The strict muscle-up is a great movement to have in your skill set.
It’s a move that demonstrates overall body strength and coordination that even very fit people have a hard time performing the first time they try it. But that doesn’t mean it’s out of your reach if you train right.
Most of the problems people have with this skill involve improper form and lack of strength in the right places. In this tutorial, I’ll show you everything you need to know, from the correct grip to the important details of proper technique, and even the best way to organize your workout.
Follow these instructions, complete with videos and pictures, and you’ll gain the strength and form for that perfect muscle-up.
- The muscle-up in 4 simple steps
- Specific exercises to build strength for the muscle-up
- Programming for muscle-up success
Part One: A Step-by-Step Guide to the Muscle-Up
When you see the muscle-up done as one smooth movement, it may seem intimidating or out of reach.
In reality, though, it’s a simple combination of a few separate movements, each of which can be improved and strengthened. Put them together and – voilà! – you’ve got the muscle-up. Let’s take a look at each part of the muscle-up.
Muscle-Up Step 1 – The False Grip
The correct start to a proper muscle-up begins with the grip.
Unless you are using momentum – in other words, swinging your legs and kipping up – you’ll need to use a false grip. This particular method of gripping allows your hands to come over the top of the rings after you pull yourself up.
In a normal grip the rings are more in your fingers rather than your wrists, and you won’t have a “shelf” to push off from, the false grip makes that happen.
This video shows three fundamental rings grips. Since we’re only concerned with the false grip for the muscle-up, you can skip to 2:17 for an explanation of the grip:
In the false grip, as demonstrated in the video, the rings are set in the hand nearer to the crease of the wrist. This is definitely an awkward position for most people at first, and it takes some time and practice to get the technique down, and to figure out the tweaks in positioning that are best for you.
It also takes time to build up the wrist, forearm, and hand strength to maintain this position as you pull your whole body up and over your hands.
(Learning to grip the rings is rough on your hands, so check our hand-care tips for ring training.)
Muscle-Up Step 2 – The Pull
Once you’ve got your false grip technique squared away, the next step is pulling your body up as strongly and smoothly as possible. This means having a good proficiency in pull-ups.
(If you need stronger pull-ups, this article will help you out.)
A strong pull is key to a good muscle-up, and without it, you’ll be unable to do one without swinging and kipping.
In your pull-up, maintain the false grip and keep your elbows close to your sides throughout the movement. You may choose to have the elbows out as you get stronger since this will make the exercise more difficult, but can make the transition to the top position smoother.
Start with your feet slightly in front of you, then pull hard and think of getting your chest to the rings and hands to your armpits. I like to say that muscle-ups are just like you’re “putting on a shirt.”
Muscle-Up Step 3 – The Transition
For the transition, keep yourself tight at the top of the pull and get your shoulders above your hands. That means you’ll have to do a strong pull as high as possible, then lean forward at the top to get into the right position.
The position you’ll end up in is essentially the bottom of a dip.
(It’s essential here that your shoulders and chest are ready for this stretched and loaded position, so if you have flexibility issues, go here and get to work! You don’t want to hurt yourself in training. Remember, we train to improve, not get injured!)
Again, keep your elbows close in to your sides, then lift your chest up as you prepare to push up to the top position.
Muscle-Up Step 4 – The Push
At this point after a successful transition, you’ve gotten through the most difficult part of the skill, which is the coordination between a strong pull and this push.
From the bottom dip position, keep an upright posture and visualize your body moving as a solid unit as you push up to the top position, rolling your thumbs outward and locking your elbows out at the top.
Part Two: The Best Exercises for Muscle-Up Strength
As you’ve read above, the muscle-up is broken down into the grip, the pull, the transition, and the push. So it’s important to include strength and conditioning exercises that aid directly into those particular skills and moves.
False Grip Pull-Ups
This straightforward exercise is just as it sounds.
To master the false grip muscle-up, you’ll want to train strong pulls in the false grip position. It’d be hard to get more specific than false grip pull-ups to train that skill!
You can work this with three different hand orientations, pulling yourself as high as possible with each:
- Hands facing toward you
- Hands facing each other
- Hands facing away from you
These different hand positions can be practiced in separate sets on the same day, or by alternating hand positions with each set. Play with it and see what works for you.
Eventually, you’ll want to move to a pull variation where you start with palms facing you then rotate them away as you pull up to the rings. This mimics the motion of the muscle-up.
The Baby Muscle-Up
The transition point can be a difficult position to simulate, because it’s a dynamic point that can change depending upon your pull and the particular body positioning you end up with at the top.
For this reason the best practice is to actually perform the movement itself, and this can be quite tricky. This is where the baby muscle-up comes in.
With the baby muscle-up, you’ll assist yourself by keeping your feet on the floor so that you can do a lot of repetitions of the important transition point movement. Lower your rings so that you can be in the bottom of the dip position with your knees bent and feet touching the floor.
In this video I’ll show you how to perform the baby muscle-up on a bar, but the same principles apply to the rings:
Practice the baby muscle-up, paying particular attention to your body positioning right before and after the transition, and make it as consistent and smooth as possible. Lots of repetitions in practice will pay off once you get your feet off the ground.
The baby muscle-up is a combination of strength and technique practice, and is quite a gem for getting to a successful muscle-up.
Ring Dips with a Pause
Another simple, but not easy, exercise that will help strengthen your muscle-up is performing dips with a pause in the bottom position, going as deeply as possible without risk of hurting yourself.
This is the exact position before the push to the top position in the muscle-up, and you can directly improve the specific strength needed for that skill by adding this into your routine.
Again, be sure you have the necessary flexibility and tolerance for this position before attempting this exercise. You’ll be on the fast path to injury if you ignore pain and stiffness.
You can practice these with full body weight resistance, and also with your feet still on the ground to decrease load. Work on gradually increasing weightbearing through your arms until you can pick your feet up off the floor for the whole time.
Part Three: Exercise Programming for the Muscle-Up
You’ll want to have a consistent regimen of strength and skill training in order to achieve a successful muscle-up.
I recommend at least two days a week of strengthening exercise and at least three days a week of the baby muscle-up, with an emphasis on treating the baby muscle up as a learning session rather than a distinct strength exercise.
Treating these moves as skills, you should be fresh and ready for practicing as perfect technique as you can muster. As such, I recommend more sets of less repetitions, rather than going to fatigue in higher reps and compromising form.
It’s also important to vary your speeds in the pulls and baby muscle-ups. Faster speeds can get you to that transition point a bit more easily, and the slower speed gives you an idea of your weak points in the range. Both are important for improving your skill in the muscle-up.
Example 3-Day Routine:
Note well that the following is a strength / skill routine – NOT a gymnastics training program.
Gymnastics is a great sport that builds incredible ability, but gymnastic-style training isn’t always the most efficient method for fitness-oriented strength training. This sample routine is designed for the average fitness enthusiast who wants to get strong and develop their muscle-up technique.
- False Grip Pull-Ups (8 sets of 3 at a slow speed)
- Dips with a Pause (6 sets of 4)
- Baby Muscle-Up (5 sets of 5 at a slow speed)
- False Grip Pull-Ups with hands facing each other (8 sets of 3 at a faster speed)
- Dips with a Pause (5 sets of 5)
- Baby Muscle-Up (8 sets of 3 at a faster speed)
- Rest on strength exercises as needed.
- Baby Muscle-Up (8 sets of 3 at a slow speed)
There are many ways to set up a program to help you work toward the muscle up, but this sample program is a great place to start if the muscle-up is one of your goals.
Putting it All Together from the Bottom Up
When you’re ready to put everything together and start training for the full muscle up, you’ll want to start by going through some important progressions.
In this video, I’ll take you through a series of muscle up variations that build on one another:
The muscle-up on the rings can be a surprisingly difficult maneuver to otherwise strong and fit trainees.
It’s a unique combination of strength and coordination that requires not just repetitive practice, but correct practice of the right things and good attention to the details of proper technique.
With the right approach, technique, and dedicated practice, the muscle-up is an accessible move for most people. The most important thing is to build a solid foundation of skills and strength, and you’ll get there with time.
My Recommended Gymnastic Rings
We get a ton of questions about which rings are the best, and honestly, there are a lot of great options out there now that didn’t exist just a couple of years ago.
If you’re just starting out, you can get by with a cheap set off Amazon.com, but we prefer using the wooden gymnastic rings from Rogue Fitness. They are comfortable to grip, easy to adjust, and are built right for safe and dependable use – I’ve been using mine almost daily or over two years now.
Build Your Strength Systematically
The rings challenge your body in ways that can’t really be replicated with other training tools, and there’s a steep learning curve for getting comfortable with how to safely engage the body to perform basics – and especially more advanced skills like front and back levers.
We recommend using a systematic and patient approach like we teach in our Rings One program to gain mastery over your body and build upper body and core strength with the rings.
Rings One: Our Introduction to Gymnastic Ring Training
Learn all the basics of safe and effective ring training while developing your strength for perfect, strict muscle-ups and other combination moves:
Whether you’re ready to pump out muscle-ups or still new to this type of training, working with the rings is challenging.
But if you work at it consistently, the results are worth it.