How to Train For Your First Muscle Up
The ring muscle up is something I didn’t originally desire to accomplish. I am not a crossfitter (although it definitely is a great way to train) and I have always been more of a regular chin up kind of guy, adding weight to make it more difficult when desired. A friend once challenged me to a muscle up competition, and I politely declined. Several times. However, I am always on the prowl for another fitness bet to make and I typically like making bets where I am the big underdog.
After much back and forth over the course of a month or two, and after a few Easter weekend drinks with my buddy, I agreed to the challenge: Whoever could do the most consecutive muscle ups wins. Now we gave ourselves a four month timeline to train, but the problem was I was in much worse shape than my friend and he could already do 3-4 consecutive ring muscle ups. Nevertheless, I agreed to the challenge and began furiously researching how to train for one of these crazy things. A $100 Gold Burger at a local restaurant was on the line and I sure didn’t want to be the one to have to buy it for someone else.
At this point, I had already accomplished the one arm chin up (detailed in my post here) but had since gained back about 18 pounds, which would make it a little more challenging. I was still able to complete 15+ chin ups so I had a good base to work off of, but I learned quickly that the muscle up was a whole different beast.
I watched countless videos and read tons of articles on how to train for your first ring muscle up, bar muscle up, how to string together multiple muscle ups, etc. and got to work on putting these principles to practice. Below, I will outline exactly how I arrived at my first kipping ring muscle up.
The first important aspect of the muscle up I learned was the false grip. The false grip basically puts the rings or the bar in the base of your palm so you can transition from below the bar/rings to above without having to rotate your hands mid-movement. This ended up being a really important part of the muscle up equation and is much harder than you would think. I would often head out to my garage several times per night, where I have a pair of wooden olympic rings set up, and practice hanging from them with a false grip. It is hard on the wrists so I would suggest easing into it, hanging for a few seconds at a time and working your way up from there, eventually practicing regular chin ups using this method.
Once I had the false grip down, I began working on getting comfortable simply doing sets of ring dips. I don’t know if you have ever done ring dips before, but they are much harder on the rings than they are on a stationary bar. It is much easier to injure yourself (luckily I did not) but it provides a hell of a chest, shoulder and tricep workout and will help make your shoulder girdle much more stable, which will be very important when performing muscle ups.
Once comfortable with the above, I began working on the transition between pull up and dip. The easiest way to practice this if you only have access to rings is to bring the rings right down to about hip height. Get under the rings with your legs stretched out in front of you and mimic the motion of the muscle up by essentially jumping from the top of the pull up position into the low-dip position, using your legs to help balance. You really need to get used to going from under the bar/rings to over top of them and accommodate your shoulder muscles to the vulnerable position it puts them in, as well as being able to balance after the quick transition. Most of us are used to shoulder flexion but will find out very quickly that you have weak shoulder extension when you get to the deep part of the dip involved in the muscle up. You can train this by practicing deep dips as well as various other exercises, and I would definitely recommend doing this before diving into muscle ups if you want to avoid injury.
While the lowering of the rings to practice the transition is a great way to get used to the movement, there was nothing quite like the Dream Machine in my training technique for helping me work through the entire range of motion. Before discovering the Dream Machine on YouTube, I had never thought of such a contraption to help with my training, but it certainly did help and was a funny addition to the garage that all of my friends ended up trying at one point or another. See below for some of my first attempts, still in work clothes, at using this new contraption:
To make my Dream Machine, I had to 2 carabiners, a long length of climbing rope, and 2 pulleys, all purchased at Home Depot. I already had a weight belt at home so I used that to attach myself to the pulley system. It was quick and easy to install, and you can see via this video link I found: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3UXrl4OwESk
I think it costed me roughly $65 for everything at the time and was definitely worth it. The Dream Machine essentially cuts your weight in half since you have the rings attached to a pulley system. It actually allowed me to get right into practicing strict muscle ups which really helped get my muscles used to the transition between pull up and dip before doing it while kipping on regular rings and risking major injury. I actually bought a climbing harness to hook myself up to the pulleys after reading about it in several places online. However, when trying to pull myself up using the harness, the harness would ride up on me and was actually very difficult/almost impossible to use properly. Maybe this was just the type I had bought, but it certainly didn’t work for me. I kind of had to wrap the weight belt under my butt so I was actually sitting in it throughout the muscle up, and that seemed to be the easiest solution.
In addition to the Dream Machine, I worked on a few other exercises before getting my first muscle up. I would actually jump up on the rings into the fully extended dip position and then slowly lower myself to the bottom of the dip, transition to top of the pull up, and lower myself slowly, then repeat. It was actually quite hard to do, but again, very helpful.
One of the first times that I decided to attempt a bar muscle up (because they are definitely much easier) I was able to complete it. I actually started by using a workout band first and progressed to a non-assisted muscle up in the same session. The band really just helped me get the motion and timing of the movement, as that is a more important part then you will realize. You can’t simply muscle your way through the movement without first a lot of practice. You really need to get comfortable “throwing” yourself over the bar, and confident that you can catch yourself without injury. Once I got the motion down with the assistance of the bands, I tried for a muscle up, and after a few tries, I succeeded. I was actually able to string together 3 in a row that same session.
Prior to completing the bar muscle up that day, I actually had a friend come to the gym with me and try to teach me the mechanics of the ring muscle up, failing miserably. You really need to conquer the hollow and arch positions (see video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1k-Jf4pK-84 ). While I did not practice the on-the-ground version of this, it likely would have helped if I did. Instead I would swing wildly on the bar/rings until I could do it well enough (and I mean just well enough, not actually very good form) to complete a muscle up.
After completing my first muscle up, it didn’t take long to string together 3 of them in a row. However, form was something I did not spend enough time practicing so beyond 3 was near impossible because I would just get too tired. Stringing together many muscle ups is an efficiency thing, and the better your hollow and arch positions are, the better your timing is, the easier you will be able to string together multiple. You also need to not only worry about the getting up part, but also the getting down part. How you exit from the top of your dip extension is so so important for how likely you are to succeed on the next rep. As you will see in my video below, the form on the first two are ok, but notice what my legs do on the way down on attempt 3, as well as how close I was to serious injury on muscle up 4.
It didn’t take ages to teach myself how to do a muscle up, but I did cram quite a bit of practice into a short period of time. For the record, I ended up losing the bet by one rep and the video above was my submission. I only ever did complete 3 as injuries stalled my training shortly after I first accomplished multiple reps, and I had to take 2 months off of training. On that note, if I could do it again, I would have taken more time and spaced out my training a bit more. I tried to maintain a regular strength training routine while incorporating these various muscle up training techniques, and I didn’t give myself enough time to rest and fully recover. That, on top of a summer full of golf and ball hockey, ended up giving me a lot of elbow and forearm trouble, causing nerve entrapment in my forearm from over use. The pressure that the snap up and down from a muscle up put on your tendons and joints is something difficult to mimic with other exercises, so a word of advice – if you start to get pain up your forearm or in your elbows, back off. It won’t just go away if you push through it or take a day off, and I wish I wouldn’t have been so stubborn at the time.
One of these days I am sure I will get back to muscle up training, as it is an excellent full body strength/coordination movement. I never did complete a strict muscle up (no kipping) so I think that will be the next muscle up-related challenge I take on in the future. I hope this guide provided some useful training progressions, a laugh or two with the fail video and terrible form, and some other useful advice. Share your thoughts below!