Thursday 9 January 2014

Muscle up progression

I am not very naturally explosive at all, and it took me a long time to manage my first bar muscle up.
Though deceptively simple, the muscle up is quite a complex skill, involving two main compound movements, the linking of which requires not only strength, but fine timing.
 The basic movement involves performing a pull up, followed by a single bar dip, in order to get on top of the bar. The difficulty of the move however, resides in the transition from the top of the pull up position to the bottom of the dip position, and being able to do explosive pull ups helps with this!
Consequently this is a progression I really had to break down into small steps, in order to make it as gradual and painless as possible.

I hope the following will offer you a clear pathway to your first muscle up.
You might not have access to the equipment to perform some of the steps on this page, in which case just skip that variation. It will make the transition from the one to the next a little harder, but it should be well manageable nonetheless.

Prerequisites: archer pull ups ; modified russian dips

A note on sets and reps: as opposed to the StartBodyweight basic routine which sticks to a format of 3 sets of 4-8 reps, the number of reps vary in this progression according to the difficulty of each exercise, in order to get you to a muscle up as quickly as possible.
Make sure you follow the principle of micro-increments however: if an exercise variation calls for 3 sets of 2-5 reps and you manage 2,2,2 on your first attempt at this variation, only increase by one in your next training session ( 3,2,2 ). When you can do 5,5,5 move on to the next variation.

1. Archer pull ups + modified Russian dips.

Archer pull ups: Focus on pulling with one arm, with minimal assistance from the other. The second arm should gradually straighten over the bar during the pulling motion.
Do three sets of between 3 and 5 on each arm, with 3 to 5 min rest in between sets. Here's a video demonstration:

 Modified Russian dips: having lowered yourself in the 'legs forward dip' position, carry on getting lower until your forearms are parallel with the floor.
Do 3 sets of 3-6 reps, with 3 to 5 min rest in between
Watch the video below for a demonstration on parallel bars:

2. Archer pull ups to beginner muscle ups

Archer pull ups to beginner muscle ups: From the top position of the archer pull up, get your elbow over the bar, and push yourself over the bar. In essence, this move will be very similar to a beginner muscle up.
Perform 3 sets of 2-4 reps on each arm, alternating between arms.
Here's a video demonstration:

3. Sternum and belly button pull ups + Russian dips or single bar dips

Sternum pull ups: these will train explosiveness.
Perform a pull up until the bar is at chest level. Make sure your elbows remain close to your body throughout the later part of the move, and that they drive back past your shoulders.
Do 3 sets of 3-6 reps, with 3-5 min rest in between. Once you can do 3 sets of 6 reps, move on to belly button pull ups.
Belly button pull ups: Same as above, but pull more explosively until your belly button is level with the bar. Again, your elbows should brush past your sides, and drive back past your shoulders.
Perform   3 sets of 3-6 reps ; 3-5 min rest.

A note on the position of the legs: looking at the two pictures above or at the video, you will notice that my outstretched legs come under the bar. This occurs naturally to provide balance when performing sternum or belly button pull ups.
It is fine initially, but it will really hamper your progress if you keep the habit, when trying to achieve your first muscle up. In order to get over the bar, the majority of your weight must be in front of the bar during the initial pulling phase of the muscle up, not under it.
The following steps in this progression will gradually encourage you to keep your legs underneath you, rather than in front of you, thus shifting your weight to the front of the bar.

Russian dips: These will require a set or parallel bars. From the 'legs forward dip' position, lower yourself all the way until your upper arms rest on the parallel bars. Then pull yourself back up, helping yourself by bringing your head and torso forward.
Perform   3 sets of 3-6 reps.
Watch the video demonstration below:

Single bar dips: if you do not have access to a set of parallel bars, perform single bar dips instead of Russian dips.
Lower yourself  on a single bar until the bar is level with your nipples. This effectively reflects the often neglected middle portion of a muscle up.
Perform 3 sets of 3-6 reps

4. Beginner muscle ups

Beginner muscle ups: From the top of the movement in a sternum or belly button pull up, bring one elbow over the bar, and push yourself up, thus completing a beginner muscle up.
If you have access to the equipment for the next two steps (posts and rings), you can try just a couple of beginner muscle ups or even skip them all together, as they teach you a bad habit (one arm before the other).
Otherwise, perform 3 sets of 3-5 reps, alternating between arms if you can.

A note on wrist position: If you have followed this progression so far, it is possible that your wrist at the top of the movement on belly button pull-ups, is still underneath the bar (look at the kink in my wrist in the picture alongside).
The key to transitioning from here to the elbow over the bar position on beginner muscle ups is going to be rotating the hand and the wrist,as if rolling on the throttle on a motorbike.

Watch the video below for a demonstration;

5. Muscle ups on posts

Muscle up on posts: These are not strictly necessary, but they will ease the transition to the next variation if you have access to a set of posts such as the ones pictured here.
Hold on to the top of the posts and perform a pull up, transitioning into a muscle up. At this stage, you should not have any difficulties achieving these.
Perform 3 sets of 3-5 reps, with 3-5 min in between.
Video demonstration below:

6. Rings muscle ups

Rings muscle ups: Again, these are not strictly necessary, but they will carry over to the next variation, and help smoothen the transition. The move is essentially the same as the one performed on poles, but the way in which you grip the rings is important.
In order to get the wrist in the optimal position for a rings muscle up, it is important to use a false grip, as pictured here. This gets the wrist over the ring, rather than below it, and helps with the transition from a pull up to a dip.

Perform 3 sets of 3-5 reps of rings muscle ups, as demonstrated in the video below:

Rings muscle ups are generally considered to be easier than bar muscle ups (though for some people, it's the other way around, possibly because they use explosiveness rather than strength and technique to get themselves over the bar).
In my experience, most people following the progression on this page will need to achieve a total of 5 consecutive rings muscle, before they can attempt their first bar muscle up.

7. Jumping muscle ups

Jumping muscle ups: The next step in our progression to a bar muscle up, is to really nail down the wrist rotation during the up phase of the pull up.
Practice this by performing jumping muscle ups, as demonstrated in the video below.

These should be fairly easy by now, so perform 3 sets of 4-8 reps.

8. Bouncing muscle ups

Bouncing muscle ups: You should now be ready for your first proper bar muscle up...
In order to make sure you succeed on your first attempt, you are going to make use of the stretch-shortening cycle...
 It is easier to perform an initial pull up before attempting your first muscle up: a muscle which has been pre-stretched (the downward phase of your initial pull up) will yield more strength than an extended one (the deadhang position). Effectively, bounce back from your first pull up into a muscle up.
Alternatively, do a jumping muscle up, lower yourself down, and bounce back into a full muscle up, as demonstrated in the video below:

Perform 3 sets of these, gradually building up to 3 sets of 8, with 3-5 min rest in between.

A note on the false grip position for bar muscle ups:

 Some people find it easier, at least initialy, to use the false grip (as pictured here) in order to achieve their first bar muscle up.
However, the position is slightly awkward, and it should not be necessary if you have followed the steps in the progression above.
You can see in the video below that I actually find these really awkward myself:

If -like me- you have struggled with muscle ups, I hope you will find this progression useful. The muscle up is a skill which looks easy at first, but which actually requires a fair amount of strength, technique and explosiveness.
Practice the 8 steps above diligently, and you will eventually get there!


  1. Yeah, muscle ups is a very strong achievement, even in a psychological way. Good to see a progression to it, congratulations. However, it seems I have a week link in the basic exercises. Can do 15 forward leg dips, but I feel unable to make the arms swing up and down in the bottom position of russian, like you do in the video. Not even close. Do you suggest some form of learning that? I also can do right now 3x6 l-sits with legs outstretched, but no archer pullup. Maybe the thing is not for me ...

    1. There's no reason this might not be the thing for you... I'm a 43 year old guy with no explosiveness nor fast twitch fibre whatsoever (I was a long distance runner for many years), and I managed to achieve all this...
      If you cannot do modified russian dips, start with negatives, lowering yourself over 3 to 5s.
      There's no correlation between L-sits and archer pull ups, so I fail to see the connection. If you cannot do archer pull ups yet, go back in the pull up progression ( ), and slowly build up to them.

    2. Thanks for the answer! You´re right, obviously, about the thing beeing or not for me. Definitively will try the negatives for dips.
      Sorry, when I said L-sits, I mean pull-ups with legs outstretched. When a reach 8 8 8 in wide grip pull-ups and couldn´t do archer, I figured other ways to increase strenght. First, half-bented legs, now outstretched. Still, no archer. Perhaps negatives too is a way?

  2. Thank you very much for this awesome progression. I'm still far too achieve it but this gives me a very good idea what I'll have to do.

  3. Nice blog!!!! I have found it through a comment T the GMB fitness facebook. Just out of curiosity, Do you live in Gran Canaria??

    1. No, but I'm afrequent visitor to the Canaries, and I go training there often!

  4. How would the muscle up fit into the regimen of this stie?

  5. Good tutorial, also a bit discouraging too. I am very weak and uncoordinated and after reading this I am not sure I will ever be able to do the skill. I have been doing bodyweight training mostly pushups, pullups, and rope climbs for over four years two hours a day 4-6 days a week and was unable to do a russian dip or an archer pullup which I am trying to do now. One thing I wish trainers would stop saying that they come from distance runner backgrounds and therefore getting strong is especially hard. Your strength is determined by your genetics, not what sports you decide to do. I have recently started doing weighted pullups (40lbs) in a desperate attempt to get stronger because I know that is my issue. Do you think it is realistic for me to get this skill My arms are only 13" (used to be 11" before the calisthenics training) so I am still skinny and weak. Any advice would be appreciated. Thanks.