10 Bar Muscle Up Progressions
One of the most advanced gymnastics skills is now regularly taught in CrossFit classes: the muscle up. You can do them on a pull up bar or gymnastics rings; you can do them strict or with a heaving full-body kip. That is, if you can do them at all.
A guide to the bar muscle up for the gymnastically challenged
The struggle is very real with such a highly technical movement. Just like the snatch in Olympic weightlifting, muscle ups require a combination of speed, strength, mobility, coordination, and timing. If you’re lagging in some major area of your athleticism, you’re gonna have a bad time.
The more advanced the movement, the more elements of fitness you need to execute it.
For those of you with an eye on hypertrophy, check out the guy who holds the record for most consecutive bar muscleu ps in a row (26). Just look at how shredded his core, arms, and shoulders are—like any competitive gymnast. There’s value to be had in exploring gymnastic strength to grow full upper body muscles with mobile joints and strong rotator cuffs. Plus, being a thick bodybuilder doesn’t automatically disqualify you from mastering muscle ups.
If you’re tired of scaling workouts down to pull up variations or if you’re just ready to mess around with a more advanced skill to impress your friends, it might be time to dedicate some effort to mastering the muscle up.
Bar vs ring?
Many athletes learn the bar muscle up before they move to the rings, so that’s what we’ll focus on here. The general consensus is that the technical skill involved in manipulating swinging rings is more complex. The pull up bar provides an immovable base for the athlete to put together a series of already difficult movements without having to control a pair of rings.
As to which one is actually harder to execute, it depends on the athlete. Some say the effort in moving your body around a pull up bar versus through the rings makes bar muscle ups more taxing. Others might struggle more with the deep ring dip in the catch position of a ring muscle up. Once you master both, you can tell us.
Kipping vs strict
A heated topic among mostly novice athletes: to kip or not to kip. If you’ve had enough exposure to modern athletics, you might notice that advanced gymnasts do both.
Kipping muscle ups are not “invalid” as a movement just because they’re easier to learn and can be performed faster than strict muscle ups. The skill of kipping allows for higher rep ranges (like those programmed in a CrossFit metcon workout) and gives newer athletes access to learning the basics of a movement they wouldn’t be able to perform otherwise. Plus, it’s fun.
Let’s break down some of the mechanisms behind the kipping bar muscle up and do a little skill drillin’.
What to Work on to Get Your First Bar Muscle up
In order (mostly)
1. Your pull up strength
This seems like an obvious one, but it’s easy to neglect in favor of the trickier parts of the muscle up. Anyone who can successfully do a muscle up has the lat strength to string together a few strict pull ups. Athletes often report the most sore parts of their body after a high-volume muscle up workout are their lats. Top to bottom, your lats will feel like tenderized meat. Work on holding at the top of the pull up, negative descents, and activating your scapula.
2. Your horizontal pulling strength
Horizontal pulling movements like ring rows, inverted/supine rows, and bent-over rows are often overlooked because horizontal pressing (bench press, pushups) is a fan favorite. Too much pressing and not enough pulling can lead to bad posture and poor shoulder health. Plus, a huge weak point in your muscle up game when you go to pull your body into the bar.
3. Your lazy core
No one wants to hear it, but a strong core does everything. For gymnastics, mastering the hollow body position is essential. And don’t be surprised if you develop a fresh six-pack in the process (like any competitive gymnast). It also helps to hammer your core weaknesses with any movements you can do from the pull up bar like hanging knee raises or toes-to-bar.
4. Master the kip & it’s variations
Kipping pull ups, butterfly pull ups, chest-to-bar pull ups, and kipping bar muscle ups all have a few movement patterns in common, but notably: aggressive hip extension. When you feel confident with every variation of kipping movement, the bar muscle up will evolve into a natural progression. (You can start by practicing the superman to hollow body position from the ground.)
5. jumping to hollow position
The hollow body position is technically the first part of the bar muscle up. To start a BMU from the ground, you need to jump up and grab the pull up bar. The strongest and most dynamic starting point to launch into the rest of the movement is the hollow body position. Get used to jumping into a hollow, then swinging forward into the arch (like the superman to hollow body from the floor).
6. Snap to support
Training the transition from below the bar to above it can be the most difficult step to master for the BMU. You have to be explosive at just the right time to go from a “hips open” to “hips closed” position. This drill can be done a number of ways, but the most common is to use an aggressive situp to snap from an arch into a supported dip using plates on the floor.
7. Jumping from a box
When you have a solid strength/technique foundation for the bar muscle up and you’re ready to get over the bar, jumping BMUs are one of the best drills to get a feel for the full movement. You can even work on linking a couple reps at a time. Use a box that’s tall enough for your knees to bend when standing and grabbing the bar above you. The box allows you to sub the aggressive mid-air hip pop for some leg drive.
8. banded bar muscle up
When jumping from a box becomes easier, you’re probably ready for a thick band. The band gives you something to kick against and just enough support to get you over the bar. Bands are awesome for feeling the point of weightlessness and stringing together multiple reps. But be careful not to rely on a band too much and fall into the trap of never progressing beyond it.
9. Shoulder & T Spine Mobility
It’s kind of a no-brainer that if your shoulders and t-spine are super sticky, you won’t be able to access the overhead positioning for the bar muscle up. You need to be able to hit the arch position with your chest forward and head through your arms before you can snap up to the bar. Work on opening your shoulders and t-spine before practicing your muscle up drills.
10. Practice with EMOMS
When you can land one successful bar muscle up at a time, get some reps in with a once-a-week EMOM (every minute on the minute) of just one muscle up. Practicing with a prescribed rest time will force you to just go for each rep whether you’ve psyched yourself out or not. Focus on one or two cues at a time and don’t get discouraged if you miss a few. Every rep counts toward mastery.
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Some other practical tips and drills for nailing the BMU:
Ultimately the easiest way to progress a high-skill movement like bar muscle ups is to have a coach program for you. If your goal is to be able to rep out unbroken sets of muscle ups or to do them under fatigue, check out some of our coaching programs to get you there.
Lily is TrainHeroic’s Marketing Content Creator and a CF-L1 with an English background. She was a successful freelance marketer for the functional fitness industry until being scooped up by TrainHeroic. An uncommon combo of bookish, artsy word-nerd and lifelong athlete, Lily is passionately devoted to weightlifting, CrossFit, yoga, dance, and aerial acrobatics. Find her showcasing her artist-athlete hobbies on IG @lilylectric.
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