Friday, February 28, 2014

Tackling the Muscle Up - Are You Ready?

Conquering the Ring Muscle Up had to be one of my proudest moments.  I worked at it for what seemed like months before I finally got it.  And as I look back I wonder if I was really ready when I first began my attempts.

The Muscle Up was such a coveted achievement that it was a notch that I just had to get in my belt and ready or not I wasn't going to back down.  As soon as I saw it come up in one of the CrossFit® Main Page workouts, I was intrigued.  And quite honestly, I wasn't sure what it was.  In case you are unsure, have a look at this Ring Muscle Up video by  You might find that it's different than others out there.  Notice how his hips stay in-line with the rings?  With the popularity of the timed workout, Ring Muscle Ups are now performed for speed rather than finesse.  And with that speed in the movement, the hips travel well behind and in front of the rings.  I kinda like the pure Gymnastics style version because of the raw strength required.

With the popularity of the movement, instruction now abounds.  Back in 2006 when I was first tackling the ring muscle up, I didn't have access to all of the instructional videos and articles that are out there today.  Some advice I'd give to those getting ready for the Ring Muscle Up:

First - Are you ready?  From all I've read and those I've spoken with, the consensus is that you should have 15 strict pull ups and 15 deep ring dips before attempting the ring muscle up.  That's good advice.  I wish I had heard that when I began.  I was not quite at that strength level and because I tackled it too early I was frustrated when results didn't come as quickly as I wanted.  And since I didn't have enough strength, my technique through the transition was off and my shoulders ached.  Don't skip this first step.

Keep It Old School - With the increased popularity of the exercise, on come devices and gadgets which attempt to act as progressions to the movement.  They aren't necessary.  We've done without them in the past and you can do without them now.  Using a resistance band to assist in the transition part of the movement is fine but look out for other unnecessary equipment like oddly shaped rings.  Chances are they wouldn't be allowed in a competition and frankly after you've learned the muscle up, what good are they?

Break Down the Movements - If we break down the Muscle Up we will notice that there are a few key components that we can work on separately rather than trying to string them all together from the start.  For instance, the Ring Dip is part of the Ring Muscle Up.  Without a strong Ring Dip, the Muscle Up will continue to evade you.  Practice the component parts until they become strengths then string them together only after they are all mastered.  Here are the component parts:

  • The False Grip - rather than grabbing the gymnastics rings as you would a pull up bar, the false grip requires that the outside part of your wrist lay on top of the rings.  The false grip allows the easiest transition from the body below the rings to the body above the rings.  It will feel uncomfortable until you spend time with it.  During the first part of the muscle up movement the hands rotate from palms facing away [bottom of the movement] to palms facing in [hands pulled in to the chest].  You've got to spend time in both positions to master the feel, strength and flexibility.  Hang in the False Grip in sets of 10-30 seconds with your arms fully extended, plans facing out on one day and switch to palms facing in the next day.
  • Ring Pull Ups - While learning the false grip and until it feels comfortable, you can work on ring pull ups.  Unlike pull-ups on the bar, the rings allow the hands a certain range of motion throughout the movement so even though bar pull-ups do increase pulling strength, working the pull-up on the rings is best.  Additionally, many failures of the ring muscle up occur because the transition is attempted too early in the movement.  The rings need to be pulled to the chest.  If your strength level isn't there yet, work on it.  Grip the rings palms facing out and as you pull, rotate the hands palms in and keep the elbows close to the body.  Concentrate on touching the hands to the chest at the top of the movement.  And lower all the way to arms fully extended.  Working this movement in small sets of 3-5 will keep quality high.  It's better to keep the hips out of this movement as well as any swinging.  Swinging and hip pop help tremendously but also limit the amount of strength you can gain though performing these exercises strictly.
  • False Grip Pull Ups - after you've worked to 5 sets of 5 of the standard ring pull ups, now work on pulling while in the false grip.  From the bottom of the movement, the palms face away from the body and throughout the pull they turn in, finishing with the wrists touching the chest.  A fantastic way to work on these movements is by the EMOM method [Every Minute on the Minute].  If you have a gym timer that you can program, then set it to run for 5 rounds of 1 minute each.  At the top of each minute work on a set of 3-5 great quality rings to chest and back down fully extended.  They don't have to be all strung together at first.  When you finish the set, rest for the remainder of the minute.  Then start again at the top of the minute.
  • Ring Dips -
    Now that we've discussed everything done below the rings, now comes the pressing movement.  Up until now, all the movements have focused on pulling.  But, without a strong ring dip in your wheelhouse, success won't come.  So, in the same method [EMOM] that we talked about before, work on the ring dip.  No worries about trying to hold a false grip here.  Your hands won't be in that position when you reach this part of the movement.  From a starting position that is as low as is comfortable, press out to a supported position above the rings.  Work on the movement slowly and get a full range of motion from bottomed out to full extension at the top.  Some also finish off the movement at the top by rotating the palms out away from the body.  This isn't absolutely necessary but is a great way to increase strength and stability in the rings.  Sets of 3-5 to begin and working towards a max single set of 15. If the Ring Dip is too challenging, start with the static Dip Bar.  Add a resistance band if necessary.
  • The Transition - Here's the part of the movement that can put your shoulders at highest risk of injury if performed incorrectly or overtrained.  Keeping the arms in close to the body is key to success and to injury prevention.  For many, the transition is the part of the movement that results in failure.  Sometimes it is attempted too early in the pull or it is attempted with the elbows too far away from the body.  To assist with understanding the movement you can perform the jumping muscle up.  Hang the rings low enough or a use a box to allow you to get through the rings with assistance from your legs.  Keep the rings as close to your body as possible through this movement and use the false grip below the rings to feel the transition of pulling to pressing.  Once the Jumping Ring Muscle Up is mastered, read through our blog on using resistance bands to help with the movement.  By and large, if the proper strength is built by mastering the proper pull and pressing, then only a short time will be necessary learning the transition.
Here's a quick guide to installing our Hammerhead Gymnastics Rings to keep them super comfortable during your training.