Your Ultimate Toes to Bar Progression Guide

Required Equipment: Bar, Rings, or something to hang from

Are leg raises too easy for you? Do crunches make less sense than Joe Biden’s speeches? Well, the aptly named toes to bar is the exercise you have (or haven’t?) been looking for. Don’t let the simplicity of this exercise – literally hanging from a pull up bar and lifting your toes to it – fool you. It’s a tough, effective core and grip builder that can be done pretty much anywhere – from a commercial gym to a  home gym or even at a playground.

Why should you train your abs? Developing core strength has carryover to everyday movements. And a strong core will do everything from helping keep your back pain free to keeping you safe during heavy lifts.

The top position of toes to bar
Top position of toes to bar

It also has tremendous impacts on sports. For example, if you’re into CrossFit, toes to bar is a must-known skill for your WODs. If you’re into MMA or boxing, a strong core translates into stronger punches and kicks. And even in non-contact sports with a lot of rotation – like golf – a core strength is a must.

While it’s not a highly technical movement, there are some things you should keep in mind while trying to achieve your first toes to bar. As such, I’m going to lay out a simple toes to bar progression for you, from start to finish. If you don’t have a bar, I’ve also included some similar exercises you can do without one.

So if you’re working on just getting your toes up to the bar or struggling to string TTB together I’ll outline that – and more – in this handy guide. Keep reading to discover the proper technique, variations, some tips, and more.  

AT A GLANCE: 

 - Toes To Bar (TTB) is great compound exercise that heavily works the core and forearms
 - While not easy to master, there are plenty of variations to do in order to build up the necessary strength
 - Besides getting stronger there are other benefits that you'll see from regular TTB programming

The hollow body position
The hollow body position

Toes To Bar Technique

First off, let’s define the hollow body position as that is going to be what you strive for when performing a toes to bar.

  • Begin with your lower back, butt, and heels touching the ground. Think about pushing your belly button to the floor.
  • Legs should be straight and together with toes pointed and raised off the ground.
  • Staying tight, your head & shoulders should come off the ground. Raise your arms over your head and glue your ears between your biceps.

Now, before we delve into the ideal technique, be aware that most people won’t be able to perform strict toes to bar reps. As such, rather than flail around on the bar, you’re better off starting with a regressed version of toes to bar and working up to the full, strict movement.

You can see the regressed versions here – again, start there if you’re new to the technique or looking to build up your strength in order to perform toes to bar.

A strict TTB
A strict Toes To Bar

If you’re still with me, here’s how you perform a full rep:

  1. Grab the pull-up bar with a pronated (palms-facing away) grip. Your grip should be about shoulder-width or slightly wider than your shoulders. If you’re unable to grab the pull-up bar, stand on a box or bench.
  2. Allow your legs to hang. Your arms should be extended with your elbows slightly bent.
  3. Keep your pelvis slightly tucked by squeezing your glutes and flexing your quads. Keep your ribs down by engaging your core.
  4. Rotate your shoulders outward to engage your lats.
  5. Engage your upper back by pulling down on the pull-up bar. Your shoulder blades should be slightly retracted. Keep your chin tucked throughout the movement. At this point you should be in the hollow body position
  6. While keeping your upper-back muscles engaged and maintaining full-body tension, lean back slightly and raise your legs toward the pull-up bar.
  7. Keep your legs together with a slight bend. Engage your core and raise your legs and toes until they touch the pull-up bar.
  8. Keep your core tight and slowly lower your legs back to the starting position.
  9. Repeat for the desired number of sets and repetitions.


Benefits

There are numerous benefits to a doing toes to bar besides getting stronger.

  • Spinal Decompression – since you’re just hanging, there’s no external load on the spine. In fact, gravity actually provides some good spinal decompression.  Hanging from your arms means the weight of your lower body gently pulls your vertebrae apart, providing your vertebrae with the space they need to expand. It’s a gentle (and free) version of an inversion table even if you’re not upside down.
Hang in there cat!
This kitten has nothing to do with the benefits of hanging…but it’s cute and this is my blog
  • Shoulder Opening – due to excess sitting (and playing on our phones) most of us have rounded, tight shoulders. Hanging properly opens up your shoulders and helps position them properly inside the shoulder joint. That in turn can help reduce shoulder pain while increasing mobility.
  • Stretches Your Lats – By the same token, overly tight lats can affect your posture and your shoulder joint mobility. While there are other ways to work on your lats 1using a foam roller with your arm extended overhead is a personal fav, simply hanging puts your lats into an extended position and provides a deep (but comfortable) stretch. More flexible lats along with better shoulder positioning makes overhead exercises easier (and safer) to perform.
  • Better Posture – The alignment of your joints (aka posture) are constantly under attack and can wreak havoc as you get older. Dead hangs – the beginning position of toes to bar – put your body into an extended, lengthened position, gently helping to reverse the effects of poor alignment.

Muscles Worked

Although it primarily stresses your core muscles, toes to bar is a compound exercise that works muscle groups across your body all at the same time. Here are some of the muscles worked:

Upper body

As you perform a hang from the bar, your grip strength will be challenged. In fact, a dead hand is a great way to strengthen your forearms. Contrary to appearances, though, hanging doesn’t just work your grip.

To hang properly and safely – which you must do before you can do toes to bar – you’ll also need to engage your latissimus dorsi. Engaging your lats and scapula allows you to pull your shoulders down (“scapular retraction”) and back so that you aren’t just hanging limply.

Example of scapular retraction
Left image is bad (no scapular retraction), right image is good

While there is very little resistance to retracting or pulling your shoulders back, depressing or pulling your shoulder down is a much more active movement and shoulder depression is the job of your lower traps.

Core

By engaging your core during the toes to bar movement, you work abdominal muscles like the rectus abdominis. Additionally, your lower back – your spinal erectors – will get some work as they help stabilize your movement.

Lower Body

By lifting your legs through a full range of motion, you strengthen your hip flexor muscles with a bonus of stretching your hamstrings.


Variations / Scaling

Step 1: Beat Swings

Let’s start with a very small, yet crucial movement. Hop up onto the pull-up bar, with your hands about shoulder width apart. Externally rotate your shoulders in order to get some shoulder stability. Now, keeping your core and legs tight, swing back and forth, working on switching between the hollow position, and the arch position.

Step 2: Kipping Levers 

This step of the progression is very similar to beat swings, yet with higher elevation during the hollow position. When working on kipping levers, try to really focus on activating your lats, which will give you the higher elevation of the shoulders and torso.

This movement doesn’t involve your legs at all, and you shouldn’t be using them to force a kip. However, you should be making sure to keep your legs and core tight, so that when you are levering back your feet stay slightly in front of the bar, glues together. 

Step 3: Knee Raises

Once you get the hang of kipping levers, it’s time to start bringing those knees up. Make sure you’re continuing to active your shoulders and lats, and from there bend your knees and lift them to your chest. The motion of bringing your knees up shouldn’t break the rhythm of your kip, so try to continue in a fluid motion.

Step 4: Knees to Chest

This is a similar movement to the knee raises, but you are now bringing your knees higher, and closer to your eventual goal of the bar. Again, the key to this step is to make sure that you’re able to maintain a fluid kip, while lifting your knees higher than the previous progression. 

In order to get your knees up to your chest (you can even try to aim for your elbows if that helps) you are going to have to get a little more aggressive with your kip. An aggressive kip is going to be achieved through continued shoulder and lat activation, which will help to pull your torso far enough out of the way for your knees to come all the way up to your chest.

Step 5: Kipping Toes To Bar

Once you’ve practiced more straightforward progressions, try the kipping toes to bar by practicing a kip swing movement and using the momentum to help you lift your legs toward the pull-up bar. If you lack hamstring flexibility, the kipping movement will help you as you can somewhat compensate for it by your body’s movement.

A kipping toes to bar
A kipping toes to bar

Step 6: Strict TTB!

If you’re a CrossFitter, step 5 might be enough for you. After all, if you’re just trying to get thru your WOD and can get both feet to the bar, well, you’ve done the movement successfully. For the rest of us, though, once you’re able to kip your toes to the bar multiple times, it’s time to go for a strict TTB.

What’s the difference, you ask? The only difference is that you don’t use momentum to raise your feet to the bar. You want to do the movement slow and controlled – when both lifting and lowering your legs. This is quite a bit harder than kipping as you increase the “time under tension” (or muscle endurance, in a sense) for your muscles.


Programming

So now that you can actually do a toe to bar, how many should do? There’s no one-size fits all answer here. It really depends on your fitness levels and goals. As a general rule, though, here’s what I’d shoot for:

  • For strength: Lower sets, lower reps (3-5 sets, 4-6 reps).
  • For muscle or endurance: Medium sets, higher reps (3-6 sets, 8-12+ reps each)

Generally, I’d shoot to do toes to bar toward the end of my workout but if you’re really trying to improve it, you can put it first. That way you work on the technique while you’re still fresh. Just do let it negatively impact the rest of your workout, especially if lifting heavy and relying on your core that day.


Alternatives / Accessory work

No bar? No problem! Try these (somewhat) similar exercises that you can do strengthen your abdominals.

Lying Leg Raises –

Lie back on a flat bench (or floor) with your palms facing down. You can place them next to you or underneath your butt. Slowly lift your legs to a 90-degree angle, keeping them straight. Pause, then lower them, under control, back to the starting position. That’s one rep.

To make it harder, grip a support that’s overheard and lift your legs until your entire body – except for your head, neck and upper back – are off the ground. This is sometimes called a dragonfly and was popularized (at one time) by Bruce Lee.

Bruce Lee doing a dragonfly
Bruce Lee in mid Dragonfly

L-Sits

An example L-Sit off the floor
A L-Sit

Much like toes to bar, L-Sits are a difficult core exercise that take significant strength. However, unlike TTB, you don’t need a bar to do them. In fact, you could use a could sturdy chairs, yoga blocks, or even the floor.

Going into the intricacies of a L-Sit is beyond the scope of this article, but here’s a good breakdown from gold medal bodies.

Boat Pose

A yoga staple, boat pose is great core exercise and is generally done as a static hold. A little bonus: it can be with absolutely zero equipment. Come to a seated position and balance on your sit bones, lifting knees toward chest. Keep your chest up and then extend your legs straight and hold. To make it even harder, straighten your arms up over your head.

An example of boat pose or navasana
Boat Pose aka navasana

A similar exercise – the V up – could also be used here.

And, lastly, if you’re into technology and want to try a more interactive, gaming based core workout, I’d recommend checking out the Plankpad core trainer.


Some Tips

Tip #1 – Keep an active position

It’s waaaaay too easy to have a “lazy” hang without engaging your shoulder blades. Be sure to keep an active and tight hang and hollow body position.

Tip #2 – Build up to TTB

Think quality of reps vs quantity here. If you can’t do a successful toes to bar, start with one of the easier variations. If you can do one or a few, stick to smaller sets and lower reps and focus on form. You don’t want to ingrain bad habits just for a few more reps.


FAQs

What muscles does toes to bar work?

Toes to bar works primarily your core – your abdominal muscles along with your spinal erectors. Since toes to bar is a compound exercise a host of other muscles – from your forearms to your lats – also get stressed.

How do I progress to toes to bar?

There are many regressions that will allow you to work up to a toes to bar rep. See this link on variations and learn how to get started with variations suitable to your strength level.

Is toes to bar difficult?

Yes most people will find it difficult but that’s because it’s a very effective exercise. If you can’t perform a rep, start off with of the many easier variations and work way up to a kipping or strict toes to bar.

How many toes to bar reps and sets should I do?

There’s no set answer (get it? set answer?) but here are some guidelines:
For strength: 3-5 sets, 3-6 reps. Use additional weight, if needed.
For muscle / fitness: 4-8 sets, 8-12+ reps. Perform easier variation, if needed.

DA is a lifelong athlete who currently trains in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), Judo, and Kickboxing. Since first picking up weights when he was 13, he's been a fitness enthusiast who scours books, studies, and blogs for lifting, health, and nutrition information. As of January 2022 he holds a purple belt in Judo & BJJ. You can contact him at DA@dumbbellsreview.com.