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.


  1. Great post as always, small suggestion it's a good idea when you refference another post to make the text a link then it's easy for readers to follow up if they are interested. (eg See diagram in my post from 24th June 2009 "The Iron Cross")
    Also be consistent with text colours for titles, important points, links etc This means that regular readers will pick up on this and begin to subconciously register significance. Particularly true for links and possibly don't use this color for any other text. this helps readers with navigation.
    Also you might like to check out which is a site written by an Aussi guy called yaro. It is very good in terms of how to market blogs, there is a lot of focus on monetising it to, which may or may not be of interest but underlying this is a strong emphasis on how to get your blog seen and read by more people. Regards.

  2. Thanks for the post Luke! I've added the hyper link to that post reference, that's much more effecient.
    I also had a look at the blog advice from Yaro. I'm all set up on feed burner now and have already accumulated zero readers!! I'm not so interested in the money making side of the blog but would like to get to a stage where I'm being referenced regularly like

  3. Hi
    Thanks for this informative post. I am also trying to get a MU on the rings. Currently, I am not pulling high enough, so when I transition, my elbows do not make it back far enough.. so I cheat by manually moving my elbows back one at a time which I know is not good so I stopped and went back to practicing assisted ones (feet on a box in front of me).

    I have been told I need to get 1-2 inches higher on the pull-up position, then my transition would not get stuck. I have tried weighted pullups but I think I really need to get the increased ROM pullups. (I can pullup 20% of my body weight w/a strict pullup on the bar, chin over the bar) I can get to my chest (barely-w/no added weight). Should I practice negatives where I jump to where the rings are chest or at top of ab level and slowly lower myself down to build up that strength? I am also trying to practice negative MU, but those are tough (I always fall out when trying to slide the rings forward from the deep dip back to false grip) and hence I am trying my best to work those with support.

    Also I am a female, just to let you know and I do not have much upper body mass.

    I post at the crossfit forums but did not want to create a new account here.

  4. Great post. I saw your post in GB forum and I am glad I ran into it. I'll be back to post progress. Thanks.

  5. Hi Anon, sorry for the late reply, I've been climbing in the Peak district the last few weeks. Negative muscle ups are probably the hardest of the progressions so don't be disheartened if they feel difficult. It sounds like you have a strong pull up if you can do a strict pull up with bodyweight plus 20%. By the sound of it, you would benefit more from isometric (static) holds at the highest point of the pull up.

    Try alternating between unassisted ten second isometric holds with chin over the bar or above hand level on the rings and spotted isometric holds with the bar at chest height. (get the spotter to support a little of your weight to begin and then less as you continue). Once these become easy to hold, start incorporating a small rocking motion backwards and forwards as if you're beginning the muscle up for a few centimetres and then returning to the top of the pull up. This will teach you to start transitioning the elbows whilst maintaining your height on the rings. Increase the ROM of the rocking motion to gradually work through the transition.

    A lack of upper body mass just means there's less to get in your way and less weight to lift! Good luck (by the way, what is your name for future reference?)

  6. Thanks Manny B, I look forward to hearing about your progress. The Gymnastic Bodies forum is a fantastic training resource, have you read Building the Gymnastic Body?

  7. Hey Rich, good post.

    Just wondering how you avoid hypertrophy when training weighted pullups (for example). Is it the fact that you're doing a (relatively) low number of reps and recovering between them.

  8. Hi I am Anon, the one who posted the previous question.. and then never responded back (kba is my user name in Crossfit). I thought that I did but I guess it did not get saved here.

    I have not yet tried the rocking motion you mentioned.. well I sort of did but I either get stuck or something goes wrong. But I am going to try that again.

    What I have done since my last post is this gymnastics warm-up (it is written in a crossfit journal).. there is a push and pull day.. pull day is where you do 5 rounds of 3 weighted strict pull-ups followed by 3 assisted strict muscle ups, rest about 45s to 1 min.

    I am at about 10lbs for the weighted pull-ups. I sit in skinny bands for the assisted MU. I don't kip and try not to speed through the transition (to build that strength).

    Since I have gotten to where I need one skinny band, I tried an unassisted kipping MU, but I still did not make it through the transition. I feel that its really timing and technique... I will still practice that sometimes but I will keep focusing to getting an unassisted strict one at least.

    regarding the strict one, I feel though that I have not progressed beyond the single smallest band. The only other thing I can do to decrease the assistance is to extend the band but then I will not get support in the pull to transition where I seem to still need it.

    Based on this, what do you suggest I could work on? For the goal of both strict and kipping unassisted MU?

    Thanks again

  9. Hi Ben,

    With regards to the advice I've given above (sets of 8 with max 20% bodyweight) you are likely to build a little hypertrophy although this is much more "functional" hypertrophy than most body-builders as we're using the weighted pull ups primarily to train the efficiency of your central nervous system. (Power Training: Make sure you contract your muscles explosively)

    Generally speaking, if you're using a load at which you can lift more than six reps and fail before twelve-fifteen reps, you're training hypertrophy. 20% of bodyweight will do this for some and not for others. I believe the accepted figure is 70-80% of 1 rep max.

    Are you avoiding hypertrophy because you're concerned the extra weight will hinder your progress on the muscle up? If so, I wouldn't worry. The muscle you'll gain from four to six weeks of weighted pull ups is unlikely to cancel out the advantage of a more efficient muscle unit.

    Good luck!

  10. Hi Anon/KBA,

    I had a similar problem with the pulley assisted one arm pull up, I could do it with 2kg added weight but was unable to perform it without. The problem was that the pulley allowed me to shift my body into a position that I couldn't use without (even though I barely pulled on the 2kg weight). I suspect the same may be the case here with the skinny band.

    Have you tried the method where you bring the rings low so that you can just do the transition with your toes on the ground? I've had a lot of success recently teaching with this method. Find the precise height where you can barely do the transition on tip toes and then increase the height by millimetres at a time. Make sure you can do several reps before increasing the height.

    Let me know if it works for you. If not, I'll suggest something else.

  11. Thanks a lot I am going to try that today.

    I think a long time ago, I sort of tried something like that, but as soon as I got the rings higher, I would just get stuck on the transition when my toes could not touch the ground at all. At this point, I assume I have gotten stronger since I can do it with the skinniest band.

    Here is one video I found:

    It makes me think of your idea... you have mentioned in a previous post. trying to move as much as you can, and hopefully each time you can keep getting further into the transition.

    The part where the guy goes from support, down and a little back.. that is the most difficult, but I think the big reason is I just get scared I am going to fall down and not have control (similar to when I try a negative muscle up)

  12. I've been trying to get a muscle up on rings for a while now. Really seems so much harder than on a bar.

    Perhaps your Tips will help! Got to try it out!


  13. Jamie MacDonaldAugust 26, 2010

    Richard - love your blog as I share your interest in functional fitness and maximizing genuine and useful strength - the ability to do physical feats that are athletic and graceful - while minimizing hypertrophy. As for muscle-ups on rings - learning to do it on a pullup bar awaits as an unattempted ambition - I did my first few muscleups this week at age 52 and am still mastering the form. I want to underscore for your other readers points 4 & 5 because they are the most critical to my mind. I have muscled my way to success despite lousy form several times this week but only on my last of about 15-20 single rep ring muscle-ups did I really execute steps 4 & 5 as outlined by you, keeping the elbows tight against my body in the transition phase as you're pulling the rings along your ribcage and behind you. That last muscle-up went smoothly and was comparatively much easier and my legs were essentially still, reflecting that at last I understood the biomechanics of the exercise. But there is a far more important reason to be conscious at every point of keeping the rings very close to your body at all times -initially in front of your sternum and then alongside you in the transition phase - and that is avoiding a shoulder strain. Most of the muscle ups I attempted, I succeeded but with poor form that flirted with shoulder injury, I suspect, by having my elbows at greater distance from my ribcage. A few times, I failed, and I believe each failure was caused by poor form and this fundamental mistake. I therefore conclude that it is likely that time invested mentally rehearsing and going through the motions of the transitional phase of the exercise is probably time well spent from the standpoints of both efficacy and safety.

  14. Hi.
    To do a muscle up is my dream.
    I'll keep you posted.

  15. hi richard,hi guys
    my goal is a kipping muscle up by now(i hope strict MU in the future).
    im training pull ups but im so weak, my best is 3 reps(arms totally extended, with a ROM max=nose)
    im weak at dips too :-( ,i can do 2 reps (with the max ROM and extended legs).
    i do dips and pull ups to failure(2 dips, 3 pull ups, a lot of times because i cant do high reps 4,5,6,7,8,9....
    need i a hipertrophy diet and workout and gain more muscle? or can i continue with this workout and gain strenght? or am i wasting my time actually with my workout?

    another question. im training the transition part in a bed, lying down, face down in a pull up position doing a muscle ups BED MUSCLE UPS OR LAZY MUSCLE UPS lol, (is like a lighter muscle up without gravity) this can work?

    what do you think about the false grip pull ups, may i give a try?


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