Of all the skills people approach me for assistance, without a doubt the coveted Muscle Up is the most popular. But what underlying skills should you master before devoting your precious time working on attempts for this skill? What are some key differences between a Strict Muscle Up and a Kipping Muscle Up? This blog post is going to spend some time hashing out all these points and more!
The Muscle Up Equation
The main reason athletes get frustrated working on the Muscle Up is because they only see the movement as a complicated whole instead of breaking it up into its simpler components. I've seen athletes trying, and failing, attempt after attempt because time hasn't been spent honing the necessary underlying skills. Allow me to geek out on you for a moment and express the muscle up as an equation made up of it's basic underlying components:
RING MUSCLE UP = PULL + TRANSITION + DIP
Without a doubt, you can certainly break these basic components down further into more parts, and those parts into even more parts, but the basic idea I want to express is the following:
Solid and Consistent Muscle Ups are the result of
Solid and Consistent Ring Dips & Chest to Ring Pulls.
It's time to be honest with yourself. Can you do at least 3 solid Ring Dips in a row? Are you able to pull the rings to at least Chest level? If these skills aren't honed, then any session working muscle up attempts will be an exercise in frustration. If you do have these movements in your wheelhouse I have good news for you:
If you've got Ring Dips and Chest to Ring Pulls, you're just a Transition away from getting that Muscle Up
Enough theory! Let's go into detail on how to achieve and improve these components!
PART 1: IMPROVING THE DIP
Time and again I've seen athletes pull to ring level, perhaps even finish a transition, only to be unable to lock out the dip at the top of the movement. The dip should actually be the simplest component of the muscle up, which perhaps explains why it is so often easily overlooked in skill work. Let's take a moment to consider key points of a solid dip:
RING DIP: HIGH SUPPORT -> NEGATIVE -> LOW SUPPORT -> *OPTIONAL KIP* -> PRESS
If you're trying to work on strict dips, of course the kip is optional. More on that later. Aside from that, the points of performance on both strict and kipping dips are all the same.
HIGH SUPPORT: Try to maintain external rotation on your shoulders, down your arms, all the way through to the rings. Put simply, try to make your shoulder blades touch and turn the rings out. That will keep the rings close to your hips where you want them to be. The further they get away from you, the harder it will be to control the rings both in your descent and your press upward.
NEGATIVE: A solid negative will set the tone for the rest of the dip. Many people droop their shoulders and just head straight down. Not so good for your shoulders, and this blocks you from using your biggest muscle groups to help you press back upward. Think about leaning forward with a vertical torso until your chest reaches ring level. That will set you up nicely to use your bigger muscle groups to hold then press back upward from low support. Speaking of Low Support...
LOW SUPPORT: If you've followed these tips so far you won't have much to think about in low support. Just try to maintain your external rotation throughout, keeping those rings turned out as much as possible especially as you get ready to press back upward.
PRESS: "Hey Bear Cub, you skipped the kip!" Don't worry, we're getting to it later, the kip is optional. The same basic ideas apply whether you're pressing strict or kipping it out. Maintain a vertical torso, turn the rings further outward as you press back upward.
OPTIONAL KIP: It is beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss the relative benefits of strict movements vs kipping movements. Long story short, they both have their place as effective tools to develop various aspects of our fitness. Perhaps one thing that adds fuel to the arguments of those in the strict camp is ineffective movement patterns some use in the kip.
No one can deny that kipping greatly improves movement efficiency, when done correctly. People just seem to have the wrong idea about the kip, that somehow they can increase their momentum by defying the laws of physics and kicking their legs downward while moving upward. Are you jumping off the air beneath you? Kipping actually works by generating upward momentum with your hips. To break bad movement patterns and help my athletes understand this concept I usually have them perform the following simple drill:
From Low Support, tuck your knees toward your Chest to create momentum.
Press out with your arms at the top of the movement.
I usually have my athletes perform 2-3 knee tucks into the chest from low support to get a feel for how the momentum works. After the athlete understands how to truly create momentum, the knee tuck eventually becomes less pronounced, resulting in a more efficient kip focusing on upward hip momentum. No more jumping off magic boxes!
PART 2: IMPROVING THE PULL
The pull on the muscle up has some key performance points we want to make sure to hit in order to set ourselves up smoothly for the transition. Unlike the dip though, the differences in the pull between a Strict Muscle Up and a Kipping Muscle up are more pronounced:
STRICT RING PULL: FALSE GRIP -> BACKWARD LEAN -> PULL TO RIBCAGE
KIPPING: NEUTRAL FALSE GRIP -> BACKSWING -> FRONTSWING W/ HIP EXTENSION -> PULL
We're going to go consider details of the strict pull first:
STRICT RING PULL
FALSE GRIP: Let's not complicate this very simple and effective concept. The false grip basically is a way to grip the rings as if you're already above them. Doing this gives you a mechanical advantage that will make or break your Muscle Up, especially when performing Strict. To avoid unnecessarily complicating things, keep these points in mind:
Grab the Rings with the Base of your Palm, but not past your Thumbs
While choking up your grip will give you leverage in your pull, you should still be able to comfortably wrap your thumb around the rings. The exact optimal location of the ring will vary from person to person, but basically for a strict muscle up think about getting it as far down your palm as you can before you can't wrap your thumb anymore.
Grab the BOTTOM CENTER of the Rings
Have you been told to grab the inside of the rings to get your false grip? Sorry, but that will mess things up for you in the long run. First, that type of grip is not sustainable. Let's say you are luckily able to get one Muscle Up this way, most rings will shift position after your transition and descent into your second rep. You will now be grabbing the rings at the bottom and center, like you were supposed to do anyway, but usually with a compromised false grip that will prevent you from getting that second rep.
"Okay, but just do it to get your first Muscle Up!" Listen, I'm with you. I want you to get that first muscle up more than you know. But if you don't practice your pull and transition from the bottom center of the rings, you will always be a 1-MuscleUp athlete. Your Muscle Ups will be always be singles. Break the habit, dial in that False Grip in the right position.
BACKWARD LEAN: An often forgotten element of the Muscle Up, leaning your upper torso slightly backward will give you even more mechanical advantage and help you direct your pull where it needs to go, the golden area between your chest and your hips. Speaking of which...
PULL TO RIBCAGE: This element is crucial. The direction of your pull will be the single most important deciding factor whether you will make it through your transition from the top of your pull. Many athletes fail repeatedly in their Muscle Up attempts because they ccontinually try to transition over their shoulders. You need to give your body something to work with! When practiced correctly, False Grip Ring Pulls with a perfectly timed torso lean combined with a pull in the right direction are a wonderful skill and strength drill to move you rapidly toward your goal of getting up and above the rings!
KIPPING RING PULL
NEUTRAL FALSE GRIP: "Hey Bear Cub, why don't you use false grip on your Muscle Ups?" My friend, I'm using a sneaky version of the false grip called the Neutral False Grip, especially when performing Kipping Muscle Ups. A true false grip somewhat restricts the range of motion in your kipping swings, but you still want to benefit from the mechanical advantage the false grip gives you. Hence, the neutral false grip! The rings sit slightly higher on your palm than they would with a full false grip, allowing you achieve full height on both back at front swings.
BACKSWING: A good front swing begins with a good back swing. For sure the core is involved, you'll want to keep a nice tight midline and straight legs in order to generate smooth momentum. A key point that's overlooked though, the role your arms and hands play in this process. You should try to maintain "global tension" by putting outward pressure on the rings both in the back swing and the front swing. You achieve this in the back swing by turning the rings and pushing outward. Once again, keep everything straight! As you reach the top of the back swing start to hollow out ever so slightly so you can generate momentum from your hips in the front swing.
FRONT SWING & HIP EXTENSION: The key here will be direction of your hip extension. Many coaches will tell you "HIPS INTO THE RINGS!" I'll be honest, as a coaching cue to get you to open up more, I'll yell that at you as well. In reality, for a most efficient muscle up your hips will not actually reach the rings, but if that mentality helps you aggressively open up your hips then by all means keep that in mind. One thing is for sure, you want your hips involved, and you want to open into arch position aggressively as you're swinging forward and upward.
PULL TO RIBCAGE: I believe you read this already. Yes, everything from the strict muscle up applies here!
"But I Can't do Ring Dips or Pullups at all!!!"
Well now you know exactly what you need to work on, get going! If your issue is coordination, try to work on these skill tips one at a time until it all comes together. If you simply lack the strength to press or pull your body upward, don't be discouraged! Do what you can with smart, strength building modifications for ring dips and pullups in your daily WODs until you eventually progress to the point you can both support yourself, and pull or push your own bodyweight upward! While it is possible to build strength using banded modifications, I personally feel they can easily become a crutch and stunt the strength development of most athletes. If ring dips are programmed, do stationary dips if you can. If you can't do that, try to use a box to support your feet behind you. The same principles apply to Pullups, try to use box supported modifications that support your feet behind you, allowing your hands and knees to hang in a straight line. This will give you some support without accelerating you out of the low support position like a band does, allowing you to develop strength in that most important portion of the movement. A future blog post dedicated to strength building modifications will demonstrate all these options more clearly.
PART 3: IMPROVING THE TRANSITION
This blog post is getting kinda long! And besides, transition drills deserve their own blog post. Stay tuned for more details!
If you made it this far, congratulations! This is proof you're dedicated to doing whatever it takes to get that muscle up, or to clean up the one you already got! What should you do with all this info? How can you program your skill and strength drills in order to help you get the most progress?
Spend some time working on each component regularly, paying special attention to which part of each movement needs most improvement. Maybe you have ring dips, but you regularly feel like you've smoked your shoulders after doing a WOD with them in it. That means time spent improving your movement patterns, especially the negatives, will help you share the load with the major muscle groups designed to handle it. Maybe chest to bar pullups are a piece of cake, but you can't seem to get the rings to chest level. Spending some time hanging out in the false grip, working on those pulls will help you to pull in the right direction.
While I hope this post was informative and helpful, nothing can replace the feedback and guidance of a motivating and qualified coach. Ask your coach to observe you and let you know which aspects of your Ring Pulls, Dips, and Transitions need the most improvement, spend most of your time working on those bite sized parts, then you will see very quick improvement in your muscle up attempts! I would love to be your coach as well, if you're interested in any of my classes, clinics, or private sessions feel free to CONTACT ME so we can work something out! Stay Gymnasty my friends!