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First time muscle-up

Everyone remembers their first strict muscle-
up. It may not be your biggest “first-time” experience in life but as far as movement goes it’s probably one of the biggest break-throughs that most people will get in the gym. For me it was huge and pushed me forward to go for bigger targets like a standing back somersault and a 100kg snatch.

Everyone should have a muscle-up.

A muscle-up means you can get to the top of the rings on your own. I love helping people to this breakthrough movement and opening up other realms of physical and mental development that lay on the other side of movement breakthroughs!

If you want to do a muscle-up on your first attempt there is a simple process for you to go through. Simple but not easy. Girls you’re in on this one too. I’m consistently seeing females achieve strict muscle-ups by working through these progressions.

I’ve been through this process with hundreds of clients including the Sydney Roosters where half the squad was able to do a muscle-up by our third session on the movement in CrossFit Bare in Edgecliff. Daniel Mortimer did 6 sets of 3 that day in a circuit with other strength movements never having done one before!

Last month Real MOVEMENT Project ran a workshop out of CUBE gym on Sydney’s northern beaches. Within the group of 29 participants there were 9 who had already been performing muscle-ups. Of the remaining 20 participants there were 10 guys who managed their first strict muscle-up.

Now for me that’s no big deal. But in before I could do one it was a game changer.

The feeling of that first smooth transition where all that is left is to dip it out is an amazing feeling! If you’ve never had that feeling read on and I’ll show you a well worn path.

Part 1

Let’s knock down the problems one by one!

1. Body composition

If you’re carrying a lot of none-functional mass (think carbohydrate stores -> FAT) then this process will take longer than for those who have body fat levels under the 20% mark. You don’t need to be super lean to do these but over 20% might make this task a little tougher.

How to fix it: The most effective long-term method for losing body fat is to do as your ancestors did. Avoid sugar, processed foods and eat the most nutrient dense foods you can find. Move often, spend time in positive social environments and get hungry every now and then (intermittent fasting or fast). Through this process we will nourish the body, decrease systemic inflammation and detoxify. There is plenty more about this in other areas of the site so we won’t go too deep into this one now. Just know that there are clear and real solutions to the problem of excess body fat.

2. I can’t do pull-ups

If you’re unable to do 3-5 strict pull-ups then this step is for you. I recommend using the hinging pull-ups from GymnasticBodies to build some strength into the right muscles to be able to get that chin over the bar.

How to fix it: Start with a third of as many as you can do in a maximal set with perfect form. Eg. If you’re able to get 6 if you go all out then you’re going to be doing sets of 2 on the Dense Strength Method. (That means 2 reps each minute for 5 minutes). Aim for perfect form and add 1-2 reps each time you train. You should train this twice a week. Under the RealMOVEMENT hybrid training structure this would be Tuesdays and Thursdays. By the time you’re about to DS50 – 50 reps in 5 minutes preferably in 10 rep blocks on the minute you should be ready for the next step.

3. I can’t finish my pull-ups – strict chest to bar pull-ups

Lots of people think they can do pull-ups but like most things in life when the standards are set too low something very mediocre results. Eyes over the bar pull-ups will mean you don’t have the strength to get high enough over the rings. Strict chest to bar pull-ups are the solution. The key here is maximal height not maximal reps. For muscle-ups it’s better to be able to do one rep where the bar touches half way between naval and nipple than 10 reps where the chin squeezes over the bar. Weighted pull-ups with at least 20kg of added weight are also good insurance that you have the pulling power for muscle-ups.

How to fix it: If you’re unable to do DS15 for strict chess to bars (3 reps each minute for 5 rounds) then you’re probably one the weaker side in terms of getting high enough to transition over the rings, to go from pull to push. You may be able to get your first muscle-up with DS5 of strict chest to bars but lets aim for DS15 to be sure.

4. You don’t know the position at the bottom of the dip

For most males the dip part is easy once you’ve made the transition through from the pull-up. The problem I see all the time with guys I that they’re not able to make the transition low enough. That is they’re trying to arrive to a shallow dip position rather than getting to the bottom of the dip. Massive guys are just going to have to build enough strength to power through a lumpy transition but for most guys under 100kg it’s really about just spending time in the bottom of the dip and then having the pulling power to get there.

How to fix it: Start with 5 second holds in the bottom of the dip position. If you’re unable to do dips then you need to work through the push-ups progressions but that’s work for another time.

Part 2

5. I can’t hold a false grip at all

False grip is a position that is completely foreign to most gym goers so it’s no wonder you haven’t learned this yet. A word of warning. When you first do this it’s uncomfortable. That’s ok. Great things often come from uncomfortable times. Your ability to tolerate discomfort will be one of the key factors for your success in the gym and out of it.

(To check that you’re in false grip place the whole hand through the ring and then just move the thumb back to your side of the ring. The palms of the hands should be facing towards you and the forearms should be maximally flexed – fingers are curled maximally towards the underside of the forearm. You will probably slip from this position without realising it to begin with so look closely and try to remember how it feels to be in the false grip position.)

How to fix it: Perform a max duration hold in the highest position you’re capable of holding the false grip. If it’s less than 10 seconds you’re going to need to keep one foot on the floor/ band to take some weight off while you begin to build some strength in this position. The goal then is to hold the false grip position for 1/3 of your best effort for 5 efforts total at the start of each minute using the Dense Strength Method.
Eg. If your best hold is 15 sec then you will use 5 second false grip holds with the rings as close to your chest as possible. Attempt to increase your hold duration by 1-2 seconds on each set each time you practice.

6. I can’t hold a false grip at the bottom

Once you get the false grip if you’ve dominated the rest of the process so far then you’re probably already able to make a sketchy version of the muscle-up. While this might get an above average response from your social media following who are unaware of refined muscle-up technique, we don’t want to stop here.

If you’re not able to fully straighten the elbows while remaining in the false grip you really aren’t completing muscle-ups yet.

How to fix it: Like with the previous false grip holds you can operate at less that 100% of body weight to begin with but know that you will need to take the leap into full body weight to be able to perform full strict muscle-ups.

7. No muscle-up motor pattern – Row muscle-ups

The motor pattern for a muscle-up is quite distinct from almost anything else you will do in the gym. To get a feel for the weight on your hands and how the upper body will shift through space we can work on our muscle-ups.

How to fix it: With the rings just above waist high and the feet on the floor directly under the rings you’re going to get a false grip and then lean back on the ring so your arms become straight while your hands and feet stay in alignment with the vertically hanging rings. This might feel strange to start with so double check how you’re getting set-up. From here pull the rings to the chests and slowly transition to the bottom of the dip position that we worked on earlier. It’s ok for you to use a lot of weight on the feet to begin with. As the movement feels more comfortable take less weight on the feet and feel pressure through the hands.

8. You’re almost there – Eccentrics

By now 99.9% of the population will have what they need to go ahead and do their first muscle-up but I know there are a lot of snowflakes out there who want to be different from the crowd. “I still can’t get it.” If this is you firstly go back and make sure you’re hitting the pulling benchmarks and can hold the bottom position in the dip, and double check that you’re arriving to the bottom of the dip position on the rings.

How to fix it: The last drill that once completed guarantees your strict muscle-up success is to work from the top of the dip and very slowly lower down into the bottom of the dip. Then comes the key part that everyone skips. You need to slowly bring the rings around to your chest, now you should be in the false grip position that you were working on in the first isometric false grip hold. Hold the rings to the chest for a couple of seconds if possible then slowly descend into a false grip full hang. Complete 5 single reps on the minute and work on making the middle part of the movement as slow as possible.

Now that you’ve made this movement breakthrough why not share it with the world! Don’t forget to #realmovementproject

We can create a better world through progressively moving to higher levels of freedom and function. Movement breakthroughs are a great tool to creating a better world. Please share them.

By now you’ve either done your first muscle-up, skipped half the progressions and hit half the rep targets or you’re on the verge of success. If you’re not there yet, keep working. Consistency is the key and muscle-ups are something that can be achieved by all those willing to put the work in.

If you hit the muscle-up I encourage you not to sit happy and complacent with 1-2 good reps. Move forwards. There is always more. We can do more and we should. Exploring all of the potential we have been gifted with is the joy of life. Make movement breakthroughs a part of who you are. Search for bigger targets and goals that may take years to achieve as well as some simpler milestones to hit along the way.

How are your handstands? Can you juggle? Back somersault? 1-arm chin-ups? Front levers? Straddle planche? Pancake? Back Limber? Triple bodyweight deadlift or squat? They are all doable to those that decide they will be done! Have I done them all? No. Will I? Who knows but the journey towards them will accompany my journey through life and will impact on everything I do and who I am!

Let’s keep chasing breakthrough movements! #ForMovementFreedom


About Keegan Smith

Keegan Smith (Coach KEEGAN), founder of RealMOVEMENT Project and author of Performance Coach Success Blueprint, is a performance coach educator who's worked with Premiership winning Sydney Roosters.

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