Is there an exercise that challenges one’s pulling power, pushing power, and core strength? Yes, the muscle-up. Is there an exercise that forges a mind-muscle connection that demands each and every muscle to coordinate to produce a rep? Yes, the muscle-up.
“The basic movements in a muscle up are the swing, pull, transition, and press, with the most challenging aspect being the transition from pull to press,” writes Brent Rader, who has worked as a physical therapist at The Centers for Advanced Orthopaedics, in a Healthline article called How To Do A Muscle Up On Bars And On Rings, explaining why the muscle-up is such an advanced and incredible body-building exercise.
The biggest advantage of the muscle-up is that all you need to do it is a pull-up bar. You can also do the muscle-up on rings, but first, learn it on a pull-up bar. It is also a skill that you need to spend a lot of time on in order to learn well. So if you are someone who likes a skill-based physical challenge, then this will keep you occupied for anytime between a few weeks to a few months depending on your other abilities like the pull-up, pushup, and other core challenges.
The muscle-up allows you to use some momentum (especially in the first couple of weeks when you are learning the skill) and do a pull-up. At the top of the pull up, when the bar is at chest level, you must flex your wrists by activating the triceps and bring the bar near your abs, then complete a dip so that the bar is now at your waist. Then you come down. That is one rep. At its simplest, the muscle-up can be explained as climbing up a parallel bar, but it is so much more than that. Before progressing with the muscle up, make sure you have no shoulder and wrist issues. It is also advised to have a trainer check your form. Make sure the trainer also knows how to do a muscle-up.
It took me around three weeks to learn the muscle-up with lots of help from boxes, resistance bands, and the allowance of generating momentum by doing a knee-to-chest. Then it took another few weeks to complete a strict muscle-up (with the legs mostly straight and not generating momentum through the knee-raise). However, the exercise is so intense that even three sets of five reps were enough for a complete muscle activation warm-up before an upper body workout. Every rep will work the lats and traps (back), deltoids (shoulders), biceps and triceps (arms), your pecs (chest), and finally your core. The core is the stabiliser in this move, and it will aid every muscle in different phases.
The first step to learning a muscle-up is to master the pull-up. And not just one rep: the aim is to be able to do 10-15 pull-ups in a set. That is the marker of foundational strength required for the muscle-up. Thereafter, there are various ways to go about learning the move. The general consensus is to master pull-ups, and use the pull-bar for exercises such as knee raises, straight-bar dips, and eventually jumping muscle-ups, where you can launch yourself off a box at the start of the rep to gain momentum. Bodybuilding.com’s video on the muscle-up progression is a good start, and is detailed enough to answer most of your form questions.
There are arguments against the muscle-up, but most of them pertain to goals. It is not something that might give you an immediate increase in size and mass, and if that is a goal, then the ring muscle-up is the next step for you given the added muscles which get activated while doing the move on rings. You might also want to try using a false grip to help learn the muscle-up. A false grip is when you hold the bar in a slightly different way to give you more stability.
“Maintaining the false grip helps you advance upward by giving you leverage on the bar without twisting or turning your hands around. The false grip allows you to lock your elbows over the bar and “tilt” your bodyweight over the bar, leading with the chest, through the transition,” stated an article called Why Using A ‘False Grip’ Is Critical For Muscle Ups, on fitness website Rubberbanditz. This video from FitnessFAQ has more on both the ring muscle-up and the false grip.
The muscle-up is incredibly difficult to learn, but if you manage to put in all the hard work and do it, it is something to be proud of. It will increase your explosive strength and mind-muscle connection unlike any other exercise. Like any other fitness skill, it helps to know what you want to achieve through the muscle-up. Your grip, mobility, and upper body strength will all see spikes once you do them regularly. But the best part about learning this skill is the journey towards it: where you pick up many other ways of advancing your bodyweight strength. The number of pull-up variations, inverted rows, chin-ups, lateral rows and other core exercises you will do before doing a single rep of a muscle-up will be worth it.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.