Article has been modified from its original form to reflect more accurate information.
Training for the iron cross is no joke. The long-term difficulty of attaining this move is similar to the time it takes to acquire strength moves like the planche. It is very hard to see consistent progress over a couple of weeks; however, looking at the big picture the strength gains are incredible. Thus, it is recommended that iron cross development should only be undertaken by very motivated athletes who can dedicate enough time.
The iron cross gives an enormous amount of brute pulling strength. From my experience, training the cross is the pinnacle of upper body pulling strength—much more so than working the back lever, front lever and rowing variations. There are only a few pulling exercises that may provide more benefits, such as deadlifts and the Olympic lifts.
Judging from said experience, developing the cross should take a person with average pull-up strength of about 8-10 repetitions, good conditioning of the elbows and shoulders, and a light body frame—150 lbs or less—around 12-36 months. It will obviously take more or less time depending on the level of training beforehand as well as how well the athlete’s genetics tend react to strength training.
Unfortunately, not all exercises are created equal. This being the case it is imperative to seek out the best exercises to use to progress with the cross. There are some similar to pull-ups or dips in which the user pulls or lowers respectively to shoulder height with the rings and one arm can go out to the side. Likewise, in some gyms with machines, it is possible to set up cable pulleys that are used for crossovers to simulate the cross. While these exercises do work the muscles, it is much more important to be on the rings as much as possible to develop the necessary stabilization muscles and to simulate the cross position as close as possible. The following can be used to maintain and even gain strength—these are the recommend exercises from best to worst:
- Assisted crosses with a spotter
- Weighted progression therabands cross pullouts or “dream machine” pulley system cross pullouts (see references for more details).
- Cross pullouts with block with weight added
- Theraband cross pulls
1. Assisted crosses are, without a doubt, the best. They require muscles to be at or near maximum effort the whole time, which is extremely good for developing strength and muscle mass provided you eat enough. In addition, a training partner makes workouts more effective through competition and encouragement.
2. Theraband cross-pullouts with weighted progressions or a dream machine type device with pulleys which can be connected to weights or your bodyweight are second preference. This is because it simulates the cross position very well as well as gives a means by which to measure strength gains.
3. Block cross-pullouts tend to put a bit more stress on the lats as opposed to the pecs. For this single reason they are rated below the above exercises in which you can achieve the actual cross position. On the other hand, these are good because progress can be measured by how much of the legs are on the block as well as block height. More about this will be posted in the technique section.
4. Last but not least is the Theraband-assisted cross. The assistance force is less measurable—pick something that makes you struggle but allows you to eventually push through. The reason this exercise is rated below block cross-pullouts despite its being a more effective exercise in terms of stimulating the muscles in the right position is that measurement of progress is very difficult. Consequently, if using a block feels unnatural, switch to these instead, but make sure that there is constant progression.
Technique is extremely, extremely important for the cross. It is easy to develop shoulder problems due to a lack of scapular stabilization and external rotation as well as tendinitis in the elbows. In fact, it is entirely likely most people will encounter these to at least some degree even with perfect technique. If so, it is imperative to back off in order to reduce the stress on those tissues and add in some assistance high repetition isolation work to ensure that the tissues don’t devolve into degenerative overuse injuries. Having the right technique will help reduce injury chances, making the user stronger overall and will also lead to a cross position that looks crisp and clean.
Starting from support, rotate the rings out so that the palms and elbows are facing forward; when starting to lower yourself, the shoulders should be rotated so that the inside of the elbows start to point down and forwards instead of just purely forwards; and the shoulders should be pushed down as hard as possible to avoid scapular and shoulder destabilization.
The elbows MUST be locked at all times. This is the number-one bad habit encountered because it makes the exercises easier by placing more emphasis on the lats. Do not give in. After developing this bad habit it is extremely hard to correct because the body learns that movement neurologically and the lats are too heavily stimulated at expense of the chest.
There are a couple things to keep in mind here because there are different accepted variations of the cross. First, the current official gymnastics code requires that you have no false grip although it is easier to obtain the cross position with one. The false grip can be slid into while turning the rings out and lowering if preferred. Secondly, rolling the shoulders forward is not necessary although doing so it will allow the shoulders to ‘lock’ into place by moving them to the limit of their range of motion. Thus, rotating the shoulders forward is a good marker to ascertain a good cross depth.
3. If block cross-pullouts are chosen, then correct technique with them is imperative. Since the exercise tends to push the arms back behind the torso, it must be fixed to get the correct amount of stimulation to the cross muscles. Similarly, as fatigue sets in, the hands tend to drift backwards which results in a suboptimal position. This can be corrected by emphasizing the arms to be slightly in front of the torso or within peripheral vision at the very least. This will keep the chest properly stimulated.
4. Proper block progression is fairly simple. Starting from the back of the knees first, try to move to the ankles as quickly as possible. Next, start adding weight, preferably in the form of a weight belt or vest but a loaded backpack put on in front can also be used. Weight should mainly be located in the front because weight in the back will make the exercise more lats-centric, which it already will be with the block progression. One other optional way of increasing the difficulty is lowering the block height.
The L-cross has not been mentioned and will be discussed only briefly here. The move itself is considered to be at the same skill level in the code as a regular cross (B rating). The correct technique is exactly the same as the regular cross except the feet are brought up into an L position such as in the L-sit. Since this forces the body’s center of mass forward, the arms are inclined to move forward relative to the torso (transverse flexion). This puts more stress on the pecs as opposed to the lats, which is great for training if the pecs are lagging behind in strength.
The best method with this is a pulley system or Theraband-assistance. If Therabands are used, looping the bands from the rings around underneath the butt and legs where the hamstrings meet the glutes is approximately where the center of mass is moved forward. This would be the optimal placement, and if it does not feel centered, some adjustment may have to be made. The assisted cross method is generally hard to do with this because the rings need to be sufficiently low to allow spotting at the waist, which may be hard to grip.
Training & Programming
The following training and programming will be at the very least a good template—variations will often be necessary based on each individuals training background, diet, genetics, sleep schedule, and various other factors such as stress levels.
Warming up for the cross is not at all complicated and should take fairly little time to accomplish. Any type of skill training for at least 15 minutes beforehand should be enough to warm up the body. On that same note, any warm-up that builds up a light sweat or at the very least warms up the pulling muscles such as the pecs and lats is fine as well. The most important thing is to just get blood flowing to the muscles to prevent the first few sets from being weaker and thus contributing less to strength gains.
Warming up specifically for the cross is optional, especially if the muscles are warm already, but it also does not hurt to do a cross-specific warm-up as well. For this it is advisable to do a couple of medium intensity isometrics or eccentrics. For example, if one Theraband is being used during the work set, the cross-specific warm-up may be with two Therabands, or if the ankles are on the block in the normal workout, the warm-up reps would be with the back of the calves or ankles on the block. If the muscles are already warm, one set of 3 eccentrics or isometrics of 3-5 seconds each is generally a good way to prime the muscles for working the cross. This is, of course, with reduced difficulty as described previously.
Pain in the elbows, shoulders and scapulae will hinder your training. If it is just at the edge of pain and it goes away during training, it’s fine. On the other hand, if it is a persistent pain and it is sticking around even after workouts and during off days then you have a significant problem. In this case, it is advised to just rest and let it heal. The more the pain is trained through, the greater the potential for injury and setbacks that could take weeks or even months to heal. See the references section at the end for more details on elbows and shoulder conditioning.
3 days/week, rest 3-5 minutes between sets
- Start with 3×5 with the block as far out as possible while allowing all prescribed sets and reps to be completed.
- Progress with 3×5 until only the heels are on the block.
- Start increasing the sets to 3×5 to 4×5 to 5×5.
- Start increasing the reps to 5×5 to 5×6 to 5×7 to 5×8.
First, the block cross-pullout workout is actually a good program setup even though it is probably one of the least recommended exercises to do now. With a partner or a Theraband, the training will be essentially the same except without the block progression. As the body adapts, the muscles are capable of handling the increased amounts of volume. Repetition cadence should be a slow controlled descent with the ascent performed as quickly as possible. This applies for all phases of training.
The initial 3×5 is a good balance of intensity and volume to allow any beginner to elicit good strength gains. The progressions from 3×5 to 5×5 to 5×8 allow the body to adapt to the rigorous nature of training the cross. In particular, the increase in number of sets and repetitions help to (1) increase muscular conditioning to eliminate soreness when starting to progress to more difficult exercises or weights, (2) to acclimate the central nervous system (CNS) to the exercise which results in increased efficiency in the movement, allowing heavier weights to be used, and (3) the higher volume will serve to help to condition the elbows and shoulders for the intense strength training that follows.
Planned rest is extremely important for full recovery from accumulative fatigue. It would be advisable to take a rest week or at the very least a half-volume week after every 5-6 weeks. This applies for both this phase of training and the rest of training.
Cross isometrics are not necessary in the actual workout. If the rolled forward shoulders technique is being used and enough concentric strength is acquired the cross position will click into place after the descent from support position. Nevertheless, if these are built into the program just to get a good feeling for the position, they can generally be practiced normally as any isometrics would be practiced. Put them into the beginning of the training session or have them replace the exercises for the day. A good rule of thumb for isometrics is that every repetition in the workout counts for 3 seconds of isometrics. For instance, a total of 6 sets of 5-second isometrics holds (30 seconds total) would be equivalent to a set of 2×5 pullouts (10 repetitions multiplied times 3).
Phase II (Optional)
3 days/week, rest 3-5 minutes between sets
- Increase the repetitions and drop two sets to 3×10.
- Increase the weight each workout as you move from: 3×10 to 3×7 to 3×4 over the course of a week.
- Reset to 3×10 the next week and then work back through the progression again.
- Rinse and repeat steps 1-3 for additional weight
In my opinion, this phase is optional. If progress is starting to plateau, this is a good way to get it jump-started again. As strength increases towards its genetic limit, greater complexity in programming is needed to compensate to keep progress with strength gains. That is why instead of just looking at gains from workout to workout, you’ll need to focus on progress from week.
This type of program is a variation of daily undulated periodization (DUP), and it seems to work very well. In the suggested rep scheme, the volume decreases as the week goes on while intensity increases. This allows a good rate of recovery between workouts as well as modulation of intensity to stimulate a range of motor units. DUP can be modified to fit different variables depending on need. For example, something like 3×8, 4×6, 8×3 would also work emphasizing strength a lot more than the suggested variation.
5 days/week, rest 3-5 minutes between sets
- Start with very low volume in the 10-12 total repetition range per workout – (from best to worst) 5×2, 4×3, 3×4, 2×5.
- Increase the volume into the 15-18 range – 5×3, 6×3, 4×4, 3×5
- Increase the volume even more to the 21-25 range – 7×3, 8×3, 6×4, 5×5.
Since this phase of training is frequent, the Therabands along with a weight vest to gauge progress is probably the best method. It will be hard to obtain a training partner who is both near the same level of development and willing to devote the necessary time for multiple days and numerous sets.
With the previous training of up to 40 repetitions per workout (5×8) or 30 repetitions from DUP (3×10) a sufficient level of conditioning should be reached in the muscles that an increase in training frequency can be handled. From here on out it is going to be a lot of very frequent training with large amounts of strength work. High frequency training has the tendency to produce extremely fast CNS and muscular strength gains provided the volume is managed well enough that the athlete can recover during the two rest days.
If when starting with the very low volume overreaching becomes apparent even with these rest days, it is recommended that 1-2 of the workouts be made into “light” workouts in which the intensity of the exercises and the number of sets are reduced and repetitions increased. For example, instead of 5×2 go to 2×5 with lower intensity, or if in the third step, go from 8×3 to 3×8. During this phase, it may be optimal to take a light day here and there during the week especially if one is feeling run down or fatigued. The lower repetitions and higher intensity the better, but it will have to be offset with more sets. If there are significant time constraints such as working the cross in conjunction with other training or just not enough time in the day, it may be better to stick with a higher amount of repetitions and fewer sets.
In the end, if the training is diligently performed without any major setbacks from the elbows, the cross should be obtained within a few months at the most after switching to Phase III.
The iron cross for me has been a long journey spanning a little more than a year and a half and various training modalities—some less optimal than others. A lot of time was spent just testing out different set and repetition schemes with and without weights just to figure out what worked and what did not. Interestingly enough, in the end the program is composed of many elements from various programs that work for weight training and bodyweight training. The key then is just to ensure progressive resistance exercises no matter what method is used.
I have enjoyed my time working with this strength move, and it has given me great satisfaction performing it in my rings routines in front of audiences. I wish you luck in your journey for the cross whether it be for gymnastics, increasing pulling strength, or even just bragging rights. Good luck!
*This article originally appeared on Catalyst Athletics, November 1, 2007
- Mark Rippetoe and Lon Kilgore, “Starting Strength” (Wichita Falls: The Aasgaard Company, 2005).
- Department of Kinesiology and Health Education, “A Progressive Strength Program to Perform the Iron Cross,” University of Texas at Austin, http://www.edb.utexas.edu/ssn/CCA%20PDF/Gymnastics-Iron%20Cross.PDF (2005).
- Christopher Sommer, “The Iron Cross for Bodybuilders,” Testosterone Nation, http://www.t-nation.com/readTopic.do;jsessionid=987BFDBC532F6A1BBF087E2F8A2D2826.titan?id=581914 (2005).
- Mark Rippetoe, Lon Kilgore and Glenn Pendlay, “Practical Programming” (Wichita Falls: The Aasgaard Company, 2006).
- Jacob Wilson and Gabriel Wilson, “Periodization Part 3 – Traditional and Non-Traditional Periodization,” ABC Bodybuilding Company, http://www.abcbodybuilding.com/periodization3.php (2006).
- Kelly Baggett, “How to Benefit From Planned Overtraining,” Higher Faster Sports, http://www.higher-faster-sports.com/PlannedOvertraining.html (2006).
Additional Resources for elbow and shoulder conditioning:
“Dream machine” type pulley systems:
Author: Steven Low
Steven Low, author of Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics and Bodyweight Strength (Second Edition), is a former gymnast who has performed with and coached the exhibitional gymnastics troupe, Gymkana. Steven has a Bachelor of Science in Biochemistry from the University of Maryland College Park, and his Doctorate of Physical Therapy from the University of Maryland Baltimore. Steven is a Senior trainer for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC). He has also spent thousands of hours independently researching the scientific foundations of health, fitness and nutrition and is able to provide many insights into practical care for injuries. His training is varied and intense with a focus on gymnastics, parkour, rock climbing, and sprinting.