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How to do a Strict Muscle up on Rings (5 step tutorial)

How to do a Strict Muscle up on Rings (5 step tutorial)

Muscle up tutorial: Learn the strict Muscle Up in 5 easy steps

  1. The false grip

  2. The pull up stage

  3. The transition phase

  4. The dip phase

  5. Eccentric controlled decline (slow negative)

With supplementary accessory exercises and advice:

  • The band assisted muscle up

  • Shoulder mobility drills

  • Training frequency

  • One minute muscle up

Strict muscle up example video ↓↓↓

Required apparatus:

The beauty of the ring muscle up is that you don't need super expensive equipment or a large amount of space to do at home. Just a pair of gymnastic rings, ideally some chalk and somewhere to hang them from whether it be a tree, garage beams, or a pull up bar etc.

For the muscle up, the diameter and thickness of your gymnastic rings is important for performing the false grip which is required for the muscle up. These gymnastic rings (on amazon) are the perfect size and they’re made from birch wood (not cheap plywood) so they are super durable. Also useful for the transition phase are resistance bands. These are my favourite resistance bands that I bought off amazon  and they have performed well for me for years.

Gymnastic Ring Muscle Up: Understanding the movement

A ring muscle up is one of the most challenging and dynamic moves you can perform on gymnastic rings. To move your body through a range of motion from dead hang pull up to a fully extended straight arm dip in one fluid motion requires core control, shoulder mobility, technique and pound-for-pound strength.

The muscle up is perhaps the most complete upper body strength, compound movement that there is. It recruits the muscle groups in your shoulders, core, arms and back to work in synergy to produce one continuous, flowing, elegant movement training mobility, stability and strength simultaneously at different angles of the shoulder.

It is also unique in that it challenges antagonistic muscles (biceps and triceps) to work one after the other together in sequence, with the biceps contracting in the pull ups phase of the movement and triceps contracting during the dip phase of the motion without a break in muscle tension.

If you are capable of performing 10 pull ups (suprinated or pronated) and 10 dips and can hold an l-sit position on the rings then you have all the fundamental prerequisites to perform a muscle up.

The other key elements you have to achieve are holding the ring in a false grip and, most tricky of them all, the transition phase i.e. the moment the exercise shifts from a pull up to the dip. In this article I will go through point by point how to master a strict muscle up on rings without the need for excessive momentum or kipping, just clean flawless technique.

The CrossFit kipping muscle up vs the strict muscle up

I fully respect the cross-training principles of CrossFit, but if you are a beginner in terms of muscle ups and pull ups then I plead with you on behalf of your joints, ligaments and tendons to not attempt the kipping muscle up without being able to do a strict muscle up first.

The competitive nature of CrossFit can prioritise the number of reps over quality of reps when it comes to muscle ups and pull ups. The kipping versions of both these exercises are heavily taxing on your connective tissue.

If you are not strong enough to do a strict muscle up then you should not be attempting the kipping version. It is more important to build the musculature and connective tissue strength first, as well as the required shoulder mobility.

The kipping variation puts a strain on tendons and ligaments, as you drop from the top of the movement and bounce off the connective tissue with multiples of body weight rather then a slow and controlled descent through muscular tension.

Consider the recovery time of different tissues of the body. After a hard workout where you have trained to failure a muscle may take anywhere for 7 to 14 days to fully recovery to its optimal state. With connective tissue this time frame is much longer.

If you strain you tendons and ligaments the recovery time tends to be weeks or months rather then days. This is because the relative lack of blood supply to connective tissue due to their structure as opposed to muscle tissue with its plentiful blood supply, which can deal with muscle damage and inflammation much more efficiently.

The strict muscle up is typically more difficult for most people then the kipping muscle up, but you should attempt to master the strict form first. Don’t sit on the sidelines for months at a time and let your progress go to waste by attempting a kipping version too early.

If you are a cross-fitter, build the foundation of muscular and tendon strength with a strict muscle up and regard the kipping variation as a finishing addition.

I recommend an individual becomes proficient in pull ups and dips to a level of approximately 10 reps each not just to build sufficient muscular strength but also to make sure that your tendons and ligaments and sufficiently strong for the muscle up and therefore avoid injury.

Don’t be overwhelmed its important to recognise the muscle up whilst is difficult is very achievable. If you can do pull ups and dips for reps on the gymnastic rings you will be able to do a muscle up. It’s just that your body hasn’t learnt the movement of the transition yet.

I myself at 6 ft 4 (193 cm) and 92 kilos (203 lbs) and can do a strict ring muscle up with an additional +20 KG (44 lbs) without a previous gymnastic background. So if I can do it, you can too.

1. The false grip

False grip on rings

The first aspect of the muscle up to consider is the false grip. In order to make a smooth transition from the pull up to the dip stage, you have to utilise this grip as shown. The false grip is used gymnastics, calisthenics and Crossfit.*

This has several key differences from a conventional underhand grip that you would typically use to do pull ups. The conventional grip strength developed from pull ups on the bar translates very well to pull ups on the gymnastic rings.

However a muscle up on the rings is a different proposition. For a strict muscle up you need a smooth transition from the pull up to the dip. Obviously the grip that you would usually adopt for the pull up compared to the dip is different. This is where the false grip bridges the gap.

The false grip comes from gymnastics where the wrist is positioned partially over the ring (as opposed to a conventional grip which would hang under the ring or bar) this grip allows you to complete the movement without having to adjust hand position halfway through or rely on momentum.

Because the false grip is fairly unique to muscle ups it can initially seem difficult as it is unfamiliar. To get used to it I would recommended assisted pull ups with the grip either with a band or to do rows. You can check out the full tutorial of 5 progressions to mastering the false for the muscle up here.

Additionally a really good way of preparing is to adopt the false grip and dead hang for as long as you can. You can just do this for 5 or 10 minutes after a standard workout and you will easily acquire the skill with consistent training.

After you have built up some endurance with the false grip dead hand, you can progress from there to reps of pull ups. Don’t rush it though, if you’re wrists begin to ache be proactive to avoid over training and take at least a week off before trying it again. 

The one thing that makes the biggest difference to your false grip is having a solid grip unhindered by anything that would cause your hands to slip, like sweat or grease. The best way to negate loss of grip is to use wooden rings and chalk.

If you look at Olympic gymnasts and Crossfit games athletes they all use wooden rings (as opposed to metal or plastic) and chalk. The combination of the tactile grip of wood and liquid chalk is unrivalled which is why I sell them together here.

I myself learnt on plastic rings and used them for many years but when I made the transition to wooden rings I could immediately do more reps because the grip is so much better. Do not let a lack of grip hold you back.

*If you’re a Cross fit athlete it is important to note that the false grip is used in the kipping muscle up however there is a variation in which a standard underhand grip is used in the pulling phase and shifts to the grip and hand position required to do the dip i.e. a non false grip muscle up.

This requires a lot of explosive strength and is more physically taxing resulting in fewer reps to get the required lift to switch your hands and a less efficient technique. My advice is stick with training the false grip version.

2. The pull up phase of the muscle up

Once you have understood the importance of the false grip it is time to put it to use. The pull up is a mainstay of gym goers of all diciplines.

You may be familiar and experienced with the pull up on a straight bar, but there are some fundamental differences with the rings that you need to be aware of.

First is the instability of the rings. This will be more of an issue for the dips but nonetheless a ring muscle is more difficult then a bar muscle as a general rule. This is because the ring has the freedom to move in every direction whereas the bar is fixed in place.

Because the rings can move 360° the body has to stabilise itself through out the movement. This recruits more muscle fibres then a typical pull up on the bar and as a result the exercise feels more difficult. If you can manage 10 perfect reps on the bar then the number of reps on the rings may fall to 6 or 7.

Whilst pull ups are more difficult on rings, your centre of gravity is always below that of the rings, so strength from bar pull ups to ring pull ups do translate relatively well.

Training topless whilst North of the Arctic circle is optional

The video above shows how to train pull ups with the context of progression towards a muscle up. At the end of the pulling phase comes the transition into the dip phase.

When training your pull ups on rings for the muscle up you must adopt the false grip to get comfortable with holding the rings and exercising in this hold. Drilling reps of the pull up with this grip is the best practice to prepare you for the transition phase.

Try to practice your pull ups explosively. In the video it’s important to note that I am not merely attempting to get my chin over the rings before lowering back down but I am aiming to get my head as high over the rings as possible. In the video the bottom half of the rings where my hands are reach my chest as opposed to just reaching my chin over the level of the rings.

It also worth noting that I am not the most explosive athlete when it comes to pull ups. There are a lot of people with far more fast twitch muscle fibre then me who can pull up so the bar or rings is to their waist. Additionally I am 6 foot 4 and weigh around 92+ Kilos (203 pounds).

These two factors count against me when attempting explosive pull ups so do not despair if you struggle with this. After sufficient training I am now able to do a muscle up with +20 KG. This is because learning to muscle up is a much about technique acquisition as it is strength.

The explosive pull up is particularly useful when learning the muscle up as it can buy you some time and momentum when attempting the transition to the dip. As you learn the technique and become proficient with the movement you will be able to do the exercise slower by using technique over momentum.

This comes with time as you feel more comfortable with the exercise and continue to practice.

For a bonus point try to externally rotate the rings outwards as shown in the video, this helps maintain shoulder mobility and addresses imbalances of strength in the rotator cuff.

3. How to Master he Tricky Transition Phase

The transition phase is the most difficult part of the muscle up. Most seasoned veterans of Calisthenics or Crossfit will be able to complete pull ups and dips for reps and sets with out a problem.

However the muscle up remains elusive because of the transition is harder to master. In order to explain the transition phase it’s important to look at it in terms of two specific areas:

  1. Strength

  2. technique.

Initially I will explain and break down the movement into identifiable steps to help you master the technique.

Where you hands and elbows are is very important for a successful transition. When first attempting muscle ups the temptation is to flare your elbows outwards away from your body as a reaction to the instability, or to just power yourself up with momentum.

Muscle up guide

The correct form is to tuck elbows as close to the body as you can. This is what will minimise the instability and also be easier and safer on your elbow joint. The further your elbows flare out, the more unnecessary pressure there is on the elbow joint. If this doesn't come naturally then I recommend drilling a negative movement, starting at the top of the muscle up and transitioning down as slow as possible. 

As I stated it is important to have your elbows tucked in to the side of your body inline with your shoulders. This not only makes the exercise a lot easier, it prevents any unnecessary stress on your shoulders, elbows and wrists.

It is also imperative to have the straps aligned to shoulder width apart. So take note in the photo below of the hand elbow and shoulder placement forming a near perfect vertical line down from the straps during the movement.

Ring muscle up form

I’ve been posting online about muscle ups for years now and the most common concern I have read is about people developing elbow aches. I personally have never experience any aches.

This is through a combination of correct preparation and correct form. The correct preparation I am referring to is to do the progressions listed through out the article to build the required muscle and tendon strength and avoiding over training.

It’s usually the incorrect form or setup of the rings that is to blame. This is almost always down to how far apart the straps of the rings are fixed. Too far apart and there is undue strain on the joints, particularly the elbow which leads to injuries.

Make sure you fix your rings at shoulder width and practice the correct form with everything in alignment and you should have no problems.

The third point of technique I want to highlight is the weight shift from the pulling phase to the dip stage. 

Whilst the L-sit is a difficult position to hold indefinitely, it is very useful when going through the transition. The L-sit is only necessary for the duration of the pull up. As you reach the top of the pulling movement this is the point where the L-sit helps you. The L-sit should remain fairly consistent with your legs at 90° until it becomes time to move into the dip.

At this point you can drop your legs down so that they are beneath you which will help propel your shoulders forward, to get into dip position. When in the beginner stages of achieving the muscle up, it is more then acceptable to use a little momentum from the point at which you drop the L-sit to get you shoulders into the dip.

It’s this shift in weight from your legs that are out in front of you during the pull up, to where they are beneath you, that can bridge the gap to muscles up success. Now combine this technique with your explosive pull ups and the correct hand and elbow positioning and you will find the technique significantly more attainable.

4. The Dip Phase

Dips on rings are deceptively difficult if you are not a seasoned practitioner. If you are able to do 10 dips on a set of parallel bars or a dip station then beginner’s logic would suggest you can attain a similar number of reps on gymnastic rings.

This is not the case. The reason people encounter difficulty when using the rings for the first time is that they are unused to the instability. The very nature of the rings means that they move independently from one another in all directions as opposed to fixed equipment that stays in place, such as parallel bars.

The inherent Instability of the rings means your muscles, primarily in the shoulders and the core are constantly working together to stabilise your body throughout the movement. The effects of this instability are more pronounced in dips then they are in pull ups.

With pull ups, your body weight and therefore your centre of gravity is beneath the rings, and whilst the rings are still able to move, you are not manipulating your body and centre of gravity above the point of contact.

Once your centre of gravity shifts on the rings to where it’s above your hands, as it is throughout the duration of the dip, it becomes far more difficult to maintain a controlled form throughout movement.

The way to overcome this is simply practice. This is a far from an insurmountable hurdle, and it will just take some time to adapt just like any new stimulus and just like any other exercise.

When practising your dips for the muscle up its important to take note of the form being used in the video above. Try to go deep on the dip, preferably with your arms past 90°.

This will condition you to perform the dip with the range of motion require for the muscle up and make the transition phase less difficult. Once you have mastered the dip with a good amount of depth for more then 6 reps with good controlled form then you will have the sufficient strength, in both muscle and connective tissue.

Also for a bonus point, when training dips you can turn your hands away from your body as shown in the video. This is called external rotation. As a broad rule, pulling motions like the pull up tend to emphasis the shoulder muscles associated with internal rotation i.e. the teres minor, infraspinatus and posterior deltoid. Whereas pushing motions like dips or bench press emphasis Pecs, lateral deltoids, subscapularis and teres major.

Turning your hands out at the top of the dip movement will not only will it help to engage the shoulder muscles used for stability around the shoulder joint but also address the common internal/external rotational muscle imbalance associated with rotator cuff injuries. The more stable the shoulder joint, the less chance of injury and the stronger you will become.

5. The slow negative (eccentric decline)

This may be the most useful progression to achieve the muscle up to help develop the transition phase. It is essentially the muscle up in reverse and it helps to get your muscles accustemmed to the movement.

My 'go to' move for the muscle up

Use the adjustable straps to lower your gymnastic rings to a height where you can step into a straight arm hold like at the top of the dip. Or perhaps step off a box if it’s difficult to adjust the height of your rings.

Your muscles are stronger in the eccentric phase of movement rather then the concentric part of any movement. What this means is you are stronger when the muscle is lengthening rather then contracting.

For example think of a bicep curl. If you are able to curl 30 KG you will able to spend more time under tension in the decline, lowering phase of the movement then you are in the contracting, lifting phase.

Hence you may be able to do the lowering part of the muscle up successfully even if you can’t manage the lifting stage.

This is useful as you can drill doing a negative muscle up to develop the ability to do a full muscle up. As said before it is important to change the way you think of a muscle up.

 Rather then it being a purely strength exercise think of it rather as learning how to master a new technique. The crux of the technique is in the transition phase.

Perfect practice with the slow negative is to lower yourself as slowly as you possibly can. If you’re proficient at dips and pull ups, then the lowering phase through these movements will be easy, but initially you may fall through the transition phase with little control.

The only way to overcome this is practice.

As you practice the transition phase, your shoulder muscles are learning how to stabilise your body through a range of movement that your body is currently unfamiliar with.

The repeated drilling will force your body to adapt to this new stimulus. Your body is learning a new kinetic language. This newly acquired strength from eccentric exercise directly translates to the strength and ability to do a full muscle up.

If you are struggling with the muscle up but feel you are almost there, this is the go to progression. This exercise develops your shoulder strength and stability thats not in its familiar range of motion.

As you get more and more competent with this exercise try going as slowly as possible. Slow negatives translate to muscle up success.

Still struggling? Try these supplementary exercises

Still struggling with the transition phase? The transition phase is by far the most difficult part of the muscle up. If you are a keen Calisthenics, Cross Fit or fitness enthusiast, then pull ups and dips are likely well with in your repertoire of movement.

However the transition phase requires are range of motion, not normally required in conventional exercise. It may take some time for your body to adapt to this unfamiliar movement. One of the best progressions to get you over the line is in the video below.

Take both ends of the resistance band in each and loop it under your butt. Hold the resistance band as in the photo and hold the rings in the false grip as shown.

The resistance band is going to support your body weight throughout the movement to help your body to get accustomed to moving through the motion from pull up to dip without having to carry your full body weight.

The beautiful thing about this technique is that you can adjust the level of assistance by changing the bands of a different tension. 

This is a really useful progression as it is scale-able. As you go through the steps listed, you may be very close to achieving your first muscle up but can’t quite nail the shift from pull up to dip. In which case use a light resistance band and copy the technique as shown above.

Using a resistance band will also allow you to complete more reps of this technique before becoming fatigued, so that you can develop skill. If you have a range of resistance bands then you can change the bands up to the thicker bands for more assistance.

Going through this motion with a band will help teach both your brain and body the movement pattern of this exercise and it will become part of your internal inventory of movement.

If you are struggling with the muscle up then this is the go to exercise to build strength and confidence in your transition. 

Shoulder mobility: Skin the cat (German hang)

One of the big factors people struggle with their muscle ups is there lack of shoulder mobility. This pertains in particular to the transition phase of the muscle up.

Modern sedentary lifestyles of sitting at desks all day with poor posture have had a big impact on the entire body’s flexibility. In addition to this many people go to the gym and workout without stretching and considering the impact it will have on their range of motion.

If you don’t balance a lifting routine with regular stretching then your body will naturally tighten up as a response. Strength work without mobility training will lead to a more limited range of movement in the shoulders.

Fortunately gymnastic rings’ training incorporates mobility and strength training simultaneously. However, if your new to the rings then a lack of mobility may still be holding you back.

The best antidote to a lack of shoulder mobility is a movement called ‘skin the cat’. The German hang refers to the static part of the movement when you are hanging inverted, at full extension.

As in the video, the movement involves pulling yourself over backwards and resting in a German hang which is where your shoulders are in full extension. Your shoulders are put through their entire range of motion; this helps to alleviate any tightness and is of benefit to overall shoulder health.

If you are able to complete this exercise comfortably then you will have sufficient shoulder mobility to complete a muscle up.

Training frequency (How often should I train for the muscle up?)

It would be difficult to prescribe an exact muscle up training regime as every individual is different and has different strengths and weakness. What is most important is to be able to adopt the false grip for more then 5 explosive pull ups and to be able to do 5 dips with strict form.

If you have achieved this level of strength then the muscle up is within you capability.

From there it’s a case of achieving the transition. This is as much a skill as it is strength, so you can train the progressions twice a week. Drill the slow negative exercise, lowering as slow as possible for 5 reps per set.

Remember the goal is to build strength and develop a skill with this exercise, so you can take some time to recover between reps to perform them to the best of your ability.

Aim for three sets, but if your performance starts to wane significantly i.e. you drop straight down instead of a controlled descent, then stop the exercise and move on to band assistance muscle ups.

Depending on your progress take the resistance band that you are most comfortable with and drill the muscle up transition phase. If fatigue sets in then it’s okay to switch to a band of heavier resistance.

We are trying to get the body used to a specific motion pattern so don’t worry about a strict structure of sets and reps. We are not trying to train to failure like a traditional weights workout, but we are acquiring a new skill.

Again I’d recommend 5 reps per set and aim for 3 sets twice a week for both exercises. If you find you are not recovering sufficiently between work outs then drop the frequency to only training muscle ups once a week.

Over training will only hinder your progress so listen to your body, if it’s fatigued then rest and recover before coming back to training the muscle up. It is far more important to complete perhaps fewer quality movements then it is to do countless reps and burn out.

One minute muscle up

Below is a video I posted on my Instagram (mark_bennett90) of a muscle up over the duration of 1 minute done in real time. This slower version of the muscle up should hopefully be useful if you are struggling with the form. Look at the way everything is tucked close to my body. Hands, elbows and shoulders all in one line and close together.

The wider you hold your hands apart the harder the muscle up can be. Also this video shows you that you absolutely do not need to rely on momentum to achieve the transition phase of the muscle up but just use good technique. I have since done a 2 minute version of the muscle up without breaks which is also on my instagram further proving its all about the technique. Excuse the shakes in the video but one minute is a lot of time under tension!

Any questions, queries, comments or theories about any part of this tutorial, leave a comment down below and I will reply. ↓↓↓

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