Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Muscle up Training Guide

The Muscle Up, simply stated, is a combination of a pull up and a dip. It consists of three main elements; the pull up, the transition and the dip. It can be performed either on a bar or on a set of gymnastic rings. Each requires a different approach to training.

Muscle Ups on a Bar
I first learnt the muscle up on the bar and it is the medium I would most recommend if you're completely new to bodyweight training or if the rings tutorial fails to work for you. A
Muscle Up on a bar is usually performed much more dynamically than a Muscle Up on a set of rings. This is due to the bar not rotating like the rings during the transition, necessitating a rapid shift of grip during the transition when performed on a bar. To train the Muscle Up on a bar you will need to:

1) Grip the bar with a false grip
2) Build up explosive power in the pull up range of motion
3) Work on building a deep dip range of motion

Muscle Ups on a set of Rings
In opposition, the
Muscle Up on the rings can be done much slower as the rings naturally rotate to allow the easy transition between the pull up and the dip. This does not mean however, that the Muscle Up on rings is easier. Most people will actually find it harder due to the unstable nature of the rings. To train it you will want to focus on:

1) Gripping the bar with a false grip
2) A slow controlled pull up in which the chin raises as far above hand level as is possible.
3) General all round ring strength and stability
Building a very deep dip in which the hands touch the chest at the bottom.

The False Grip
One of the most common mistakes that people make when trying to do a Muscle Up is using the wrong grip. The false grip is the foundation of the Muscle up. Without it, you're likely to struggle to do one on a bar and unlikely to ever achieve it on the rings. To false grip, you simply need to hold the ring/bar in your palm as opposed to the natural method of holding it in your clenched fingers. If you're doing it correctly, your wrist will be resting against the ring/bar on the little finger side of your hand (see pictures below). It's important to ensure you maintain the false grip when you're lowering yourself back down from the Muscle Up as you'll need it in order to perform multiple repetitions later on.

Explosive Pull Up Power

To Muscle Up on a bar you'll need to have enough power in your pull up to pull the bar right down to your lower chest. Once there, the transition is simply the motion of extending your wrist and shifting your bodyweight over it. This makes the bar transition significantly less technical than the rings transition. The two exercises I would recommend for building up explosive pulling power are:

  • Weighted Pull-Ups
  • Increased ROM Pull Ups
Weighted Pull ups are simply normal pull ups with the addition of weight. (I hope you already figured that one out). Start with a low weight (around 5% bodyweight) and aim to keep the repetitions fast and explosive. Build up to 3-5 sets of eight reps at the current weight and then increase the weight and repeat. Gradually increase the weight over time to a maximum of 15-20% bodyweight.

Increased ROM pull Ups are something I came up with in first teaching someone how to do a Muscle up. They're basically an explosive Pull Up in which you pull the bar as low down your chest as you can. When you reach the highest point, contract your core and shoulders tightly as if to try and hold the position -which wont happen-. Aim to build up to 3-5 sets of eight reps again.

In both these cases, the power needs to come from your upper body alone. Kipping to get results now will only slow down your progress in the long run. Don't do it.

Building a Deep Dip
You're going to need to work on extending the range of motion of your dip as far as possible. To do this, practising dips on a bar or on rings is the way to go. If you're training to Muscle Up on Rings, make sure you train the dip on rings; if you're training to MU on a bar, a combination of both bar and ring dips will be beneficial. The most important thing to remember is to dip as deep as possible. I aim to brush my hands against the front of my chest during ring dips. You'll only build the range of motion that you train in so be disciplined about going all the way down and all the way back up.

The Slow, Controlled pull up
This is pretty important for a solid muscle up on the rings although you can just pull dynamically if that works for you. I'm a great believer in the value of controlled movement against resistance and so the slow Muscle Up is the greatest variant in my humble opinion (Excluding the inverted muscle up). You'll want to improve the control of the pull up and the height up to which you can comfortably pull your chin past hand level.

To build up the control of your pull up, I find pull ups with static holds to be very useful. Start in a hanging position from the rings and pull up ten degrees or so and hold it for 5-10 seconds. Pull up ten degrees further and hold again for the same amount of time. Continue to do so until you are at the top of the pull up with your palms facing in and elbows tucked into your lats. Hold this final position for 10s and reverse. If this is too difficult, try starting from the top of the pull up and working your way down. Do not neglect to hold in the top position as this is the most important part for the Muscle Up. Build up your hold time up as you become stronger.

All round ring strength

The rings are an unstable and tricky apparatus. In order to accomplish even the simplest of ring based skills, you will first need to build up a level competence in the support position. Start by dropping the height of the rings if you can so that they sit just below chest height. Grip each ring with a normal grip and jump or press yourself up so that both arms are straight and each ring is locked in close to your body at about hip height. (See diagram in my post "The Iron Cross"). Aim to turn the rings so the palms are facing forwards but holding the rings parallel will suffice to begin. Do not allow the hands to turn inwards and do not brace your arms against the straps.

Build up the amount of time that you can hold the support position for. When it becomes too easy, try doing it in an L-sit position or get a friend to give you a push so that you're swinging.

Additional Training
If you have strengthened all of the above and are still having issues with the transition, I would recommend getting a spotter to aid you through the transition. Personally, I prefer a spotter to a passive form of decreased resistance (e.g resistance bands, pulleys etc.) due to their ability to judge exactly how much aid you require. This is useful especially if you're not feeling particularly strong on a given day and require a greater aid than usual. The downside is that you can't accurately judge just how much aid you're using.
When your spotter aids you, pay attention to where they're giving you the most help. I recently trained with a guy who could pull his elbows back through the transition easily enough so long as you aided him in getting his chin higher during the pull-up. After a few weeks of static holds at the top of the pull up and he can now Muscle Up with ease.

If you have no-one to spot you; the transition can be worked by lowering the rings to a height at which you can just barely do the transition by standing on your toes. Practise the technique described below a few times and then begin to increase the height of the rings a little at a time. It will gradually get harder provided you never jump into it. With trial and error, you should find the point at which you can just barely complete the transition. Practise at this level until you can lengthen the rings further, always using strict form. This is the most successful method that I've used in training others to do the Muscle Up on the rings.
Finally, Muscle Up negatives are a very useful means of strengthening the full range of motion. Be sure to maintain strict form or else you wont see any benefits and you'll be no closer to achieving a Muscle Up.

The Technique for the Muscle Up on the Rings
  1. Hold the rings with a false grip
  2. Pull up slowly until your chin is as high past hand level as you can comfortably go
  3. Turn the hands inward so that the palms face together and the rings are parallel
  4. Lock the elbows in at the sides so that they are touching your lats
  5. Draw the elbows backwards as if you are elbowing an opponent directly behind you. Ensure that you do not pull your elbows away from your body.*
  6. Press upwards slowly through the dip motion, turning the rings outwards at the top of the movement when the arms are locked straight.
  7. Reverse the movement ensuring that the false grip is maintained throughout.
  8. Do it again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again...
* This is the most common mistake after failing to use the false grip. Keep your elbows locked against your body even as they move through the transition from the front to the back. if you are failing during the transition, not doing so is the most likely cause.

There are one or two little tricks you can use to first achieve the Muscle up but make sure you unlearn them before you start building the reps up. Each tip will slot into the list above.

3a. Pick up speed as you pull up to gain a little momentum to aid you in the transition
4a. Pike (bend) at the hips slightly
5a. Lean forwards as far as is needed to roll the elbows back. this also makes the push easier.

Remember to wean yourself off of these as they can become bad habits.

The list will become more and more merged together as you practice and improve, making for a smoother more aesthetically pleasing Muscle up. You'll find you'll begin to turn your hands in (3) as you pull up (2), the elbows will also draw into your sides at this time (4).

I wish everyone the best in training for the Muscle Up! If this guide has been of any use, please let me know, any comments are appreciated. Any recommendations for improving it or ideas/points of view that differ from my own would also be very welcome.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

Slow Muscle Up on the Rings

 After capitulating to the demands of her majesties finest (can you believe the Police would threaten to arrest us for hanging rings from "The Queens Trees" in Hyde Park due to a law passed in the 1600's?!), my friends and I decided to set up our rings in the specially designed training area on Primrose Hill.

After the usual training session -Progressions for the Iron Cross, Front Lever, Inverted Muscle Up etc- we had a shot on a super slow muscle up. Here's mine. Please comment.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Ring Training Aids Comparison

Before I first tried to hold a simple support position on the rings last October, I didn't fully appreciate the immense level of strength that Olympic gymnasts possess through training with this relatively simple apparatus. Of all the training tools that i have used, they are the most efficient tool for strengthening athletes of all levels using only bodyweight resistance. The question is; How do the rings give such potent strength (and often muscle) gains without using greater than bodyweight resistance? The answer is quite simply leverage. Many of the positions on the rings are what we call "disadvantaged leverage" positions. In the same way that lifting a weight attached to your elbow is a lot easier than lifting the same weight attached to your wrist despite no change in mass, holding many static ring positions require an enormous degree of strength due to their tendency to place much of the mass away from the pivot. It is with this principle in mind that the following two tools were designed. They allow the force generated by bodyweight and leverage to be adjusted. This opens up the option for gradual progression of such feats as the Iron Cross by reducing the leverage variable. There are two models that I have tried over the past five months, Ring Training.coms Elite Strength Trainer and the Gymnova Educano.

The Price

Gymnova Educano
$309.75 (£211.50)*

Elite Strength Trainer $110.95 (£75.75)

*Gymnova is a British company, therefore sold in sterling

There is clearly an enormous price difference between these two pieces of kit. While this is in part due to the exchange rate bumping up the price of the Educano once it's converted into dollars, it has to be said that £211.50 is a huge sum to be charging for a ring training aid.


I would say that this could be down to just a matter of preference if it weren't for the fact that the majority of people I've tested this with hadn't voted in favor of the Educano when the question of comfort was raised. It's up to the user to decide whether this is an important point but the Elite Strength Trainer does feel somewhat harsh to use - particularly in the wrist. It is not painful however.

The Design


The Strap

The Educano fits snugly onto the arm and reaches just up to my elbow. You grip one end while the other is attached by a Velcro strap on the upper forearm. I have used the Educano slightly longer out of the two and have found that in six months of use, the strap has failed only once -the Velcro simply opened up- and it was possible that this was due to it having been poorly attached in the first place by my spotter.
I have seen it undo only a handful of times with other people and only ever on people with large forearms. The reliability of the strap is due to two things. Firstly; the end attached to the Educano is stitched in, turning this potential point of failure into a point of strength. Secondly; the Velcro strip on the strap is very long, allowing for maximum surface area contact and a stronger link.


The Educano allows for five incremental progressions. These five levels are each five centimetres apart and stop 10cm away from the hand. One thing I found was that five centimetre jumps towards the hand made for very big leaps in difficulty between levels. Especially now I've progressed to level 4, the jump from level 4 to level 5 is enormous. This is the Educanos first main weakness.

It's second soon follows. Upon reaching level 5, you realise that the jump from level 5 to the ring itself (see diagram above) is 10cm -the equivalent of two levels!-. Combine this with the fact that each level increase is greater the closer to the hand the ropes are attached, it becomes very difficult to progress to the Iron cross from level 5 using solely this device.


A strength of the educano is its flexibilty of use. The above
weakness in which the hardest setting only reaches the wrist is also a strength. The design allows a wide gap at wrist level (see photo at top) which allows the wrist to flex. While wrist flexion should be avoided during the Iron cross progressions, it is completely nessecary in performing Butterfly pulls (see previous post). Without this gap allowing the wrist to flex, the wrist would be forced into the metal housing making the butterfly Pull far too painful.

I have attempted to use the device to progress towards Front levers and even Planches on rings but found it to be inappropriate for these purposes.

Elite Strength Trainer

The Strap (Rant warning - Please don't judge the EST on the strap alone)

I'm going to go right ahead and say it; the strap for the Elite Strength Trainer needs further development. I believe the limitations of the strap add an unnecessary element of frustration to an otherwise great piece of kit. The problem is quite simple; while the Educano's strap is attached with velcro at only one end -allowing only one point of weakness-, the strap of the Elite Strength Trainer is held with velcro at both ends (Thus two points of weakness!!). Unfortunately, it doesn't end there. The band of velcro that secures the strap to the device (but not the one that binds your arm to the device) is only 3cm wide! This is insufficient to afford any confidence to an 80kg man working the cross, I can attest as it failed on me three times in a row on the first use.
This is not the end of the world however: I borrowed a friends sewing machine and did some serious stitching along that 3cm piece of velcro, binding that side of the strap in place and thus removing the biggest problem altogether. It worked so well that I was surprised to find the EST had more strength on the other side of the strap than the Educano due to a very adhesive velcro.


Now this is why I urged you to read on past the strap rant at the begginning. The Elite Strength Trainer has a total of eleven levels! Each level is only three centimetres apart as opposed to the Educano's five levels with a five centimetre gap between each. This makes gradual progressions much easier to handle as they are broken down into small incremental levels. Additionally; the Elite Strength Trainer lacks another of the Educano's weaknesses. The progression holes reach right up to the hand and don't just end frustratingly at the wrist. This means that you can gradually train your cross strength with the device right up until you're lifting the equivalent of full bodyweight if you like.


As the Elite Strength Trainer lacks the Educano's above weakness, it also lacks its strength in the flexibility of use. Without the gap at the wrist (bearing in mind that it's the same gap that prevents progressions right up to wrist level in the Educano), training Butterflies on the EST are just far too painful. The wrist is forced against the metal housing which hurts.. a lot. I believe that having the progressions up to the hand level and being able to do butterflies comfortably are mutually exclusive and it is therefore a positive point for each device that each one takes care of one so that you can decide which it is that you require. The EST has a great little feature in that the handle can be moved between one of the positions to cater for people with different length arms. It's not a problem I've really noticed with the Educano but it's certainly a feature that makes the EST more comfortable than it would be without.



Strap: 4/5
Comfort: 5/5
Flexibility: 4/5
Progressions: 3/5
Price: 1/5

Total: 68%

If you weigh more than 95Kg or wish to train Butterfly Pulls to supplement your cross pulls then this is definately worth thinking about. The price is my biggest issue with this one as it'll have you reaching deep into your pockets - especially if you're not in the Uk.

Elite Strength Trainer

Strap: 2/5
Comfort: 4/5
Flexibility: 3/5
Progressions: 5/5
Price: 5/5

Total: 76%

If you wish to use the device right up to the cross and don't mind stitching up one side of the strap, the EST offers far more gradual progressions and a well thought out design.

Note: I have done my best to be as unbiased as possible while reviewing these two items and have relied heavily on the opinions of many others and their feedback on many points.