The Barbara WOD: Goal Times, Tips, and Safety

Three CrossFit athletes performing push-ups in a CrossFit gym.

 Tom Werner/DigitalVision/Getty Images

The Barbara Crossfit “Girl” WOD was first posted innocuously on the CrossFit main website as the workout of the day for Sunday, July 13, 2003. It had no name and included a prescribed five minutes of rest in between rounds which was totally unheard of in the early world of CrossFit.

Later, that WOD became Barbara when CrossFit founder Greg Glassman released the first wave of CrossFit benchmark workouts a few months later in September 2003. The rep scheme and movements remained the same, but the rest interval was cut down from five minutes to three. 

Now, the Barbara WOD is used in CrossFit boxes all over the world as a test of speed, stamina, endurance, and strength. 

The Barbara WOD, done five rounds for time, is as follows. 

  • 20 pull-ups
  • 30 push-ups
  • 40 sit-ups
  • 50 air squats
  • Rest three minutes

The Barbara CrossFit “Girl” WOD

Score: For time—complete the WOD as fast as possible.

Goal Times: Beginner: 50+ minutes. Intermediate: 40-49 minutes. Advanced: 30-39 minutes. Elite: <29 minutes

Equipment Needed: pull-up bar, ab mat

Level: Advanced, but scalable. This WOD has complex movements but can be modified to be both easier and harder.

Benefits

A September 2003 CrossFit Journal article states that the Barbara WOD (among two other "Girl" WODs) is “super simple (being comprised entirely of common calisthenics), very tough, [and] dramatically reinforce[s] the pull-up.”

This WOD poses a challenge to multiple energy systems (aerobic and anaerobic) and simultaneously challenges both muscular strength and muscular endurance. Here’s how that plays out in real-life benefits. 

Speed

If any workout can teach you to go fast, it’s the Barbara CrossFit WOD. 

The intended stimulus of this workout is to go as fast as possible for three minutes, rest for three minutes, go as fast as possible for three minutes, and so on. It’s a classic high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workout, except it includes various compound bodyweight exercises instead of a typical cardio movement, such as running or cycling

On paper, it might not look like your average speed workout, but the Barbara WOD can improve your speed and efficiency in some of the most basic (and most important) movement patterns: the squat, push-up, pull-up, and sit-up.

Muscular Endurance

To put this poignantly, there are a ton of reps in the Barbara WOD. Do the math: 20 pull-ups, 30 push-ups, 40 sit-ups, and 50 air squats comes out to a total of 140 reps. And that’s just one round! Those 140 reps are repeated four more times for a total of 560 reps. 

High-volume strength training (more than 12 reps per set) is typically accepted as the most efficient way to build muscular endurance, so with the number of reps in the Barbara WOD, you can hold conviction in this workout as one that will improve your muscular endurance. 

Cardiovascular Endurance

We can’t forget about the most important muscle of all: Your heart! A workout like the Barbara WOD certainly challenges the heart, as well as the lungs and entire cardiovascular, respiratory, and circulatory systems, producing overall improvements in cardiorespiratory endurance

In fact, the benefits of HIIT on heart health are many. It’s known to improve resting blood pressure, metabolic capacity, and heart rate reserve, as well as increase VO2 max.

Of course, if you have any preexisting medical conditions that affect your heart, lungs, or blood vessels, you should talk to your doctor before incorporating high-intensity exercise such as the Barbara WOD into your routine.

Power and Explosiveness

Though the Barbara WOD challenges your aerobic system because of the length, it primarily taxes your anaerobic system, or the energy system that facilitates movement without oxygen (versus the aerobic system, which requires oxygen). 

Improvements in anaerobic capacity usually manifest as increased power and explosiveness, two fitness benefits you can’t really get from steady-state exercise.

What that looks like in practice: You can jump higher, sprint faster, pull and push harder, throw farther, and lift more for your one-rep max. The interval-style structure of the Barbara WOD is what induces these benefits. Three minutes of all-out effort followed by three minutes of rest repeated four more times edges just past anaerobic territory and into aerobic capacity, resulting in all-around improvements in fitness

Calisthenic Strength

“Calisthenics” refers to a type of strength training that involves your bodyweight only. This includes pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, and air squats—all of the movements in the Barbara WOD—and many more.

Science has shown calisthenic exercise to be very effective at increasing strength, possibly even as much as weightlifting exercises with similar movement patterns. 

If you want to get better at moving your own body around, the Barbara WOD can definitely help you develop the strength, coordination, and body awareness you need to do so.

Step-by-Step Instructions

The key to totally crushing a CrossFit WOD? Knowing everything there is to know about how to do it before you attempt it. In this section, you’ll learn exactly how to set up for a successful run through the Barbara WOD, as well as how to properly execute each exercise you encounter. 

Set Up for the Barbara WOD

You don’t need much in terms of equipment for the Barbara WOD. In fact, all you really need is a pull-up bar. Anything else is secondary and by preference only. You may want to wear grips or gloves for the pull-ups to avoid blistering your palms, and an ab mat can help you avoid brush burn on your tailbone during the sit-ups. 

In addition, make sure you have comfortable workout clothes and shoes on and have a water bottle nearby.

How To Do Pull-Ups

The pull-up is one of the most functional movements in existence. If you ever need to pull yourself up and over something, such as a fence or the side of a kayak, you’ll be glad you have the strength it takes. 

Note: In this guide, Verywell Fit covers the kipping pull-up, since that is the accepted form of pull-ups in CrossFit. To learn how to do strict (or regular) pull-ups, visit this how-to guide.

Here’s how to do a kipping pull-up properly:

  1. Jump up to grip the bar with your hands a few inches wider than your shoulders, palms facing away from your body. Get a full grip on the bar: Your entire palm should wrap around the bar, not just your fingers.
  2. Initiate the kip by putting your body into a tight “hollow” position. To visualize, think of lying face-up on the ground with only your lower back pressing into the ground. That’s the position you want to mimic for a hollow. 
  3. Move from the hollow into the arch position. Push your head through the window of your arms, arch your back, and send your feet behind you. 
  4. Kipping is essentially alternating between the arch and hollow position. Start in the hollow, transition to the arch, and move back to the hollow to complete one kip. 
  5. At the tail end of your kip (the second hollow), use your arms and back muscles to pull yourself up to the bar. In CrossFit, the standard for pull-ups is that your chin surpasses the height of the bar. 
  6. In a controlled manner, lower yourself back to the arch position. From here, go into another rep or hop off of the bar. 

How To Do Push-Ups

Push-ups, another incredibly functional movement, seem simple but are surprisingly difficult. This how-to details the steps to a standard push-up (hands and toes on the floor), but if you don’t yet have the strength it takes to perform a standard push-up, you can find modification options in this complete step-by-step guide to the push-up

  1. Start in the plank position. Your wrists should be stacked directly underneath your shoulders (arms completely vertical), and your spine should be in a neutral position.
  2. Bend at the elbows to lower your body to the floor. Your chest should touch the floor or almost touch it. Keep your elbows close to your sides pointing behind you, rather than to the sides of you. 
  3. Once you reach the bottom position, press back up to the starting position. Keep your elbows close to your body. Repeat until you complete your 30 reps.

How To Do Sit-Ups

You sit up in some way, shape, or form every day, even if it’s just when you get out of bed. Training the sit-up correctly can transfer to your daily life in favorable ways. Here’s how to do the sit-up: 

  1. Start by lying with your back on the floor, arms overhead. Use an ab mat if it’s comfortable for you. Touch the bottoms of your feet together and allow your knees to fall sideways—this is the movement standard in CrossFit workouts.
  2. Contract your abdominal muscles to lift your torso off of the ground and sit-up fully. If your mobility allows, touch your fingertips to your heels, foot, or toes.
  3. With control, lower your torso back to the ground. Your shoulders should completely touch the floor before you go in for another rep. 
  4. After touching your shoulders to the floor, repeat step three until you finish 40 reps.

How To Do Air Squats

Air squats, also called bodyweight squats, are the most basic form of the squat and arguably the most functional, transferable movement you can develop. Squats are incredibly important for activities of daily living, including things as simple as sitting down and getting back up from your chair. Here’s how to squat properly: 

  1. Start standing with your feet shoulder-width or hip-width apart (whichever feels the most comfortable for you). 
  2. Slightly hinge at the hips (send your buttocks backward) and begin lowering your body by bending your knees. 
  3. Keep your knees tracking over your toes (don’t let them cave in) and keep your chest tall. Keep your eyes forward; don’t look at the ground. 
  4. Lower yourself into the bottom position, ideally with your thighs past parallel, while keeping your feet fully flat on the floor (don’t allow your heels to rise off of the ground). 
  5. Pushing through your heels, stand up and return to the starting position. 
  6. Repeat for 50 reps.

Common Mistakes

Watch out for these common mistakes as you prep for and complete the Barbara WOD. 

Mistaking the Barbara WOD as Easy

Too many CrossFit athletes—usually those who have a few years of CrossFit experience but aren’t yet advanced or elite athletes—mistake the Barbara WOD as an easy workout. Beginners might look at the WOD and feel intimidated, while elite CrossFit athletes know that built-in rest means business. 

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that built-in rest makes a CrossFit workout easier. In fact, the truth is precisely the opposite. When you see prescribed rest intervals in a CrossFit WOD, that means you are expected to work extremely hard during the working intervals. 

That means each round of Barbara should induce a deep burn in your working muscles—your back, biceps, triceps, lats, core, glutes, and quads—and you should be breathing heavy, fighting to push just a little bit harder. The rest period should seem to fly by.

Of course, this is only true if you are performing the Barbara WOD as a bona fide benchmark workout. You can totally feel free to cruise through the Barbara WOD if you’re not concerned about your time as it makes for a phenomenal aerobic workout if you go through it at a slower pace. 

Not Making the Most of Your Rest Interval

If you perform Barbara as intended, your rest interval will seem to be over before it began. Try to make the most out of that coveted three minutes in order to get your best time for the WOD. 

Perhaps the biggest mistake you can make is sitting or lying down. This might sound counterintuitive, but it’s true. All longtime CrossFit athletes know that when you stop moving entirely, your body becomes “heavy” and the beginning of the next round will feel harder than it should. 

Instead, keep moving slowly and lightly for those three minutes. Don’t overthink it: This can simply mean shaking out your legs, rolling your ankles in circles, flapping or swaying your arms, or pacing across the floor. Do anything to keep your blood flowing and prevent the feeling of buildup in your muscles. You’ll thank yourself when your coach yells “Three, two, one, go!” 

Failure to Strategize Rep Schemes

The Barbara WOD was designed to be completed “unbroken,” meaning that athletes should move through all of the exercises in each round without taking a break. This may be possible for advanced and elite CrossFit athletes, but it is of course not doable for some. 

If going unbroken isn’t an option for you, consider strategizing your rep scheme before the workout starts. For example, if you don’t have much proficiency at pull-ups, you may want to do them one-by-one. If you tend to burn out quickly on push-ups, perhaps split them up into sets of five. 

One very popular method of strategizing reps in CrossFit WODs is to use a “descending ladder” scheme. Within each movement, perform the reps in sets of decreasing reps. Here’s an example of how to segment the Barbara WOD into a descending ladder:

  • 20 pull-ups: Do eight, then six, then four, then two. 
  • 30 push-ups: Do 12, then eight, then six, then four. 
  • 40 sit-ups: Do 15, then 10, then eight, then seven. 
  • 50 air squats: Do 20, then 15, then 10, then five.

This not only makes the WOD physically easier but also mentally easier. Going into a movement, especially one you don’t enjoy or aren’t particularly great at. feels a whole lot easier when you can say, “Well, at least the rep count gets lower each time!”

Failure to Pace Yourself 

If you’re thinking, “Pace myself? You just said I should go all-out on each round,” hear me out. To obtain the intended stimulus of the Barbara WOD, you should give your full effort on each round. But that doesn’t mean you should forego pacing yourself entirely. One of the most challenging aspects of this workout is that you must strike a balance between pushing and controlling your pace. 

An elite CrossFit athlete knows that during a WOD like Barbara, their very last round should be just as fast (or even faster) than their first round. An elite CrossFit athlete knows that going out the gate too fast spells doomsday for this WOD. 

Take this into account when strategizing for the Barbara WOD: your pace should be fast, but not too fast. You should have some capacity left to push the pace on the last round.  

Movement Mistakes 

For common mistakes on the individual exercises included in the Barbara WOD, you can checkout Verywell Fit’s comprehensive how-to guides for each movement:

Modifications and Variations

Because the Barbara WOD is bodyweight-only, the typical (and usually primary) modification in CrossFit of dropping weight is null. You can’t change how much your body weighs, so you’ll have to modify the Barbara WOD in other ways. 

Perhaps the two best overall modifications include decreasing the reps or increasing the rest interval. These are fantastic scaling options for athletes who can correctly perform all of the movements but can’t perform as many reps as the WOD calls for. 

Here’s an example of scaling back the rep count: 

Modified Barbara: Fewer Reps

5 Rounds for Time

  • 10 pull-ups 
  • 20 push-ups
  • 30 sit-ups
  • 40 air squats 
  • Rest 3 minutes 

Keeping the rep count the same but increasing the rest period, perhaps from three to five minutes, can give your body a bit of extra time to recuperate in between rounds. This is a great option for athletes who are on the verge of being able to complete the Barbara WOD as written. Plus, increasing the rest interval is an extremely trackable modification. 

For example: Say you complete the Barbara WOD this month with five-minute rest periods and complete all of the reps unbroken in each round. In three months, you redo the Barbara WOD with four-minute rest intervals and still complete all of the reps unbroken. That’s a clear sign you got stronger and fitter—you were able to do the same work with less rest! 

Individual Movement Modifications

If modifying neither the rep count nor the rest intervals sounds good to you, you can modify individual exercises in the Barbara WOD. If you’re pregnant, have an injury, limited range of motion, or any other limiting factor, you may want to consider scaling any movement that causes you pain or discomfort, or otherwise just feels wrong. If you work out at a CrossFit gym, ask your coach for the best scaling option for your condition or concerns.

Make it Tougher

If you’re an advanced or elite athlete, you may find the Barbara WOD too easy as written. This isn’t to say you should underestimate this workout (that’s a common mistake, remember?), but if you’ve completed the Barbara WOD before and are up for a challenge, try this advanced version. 

The Barbara WOD: Advanced Version

5 Rounds for Time

  • 20 chest-to-bar pull-ups
  • 30 handstand push-ups
  • 40 GHD sit-ups
  • 50 dumbbell squats
  • Rest 3 minutes

Safety and Precautions 

Before any workout, but especially high-intensity workouts such as CrossFit WODs, it’s important to take precautions to ensure a safe gym session. While safety comes first and foremost, employing caution can even make your workout more effective (such as by using good lifting technique) so you get the most out of your gym time. 

Warm Up and Cool Down

You’ve probably heard a million times that you can’t just jump into a workout. You need to warm up first. Scientific studies show us that warming up before exercise increases blood flow to your muscles and elevates your core body temperature, which can contribute to a reduced risk of injury and better workout performance. A warm-up specific to your workout can increase your performance even further. 

While there’s not as much solid evidence for cooling down after a workout, you probably know from your own experience that a few moments of stretching, foam rolling or easy walking helps your body return to its resting state and helps stave off post-workout muscle soreness or tightness. It’s never a bad idea to spend time cooling down after exercise, even if it only changes your perception of soreness and recovery (placebo is a powerful thing!). 

Scale if Needed

Remember, the purpose of scaling is to “Work within pain-free range of motion to preserve the intended stimulus and movement patterns whenever you can,” writes Nicole Christensen in her CrossFit Journal article on scaling workouts for pregnant women.

Whether you’re pregnant, dealing with an injury, or just a beginner to CrossFit, you should scale back any movements that cause you pain, discomfort, or simply feel wrong. You don’t have to do all CrossFit WODs as written all the time—in fact, most people shouldn’t, as that can be a recipe for injury. 

So push any pride aside, forget about what others in your CrossFit class are doing, and focus on what you need to do in order to formulate a safe, effective workout. Work with your coach if you need additional help. 

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