“So what are chest to bar pull-ups?”, I asked my coach at day two of CrossFit®.
They were written up on the whiteboard, and while the name of the movement seemed pretty self-explanatory… I couldn’t help but wonder, why were there so many different kinds of pull-up names? And… who cares if I can touch my chest to the bar?
What I quickly learned was that chest to bar pull-ups are the ‘next step’ up from chin-over bar pull-ups… that they are more challenging… and frequently programmed in WOD’s.
(Beginners tip: chest to bar pull-ups are often abbreviated as CTB or C2B on the whiteboard.)
So if you’re here and reading this, you might be wondering what the heck chest to bar pull-ups are, how to do them, and how to get stronger for them. Maybe you’re even working on strict chest to bar pull-ups (and if you’re not working strict, you DEFINITELY need to start!)
All of the above is covered in this article, let’s dig in.
Like all gymnastics movement, it’s important to make sure that you’re strong enough to start training for the movement before anything else. Technically, this is the progression when learning pull-ups for CrossFit:
A chest to bar pull-up is just like strict or kipping pull-ups, except you’re just pulling yourself a little bit higher – right?
Ehh… sort of.
I see a lot of athletes who are able to easily get their chin above the bar, but seem to be missing those last few inches to get their chest to actually hit the bar (your collar bone or below needs to contact the bar for the rep to count).
While some people make the extra few inches of pulling look easy, if you’re reading this, chances are you need a little help. Let’s break things down step by step:
Once you’re under the bar, jump and grip just slightly outside of your shoulders. Personally, I tend to like my grip slightly wider during a chest to bar pull-up than my normal kipping pull-up. This helps create space for the chest to contact the bar.
Anytime you’re kipping on the bar, I recommend wrapping your thumbs fully under the bar in a “gymnastics hook grip”, versus wrapping your thumbs over the top of the bar in what I call the “suicide grip”. This makes sure that you don’t go flying off the bar if your grip starts to fail.
Now that you’re hanging on the bar, you should initiate the kipping movement in a hollow body position. Keep your core tight, and use your arms to begin to push back, and then under the bar.
Once you’re under the bar, move into an arch position. Maintain tension, focus on keeping your legs straight (and not breaking your knees) and send your head through your arms as if you’re looking through a window.
Once again pass back under the bar, and this time use momentum to kip upwards. At this point you’re moving back into a hollow body position, but also “scooping” your feet under the bar in the opposite direction of your shoulders. So, your head/shoulders are moving up and away from the bar while your feet/legs start to move vertically. There should be a slight bend in the hips/knees, which allows you to initiate the next step….
The hip pop is what allows to finally pull your chest up to the bar. Just before the apex of your kip, pop your hips open while pulling your chest directly into the bar. You can also think of it as a “hip thrust” or a “butt squeeze” depending on which gives the best mental image. It should be sharp and quick, almost unnoticeable when done smoothly.
This is going to be key – even more with chest to bar pull-ups than normal pull-ups.
If your elbows and shoulders happen to be pointing back instead of down, you’re losing out on a ton of pulling power. It’s a small cue, but could be the change that is needed to pull your chest up those last few inches to the bar.
Just because your chest hit the bar doesn’t mean the work is over – it’s time to correctly set up for the next rep. Once you contact the bar, push away from the bar and back into that hollow position. This is going to help keep the momentum needed to move back into the arched position, and into the next rep. As you push away, move your feet in front of you, keeping legs and core tight.
If you were to head over and read our kipping pull-ups post, you would notice that the cues here are basically the same.
The main differences in the two pull-up movements are:
Remember, the hip pop & pull should be happening almost at the exact same time. If you still find yourself struggling to get high enough, try focusing on pulling to your belly instead of your chest. Because if you try pulling to your chest and miss… it could be your teeth.
For even more chest to bar pull-up videos, here is our entire playlist on YouTube.
Building strength for strict chest to bar pull-ups is never a bad idea; the strength gains are also going to translate into you kipping C2B’s as well. Let’s take a look at two of my favorite drills to build strict strength.
More often than not, athletes are missing the strength to pull those last few inches – the end of the movement. The fix? Work the full range of motion (of a chest to bar pull-up) under load.
Pick a dumbbell weight that is going to allow you to do about 6-8 reps on both sides with fatiguing. With the dumbbell in one hand, bend over so that your chest is square to the ground and the spine is flat, and pull the weight back to your side, hold, and lower back down. Here’s a quick demo:
If you have a lat pull-down machine to use, that’s great! If not, try looping a band around the top of the pull-up rig, and putting a PVC pipe through the other side of the band – mimicking a lat pull-down machine. Like Coach Ben is doing below, sit on the floor and pull-down, fully engaging your lats.
You may have done different kinds of lat pull-downs in the past, but the key when specifically working on chest to bar strength is to be pulling the full range of motion under tension, and getting that PVC pipe all the way down to your chest line.
There are a few drills that I recommend athletes trying out if they can’t quite get chest to bar pull-ups, but want to still work on them during workouts.
Just like normal banded pull-ups, loop a resistance band around the pull-up bar. The thicker the band, the more assistance you will get. Then carefully (use a box if you need to) step one foot into the band while hanging from the bar. Wrap your other foot around to secure the band. Assume the hollow body position, and initiate the pull-up.
Another option is to go the double band route – a drill that Coach Brent recently cooked up. The concept is the same, except this time loop two bands around the pull-up bar – fairly wide on the bar, outside of where you will grip. Then pull both the bands down and together, creating an overlapping loop for you to stick your feet it. Unlike a single band – you won’t be getting a band in your face, and it allows for the full arch part of the movement.
Disclaimer: While banded movements are great alternatives when learning new movements, don’t let the band become a crutch! Make sure you’re doing a variety of drills, and not always grabbing that band when you see pull-ups programmed. Don’t be like this guy…
If you see chest to bar pull-ups programmed on the board but know that you can’t consistently do them yet, normal kipping pull-ups are going to be the next best thing. You’re ultimately working similar muscles and going through the same motions. Be mindful of your form, and try to focus on continuing to pull yourself higher while kipping. Before you know it, your chest will be hitting the bar.
Hopefully this gave you a good idea how to execute a chest to bar pull-up… what you might need to work on, and how you can work on them. If you are looking for even more free pull-up coaching, check out our free guides here.
Good luck – try out some of the drills, and let me know how it goes!
The CEO and Head Coach at WODprep, Ben is passionate about helping fitness athletes of all abilities get their competitive edge and learn new skills! He's currently living in Denver, Colorado with his wife and two dogs, and whenever possible the two love to travel and explore new places around the world (and meet new WODprep athletes).
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