Butterfly pull-ups are a great exercise for CrossFitters of all levels. They build upper body strength and can be used as a progression to more advanced exercises like muscle-ups.
However, they're not for the fainthearted. Butterfly pull-ups can be difficult and intimidating, especially if you're new to them.
Because they require such high levels of strength, coordination, and timing, perfecting butterfly pull-ups can be a frustrating movement to perfect.
To help you smash butterfly pull-ups in your next WOD, I'll take you through how to avoid the three most common complaints people have when doing butterfly pull-ups.
What are butterfly pull-ups, and why do them?
Before I get into the common mistakes and complaints, let’s talk about why in the world you’d want to do a pull-up that makes you look like a flopping fish and has the name butterfly in it.
The butterfly pull-up may seem kind of ridiculous and look a little bit silly, but there’s a very specific reason why so many athletes (including me) do them.
It’s because it is the most efficient way to meet the pull-up standard, where you start with your arms fully locked out and pass your chin above the horizontal plane of the pull-up bar.
There are a couple of other ways that we can get our chin above the pull-up bar; you have the strict pull-up, or you can do a kipping pull-up - but if you really want to get faster at pull-ups, then butterfly pull-ups are going to help you do just that.
So let’s take a look at some of the common complaints I often hear from those trying to do the butterfly pull-up.
Complaint one: “I feel like I’m going to hit my face”
One of the complaints I hear about butterfly push-ups all the time is the classic “I’m worried about hitting my face on the bar”.
If you feel this way, I don’t blame you. If you go into the search bar and search butterfly pull-up fails, you'll see all kinds of videos of people flying off the bar after they’ve hit their face on it.
If you don’t know what you’re doing, then butterfly pull-ups aren’t necessarily a super safe, controlled movement because there are a tonne of moving parts.
Luckily, if you’re ready to learn butterfly pull-ups, there are a couple of things you can do so you don’t make this mistake.
The first thing you need to know is that your chin just needs to pass above the vertical plane of the bar; you don't need to pull your chin above the bar.
The reason you feel like you're going to hit your face or knock a tooth out is that a lot of times when people transfer from kipping pull-ups to butterfly pull-ups, they keep their chin in the same spot where they’re pulling into the bar and getting their face really close to it.
So when you’re doing the movement, think about getting your shoulder and chin up and away from the bar rather than trying to get your chin actually above the bar. When your chin reaches the apex, it should be away from the bar.
You can do this by getting your shoulders and torso away from the bar while lifting your chin up.
Complaint two: I can’t figure out the rhythm
A lot of people struggle with this one.
When you can’t get into the rhythm of the butterfly pull-up, it’s like doing a very weird, awkward dance move. You hop onto the bar, do a few reps, and immediately start swinging around.
To work on your rhythm, there are two different drills that I want you to practice.
The first one is a great one for butterfly pull-up beginners.
Start by getting a bench or a box, and practice reverse bicycle kicks when doing a butterfly pull-up. This means slowly pedalling one leg backwards as you lift your chin. Then rinse and repeat.
As you get to grips with the rhythm, you can speed this up and do it a little more aggressively, and then string the movement as a whole together, where you’re doing the reverse bicycle kick while getting your chin up and away as your leg is scooping and lifting - that's when your chin and shoulders are moving up and away from your original starting position under the bar.
When you can combine those two things, start practicing with the other leg and progress to practicing going faster.
The second drill is, once you have the rhythm down, take the box away and do mini butterfly pull-ups. So rather than trying to get your chin all the way above the bar, just do small ones and incorporate the reverse bicycle kick.
Slowly but surely, add more height to it, and then eventually transition to full butterfly pull-ups.
Complaint 3: “This feels way harder than I think it should”
When you do butterfly pull-ups properly, they’re super efficient and aren’t going to fatigue your arms very much.
But some people say the exercise fatigues them really quickly.
If you’re one of them, it could be down to the fact that you’re almost exclusively using your arms and not creating enough momentum with your legs and hips.
So how can you fix this?
The number one tip I use to coach our athletes in our butterfly pull-up breakthrough course is to finish your scoop.
This is all about scooping the legs as you do your reverse bicycle kick. This is where you’ll generate the most power to help lift you up into each pull-up - while if you’re just using your arms, your legs won’t be doing much.
So focus on really exaggerating that scoop, almost as if it’s like a big ice cream scoop, and then lift as high as possible - and remember to finish your scoop and let those legs get really long.
And there you have it, three simple tips to help you fix the most common mistakes when doing butterfly pull-ups!
Practice these drills, and you’ll get the hang of this tricky movement.
If you're still struggling, be sure to check out our free 8-week butterfly-breakthrough course.Or, if you want to master all the different pull-up variations, including strict pull-ups, kipping pull-ups and butterfly pull-ups, our free pull-up guide covers everything you need to know.