Muscle-Up Progressions

Time for your first.

Jason Kirby performing a muscle-up
Jason Kirby performing a muscle-up.
Ah the muscle-up, arguably the new gold standard for pound for pound upper body strength, speed, and coordination. CrossFit has embraced this as one of their greatest feats, but what makes this exercise so special? At first glance it appears to be a kipping pull up, and a low dip right? What do we all know about first appearances? They can be misleading. The muscle-up is the extreme of both exercises.

The amount of force generated during a muscle-up is much more than that of a pull up and a dip separately. So how do you do one of these? Well if you are very strong, or well coordinated you might be able to do one of these in your first few tries. But not all of us are created equal. We're going to tackle this technique with a progression. That means that we're going to take a difficult feat, and make it possible by doing it step by step.

The first part of the movement is a pull up, so lets start with the basics. You have two real choices on where to do muscle-ups. Either on a bar, or on a set of rings. They both illicit very different feelings, so it would be a good idea to practice on both. But for picture sake we'll deal with the bar. If you can find a low bar, that is either just above your head, or right around your neck, that would be a great place to start.
Practice pull ups, when you can get at least ten then start working on kipping pull ups. A kipping pull up is essentially a regular pull up done explosively with a lot of swing in the lower body. In the muscle-up you will want to pull up very quickly and swing your legs forward. While leaning forward on the bar with your stomach or chest; press yourself up until your arms lock out.

Now the pressing portion is very different (if you do it on a bar, rather than rings) than a regular dip. The reason being, your hands are pronated, and unless you regularly practice bar dips you might be a bit shaky. Go down as far as you can, this will simulate the bottom portion of the press fairly accurately.

Once you are proficient at both of those techniques, lets start to put things together. If you still have access to that low bar, then the best way to develop your neuromuscular coordination is to squat low, allowing your arms to be straight. Then jump; just hard enough for you to clear the bar and end in the press. This might take a few tries, but once you get the feel for it, you now start to see how difficult this move is.

So now lets use our progression scheme to go from far fetched, into doable. Use some manner of weight attached to you when you practice your pull ups and bar dips, or ring dips. This will force your body to adapt to a higher workload, and build up the necessary strength and power to muscle your way up the bar. I like to use a weighted vest, but dip belts, bands (jump stretch, or iron woody), ankle weights, a dumbbell between your legs, a foot hooked under a kettlebell, or even a big rock. Once you are confident that you can do 10 perfect pull ups and 10 dips with at least 10 percent of your bodyweight, then you might want to start attempting the muscle-up.

It's a good idea to keep practicing the jumping muscle up to keep the mind muscle connection fresh.

If after all of this the muscle up still seems out of your grasp, try some rope climbing. The extreme amount of pulling power required in the arms, shoulders and back might be the part that is lacking. When you get good at rope climbing, try climbing upside down.

If after all of this, you still cannot do a muscle-up, then recruit a friend, or someone who knows how to do one, and have them teach you one on one. Sometimes reading an article, and seeing someone do it, in real time can make or break the lesson.

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Scott Andrew Bird

Scott Andrew Bird is a writer, photographer and a guy who just loves this stuff. He's been at home in front of a computer for more years than he cares to remember (OK, 37) and is now making amends for years of many mistakes noted in the De-constructing Computer Guy articles (part 2) on T-Nation.

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