Muscle-ups might just be the best upper-body exercise around. Here’s how to do your first one, plus 10 advanced variations.
Want bigger arms, a jacked back, and a chiseled chest? How about bulletproof shoulders and improved performance on other upper-body movements? While there are many ways to go about getting them all, one exercise does the trick on its own: the ring muscle-up.
- Strengthen the shoulder girdle
- Improve shoulder mobility and stability
- Build pulling and pushing strength
- Add mass to the arms, back, and chest
- Have impressive carryover to all other upper-body exercises
Some people are quick to label the ring muscle-up as being dangerous and injurious. But those same people have never devoted the necessary time to train or understand the movement well, or even at all.
Sure, performing muscle-ups by flinging over the rings using massive amounts of momentum and a low measure of body control is irresponsible. However, doing muscle-ups in a way that respects the actual name of the exercise – using muscular contractions to get the body up – makes it safe for most people.
As a rule of thumb, the more closely your muscle-up resembles a flying squirrel in mid flight, the less you are actually doing a muscle-up. We’re going to keep them strict here.
Ring muscle-ups are self limiting. You don’t need to be very concerned with injuring yourself because you’ll either be strong enough to do a muscle-up or you won’t. If you aren’t strong enough, you’ll never get far enough along in a rep to get hurt. If you can do one you’ll also have the necessary strength, stability, and mobility through the shoulders and elbows to be protected from injury as a result of mastering prerequisite exercises (listed below).
The rings allow the arms to move freely and to extreme ranges of motion. This is what stimulates the tissues that build the shoulder joint, and what triggers gains in the arms, chest, and upper back.
A full range of motion muscle-up starts at a dead hang under the rings with the shoulders internally rotated. At the completion of the movement, the arms are straight and the shoulders are externally rotated, supporting the body over the rings. In between the start and finish position, full humeral rotation takes place as you pull to the rings and transition into a dip to finish the movement.
- Begin by hanging with a false grip and the rings turned out: shoulders internally rotated, knuckles facing out.
- As you start your pull, begin rotating the rings to neutral: knuckles facing each other.
- On the pull, pull the rings down, don’t pull your body up. Maneuvering the rings around your body (instead of moving your body around the rings) leads to better body control and more stability through better muscular contractions.
- As the rings near your chest, begin to rotate the rings out to prepare for the dipping position (knuckles facing out).
- Tip your body forward to get your shoulders over the rings. “Lean through” the rings.
- Complete the dip by pushing the rings down, not pushing your body up.
- Turn the rings out as you lock out your elbows to support your body atop the rings (knuckles facing behind you).
Training this exercise requires you to first master other, more basic exercises along the way. Don’t even think about trying muscle-ups without first passing these prerequisites:
- Low body fat percentage. The more extra weight you carry, the lower your chances of being able to get up and over the rings.
- Minimum of 10 consecutive pull-ups. Preferably ring pull-ups. Although the pull in a muscle-up differs from the pull in a pull-up, you’ll still need the strength equivalent of being able to do at least 10 strict pull-ups.
- Minimum of 15 consecutive dips. Preferably ring dips.
- Proficiency with the false grip. The false grip is what allows you to make the transition from pulling to the rings into pushing over the rings.
- Strong midsection: This becomes important as you near the transition point. You’ll need to hold your body stiff as you position the rings to transition from a pull to a push.
If you’re honest with your completion of the prerequisites, these drills shouldn’t be very necessary, but some people may benefit from them. If nothing else, these can help clean up and perfect the movement.
This is great for feeling the movement and becoming familiar with the transition. Don’t get carried away with your jump. Try to jump only enough to assist yourself up to the transition point. Still attempt to pull down on the rings.
After completing a jumping muscle-up, fight your way back down through the movement as slow as you can. This is a way to build strength.
Set the rings low enough to the ground so you can reach them from a nearly seated position. Use your legs to stand your way up through the movement. Take over with your upper body as early as you can.
Set the rings so you can reach them from the ground in a seated position. Doing a muscle-up from a seated position takes some of your bodyweight out of the movement at the bottom.
On a low set of rings, loop a band around one of the rings and wedge the loose end between the other ring and your hand. Sit on the band like a swing and do a muscle-up.
You’ll need access to a power rack with an anchor point for the rings that gives you enough clearance to complete the muscle-up. Attach a band across the uprights of the rack and step directly on it. The band will assist you.
The drill here is being demonstrated on a straight bar. The ball method can be used on rings in the same way to exaggerate the false grip, but doing this drill on a bar will strengthen the false grip and provide great carryover to the rings, too.
Too easy for you? Good, now try these.
Doing muscle-ups on low hanging straps isn’t necessarily advanced, it’s just a good way to check your technique. Straps that hang lower to the ground discourage momentum because the floor gets in the way of any momentum you could generate with the legs.
Adding a pause just before the transition adds intensity.
These are tough, but a tremendous way to build strength and familiarity at the most difficult part of the movement – the transition. Pull up and catch yourself in position to dip, then fall back out, letting the rings drift in front of your shoulders. Go “in and out” of the transition for reps.
Doing muscle-ups with the rings set wide is difficult. Every aspect of the movement is harder with the rings further away from your mid-line. The pull is weaker, the transition needs to take place faster, and the dip is far less stable.
Doing a few pull-ups before a muscle-up is a pre-exhausting technique to make the muscle-up harder.
Most will find the dip portion of the muscle-up to be the easiest, but if your dip is feeling a little weak, go ahead and throw in a few extra dips after your muscle-up.
Adding weight to muscle-ups increases intensity the same way as adding weight to pull-ups.
Attaching a band to your body is a great way to teach you to continue to apply force throughout the movement. The higher up you go, the tighter the band gets, which requires you to pull and push harder.
This is a great variation to build strength at varying points throughout the pull portion.
Slow tempos increase time under tension, improve your mind-muscle connection, and of course build superhuman strength.