Growing up, Indiana Jones was my favorite movie. The whip, the hat, the moxie — Indy was the personification of cool. He had swag before swag existed. I remember sitting cross-legged in front of my fat-back TV watching all three movies on repeat as a child. Of all his adventures, the one that stands out the most wasn’t of him dodging a gigantic rolling boulder or eating chilled monkey brains. Instead it was his quest for the Holy Grail. I bet you didn’t know CrossFit® has its own version of the Holy Grail — at least when it comes to pull-ups. Well, the butterfly pull-up is that Holy Grail for most.
It’s beautiful, right? Have you ever watched someone so efficient at butterfly pull-ups it’s almost mesmerizing how easy and fluid they make it look? That’s why so many people strive to possess this tool in their toolbox. Not only is it the most efficient way to handle big sets of pull-ups but it easily has the fastest cycle time compared to other methods. The issue is, especially for someone trying to learn the butterfly for the first time, that fast cycle time makes it tough to decipher what’s actually going on. So before we get into our progressions, let’s slow the movement down and talk about what’s actually happening.
How it Works
Actually, I changed my mind. Let’s take a step back and first recognize the prerequisites for even attempting this new and daunting movement. The same way an athlete should be able to demonstrate the ability to do strict pull-ups before attempting a kipping pull-up, they should also be able to do kipping pull-ups before butterflies. The reason being is twofold. First, I think it’s easier to convey the idea of efficiently using the hips to create momentum and propel you through the movement when using the kip. Second, most people, while under heavy fatigue, revert back to the kip in order to keep moving. It’s easier to generate a massive amount of upward momentum using the kip than it is with the butterfly.
Now that that’s out of the way we can get into more of the nitty gritty. When we slow the movement down it’s very easy to see and understand the difference between the kip and butterfly:
- The kip creates a half moon swing from under the bar to the top of the bar and back down.
- The butterfly is cyclical. It eliminates the “push away” from the top of the bar. Rather, in the butterfly the goal is to “fall though” the bar at the top of the rep and back into your starting position.
The kip is more about coordination than anything else — how to get your lower body and upper body to work in conjunction to make getting your chin over the bar easier. Everything needs to work together. This is one of the main reasons why it’s a prerequisite for butterfly pull-ups. Although the movement differs, the concept and understanding of how to use your hips transfers over to the butterfly.
The butterfly then becomes all about timing — when to kick, when to pull, when to slow down and when to speed it up. More than anything the butterfly takes practice. Even with these progressions I’m about to lay out, don’t be surprised if at first everything feels disjointed or your rhythm is off. The key is to be virtuous and stick with it until you’re looking like a, more than likely, slightly bigger but just as efficient version of Camille Leblanc-Bazinet.
Butterfly Pull-Up Progressions
The Small Circles Method
From personal experience, I’ve had the most amount of success using this method to teach the butterfly. It allows the athlete to experience the movement in a slower, more controlled scenario as they build toward getting over the bar.
- Start by hanging directly under the bar and, without bending your elbows or kicking you legs, start creating mini circles under the bar at your shoulders. Maintain an active shoulder position by engaging lats and a hollow body position through your legs.
- Create slightly larger circles under the bar by now bending the elbows while still keeping the legs straight. Open your shoulders to create arch position.
- Now off the rig standing, work on the leg kick one leg at a time. You can hold onto a beam for support. Think of riding a bicycle backward with the kick. (Side note: I stole that cue from Chris Spealler who posted one of the original “how to” videos on butterfly pulls back in the day. I think everyone doing CrossFit® back then has seen that video.) There should be an aggressive kick toward the bottom of the movement with a slower more methodical reload time each rep.
- Now it’s time to put it all together. Basically start from step one, small circles under the rig, this time with the added leg kick. Progress to bigger and bigger circles until over the bar.
- Perfect the timing.
A Few Notes
- The issue with teaching this method is the swing under the bar changes slightly when you eventually get your chin over the bar. The reason being if you mimic the exact swing you use under the bar, you would be essentially slamming your head into the bar when you get above it. The swing needs to be slightly more elliptical than cyclical with the athlete reaching the apex of their swing slightly behind the bar and already beginning their descent as they move closer to the bar.
- Timing plays a crucial role here. Remember, as the diameter of your swing gets larger, you have to be more and more patient with your leg kick. The rhythm usually gets out of whack when the athlete kicks too early rather than being patient.
The Pause At The Top Method
I consider this method a slightly more advanced way to learn the movement. For this, the athlete needs to have a basic understanding of the mechanics involved in a butterfly pull-up but for whatever reason struggles with putting it all together or finding their timing/rhythm.
- The repetition starts and finishes at the top of the pull-up. How you get there is your decision, whether it’s by kipping your way up or stepping off a box.
- The goal is to drop under the bar diagonally and into an open-shoulder arch position.
- Reverse bicycle kick back up to the top of the bar and freeze.
Bonus Edit: This drill can also be done standing on a box for those who have a tough time with an isometric hold at the top of their pull-up. Position the box directly under the bar so your chin still reaches over the bar. Then follow the same steps as above without actually kicking in the bottom. Instead use your feet on the box to help you back to the starting position.
This drill works because it focuses on one rep at a time. It allows the athlete to be in more control of the movement and allows them to focus on the timing so desperately needed to excel at butterfly pull-ups.
The “Just Do It” Approach
This is not really a progression but by far my favorite method of coaching when it works. Basically, this method consists of demoing the movement and then saying, “Now you try.” This incredibly thorough method is 100% definitely not the approved method in the Level 1 Handbook – but it is always funny when it works out and you get to boast and brag to the rest of the staff you taught so-and-so how to butterfly.
As stupid as that sounds, some athletes are very adept at watching a movement and being able to mimic that same movement — doing the entire movement first then cleaning up the rough edges, rather than starting small and trying to piece everything together in the full movement. I know personally this worked for me.
The butterfly is all about fluidity. Unfortunately, an issue with both of the previous methods I just mentioned is, by breaking the movement down first into smaller pieces, people tend to overthink each segment of the movement. Overthinking tends to equal a slow down or a janky mechanical movement. That’s the opposite of what we’re trying to create in the butterfly. That’s why sometimes doing the full movement works best.
Practice yields efficiency. The same way when you first learned how to kip you might’ve done singles with a running start, leaping into the bar with a wild kip to get over before, eventually, learning how to have a tighter kip, linking reps together and being overall more efficient. The same is true with the butterfly – rhythm and timing are everything. Without practice the timing will always feel slightly off.
Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. Yes, these methods will undoubtedly help you get your first butterfly pull-up or link your first few reps together but nothing replaces hard work and practice to get better. Now get to work!