• Missy Porteous

7 Reasons Why You Should Wrap Your Thumbs Around The Pull Up Bar

Updated: Aug 8, 2019

I wasn’t always a thumb wrapper 😊.

The circumference of the uneven bars used by females in Gymnastics is quite thick comparative to a young hand. They are much wider than the pull up bar you will find in your local gym. For that reason, and the constant change of direction by the gymnast increasing the possibility of injuring the thumb, young female gymnasts are taught to place their thumbs in line with their fingers i.e. over the top of the bar. I’ve been told that this train of thought might be changing in the gymnastics world and I will be interested to follow along over the coming years.

They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks but over the last few months I have successfully converted to wrapping my thumbs around the bar and I’ve got to say I’m pretty happy with the benefits. Changing a long term habit or movement pattern is in a word, painful, but you know what they say, short term pain equals long term gainzzzzzzz!

Here are my 7 reasons why you should get your thumbs around the bar:

  1. BECAUSE YOU CAN! Unless you’re still on the good old uneven bars, the thick circumference of the bar no longer restricts you. Even though I still have the tiny hands of a seven year old, I can comfortably wrap them around a thinner bar. Furthermore, I am no longer performing crazy tricks that require change of direction and I’m going to go ahead and assume you’re not either.

  2. SURFACE AREA RULES! Thumbs around applies more of my hand surface area to the bar. More hand on the bar equals more grip on the bar.

  3. SAFETY! The reason we have opposable thumbs is to maximise our grip strength. This ensures improved stability and therefore safety when we are swinging on the bar. Have you ever seen someone fly off the back of the bar? It’s never happened to me, but I’ve seen it a few times and it’s very scary and doesn’t always end with a laugh.

  4. PROMOTES PUSHING DOWN ON THE BAR! When performing pull ups, bar muscle ups or toes to bar you should be attempting to push down on the bar rather than pulling yourself up. Having your thumb around the bar allows you to get your entire hand further over the top of the bar i.e. your first knuckle should be facing up to the ceiling. Having your first knuckle over the bar allows you to push down on the bar rather than pull. If your first knuckle is facing back it only allows a pull, more specifically a bicep initiation of the movement rather than a lat initiation. Engaging the bicep first pulls the thoracic spine into extension which in turn limits the range of motion of your shoulders.

  5. REDUCE INJURY! Don’t underestimate the use of your little old pinky. Applying your pinky knuckle further over the top of the bar ensures the shoulder is externally rotated therefore engaging and stabilising your shoulders. This will also assist you to keep your elbows in rather than flaring out wide which will keep your lats engaged. An externally rotated shoulder equals an active and less compromised shoulder position therefore reducing the risk of injury.

  6. HAND TEAR REDUCTION! My goal has always been to reduce hand tears by reducing friction on the bar. The only way to reduce friction is to stop your hands from sliding around the bar. Once your hand is set with a wrapped thumb and knuckles facing up you can set and forget your grip. It’s somewhere between a finger tip grip and a false grip that you find the right balance.  

  7. INCREASED VOLUME! With your thumb wrapped around the bar you will be able to increase the amount of volume you can do. Attempt to get your thumb over the top of your first two fingers. This will lock you in and make sure you can stay on the bar for a lot longer.

I’ve been asked why we don’t see many of the top-level CrossFit athletes with this style of grip and I can only speculate that they are an ex gymnast, have been taught by an ex gymnast or their coach is simply not aware of it. In all the gyms I’ve been to around the world, and, of all the different coaches I’ve experienced, I’ve never once been told to change my grip. A coach can only teach what they’ve learned themselves. When coaching a functional style of training that includes Olympic Weightlifting, Gymnastics and a plethora of other technical movements there is so much to learn, think about, focus on and I think this one has largely just been missed.

The best way to implement a movement change is gradual. Start with doing your first few swings or pull ups with your thumb around and slowly increase that effort each training session. It took me about 2 or 3 weeks before I could complete my workout without changing my grip back and it took about 2 months before it started to feel comfortable and become an automatic action.

There is no way I would be able to go back now. The benefits for me are huge, maybe even more than most. A few years ago, I had carpal tunnel surgery on both my wrists. Unfortunately, it resulted in a reduction of my grip strength, wrist mobility, and forearm endurance. I only need to do a couple of rope climbs or a few big pull up sets and my grip is gone. Since changing my grip, I have been able to push through where before I would have to stop as I could no longer physically grip onto the bar.

Like learning to hookgrip the barbell, thumbs around is frustrating to learn but the benefits of both these skills far outweigh the painful transition period. Would you snatch the barbell without your thumb wrapped around? It’s possible but it largely reduces your ability to grip, reduces the amount you can lift and is extremely unsafe. What is the difference between lifting a barbell around your body and lifting your body around a bar, nothing I say.

I believe that thumbs around is a necessity for both static and dynamic movements on the bar. Without it, progression & improvement will be slower and the potential for injury will be increased. The essential point is that hand engagement plays a large role in stability of the shoulder and therefore longevity in your training. You were given opposable thumbs for a reason so lets start using them!

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