Made famous by the CrossFit movement the muscle-up is on many a fitness enthusiast’s hit list. However, as most people have found out when attempting their first muscle-up, it’s one tough cookie to crack.
Yet why is that? After all, a muscle-up is just a pull-up followed by a triceps dip and to perform this seemingly easy exercise requires but 7 simple steps – which are as follows:
How to do a muscle-up
Step #1: Start from a dead hang on a pull-up bar.
Step #2: Generate a bit of momentum by kicking your feet forward.
Step #3: Channel that momentum when pulling up.
Step #4: Kip to assist the exercise.
Step #5: Pull-up over the bar so that either your chest is resting on the bar or you are using muscle strength to suspend yourself above it.
Step #6: Push up into a triceps dip.
Step #7: Under control return to Step #1. Repeat!
And there we have it, 7 simple steps to performing your first muscle-up.
Muscle-up physical attributes
But you know as well as I do, theory is far easier than practice. Few, if any exercisers without plenty of training and practice would be able to pull off a muscle-up. Why is that?
Well, in addition to requiring an abundance of upper-body strength, muscle-ups also require coordination, agility, and control. Without these physical attributes, you’re unlikely to be able to perform a muscle-up.
This article will walk you through the technical points in a little more detail. Also, we’ve included some handy training advice that can help build your strength and explosive power. Both key physical requirements needed when attempting to perform a muscle-up.
How to muscle-up | Teaching points
The teaching points that follow are a more detailed outline of those that feature above. But they provide a deeper insight of the technical application of each phase of this multifaceted exercise.
Step 1: Start position
Not to teach you to suck eggs, but it would be helpful if the bar that you plan to practice your muscle-uping on was sufficiently high enough that your feet cleared the floor. Having located such a bar, you are to start from a dead hang. A dead hang, if you didn’t know, is where you are hanging from the pull-up with perfectly straight arms and feet off the ground.
Step 2: Muscle-up initiation
To initiate a muscle-up kick your feet forward to generate momentum. This will help make the initial phase of the exercise that bit easier. It takes some next-level strength to muscle up from a dead hang.
Step 3: Generate momentum
As you swing back use that energy and momentum to assist the pull-up. Timing is crucial here. If you mistime the pull-up out of the swing, you’ll just end up looking like a fish flapping about at the end of a hook.
Step 4: Kip assist
You can further assist the pull-up by kipping. What is kipping? You may well ask. As the good people at Men’s Health put it ‘A kip essentially has you swinging forward, then translating swing energy into momentum that helps drive your chest to the bar.’ But is kipping cheating?
In CrossFit kipping is standard practice and athletes are permitted to kip during pull-ups and muscle-ups. However, in a fitness test or military training kipping is strictly forbidden and is regarded as form of exercise blasphemy.
Step 5: Chest above the bar
Whereas with a standard pull-up only your chin is required to clear the bar, when performing a muscle-up you need to get your chin and chest over that bar. If you don’t you will not achieve sufficient clearance to make the transition into the second phase of the exercise.
Step 6: Set your position
Assuming your chest did clear the bar, you should now be in the start position for phase two of the muscle up: triceps dip. In the early stages of mastering the muscle up it is wise when in Step 6 to take a brief pause. By pausing you will be able to manoeuvre your body in the right position to execute the triceps dip. Why is this important?
If you only just managed to clear the bar, chances are your body weight won’t be fully over the bar. Thus, if you begin to push up you’ll probably push yourself away from the bar and fall backwards. To avoid this take a pause, rest you chest on the bar, shuffle about a bit until you find a good position.
Step 7: Grand finale
When you’re in a good position execute a triceps dip ensuring to drive evenly and smoothly through both arms.
Step 8: Recover - repeat
To return to the start position allow gravity to do its thing. Of course, if you are performing many reps you’ll want to use as little energy as possible during the downward phase.
Muscle-up training tips
Okay, that’s the theory over with, now let’s get practical. It goes without saying that all the teaching in the world is useless without practical application. However, as we’ve already established, few people can perform a proper pull-up let a alone a muscle-up.
In this section we’ll take a look at two training methods you could use in your conquest of this notoriously difficult exercise. Before running off, though, I must encourage you to exercise patience in your pre-muscle-up preparatory training. To develop the requisite strength and technical skill will take time, effort, and persistent dedication.
Muscle-up training tip #1: Break the exercise down into three parts
Breaking complex movements down into their constituent parts is an age-old training methodology. By isolating each component of a multifaceted exercise, such as the muscle-up, clean and press and snatch, we can master the separate simpler parts before attempting the more technical whole.
The muscle-up is an amalgamation of three distinct movements or phases. The first phase is where we initiate the exercise by generating momentum by kicking with the legs and kipping to assist. The second movement is the pull-up. This is for many the most challenging part of the muscle up progression. Finally, having cleared the bar with our chest, we complete the muscle-up by executing a triceps dip.
Each one of these three distinct phases can be practiced separately. When you begin to notice an improvement in performance and proficiency, you can attempt to piece them together.
Muscle-up training tip #2: Get some assistance with resistance bands
One simple training method when attempting your first muscle-up is to use resistance bands. Resistance bands offset your body weight which makes the exercise easier to perform.
If you plan to use this muscle-up training method, you’ll need two resistance bands. One is looped over and around the bar and the other is shaped into a harness creating two loops through which you place your arms.
Granted, at first it is a bit of a rigmarole to implement this method – especially if you have to buy a pair of resistance bands first. But this initial effort is well worth the pay-off. In addition to helping you perform your first muscle-up, resistance bands are highly versatile training tools.
Related: check out these 5 Functional Resistance Band Exercises.
Need a resistance band?
Muscle-up frequently asked questions
Is a Muscle-up hard to do?
Yes, for most people muscle-up are extremely hard to do. The reason why muscle-ups pose such a challenge is that they require upper body muscular strength. Furthermore, as outlined above, other components of fitness are put to the test when performing muscle-ups - such as power, muscle endurance (if you're going for reps), coordination and agility.
Do muscle-ups build muscle?
Muscle-ups certainly will build muscle. The primary muscles that this exercise develops include the latissimus dorsi, biceps, forearms, triceps, chest, and the many muscles of the core.
Are muscle ups better than pullups?
Arguably muscle-ups are better than pullups because, unlike a pullup, muscle-ups not only develop explosive upper body strength, but they also engage a wider range of muscle groups.
What is considered a muscle up?
A muscle-up is an explosive pullup followed by a triceps dip. Like a bastod, which is a burpee followed by a press-up, the muscle-up is an amalgamation of two separate exercises: pullup and triceps dip. Muscle-ups can be performed on a fixed bar or on a pair of gymnast rings.
Ring muscle ups are a lot harder than bar muscle ups. The reason why they are harder is that more control is needed to stabilise the rings. If you are training for your first muscle up it would be wise to practice on a bar first. When you can muscle up on a bar then have a go on the gymnast rings.
Is a CrossFit muscle up different to a normal muscle up?
Nope, they’re exactly the same.
What are the muscle up benefits?
There are many muscle-up benefits. Below we have compiled a list of some of those benefits.
They help to develop superior upper body strength
They improve grip and forearm strength
They forge core and transverse abdominus strength
They improve coordination and body control
They develop pulling and pressing power
And, last but not least, they also confer gym kudos
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast.