During one of my very first classes at my new CrossFit box, still early enough in my fitness journey that I didn’t know the difference between a squat and a snatch, I was introduced to the gymnastics phenomenon that is the toes to bar. My first thought was misplaced confidence. “Oh, I could do that! That looks easy!” Later in the day’s Metcon, I approached the pull up bar, established my grip and attempted to pull my toes up past my hips, past my chest, past my head, up to that bar. The searing burn in my core muscles both shocked and humbled me, as those toes made it about hip level and stubbornly refused to go further. Well, nothing like a good gymnastics challenge, right?
There’s something very satisfying about hearing that low-toned “thunk” of gym shoe-clad toes meeting the metal of the pull up bar. But don’t mistake the toes to bar to exercise to be a “swinging” motion (for one, it’s a KIP, not a swing…which are two entirely different things, but I digress). They’re compound movements that require core strength, grip strength and some dang strong abdominal muscles and hip flexors.
Why are Toes to Bar So Difficult?
Unless you have a history in gymnastics, it’s probably unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to hop up to the pull up bar and bang out 10 reps unbroken the first time (yes, I learned it the hard way). Even seasoned CrossFit athletes can find toes to bar challenging on good days, frustrating on so-so days and downright IMPOSSIBLE on bad days. They move some major muscle groups and they straight up LIGHT UP your core muscles. The eccentric focus of toes to bar can increase muscle mass. As an added bonus, success and strength built from toes to bar can help out with other exercises, like squats, deadlifts and presses.
As you think about toes to bar and your CrossFit routine, there’s a couple of different tracks to consider for strengthening your abdominal muscles and getting all of the benefits. You could work an alternative exercise as toes to bar progression, developing strength in the whole body to eventually do a full out TTB. There’s also toes to bar alternatives using body weight to get the same benefits. Let’s take a look at some of both.
Toes to Bar progression moves
Strict toes to bar
Stronger core coming up! If you’re looking for a move that’s slightly easier…well, this one isn’t it. But WHOA, is it effective. It’s a bar movement similar to a standard ttb exercise, without the benefit of the kipping swing. Grip the pull up bar a bit wider than shoulder width. Tighten that core, keep your legs straight and maintain control as you elevate your lower body until your toes touch the bar. Slowly lower your legs back to the starting position. Keep in mind, one rep of strict toes to bar can feel like a full body workout, so plan to keep your rep scheme low until you gain flexibility and core strength (think 5 unbroken reps as a starting goal). This one also puts a lot of emphasis on correct form, so you can progress to kipping toes to bar.
Knees to chest
If you’re still working on getting your full toes up to the bar, you can use knee raises to build core strength. It’s a good first exercise if you’re just getting started on the gymnastics side of CrossFit. Grip the pull up bar, and with a controlled motion, lift your bent knees to chest level. Slowly lower, ending with straight legs and a full hang. Think about a bar substitute here – knees to chest could similarly be done in a captain’s chair. In this alternative bar alternative exercise, climb on to the captain’s chair via the pegs or steps, rest your forearms on its arms, facing outward, and lift your bent knees straight up to your chest. Lower slowly. Repeat for 5-8 reps.
Straight leg raises
Another bar exercise that concentrates on the lower body by straightening your legs as opposed to keeping your knees bent. It’s the same concept with similar benefits. In this toes to bar alternative, grip the pullup bar and elevate your straight legs as high as you can and your core muscles engaged. A good beginning goal might be to get your straight legs parallel to the ground, slowly progressing higher and higher…until you eventually hit that strict toes to bar! Straight leg raises to parallel is another good one for the captain’s chair. Repeat for 5-8 reps.
Lying toes to kettlebell
This toes to bar exercise takes the pull up bar out of the equation. It’s kind of a marriage between a toes to bar and lying leg raises. Lay flat on your back, keeping you arms overhead like you would on a pull up bar, except gripping a grounded kettlebell. Toes to kettlebell can be done either as a lying leg raise leg or with bent knees, with the ultimate goal to reach the full toes back to the kettlebell. Repeat for 10-15 reps.
Toes to bar substitutes exercises
Lying leg raises
A lying leg raise is a ttb exercise that takes you down to the floor as opposed to the pull up bar (give your grip strength and bar work a break here!). Keep your legs straight in front of you and your hands underneath your low back (don’t put your hands back behind your head – it can strain your neck). Once your toes are slightly above parallel from the ground, slowly lower back down to the starting position. Make sure to BREATHE. Repeat 8-10 times, adding more repetitions as you gain muscular strength in your abdominal region. To make lying leg raises more challenging, lower halfway down and flutter kick 10-20 times before lowering down.
This toes to bar alternative is also taken from the floor. For the reverse crunch, lay flat on the ground. Bend your legs at knee and raise your lower body until your knees are parallel to the floor. Contract your abs and curl your hips and knees toward your chest. Your hips should be coming off the ground here, but keep your knees at the same angle. Repeat 10-15 times. Note here, if core strength is your goal here, watch out for your hip flexors during reverse crunches. It’s an easy cheat to use your hip flexors as the driver for this movement, instead of your low abs. Careful!
Also known as jack knives, this one brings up your upper body, as well as your legs! This alternative exercise packs a punch in the abs and mimics the toes to bar from on the floor. Did I also mention it’s a great exercise balance and coordination (if you want an extra challenge, balance at the top position of this one for 10-15 seconds before lowering!) Lay on your back, extending your arms straight behind your head. In one fluid movement, lift your upper body up to touch your toes in a v shape. Lower to the ground slowly. To make this ttb exercise a little easier, come up to a v up one leg at a time, leaving the lying leg floating just off the floor.
Some other toes to bar ideas
You can also use other pieces of equipment for a substitute exercise with some of the same benefits. You can use an ab wheel to roll out in a controlled motion. You could also grab a set of dumbbells or a wall ball and an ab mat for weighted sit-ups. And, if you’re feeling ambitious and want the gains in other muscle groups (looking at you, quads), head over to the GHD!
Toes to bar are pretty standard in CrossFit workouts and have their place alongside cardio burners and olympic lifting, but don’t get frustrated into thinking they’re the only compound movement that can be effective. Toes to bar alternatives can be challenging and can help you reach your fitness goals – whatever they may be.
Kendra Whittle is a writer, novice CrossFitter, marathon runner and triathlete. She lives in St. Louis with her husband, three kids and two dogs.