and one generally used in CrossFit competitions because of the ease in judging.
- Do grip your hands slightly wider than shoulder width, kip to take your body from a hollow position to an arc, transition from backswing to upswing, drive your knees toward your elbows, and finally flick your feet toward the bar as they rise.
- Don’t lose your momentum. Use your swing to pull back into an arc; squeeze your glutes to load your body up for the next rep. This will be essential to stringing higher reps together in unbroken sets.
Kipping Toes to Bar Tips
Strict Toes to Bar: These show great body control, and can be worked in post-workout as accessory strength work, assuming you didn’t just fatigue a similar movement.
- Do hang in a hollow body position to start, then pull thighs towards your chest, keeping legs straight. Keep squeezing up until the toes touch the bar, then slowly descend.
- Don’t be embarrassed to hit small sets of 1 or 2, again as supplemental work in warm-ups or after a conditioning workout.
There you have it. A beginner’s look at toes to bar and related lead-up exercises.
Refill your drink and get to watching more videos if needed; there are plenty out yonder on that there internet machine. Decide on your goals and where you fit in the skill spectrum. Then wipe your mouth, strap up your boots, and get after it.
Don’t forget to tip your bartender. I’ll be here cheering you on, pardner.
– Scott, 6.29.2015