The Butterfly Pull Up: Coach Rachel’s Tips and Progressions

The Butterfly Pull up.  A holy grail movement in CrossFit and sometimes as elusive as an actual butterfly.  Last month, Coach Rachel took us through the steps for learning the kipping pull-up.  This month, Coach Rachel takes us through some progressions to help us achieve that butterfly pull up.  You might be wondering why the butterfly pull up is so highly coveted by the CrossFit athlete.  Part of the reason is that the butterfly pull up is more efficient and has a faster cycle rate than the kipping pull-up.

Pull Up Differences

The Butterfly pull up is very different than the kipping pull-up.  In a kipping pull up, the athlete goes from an extended position (the body is in an arched position, head forward, feet behind) to a position of flexion (head and chest pushed back, feet forward), then he or she pulls up to the bar in flexion and finish the move by pushing away from the bar and ending in the extended position we started with, ready for the next kipping pull up.  In the kipping pull-up, the athlete’s head traces the letter C in the air as it pushes away from the bar and back into extension in front of the bar.

A Circular Motion

However, a butterfly pull-up starts in the same extended position and transfers into flexion for the first pull.  However, the athlete will not push away from the bar like in a kipping pull-up but cycle directly back into an extended position behind the bar.  The athlete’s head traces a circular pattern as it stays behind the bar. This circular path is faster and more efficient than the c-shaped path of the kipping pull-up and makes the correctly-executed butterfly pull up a faster and more efficient pull up than the kipping version.

Low Bar Pull-Up Progression

When an athlete has mastered the kipping pull-up and is ready to move on to butterfly pull ups, they can start with a progression called Low Bar Pull Ups.  The focus in this progression is on getting the athlete to understand the transition from extension to flexion and back to extension and the circular pattern the body must travel in the butterfly pull up.  This progression is centered on the arms, upper body and torso.  The athlete must learn the circular pattern of their head, which includes driving under the bar instead of pushing away in the kipping pull-up. See the video link at the bottom of this blog entry for a detailed demonstration.

 As you work through this progression, there are some tips and tricks to work on.  First, make sure your chin stays behind the bar at the top of the motion.  At the top of the circular motion, you should be looking up, with your chin inclined at about 30 degrees or so.  Keep your head in this inclined position as you drive under and through the bar plane. You should think about the head and chin staying at a 30-degree angle as the chin drives through and under the bar.

Small Circles Progression

Once an athlete has mastered the circular path the body travels in the butterfly pull-up, he or she is ready to move on to a progression called Small Shoulder Circles.  This progression takes place on the regular pull up bar.  The athlete will hang from the bar in a good hollow body position, keeping feet together.  Legs do not move voluntarily.  The athlete performs a small circular movement like the one from the low bar, but much smaller.  Do not worry about trying to get teh chin near or above the bar.  

The idea here is to let the upper body adapt to the circular motion of the pull-up with the legs free hanging but not yet engaged in the movement.  This way the athlete can feel the circular motion of the movement on the regular pull up bar but doesn’t yet have to concentrate in involving the legs.  This drill will help teach the body to memorize the circular movement pattern and make adding in the lower body easier.  

As the athlete gets comfortable making small circles, he or she can work on bigger circles and start involving the hip in driving the circular pattern bigger and bigger.  Driving the hips up will create weightlessness, which will allow the athlete to make bigger and bigger circles, getting the chin closer to the bar.  As the athlete pops the hips up, he or she will also pull and drive the elbows down and in.

Adding the Lower Body

After these two progressions, the athlete should be ready to add the lower body into the movement.  The most important point here is that the lower body movement will occur AFTER the athletes drives down and under the bar.  In fact, the lower body should be activated when the athlete is at the lowest point of the circular motion.  At this point, the athlete will bend slightly at the knee, sending the feet back behind him or her.  See the video link at the bottom of this blog for a detailed demonstration of this idea.

A Common Fault

One common fault athletes run into when learning the butterfly pull-up is bending the knee too soon, which we call breaking at the knee.  This can happen if the athlete is pulling the knees up on the way up to the bar, which is too late.  It may also be happening as the athlete is on the way down under the bar but not at the bottom of the circular pattern.

Either way, breaking at the wrong time caused the athlete to get out of rhythm.  Also, if an athlete bends too soon, it can also slow the momentum, keeping them from reaching the height of the bar.  If an athlete bends too late, they can’t produce as much power and will struggle to reach the bar.

The butterfly pull-up is one of the most sought after movements in CrossFit.  If you are wanting to work on them, consider working through the low bar and small circle progressions before tackling the full butterfly pull up.  As you are practicing, don’t forget to avoid breaking at the knee at the wrong time.   Please watch Coach Rachel’s video here for a visual demonstration of all of these drills, tips, and tricks.  Don’t hesitate to reach out a to a coach when you are in the gym as well.  Good luck and happy flying!