If you’ve been to the gym lately, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen someone performing a muscle up. While you’re more likely to see this dynamic exercise at a CrossFit gym, the muscle up is definitely making an appearance in general fitness facilities.
At first glance, the muscle up looks like a cross between a traditional pullup and a tricep dip. Although it involves both of these movements, the muscle up is in a category of its own.
Keep reading to find out whether muscle ups are right for you, how to perform them safely, and what exercises you should add to your workout routine to get your body ready to do a muscle up.
The muscle up is an advanced-level exercise that requires the upper body to make both pulling and pushing movements. To perform the move correctly, you must also have solid core strength.
Brent Rader, DPT, a physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, said that the muscle up requires explosive power, raw strength, coordination, and kinesthetic awareness. Weakness in any of these areas will hinder proper performance and may lead to injury.
“The basic movements in a muscle up are the swing, pull, transition, and press, with the most challenging aspect being the transition from pull to press,” said Rader.
The muscle up requires explosive power, raw strength, coordination, and kinesthetic awareness. Weakness in any of these areas will hinder proper performance and may lead to injury.
— Brent Rader, DPT, physical therapist, The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics
Performing a muscle up on the bar is easier than using the rings, so if you’re new to this exercise, the bar is a good place to start.
Since the bar doesn’t move, you must use your muscles to lift your body up and over the bar. Rader explained that this is possible to achieve if you initiate a body swing like the “kipping pullup” that’s popular in CrossFit.
“When properly timed, this will position the body for better mechanical power about the shoulders and upper back,” he added.
When you feel ready to perform the muscle up on a bar, Dr. Allen Conrad, BS, DC, CSCS, suggests following these steps:
- Keep in mind the basic movements that we’ve described and shown above when executing this exercise. Doing this will provide you with a visual of how the move should look.
- While hanging from the bar with your thumbs pointing toward each other, engage your core, and pull yourself up toward the bar in a quick, aggressive motion while lifting your knees.
- Twist your wrists as you position your chest over the top of the bar.
- Perform a tricep dip.
- Drop back down into the hanging pullup position, and then repeat the exercise.
Most experts don’t recommend modifying the muscle up as it’s such a high-level exercise. Rader explained that modifications are simply an attempt to compensate for a lack of requisite skill, strength, or control.
He recommended breaking the movement down into segments and identifying an alternative exercise for each part to train the body to perform a proper muscle up.
Using rings to perform a muscle up introduces a dynamic component that changes the difficulty and complexity of the move. According to Rader, the following elements change when you add the rings:
- The movement of the rings affects the transition, so when you initiate the swing, the rings can move with your body. Depending on your preference, you can rotate your grip or adjust the ring spacing at any point during the muscle up.
- The instability of the ring platform requires greater stability from the athlete’s shoulder girdle. Whereas a bar remains fixed in position, you have to control the rings during all phases of the exercise. The rotator cuff, traps, lats, and even the core face a higher stability demand. This results in a trade-off. Higher-level athletes may benefit from the increased neuromuscular challenge, but the risk for injury also increases.
If you’ve set a goal of executing a proper muscle up, you might be wondering whether there are some preliminary exercises that you can do to help train your body for this advanced move.
The good news? There are several ways to build up your strength and power to help you progress to a full muscle up.
Rader said that most exercises focus on the building blocks of strength, such as core stability and body awareness, proper pullup form (to the chin and to the chest), and scapular stability. The level that you train at with these moves will depend on your current fitness level.
For some specific exercises to practice at the gym, Conrad recommended working on these three moves:
- Hanging from the bar, practice a swinging knee raise to gain momentum (similar to the hanging knee raise with a twist motion). Doing this will help you develop your core strength while building momentum for the muscle up exercise.
- Practice doing 10 to 12 standard pullups.
- Practice doing 10 to 12 tricep dips.
To get yourself up and over the bar and then into a dip position, you’re going to depend on several muscles in your upper body, including the:
- latissimus dorsi (back)
- deltoids (shoulders)
- biceps and triceps (arms)
- trapezius (upper back)
- pectorals (chest)
You’ll also be relying on the strength of your core muscles.
According to Rader, people often focus on arm and upper body strength, but the core is the unsung hero of the muscle up movement.
“Not only is it responsible for initiating the swing phase, but core stability is the key component in creating a foundation for the transition over the bar,” he explained.
You can spot weakness in the core when you see someone kicking and flailing to transition over the bar once the upper body is no longer positioned to create leverage.
Having a qualified professional monitor your form and identify areas for improvement is key to staying healthy and moving toward your individual fitness goals.
If a muscle up is on your radar, don’t just grab a bar and try it. Instead, enlist the help of a personal trainer or physical therapist to create a personalized plan.
To get your body ready for the muscle up, consider adding alternative exercises to your training regimen that will prepare your body for this movement. The following exercises work the back, shoulders, arms, chest, and core:
- assisted machine pullups
- assisted pullups using a TheraBand
- chest to bar pullups
- lat pulldowns
- straight arm pulldowns
- TRX rows
- tricep dips
- tricep pushdowns
- hollow body rocks
- any core exercises
Mastering the muscle up takes a tremendous amount of upper body strength and power. It also requires you to have a strong core.
If you’re already performing advanced moves like unassisted pullups and tricep dips, you might be ready to try this dynamic exercise.
If you’re still working on increasing the strength in your back, shoulders, arms, and core, it’s a good idea to build up to this move slowly by practicing preparatory moves and alternative exercises first.