Bar Muscle up or Ring Muscle up? Which is more Difficult?
Which is the harder technique to master? The bar or ring muscle up?
There are several ways to answer this question, but the most decisive in my opinion is the record for the most number of reps performed on either equipment.
The Guinness world record for the maximum number of reps on gymnastic rings performed consecutively is 14, performed by calisthenics athlete Lee Wade Turner:
Anyone who has ever grabbed a hold of gymnastic rings and felt the instability will appreciate what a phenomenal achievement this is.
In contrast the record for the maximum number of consecutive bar muscle ups is held by Aussie commando Jarryd Rubinstein at 25 with clean form.
So with 25 bar muscle ups to 14 reps on the rings leaves a a clear discrepancy of 11 reps which is a clear indication muscle ups on the rings are more difficult, at least for reps. So why is this?
Why are ring muscle ups more difficult?
Ring muscle ups are more difficult predominately for two reasons; instability and the grip.
From the outside looking in, the muscle up on the bars and rings looks very similar. The constituent parts of the exercise; the pull up, transition and a dip are all there in the same order.
However because of the challenges offered by the unstable nature of the rings this alone provides enough of a distinction between the two variations to make bar and ring muscle ups two entirely different exercises.
It is very common that someone is able to do one variation of the muscle up but not the other depending on which variation they have trained and mastered.
You can be completely proficient in one style without being able to do the other as the techniques are so different that there is not as much transferable strength and skill as logic would suggest. I can personally do both variations for reps and the gymnastic ring muscle up took a solid 9 months to master.
For the ring muscle up, the optimal diameter (9.25 inches) and thickness (1.25 inches) of the ring is important for holding a false grip. To make sure you buy the best rings possible for the muscle up check out my guide to my favourite gymnastic rings and chalk, that are available on amazon.
I wrote the most comprehensive ring muscle up tutorial I possibly could and detailed all the nuanced technique and progression exercises to break down a complicated technique into easy to master steps, if you want to learn the ring muscle up .
Once I figured out the technique, the bar muscle up only took a month to become proficient and perhaps 6 weeks where I could consistently do reps with good form. The best tutorial for the bar muscle up that I would recommend on YouTube is here.
The false grip for rings vs the bar grip
In order to complete a smooth transition from the pull up phase to the dip phase you have to adopt the right grip.
For the bar muscle up the grip is a familiar underhand pronated grip (palms facing away). The hand positioning switches during the transition phase of the technique from underhand to on top of the bar so that you can successfully perform the dip.
The grip for the ring muscle up is a little more complicated. To successfully transition from the pull up to the dip you have to utilise the false grip used in gymnastics. Because of the unstable nature of the rings you cannot use momentum to help switch your grip mid muscle up like you can with the bar.
The ring muscle up has to rely more on technique and strength whereas the bar muscle up depends more on explosive strength and a tactical use of momentum and timing.
The false grip is an unfamiliar position for most people from a starting point in so much that you have to grab the ring as shown with you wrist rested over the ring.
Just to maintain this hold with full body weight is difficult for any extended amount of time. In order to sustain this grip you have to go lower yourself down in a controlled manner which means the eccentric part of the movement is more taxing.
If you do the eccentric too quickly then the impact of your body weight as you drop down will cause you to lose the false grip, and your hand can slip to a position where you will no longer be able make a smooth transition form the pull up to the dip.
The difference of time under tension and stability
To it into perspective the first 10 muscle ups of the rings muscle up record took 48 seconds...
The first 10 reps of the bar muscle up record took 22 seconds...
That's 26 seconds of difference for the same amount of reps. So there is a significant difference in the time under tension between the two variations.
The reasons for such a large time difference per rep is that the athlete on the rings has to counter act the unstable nature of the rings throughout the whole movement.
With the bar muscle up the energy and momentum from the pulling phase of the exercise goes into the motion of getting over the bar ready for the dip phase. Whereas with the rings the energy from the pull up and transition phase goes into the motion of the rings as the are free to move in any direction.
You then have to stabilise the rings, balance yourself and coordinate the movement. All these extra factors require more effort and strength compared to the bar.
Another factor that is unique of the rings is that it can shine a glaring light on your weaknesses and expose your strength imbalances. When beginners learn the muscle up, on the bar its quite common to see someone 'chicken wing' the transition i.e. they get one shoulder over the bar and use that as leverage to get the rest of the body from the pull up into the dip.
This generally happens because one side of your body, the dominant side is stronger and is able to pull you up at an angle to compensate for the weaker side of the body.
For example if your right-handed your right shoulder may be the first over the bar and compensate for your left side or vice versa.
On the rings it is far more difficult to cheat the movement like this. The reason it works on the bar is because the bar is static and fixed in place, so you can use it for leverage.
As the rings move freely in any direction, independently from each other you cannot use the equipment for leverage as you have to coordinate the movement of the rings and stabilise your body as you move through the movement.
If one side of the body is significantly stronger then the other side, it will be exposed. Strength imbalances are very common, and are particularly pronounced if you've played sports for a number of years.
For example when you swing a tennis racket or a hockey stick the power is always going to be generated in your more favoured hand. Over time your dominate side can build up significantly more strength, dexterity and neuro-muscular connection. This leaves your less dominate side weaker and less coordinated.
Using gymnastic rings helps promote ambidexterity, equalising the coordination in both sides of your body. This has obvious benefits for athletic application, for example if your backhand is as good as your forehand in tennis, then your will be a much more versatile player and make shots with more power then you previously could.
With the muscle up on the rings, everything has to be aligned, coordinated and timed in the right order, otherwise you will lose control of one of the rings and inevitably fall back down to the start position. The only way to over come this is practice the movement and practice the progressions so that your strength balances out on either side of your body. For the full muscle up guide take a look at this blog post
How instability increases difficulty on the rings compared to the bar (shoulder strength)
One of the most prominent differences between the bar and the ring muscle up is how unstable the movement feels when you first attempt it on the rings compared to the bar. This is felt even more acutely in the shoulders, particularly in the dip portion of the exercise and at the beginning of the transition.
This is because your centre of gravity is higher then rings that you are holding on to. When your centre of gravity is underneath the rings in the pull up position, the instability is far less of a problem.
It is only when the majority of your body weight is higher then the height of the rings that your body has to fight to keep itself stable.
If your body is unfamiliar with this motion pattern then your shoulders shake almost involuntary because the need to stabilise is overwhelming. Even if you can rep out a number of reps on the parallel or straight bars this strength will not immediately transfer to the rings.
Its not that the primary movers in the dip (triceps and chest) are not strong, its that the muscles around the shoulder joint, the chest and the abs haven't been exposed to the unique challenge that the rings presents. Therefore the muscles haven't had a chance to adapt to the new stimulus.
Its almost as though you are starting from scratch with a new exercise. There are now more muscles that are recruited to keep the body stable and they have to work in conjunction with the chest and triceps to execute the movement.
More muscles recruited means that the work load has increased and the more likely you are to be fatigued quicker, hence why reps on the rings and more difficult. Its these newly recruited muscles, particularly around the shoulder joint that fatigued quickest as they are unaccustomed to the movement.
The only way to overcome the difficulty of the rings is to get used to the instability. If you put in the work and do enough repetitions of dips then your stabilising muscles around your shoulders and abs will begin catch up in strength to your chest and triceps.
However because of the increased amount of muscle groups required to exercise on the rings and the taxing nature of the instability it will always feel more difficult then a pair of fixed, stable parallel bars and this will be reflected in the number of reps and sets you can achieve on each piece of equipment.
Whilst both the rings and the bars offer different challenges they also offer different results. For example, because you can typically achieve more reps on the bars then this would lend itself well to attaining muscle size as you can get into the hypertrophy range of 8-15 reps more easily then you can on rings.
Additionally you can scale up the exercises on the bar with added weight so their is great scope for increasing more size and strength. Also because the bars are fixed in place they are also better for beginners.
Diving straight into ring training can be like trying to run before you can walk. The rings are so challenging initially that it would be hard to do a proper workout with them at first. Build up the strength on the bars and then transition to the rings.
That way you have built a great base from which you can progress, and also reap the benefits of weight training.
Because of the increased muscle recruit ring training will develop considerable strength, coordination, control and balance. The strengthening of the shoulder joint as a result of ring training also helps to keep your shoulders strong and injury free throughout their range of motion.
The best overall approach is to cross train both styles, to get the benefit of both styles to become a more well rounded athlete.
Range of motion and shoulder mobility
So the main difference between the bar and ring muscle up is the transition. We have already established that the ring muscle up is the more difficult exercise due to the instability of the rings.
However another thing to take into consideration is that when in the transition phase of the ring muscle up, your shoulder strength is being tested at different angles.
With the bar muscle up you can carry over a lot of momentum from the pull up phase into the transition phase to make it easier to get yourself over the bar and ready for the dip.
With the strict ring muscle up you cannot use momentum in the same way and the technique takes more time to complete. As you move through the transition, the emphasis is more on strength and control.
As you move from pull up to dip its your shoulder that provide the rotation to make this transition possible. Through the course of the technique the shoulder goes through almost every angle of the the shoulders ball an socket joint.
The shoulder therefore has to be strong at all angles to successfully complete the technique. This again immediately exposes any strength imbalances that you may have in your shoulders.
Most conventional shoulder exercises are limited in that the test the shoulders only at a very specific angle. For example, with an overhead press the weight goes up over your head and back down again in a very particular linear plane of motion. The angle of the shoulder is constant.
This exercise is great for developing overhead power in your shoulders but when you consider the overall range of motion of your shoulder joint this is a very restricted approach to shoulder strength training.
The problem with this is you can develop a great amount of strength at a certain angle with such a specific exercise. When the shoulder is out of this position, i.e. you have to push from a different angle, the shoulder can be comparatively much weaker as it is unaccustomed to pushing at this angle.
The muscle up on the rings challenges and strengthens the shoulder through the shoulders wide range of motion. This prevents the imbalances in strength that can occur at the different angles of the shoulder joint.
The benefit of this is that the entire range shoulder joint is strong which helps prevent injury.
Shoulder mobility is another important factor. If you come from a weightlifting background, are heavily muscled or perhaps lack natural flexibility, then the lack of mobility can become a real factor when it comes to ring training. This is particular common when weight lifters try to muscle up on rings for the first time.
This is often the first and potentially the biggest stumbling block for someone trying to achieve there first ring muscle up.
Because of the significant shoulder rotation required for the transition phase, your shoulder joint needs to be able to move freely without being hindered by poor flexibility or tight muscles.
Its quite common that even experienced gym goers never address the issue of shoulder flexibility as power, strength and muscle size are are often prioritised and joint mobility becomes an after thought.
A lack of shoulder mobility will also hold you back on the bars. The muscle up technique requires a very similar range of motion. Tight shoulders will not only impede your mobility but will also make the exercise more difficult as you have to overcome the resistance of tight muscles which restrict your movement and ultimately detract from your strength.
Fortunately the perfect way to address is to 'skin the cat'. This movement from gymnastics opens up the shoulders and takes it thought the entire range of motion. It is the same exercise for both the bar and rings and works incredibly well.
Even if you never attempt a muscle up I would recommend this exercise/mobility drill as a way of strengthening your shoulders and preventing injury.
The Ring muscle up is generally a more difficult technique for both beginners and experts.
The world record for bar muscle ups max repetitions is 26. The maximum number of repetitions on the rings is 14
Factors that make the ring muscle up include:
More time under tension, less reliant on momentum
The instability of rings provides more of a challenge compared to the relative stability of a fixed bar
The false grip is more difficult to maintain for a high number of repetitions compared with a regular bar grip
The combination of instability, a higher time under tension and a more difficult transition movement are more taxing on the muscles
Both styles require significant shoulder mobility however there is a greater emphasis a wide range of motion in the shoulders and strength at all angles of the shoulder joint with rings compared to the bar.
Both styles are fantastic compound exercises and require a lot of technique. While I have given a rather overwhelming case for the ring muscle up being more difficult, it is worth noting that neither exericse is easy and both require a level of technical proficentcy.
Also every individual is different which is why some more may be more predisposed to one style of muscle up whether its because of natural ability or because they are accustomed to training in a particular style.
For example if an particular person has natural explosive strength then the tend to take to the bar muscle up more readily.
Someone who may not necessarily be the most explosive buy has a natural aptitude for technique and a good level of strength could find the ring muscle up more favourable.
It really comes down to who you are and where your strengths lie. If you have the discipline and put in the prerequisite ground work there is no reason you can't learn and become a master of both techniques regardless of where you are today.