How to Master the Muscle Up

If there's one move to master in the gym this year, it's the muscle up. The move is rooted in men's gymnastics and has been popularized recently by CrossFit. The muscle up combines a rings pull-up with an in-air sit-up and dip press. It's a complex movement with a lot of moving parts that requires both strength and coordination.

"It's really technique heavy," says Brian Jaffe, co-owner of Cave CrossFit in Los Angeles. "But it's also a full-body movement. It starts in your core and engages your hips and hip flexors — you're almost doing a sit-up in the air. But it also uses your arms and shoulders." 

If your gym doesn't have rings, you can adapt the move to a pull-up bar. Either way, here's how to pull off a muscle up in four steps. 

Step One: Learn the False Grip
"The hardest part is probably figuring out the transition, passing from the pull to the bottom of the dip," says Camille Leblanc-Bazinet, women's winner of the 2014 CrossFit Games. (Watch her nail muscle ups in the slow motion video above.) To master the transition, you first have to get the grip.

Most coaches recommend a false grip for doing a muscle up on rings — which, counter intuitively, is the easier option. Traditionally you'd grab the ring with your fingers curling around the top and the middle of your palm cradling the side. From this neutral grip, you'd have to adjust your hands to press up, and that requires you to pull your body higher.

In a false grip your hand is further around the ring — it should be resting between the base of your thumb and your wrist. This will feel awkward at first, but the advantage of the false grip is that when you hit the top of your muscle up, your hands are already in position to dip, and less energy is required to get there.

To get comfortable with a false grip, Leblanc-Bazinet recommends you bring the rings to where you can stand on the floor and practice pulling up and then pushing off the rings using this grip before moving to the next step.

Step Two: Build the Strength
The muscle up isn't purely strength, but above-average force is required. To develop a powerful hip snap, Jaffe prescribes kettlebell swings, air squats, and box jumps. "Anything that's going to develop explosive force and power," he says.

To develop the back, shoulder, and arm strength you'll need, Jaffe suggests negative pull-ups and ring dips. For the negative pull-up, start at the top of your pull-up (either on rings or on a bar) and slowly lower yourself downward. You can either jump up to get over the bar or use a box. Similarly, for the ring dips, start at the top of the motion and lower yourself downwards.

Step Three: Master the Kipping Pull-Up
A kipping pull-up uses a hip swing (kip) to help propel your chin over the bar or rings and mimics the initial motion of a muscle up. Start by hanging from the bar and swing your legs fore and aft. The movement should come from your hips, and if you can't use your abs to stop the movement quickly, you're relying too much on momentum.

Next, add a knee raise to your swing. When your legs swing forward, practice drawing them into your chest. Use your abs for this too.

Finally, to train the hip-snap movement, move to the floor and lay on your back with your knees and feet up. Your thighs should be vertical and your knees bent at 90 degree so your shins are horizontal. Practice snapping your hips skyward. The motion comes from your core and should drive your feet onto the floor.

Move back to the bar. Jaffe says the best way to build pull-up strength if you're having trouble is to use a resistance band to support your weight. "Over time you can go to thinner and thinner bands," he says. Secure a band in a loop around the bar. Put one foot through the band, then grasping the bar, thrust your hips and pull up. Also aim to pull the pull below your chin.

When a standard kipping pull-up feels comfortable, try kipping chest-to-bar pull-ups. Work up to belly-to-bar kipping pull-ups, which is the most similar to the initial muscle up movement.

Step Four: Put It All Together
To translate the kipping pull-up's hip movement to a muscle up, lower the rings to chest height and sit with your feet on the floor. You should be holding the rings above and in front of you. Practice popping your hips up without your feet leaving the ground. As you pop your hips up, pull upwards towards the rings and crunch forward into the bottom of the dip. "This allows you to get the sequence of the muscle up while having your feet to guide you," says Jaffe.

If you're working with a bar, find one where you can touch the ground. Practice snapping your hips then pulling upwards. Then practice thrusting and pulling up followed by adjusting your grip so that your hands are on top of the bar, not below it. Once you feel you've mastered the move with your feet on the floor, it's time to get airborne.

Raise the rings (or approach a bar) so your feet can't touch the ground and hang with your hands in the false grip position. For extra momentum, forgo the hang and start your kip as you jump up and grab the rings. Begin with a kip forward, then as you swing back drive your knees up and thrust your hips toward the rings. Crunch forward to propel yourself over the rings and into the bottom of the dip. Push through your hands to lockout your arms. Once you're on top of the rings, take a moment to gloat before returning to your starting position.