Toes to Bar – a tricky movement for even the fittest of athletes. Toes to Bar don’t necessarily seem to be such a difficult movement, but they certainly can give even the best athletes a run for their money in the middle of a workout!
There are a few reasons you may be struggling with this gymnastics movements, and some things you can do about it!
We often think that we struggle with this movement because of our shoulders, but really, our core is the first place we should look. And while this may be a piece of our struggle puzzle (especially for newer athletes), chances are this is actually only a small piece of it all.
If you have trouble with plank hold, sit ups, (and midline stabilization in general), this is where you should first focus some training time.
To see if your core (specifically your lower abs) are weaker than they need to be, try hanging from a bar and bringing your knees as close to your chest as you can. The goal is to get 15 unbroken reps in about 30 seconds.
If you need to strengthen your core a bit, try regular or GHD sit ups, planks holds, side planks, and this fantastic 12 Minute Core Series 2-3 times a week.
Weak Shoulders and Lats
These are the most common problems we think of when struggling with Toes to Bar- deficiency in shoulder strength and/or shoulder mobility issues.
The shoulders are the first thing to activate in the Toes to Bar (and Pull Ups and even Push Ups!) You should continue to be active and strong throughout the entire movement. It’s important to protect the shoulder joint (and all of the muscles and tendons around it.)
Our shoulders also provide strength and flexibility in the kipping movement. During the backswing of the kip, push down hard on the bar. This will drive the butt up and away from the bar and lessen the distance your toes have to travel to reach the bar.
You should be able to hang from the pull up bar with active shoulders for at least 30 seconds. You should also be able to do at least 10 unbroken reps alternating between a dead hang and active shoulders position.
Work on horizontal and vertical pulling exercises and static holds to strengthen your shoulders and lats. These will also help you practice engaging the lats (often times strength is not the issue, but learning how to activate the lat muscles is the struggle.)
Try these exercises to work on the pulling motion – Pull Ups, Chin Ups, Rows (Bent Over with a Barbell, Ring, Dumbbell, and Kettlebell Rows), CrossOver Symmetry, Rope Climbs, and Sled Pulls.
Don’t forget to work those static holds as well (and most of these will also improve your core strength too!) Active Hangs, Chin over Bar Holds, and 90 Degree Holds will all help.
Lack of Upper Back Mobility
Many people think they lack shoulder mobility (which still could be the case), but more accurately it is actually thoracic spine (upper back) mobility that is the problem.
The thoracic spine runs from just under the little nub on the back of your neck all the way down to where the rib cages meets in the back on your spine.
The front swing on a kip requires a lot of thoracic mobility. You have to be able to push your head and chest through past the front of your shoulders. If you struggle with this portion of any kipping movement, look at working on some mobility to ensure safe movement patterns.
If you can’t get into a good front swing position in the kip, you shouldn’t be kipping (yet). It will do you no good to use that kind of force and risk a shoulder injury!
To test your thoracic spine mobility you can try some Wall Slides. Stand with your back to the wall with your shoulders, butt, and heels touching the wall. Raise your arms in a 90 degree angle with your elbows and your wrists on the wall. Keeping all those contact points, slide your arms up along the wall over your head. See how far you can get!
To increase your thoracic spine mobility, use a foam roller and 45# plate. Roll your upper back while cradling the plate the tall way on your chest. The weight will help open up your spine, and the cradling of the plate will stretch the area as well!
You can also make a peanut by taping 2 lacrosse balls together. Lay on the ground with the divot of the peanut cradling your spine. Roll up and down a few times. When you find some knots, grab a PVC and do pass throughs while laying on the ground. You are sure to find some tight areas and this is a great way to loosen them up!
Lastly, we can look at the hamstrings. Even if all the rest of the pieces are working correctly, tight hamstrings can be a roadblock to getting those toes all the way to that bar!
Your core is strong, your shoulders and lats are firing, you have the upper back mobility, and you have good control of your kip swing. The last part after you get your knees to your chest, is extending your legs and reaching your toes to touch that bar. Tight hamstrings may hold you back.
Work on getting the knots out by foam rolling, or using a lacrosse ball to dig at those knots. You can even get your super friend workout buddy to knead and step on them for you while you lay on your stomach. Put an abmat under your knee, and have your partner take their shoes off. Have good communication about the pressure and intensity though!
Just like all of the technical skills we need to work on, break them down, address all the parts separately, and identify what needs to get worked on. Work on each of the pieces, and then put them all back together!