From crunches and sit-ups, to planks and toe touches, there are endless ways to work the abs. But it’s the upper abs and obliques that tend to get all the love from the most popular ab exercises. While the lower abs may be harder to target, ditching lower ab movements completely could actually increase risk for injury or pain, explains Hannah Davis, CSCS.
“A stronger core supports our spine – which as the home of our central nervous system is foundational for maintaining a body that is free of pain or movement dysfunction,” she explains. Plus, the stronger your core is the less likely you are to develop lower back pain and developing functional core strength will ensure that your general daily movements and your typical exercise moves will be more efficient and safe, Davis adds.
Athletes are great compensators, notes Yusuf Jeffers, C.P.T., head coach at Tone House, which means that if the core isn’t strong, they will utilize other parts of the body like the back in order to maximize strength and power. The problem with this is that core strength is vital for a true expression of of bodily power, says Jeffers. “The core helps with the recruits of our limbs, without engaging our core we cannot express the true power of our legs and arms. The best examples of this are the squat, deadlift, and Olympic lifts,” he adds. So strengthening our abs can actually make us better at lifts, he says.
When it comes to developing core strength, toes-to-bar are a functional fitness ab exercise that build abs that are strong and aesthetic. Not to mention they build grip strength, and help strengthen the groin, hamstrings, back, and hip flexors.
Here are the basics:
Equipment: Pull-up bar
How To Do Them:
- When you’re ready to begin, grap the pull-up bar so that your hands are slightly wider than shoulder width apart.
- Hang from the bar with a straight back and engaged core.
- Keep your legs together and bring your knees to your elbows.
- Then, kick your toes and feet to the bar. Depending on skill level this can either be done with the help of a kipping motion for momentum, or strict.
- Keep your arms straight as you bring your toes to the bar.
- Drop legs back down slowly so that you are in control of the descent. That’s one rep.
But as good as toes-to-bar are at building strength, they are not easy to master. “Getting great at toes to bar to only requires ab strength but also a great gymnastics kip,” says Coach Nicolas Dromard, CrossFit Coach at ICE NYC and co-owner of Drovarfit. Try these 9 tips to improve your toes-to-bar and build a strong core you’ll be able to tap into both during WODs and for heavy lifting.
1. Perfect The Hollow Hold
The hollow hold is one of the first gymnastics movements you’ll learn, for example, in many CrossFit® classes. It’s tremendously effective at strengthening the core, building body-awareness, and laying a foundation for a more intense and high skill training regime. Yet, while it looks simple, it can be tricky if you don’t have the prerequisite strength requirement.
How To Do It:
- Lie on your back with your arms and legs fully extended.
- When you’re ready to being, squeeze everything tight. Press your lower back into the ground and slightly lift your legs and upper back so that your shoulder blades are off the floor.
- Hold this position.
- To make it harder, practice rocking back and forth for 10-20 reps.
2. Perfect the Superman
The superman exercise is the reverse of the hollow hold. For toe-to-bar, these hollow hold and toe-to-bar come together to encourage a strong kip. When you are doing the movement, you should look similar to Superman flying, hence the name. This exercise primarily targets the lower abs, but also uses the back, glutes, and hamstrings.
How To Do It:
- Lie face down on an exercise mat with your arms and legs fully extended.
- When you’re ready to begin, exhale and raise your arms, chest, and legs off the floor for two counts. Your arms and legs should lift at the same time.
- Then, inhale and slowly lower your arms, chest, and legs back to the starting position.
- Repeat for a complete set of 10-20 reps.
3. Try Full Body Extensions.
Full Body Extensions are like toe to bar, but instead of holding onto a pull-up bar, you’re holding onto a weight, which will help strengthen your abs, which will make toes-to-bar easier. “These ALWAYS make my abs super sore from top to bottom because they really work your entire core,” says Davis. The weight of the dumbbell and number of reps you do is not as important as how you perform each rep, so start with either no weight or a light weight and 4-6 reps per set, before increasing the reps and weight, suggests Davis.
Equipment: Light dumbbell
How To Do It:
- Lay flat on your back with your arms stretched overhead and a light (3-5lb) weight between your hands.
- Press your back into the floor by pulling your bellybutton into your spine.
- When you’re ready, keeping your legs together and both your arms and legs as straight as possible, raise them until your legs and arms are both perpendicular to the floor.
- Lower both your arms and legs back down while keeping your lower back pressed to the floor. Keep lowering your feet and your hands/the weight until they are about 1-2 inches away from the ground.
- That’s one rep.
- Repeat this movement without allowing your feet to touch the ground between reps.
- Do as many as you can without bending your arms or legs and without dis-engaging your core. Then, rest 1 minute, and repeat.
4. Get On The Bar.
The perfect gymnastics kip is a back and forth between the hollow an arch positions. So take those two positions and put them together on the pull-up bar. Practice transitioning between the hollow and Superman positions and get into a rhythm to perfect your kip. If you start to flop around, take a break and get back to it.When you can do 15 kip swing, you’re ready to progress to knee-to-elbow.
5. Work On Grip Strength.
If your grip is giving out, you’re not going to be able to do very many reps of the toe-to-bar. To improve grip you need to work on grip strength that is specific to the the pull-up bar. Simply hanging from the bar for 30 seconds at a time is a great place to start and can address the deficiency.
If your grip gets tired quickly at first, grab a PVC pipe, hold it like it’s a pull up bar and get on your back and do some V-Ups (touch the PVC pipe to your toes by bringing your toes up to the sky and your hands to your feet). Practice every day alternating from V-Ups to beat swings and you’ll develop the strength and skill for perfect toes to bar, says Dromard.
6. Work on Knees-To-Elbow.
Scaling the movement to knee-to-elbow or knee-to-chest, depending on your skill-level, right from the beginning is a great way to begin to master the movement, says Dromard. “For knees to elbows the athlete should focus on getting the knees as high as possible while keeping their legs together,” says ICE NYC HIIT coach, Margie Welch. While doing this, make sure that you’re properly activating your lats, that means that when you come behind the bar at the top focus on engaging your lats, pushing down on the bar, and coming down quickly. Once you can do 15 perfect knees-to-elbow, you’re gymnastics should be strong enough to support you moving onto do toe-to-bar, says Dromard.
7. Practice Mobility.
One of the biggest limitations between a good kip and a great kip is range of motion and shoulder and thoracic mobility, notes Dromard. To help this, toe to rings can help offload that stiffness and improve the fluid motion, and stretches that help open the spine and and shoulders should help. Thoracic Spine Rotation and Active Childs Stretch are great starting points.
Thoracic Spine Rotation
How To Do It:
- Start on all fours with your fingers spread slightly.
- Place your left hand behind your head, but keep your right hand outstretched on the ground in front of you with fingers spread.
- Rotate your left elbow to the sky while exhaling, stretching the front of your torso, and hold for one deep breath, in and out.
- Return to the starting position and repeat for 5-10 breaths.
- Switch arms and repeat.
Active Child’s Pose
How To Do It:
- Start on your hands and knees.
- Widen your knees as far as shoulders width apart.
- Keeping the bottoms of your feet facing the ceiling, touch your big toes to each other.
- Crawl your hands forward, and either extend your arms straight out towards the front of the mat, or drape your arms on the floor alongside your body.
- Slowly start to drop your hips back to rest on your heels.
- Rest your forehead on the floor
- Breathe here for 5-10 deep breathes.
8. Try Strict Toes-To-Bar
Strict to to bar may be easier for some, who have the strength but not the gymnastics rhythm, says Welch. “Because to lift your legs while hanging from a bar your abdominal muscles HAVE to be engaged. People who already have the six-pack strength should be great at these,” says Welch. While kipping toes to bar are a relatively advanced skill movement, strict may be easier for some, she adds. These “strict” toe to bars recruit more muscles to help stabilize the body and at the same rep count, are better at gaining strength. People who can do strict toe-to-bar should continue to practice the movement strict in order to keep building on the strength, but should spend more time working on kipping, suggests Dromard.
9. Work In Small Sets
If you can do a few toes to bar at a time in good for, but not a ton, keep the reps low and focus on perfecting your form in order to keep from ingraining bad habits. Focus on quality vs. quantity and you’ll be better in the long run, says Welch.