Butterfly Pull-ups: 3 Most Common Struggles and How to Fix Them

Written By Ben  |  Pull-up 

So first of all let’s talk about why in the world we want to do pull-ups that make us look like flopping fish! Butterflies have a very specific reason - they are by far the most efficient way to meet the pull-up standard in CrossFit. The pull-up rep has to begin with arms fully locked out and finish with your chin above the plane of the pull-up bar. Unless specified, how you get from A to B is down to you.

You could do your pull-ups strict (the Internet Troll’s pull-up of choice) which of course, have their place for building strength, but for speedy reps in a CrossFit workout, definitely the slowest and most fatiguing option.

Kipping would be the next - and often most common - method due to it being a slightly less complex skill to learn than butterflies. It’s much more efficient than it’s strict counterpart because we add in some momentum from our hips to help lift us up during the pull.

Lastly, the infamous and difficult to master Butterfly Pull-up, which is of course, why you’re here! It’s easily the faster and most efficient method of the 3, which is why we strive to learn them in the sport of CrossFit. We aim to get the most work done as possible in the shortest amount of time, making them an essential tool in your functional fitness toolbox. 

Before we move on, if you're more of a visual learner, you can watch me go over this in the video below...

So let’s dig into the 3 complaints I hear most when it comes to learning this tricky skill;

“I feel like I’m going to hit my face”
“I can’t figure out the rhythm”
“This feels way harder than I think it should”

Recognise any of those? Well, read on and I’ll tell you how to fix each one!

Firstly, here is what a butterfly pull-up should look like... 

butterfly pull-up

We’ll start with the most common thing I hear,

“I feel like I’m going to hit my face”

The Butterfly Pull-up has so many moving parts, and it’s often not super controlled, which makes it unsurprising that so many people have a fear of hitting their face off the pull-up bar. If this is you, listen up because this one simple cue could be a game changer.

Get your chin ‘Up and Away’

Keep in mind that your chin just needs to pass the vertical plane of the bar, it doesn’t need to come directly over the bar. So think about getting your chin ‘up and away’, rather than trying to get it above the bar. When people transfer from kipping to butterfly, they often still aim to get that same end position, which causes their chin to come dangerously close to the bar at speed. 

Check out the difference below;

So in summary - aim to reach the apex of your pull-up as far from the bar as you can. 

Psssst! If you want to master Butterfly Pull-ups once and for all, check out my FREE video guide here!

Let’s move on to the second most common complaint with Butterfly Pull-ups;

“I can’t figure out the rhythm” 

The Butterfly motion is like a weird, awkward dance move.

You jump up to the pull-up bar imagining that you’ll be floating gracefully through the air and after rep one you find yourself flailing aimlessly around like an uncoordinated kipper. So what’s the fix for this? I have a couple drills to help get the rhythm right but before you attempt them, make sure you are capable of at least 10-15 kipping chest to bar pull-ups (the Butterfly is an advanced movement, and best suited to competitors.)

So if you are ready, give these a try;

bicycle kicks
  1. Reverse Bicycle Kicks (above): grab a box and sit it to one side of the pull-up bar. Position your hands on the bar with just one foot on the box, and practice reverse bicycle kicks with your free leg. Pedal backwards, while lifting your chin. Start in slow motion and build speed as you become more confident. It might feel awkward, but just keep working on scooping the legs while getting chin and shoulders up and away. Switch legs to practice with the other leg. 

  2. Baby Butterflies (below): this is an awesome one to practice just the rhythm, without even  thinking about getting your chin above the bar. Work on small scoops, trying not to lose rhythm as you go. Slowly but surely you can add height as you progress until finally you’re managing the full movement.  

mini butterfly pull-ups

Finally, the 3rd most common Butterfly complaint I hear is this;

“This feels way harder than I think it should”

Butterfly pull-ups when done properly should feel much easier than strict or kipping versions. They shouldn’t even fatigue your arms that much because they’re so efficient. If you feel like this, you’re most likely using too much arms and not enough of the rest of our body!

So, how do we focus on getting more of our core, hips and legs into the equation to give our arms a helping hand?

My number one tip; finish your scoop! The ‘scoop’ - meaning the motion that your hips and legs create - is where you get most of your power. Without that, you might find your legs just kicking around a bit or dangling without bringing any power to the table.

So what’s the fix? Imagine your legs are like an ice cream scoop - get as big a scoop as you can before you start to guide yourself upwards. That big extra scoop allows your body to feel like it’s floating up above the bar rather than having to pull hard on each rep.

See the difference between using your legs to your advantage and letting them do their own thing;

butterfly pull-up not using legs
butterfly pull-up

The first video shows me cutting the scoop short, and the second is much more powerful and efficient.

So if you’re trying to get better at Butterfly Pull-ups, remember these 3 things;

  1. Get your shoulders up and away
  2. Learn the rhythm with drills on the box
  3. Finish the scoop! (more ice cream is always better!)

And for extra help and more juicy tips like these, you can download my FREE video guide here - and I’ll walk you through it step by step. To fast track your progress, I have an 8 week course, Butterfly Pull-up Breakthrough, that you can get started with right away today! This best-seller provides all the programming you need to get you from zero to hero on the pull-up bar.

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