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How to Muscle-Up?

Dear Dr. Bell, how do you train for muscle ups? I can already do pullups and clapping pullups. But I’m not even close to doing even one muscle up, any recommendations?

This is a first! I have never been asked how to do a “Muscle Up” before. When I was a gymnast, we just naturally did “Muscle-Ups” as a quick way to get into position to practice a gymnastic move. We did not give it any thought; we just did it as routinely as you walk. Now that you are making me think about it, there are a few things you can do.

Obviously you are going to have to be strong. How strong? To put this question in perspective, while I was a Freshman on my College Gymnastic Team, I was also an Air Force Cadet in the USAF ROTC Program. My first few weeks there, the USAF instituted a program to evaluate the fitness of their cadets. I was randomly selected to participate without any notice. Without any practice or preparation, I did 129 Bent-Knee-Sit-ups in less than 2 minutes; 122 Pushups in less than 2 minutes; 39 Pull-ups in less than 2 minutes and ran 1.5 miles in 7 minutes and 55 seconds. And keep in mind, I was a Freshman and was far from the strongest gymnast on the team. I did not hold an “Iron Cross” for 3 seconds until I was a Sophomore.

The first thing you need to perform a “Muscle-Up” is strength, but even more important is to be strong relative to your Body Weight. Power-Lifters are strong, but if they can’t do at least 25 Pull-Ups with great form, they are not going to be able to perform a “Muscle-Up.”

What is good form? Start from a straight arm hang and pull-up until your arms are fully flexed. In the Fully-Flexed position, your chin will be 3-6 inches ABOVE the bar. Return to a completely straight arm hang position before starting your next Rep. Once you can do 25 or more with great form, it’s time for you to learn the “False Grip” Trick.

Gymnasts learn the “False Grip” trick early in their career. What is a “False Grip?”

Until now, you probably do your Pull-Ups with the hand-wrist-arm completely aligned beneath the bar. This minimizes stress on the wrist joint. In the “False Grip” you jump-up to grab the bar and get your wrists above the bar. The stress increases greatly on the wrist as it is bent 90 degrees or more with your entire body weight hanging from the wrist joint bent at the worst possible position. This is why strength-to-weight ratio is so important. You will be doing your Pull-Up from a considerably weakening position. You are also Pulling-Up on highly stressed joint.

Can you perform a “Muscle-Up” without a “False Grip?” No! You cannot get your body on top of the bar without getting your wrists on top of the bar first. If you are thinking, “Well, I start my “Kip-Up” with my wrists below the bar!” Yes, you do, but in the “Kip-Up” as your body “kips” backward and upward, watch closely, your body is momentary weightless and rising, enabling you to rotate your hands, so your wrist arrives above the bar, before your weightless-rising-body returns all the weight to your arms…on top of the bar.

It is a great idea to master the “Kip-Up” before you attempt “Muscle-Ups.”

Tricks to “Muscle-Ups”: It helps to have a partner lift and hold you while you position your wrists as high above the bar as your wrist flexibility will allow. Eventually, you may learn to reposition your wrists like gymnasts do, while they Pull-Up. Next: have your body form a “C” instead of hanging straight. The “C” position is stronger. Next, as you reach the top, start thinking “over the bar.” As soon as your chin clears the bar, push your chin-head-shoulders and chest over the bar. Once your chest gets above the bar, you are both pulling and pushing (I know, it sounds like Mr. Miyagi telling you to inhale and exhale at the sametime). You are pushing your chin-head-chest over the bar while you are continuing to pull your body and elbows as high as possible. Once you get your elbows above your wrist, you can now push-up to complete the “Muscle-Up.”

This is a lot of stress on the wrist, so if you feel a “twinge” in the wrist joint, go back to training your “Pull-ups” for 2 weeks before you make another attempt.

Another good way to learn is to have a spotter(s) (or resistance bands) take some of your weight off by supporting you throughout the “Muscle-Up” until you get strong enough to do them on your own.

You still have to focus on getting strong enough to pull your Chin high above the bar. Think of pulling your chest to the bar until you can touch the middle part of your chest to the bar. Clapping pullups, high repetitions Lat Pulls Downs (with your hands shoulder width apart) and high repetition Pull-Up sets, combined with heavy repetition Pull-up sets (wearing a belt and chain that you can add weight too) will all increase your strength. These exercises help with the pull part; once you get your wrist, arms and chest above the bar, you transition to a push-up like position, gymnast refer to as a “Dip.” To get strong for the Dip portion, you will need to do a lot of Pushups and then Dips. The Muscle-up will start the Dip with your hands in your arm pits, so you will have to get strong enough to Dip from the same position: hands-in-your-arm-pit!

Good Luck, and be careful with those wrists.

Best Regards,

Dr. Jim Bell, CEO of the IFPA