Muscle-ups are an advanced exercise which involve a large proportion of your muscles in your upper body.
If you have never performed a muscle-up before, chances are you won’t be able to go into doing them right away. You need to progress towards doing an actual muscle-up with several other exercises and techniques before you can begin to master the real thing.
What is a muscle-up?
A muscle-up is essentially a pull up where you thrust yourself above the bar/rings performing the pressing motion of a dip within the same movement.
The main muscles you will be utilising will be your lats, whilst your biceps, triceps, forearms, shoulders, traps and abdominals will also come into play. They can be performed either on a normal pull up bar, or a set of parallel rings, with the latter being slightly more challenging. I would recommend mastering a bar muscle-up before progressing onto muscle-ups using rings.
Step #1 Building the Strength
The first step you should take on your way to performing a muscle-up is strict pull-ups. If you cannot perform a strict pull-up, then you will find it very difficult to progress into a muscle-up.
In order to perform a strict pull-up, you should grab the bar with your hands shoulder width apart, using a supinated grip. Pull yourself up to the bar, bringing your neck above it and attempting to touch the bar with your upper chest.
It is vital when performing these to ensure that you aren’t stretching your neck to get the illusion of full range of motion, since you are cheating yourself and not performing a strict pull-up.
Furthermore, you should ensure you aren’t using any momentum what so ever when performing strict pull-ups. You should hang from the bar with your arms dead straight and your elbows locked at the bottom of the movement and pull from a dead start. This ensures that you utilise all the muscle fibres possible and will help your progression towards performing muscle-ups.
Can’t perform strict pull-ups?
✓ Try using small amounts of momentum to work yourself towards them.
If you can perform some strict pull-ups, even 1 or 2, then you should do so. Do however many you can take a rest and repeat. If you struggle to even complete a pull up, then try doing an assisted pull-up where your feet touch the floor, or try using a box or a band to aid you.
✓ Once you can complete 10 strict pull-ups in a row, without breaking form, then you can begin to add weight to your pull-ups. This can be done by holding a dumbbell between your legs, or using a weight belt. Try adding as little as 1kg at first and progress from there.
Step #2 Getting used to the Movement
You should now try to do some sort of momentum based movement, that will get you used to thrusting your body up and above the bar.
I would recommend for beginners to practice a hanging knee to elbow leg raise. To perform this, you should hang from a bar with your hands placed shoulder width apart in a supinated position. You should then pull yourself up slightly, retracting your shoulder blades. This way you won’t be hanging dead stiff, making it easier for you to perform the movement. Begin by rocking your body back and forth for a few repetitions to get you into the swing of it.
You then want to proceed to raise your legs, with your knees bent towards your upper body, touching your shoulders. This movement should be performed as you are rocking backwards!
Tight core throughout
✓ As you perform the exercise, ensure you keep your core tight as your drive your knees to the top of your chest. Practice this exercise and ensure you get the form correct. Once you can perform this for around 15 repetitions with good form, then you can move on to the next step.
✓ Alternatively, or once you have mastered this sort of movement, you can attempt to perform a kipping motion. This works in a different way and is preferred by some; however when it comes to performing a muscle-up this way you will not be utilising as many muscle fibres and the form is hard to nail down.
Step #3 Attempting Assisted Muscle-ups
Now that you have built up some strength to perform the movement and developed some practice using momentum to help thrust you above the bar, it is time to attempt some sort of muscle-up. At this point however, they should be assisted in some way.
The first way you can do this is by using a box, or other elevated platform and stand on it. You should then proceed by thrusting off the box, performing a similar movement to the one mentioned in step 2. You should then pull yourself up and towards the bar. As you will be rocking backwards a little, you won’t be pulling yourself directly upwards; it will be forwards and up in a sort of arc shape. Once you reach the top of the bar, thrust up, performing the sort of movement you would in a dip.
As you do this, it is vital that you ensure you rotate you wrists as your move towards the top of the motion. This will ensure you can seamlessly transition from the pull-up movement into the upwards pushing movement.
Extra help: resistance bands
✓ Alternatively, you could use a resistance band to help support some of your weight when performing the movement. This is recommended if you do not have access to any sort of box or elevated platform.
✓ Once you can perform around 10 of these with good form, you can begin to look into the next step. You should ensure that you still practice the movements in the previous steps to further reinforce your strength and technique.
Step #4 Performing a Muscle-up
It’s now time to perform an actual muscle-up!
You should begin in a similar position to that in step 2, rocking backwards and forwards slightly. Proceed to thrust yourself towards the bar, using your knees if needs be (using the same form mentioned in step 2). Once you reach the top of the bar, proceed as in step 3 and perform a muscle-up.
You should practice these regularly, perfecting your form. One you can perform around 10 muscle-ups without stopping in good form; it is time to look at the much more advanced step 5, where you will eliminate the momentum.
Step #5 Eliminating the Momentum
Going back to what I mentioned back in step 1, you should now look to perform strict muscle-ups. Using the guidelines I set out for the strict pull-ups, you want to follow the same form.
At the top of the movement however, use your upper body strength and the techniques you have already learned to ‘thrust’ above the bar and perform the pushing movement.
I use the word ‘thrust’ lightly, because you want to ensure that the movement is controlled and lacks momentum as much as possible.
That’s it! Once you have reached this stage you can be proud of yourself, since very few people can perform muscle-ups, especially with this form. You should look into some other variations, such as kipping muscle-ups, if you haven’t already.
Take Home Message
Muscle-ups are a fantastic exercise once you have performed them properly and something to show off to your friends and gym buddies about!
Remember though, practice makes perfect, and you will need a lot of practice. You’re not going to be able to perform one of these overnight, so don’t get frustrated if you struggle right away. Keep at it and you will get there!