05 May 12 Weeks to a Muscle-Up!
One movement has captivated the Parkour and freerunning community since its inception: the muscle-up. In the world of the common person, the ability to do a clean full range-of-motion pull-up (passed the clavicle) is a milestone of astounding fitness. It’s no wonder that the ability to fully overcome the bar from a complete hang is so revered, so mesmerizingly gazed upon as if the Holy Grail of bodyweight movements.
Of course, gymnasts have often scoffed at our bemusement with the muscle-up. “How is such a basic movement regarded with such mystery?” they ask. Those of us who have mastered this skill realize its ease, its simplicity, and how remarkably special it is not. Still, there are scores of traceurs, freerunners, and lay people alike whose jaws drop every single time they see a head fly over the bar. And you’ve struggled for months, for years, without ever doing one, haven’t you? Oh sure, you might be able to chicken-wing your way up and boast to your buddies, “Yeah, man, I can muscle-up!” But you know, deep down, you’re only kidding yourself.
So why haven’t you gotten it yet?
Well, First of All, Stop Trying
The first problem that most traceurs have who just can’t seem to get it down is that they’re trying too hard, too often. Believe me, I was right there with you. A lot of people out there argued, “If you can do ten good pull-ups and ten good dips, then you should be able to muscle-up.” I tried for three years and even when I could pump out sets of 25 pull-ups at a time, the muscle-up eluded me. I always managed to pull up to an elbow. I could chicken-wing my way over the bar, arm at a time, but I was nowhere near cleanly surmounting it. It wasn’t until the summer of 2009 that I finally managed to get it, spending three months working on my pull-ups. See, the concept was a simple one: use the Westside Barbell method on pull-ups and see what happens. I’ve since made modifications to what I was doing back then, planned out the phases between rep-effort, dynamic effort, and max effort and I can lay out the path for you, too. The key to all of it, though, is to stop trying to muscle-up. Work your pull-up until it is truly powerful and explosive.
See, the muscle-up is a movement that involves all three components of a power skill: strength, power, and finesse of technique. You might have the technique down perfectly, but without the power, you won’t get much done. You might have the strength, but without technique, you’re going to resort to chicken-winging. In most cases, trainees should stop for a moment. In fact, stop for 12 weeks. In this article, I’m going to give you a 12-week program to the completion of a muscle-up. The point isn’t to bust-ass and throw yourself up over the bar. That won’t get you anywhere but falling back down and pulling your shoulders. Hard. Instead, we’re going to go about this with some intelligence. I promise you that by the end of the weeks, you will fly over the bar.
*Note: This is NOT a tutorial on the muscle-up. It is a training program. I have included a link to an extremely good muscle-up tutorial at the bottom of the article. In addition, I should mention that I am only concerned with one particular type of muscle-up here: a false-gripped kipping muscle-up over a bar. Why this? Because Urban Evolution is still primarily a Parkour gym and that muscle-up has the most transfer to Parkour. Also, I feel it is the easiest version of a muscle-up, and the others can be learned later when mastery over this one is gained.
Look, I’m not a miracle worker. If you can’t do a pull-up, I’m not going to be able to get you a muscle-up. There are a few things you need to be able to complete this program:
- 6-8 good clean pull-ups
- 10-12 good, deep bar dips
- A pull-up bar with ample of room below (to hang) and above (to surmount)
- Pairs of dumbbells from 10lbs to 45lbs, or higher
The pull-ups that you do will need to be as high or higher than the clavicle. If you don’t have this range of motion, or the strength/power to do this 6-8 times, I would work on that before attempting this program. Likewise, you need to be able to perform bar dips (i.e. on a pull-up bar, not parallel bars) to the solar plexus, at minimum. The dumbbells will be for all the accessory exercises in the program.
This will require two days out of your week. You can find a way to fit this into your existing program, work-out routine, or sports training schedule, or you can do just this, but perform this program as-is. If you skimp on the exercises or the loading, I can’t promise your results. Space the days at least three days apart.
The first day of the week will be devoted to developing the raw strength of your pull-up and dip. The second day will be the power/technique day. Here’s how it will break down:
- Pull-up – 5 sets of 75% max reps
- Rack Pull-up – 2 sets of 110% max (dead-hang) pull-up reps
- Overhead DB Press – 3 sets of 8-10
- Bar Dip – 2 sets sub-failure
- Bent-Over DB Row – 3 sets of 10-12
- DB Rear Delt Fly – 3 sets of 10-12
- Jumping Pull-up – 2 sets of 10
- Dead-hang Speed Pull-up – 6 sets of 50% max reps
- Parallette Push-ups – 3 sets of 6-8, deep as possible
- Dead-stop Single-Arm DB Row – 5 sets of 12-15
In the first four weeks of this program, the only thing that changes dramatically is the pull-up percentages and set numbers. Your accessories should always be going up, but you must be the judge of how much weight to add. If you completed 3 sets of 10 on overhead press at 2x30lbs on week 1, then try to do 3×8 at 2×35 on week 2, then go up to 3×10 at that load for week 3. Be your own judge and listen to your body.
Here is the break-down for the first 4-week cycle on Day 1:
- Week 1 – 5 x 75% max reps on pull-ups, 3 x 110% max reps on rack
- Week 2 – 4 x 80% max reps on pull-ups, 3 x 115% max reps on rack
- Week 3 – 3 x 85% max reps on pull-ups, 2 x 120% max reps on rack
- Week 4 – 3 x 90% max reps on pull-ups, 2 x 120% max reps on rack
Throughout these four weeks, your speed day should be consistently pulling 6 sets of 50% of your max reps. Each week, the speed of your pull-ups should be increasing or you should be noticing yourself getting marginally higher, especially with the first couple of sets. You should notice the biggest difference as we move into the next microcycle.
- Weighted Pull-up – 3 sets of 5 + 10lbs
- Weighted Bar Dip – 3 sets of 5 + 20lbs
- Off-set Push-up – 3 sets of 8-12
- Knees-to-Elbows – 3 sets of 8-12
- Dead-Hang – 5 sets of 60-90secs
- Kipping Pull-up – 6 sets of 50% max pull-up reps
- Plyo Pull-up – 1 set of 3
- Elbow Push-ups – 3 sets of 5-10
- Bent-over DB Row – 3 sets of 8-12
- Explosive Atomic Sit-ups (arms overhead) – 2 sets of 15
One of the biggest keys to the muscle-up is raw strength, which is what we’ll be working on here. From the first four weeks, even though we never went over your existing max, we worked enough volume in that if you re-tested your max right now, it should be significantly higher. Now what we’re doing is entraining the body for power, and power needs to have a basis of strength. On Day Two of the next four weeks, we’ll be working on the rhythm of the kip and using the extension of the shoulders and contraction of the hips to pull higher and higher. The plyo pull-up afterwards is a test of pure power. The weight will increase as follows:
- Week 5 – 3 sets of 5 + 10lbs on pull, 3 sets of 5 + 20lbs on dip
- Week 6 – 3 sets of 5 + 15lbs on pull, 3 sets of 5 + 25lbs on dip
- Week 7 – 3 sets of 5 + 20lbs on pull, 3 sets of 5 + 30lbs on dip, 6 sets of 60% max reps on kip
- Week 8 – 3 sets of 5 + 25lbs on pull, 3 sets of 5 + 35lbs on dip, 6 sets of 60% max reps on kip
As the weeks progress, you should be noticing something peculiar. On your kipping pull-ups, you should be able to consistently pull to your solar plexus, rather than your clavicle. In fact, if you rotated your elbows at the top, you could probably do a muscle-up by week 8! However, I don’t want you attempt it just yet. There’s still four more weeks to get through, and racing ahead isn’t going to benefit us in the long run. The next microcycle deloads the strength that we built up, increases the volume once again, and really starts to work on the power. At any moment during these weeks, you should feel like you can muscle-up on at least the first pull-up of either day. Don’t start yet, just get used to the feeling.
- Muscle-up Negatives – 3 sets of 3
- Pull-ups – 2 sets of max reps
- Bar Dips – 2 sets of max reps
- Cuban Press – 3 sets of 8-12
- Muscle-up Negatives – 3 sets of 3
- Single-Kip Speed Pull-up – 8 sets of 5
- DB Rear Delt Fly – 2 sets of 12
- Knees-to-Elbows – 2 sets of 12
This is it. The home stretch. On both days, we’ll be working on the eccentric of the muscle-up. Lower yourself back down to a hang as slowly and with as much control as you can muster. Your body needs to remember exactly how it did this, since going up will follow the same movement pattern. Other than that, we’ll just be adding in some good ol’ pull-up practice and going for all-out reps for two weeks. We are not trying to go to muscular failure here. If your clavicle does not reach the bar, stop the set. Same with the dips. Go as low as you can for as many as you can, but once your depth is compromised at all, stop. Here’s the only thing that changes with the last four weeks:
- Week 9 – Pull-ups/Dips, 2 sets of max reps
- Week 10 – Pull-ups/Dips, 2 sets of max reps
- Week 11 – Pull-up – 3 sets of 8-10, Dips – 2 sets of 12-15
- Week 12 – Pull-up – 2 sets of 10-12, Dips – 1 set of 20
On the 13th week, go ahead and try a muscle-up. If you still can’t make it up, then I’m willing to bet that technique is your issue and you’re kipping at the wrong time. If your false grip is solid (which it should be at this point) and your kip is clean, you should be flying over the bar.
The False Grip
Before I get into the specific exercises and how to do them, I want to first make one thing clear: every pull-up you do on this program will be from a false grip. This is all about getting used to having your hands in that position over the bar, strengthening your wrist support, and allowing full range-of-motion into the muscle-up at any given moment. Standard grips for pull-ups are fine, but not when we’re trying to train the muscle-up.
A proper false-grip on a bar involves extending your entire hand up and over the bar so that your weight is resting largely on the heel of your palms. Your fingers might not be able to wrap fully around the bar, depending on your hands’ flexibility and your thumbs should be positioned right alongside your fingers, not wrapped around the bar (this is what makes the grip “false”). When you hang, instead of hanging from your fingers like you would normally, you are hanging from your wrists. Many people get this wrong and just try to over-grip the bar, but still remain in a normal grip where your fingers are supporting your weight. Be sure that you are hanging from your wrists. If you’ve never false-gripped before, this is very uncomfortable. You’ll get used to it. It stops hurting, I promise.
Another thing most people get plain wrong is the kip. I’m not talking about the CrossFit kip where you’re flailing around like a hooked fish. No, the kip is a controlled movement where the rhythm of your shoulders and your hips help to generate extra power and momentum to send you up. While most power movements in sports involve a powerful extension of the hips, this actually involves a powerful contraction. Remember those atomic sit-ups in the program? They’re there for a reason.
A kip begins with the hyper-extension of your shoulders and hips. This is the stretch or counter-movement phase to stimulate the myotatic stretch reflex (the physiological component of explosive movements). Immediate from the hyperextension, you will explosively contract your shoulders and hips (throw your torso backwards and powerfully tuck your legs up) and then perform the pull-up as normal.
Don’t worry if none of this makes perfect sense just yet. The program involves some technique training, too, and the kip is first learned through the jumping pull-up. That section and the kipping pull-up section of this article will fine-tune all the details for you.
Sorry, folks, but in most cases, people perform the pull-up incorrectly. The chin is not sufficient to claim a completed rep, especially when you consider the fact that most people crane their necks and stretch their chins up. Satisfactory completion of the pull-up is when the clavicle or collarbone has not only reached the bar, but passed it (see photo). My first few reps of pull-ups will actually reach my solar plexus, but everything passed the clavicle counts.
When performing the pull-up, it is important to remember that you are not trying to pull straight up. In fact, this often means that your scapulae aren’t being held tight in retraction and your shoulders are hanging loose out of their sockets. Pull your shoulders into your sockets, retract your scapula, and fall into the position known as the Dead Hang. Your torso should be at a slight angle from vertical. When you pull, follow this angle as naturally as possible, to a certain point. You want to pull around the bar, not up into it and not below it. The latter occurs when people lean too far back, slacken their lumbar spines, and turn it into a God-awfully ugly bastardization of the inverted row.
The Rack Pull-up
This is a direct supplemental exercise to the pull-up. It really just serves to add in extra volume without the stress of the pull-up’s intensity on your joints, ligaments, and tendons. Position your legs up on a high box so that, hanging directly below the bar, your feet are elevated higher than your hips. Now, the important thing with this exercise is to keep a relatively straight spinal orientation. That is to say, your torso should be as close to completely upright as possible underneath the bar. You won’t be able to get perfectly upright (unless you have some insane hip flexibility going on), but try to situate yourself underneath the bar. It is very easy to turn this exercise into an inverted row. That’s not what we are going for. Hips should still be bent (if slightly) at the top of the movement and the torso’s angle may change slightly, but not so drastically as to confuse this with a row. Other than that, the rules are the same: pull up and around the bar. Your legs and the box are taking out quite a bit of the load, so these should be pretty easy, even after all those pull-ups you just did.
The Bar Dip
Most people here just don’t go low enough. Keep your elbows slightly tucked (not completely), lower yourself, and extend your legs out in front of you as you descend to maintain balance. Touch your solar plexus to the bar and return to the dip position. Plain and simple.
The Jumping Pull-up
The first step to training muscle-up technique is to understand a grounded exercise known as the jumping pull-up. This is not the same as jumping up to a pull-up. In fact, don’t think of this as a pull-up at all. What we’re doing here is training the rhythm of the kip. On a low bar where you can still plant your feet (those of you at commercial gyms can find an unoccupied Smith machine and use it for the only thing it’s good for), reach up for the bar. It should be at a height where you can bend your knees comfortably and still be grounded by your feet and holding the bar at the same time. Now, lean forward with your arms fully extended and without moving your feet. You want to buck your hips far ahead of your feet and hyperextend your shoulders. Basically, you want to look like a banana.
Next, transfer your weight into your feet and rock backwards maintaining the extension of your arms. Go as far back as your arms will allow, basically getting into a hollow position (like you had just thrown a ball overhead). Your hips and your shoulders should have both moved in a wide U-shaped dip. When you hit this point, pull hard with your arms and jump off the ground. The track of your shoulders should have formed a J-arc. When you land, carefully place your feet directly underneath your body (or the bar), decelerate back into the banana position, and use the momentum to repeat this movement.
This is the basic motor pattern of the kip, except that your feet are grounded. Hyperextension to contraction. Remember how it feels in your shoulders most of all; the hips will follow of their own accord.
You might ask why, if this is such an easy regression of the pull-up, I don’t have a single jumping muscle-up in the program. Simply put, I don’t see the point. I don’t think a jumping muscle-up actually trains anything. Negatives are better for raw technique and most people are lacking in strength and power, anyhow. More than that, the jumping pull-up has absolutely zero transfer to the pull-up. The jumping pull-up trains the kip’s motor pattern. It is not a pull-up regression. Don’t treat it like one.
Oh, by the way. Remember that you’re going to that hollow position before you jump/pull. When we get into kipping pull-ups, the first mistake most people do is pull before they are behind the bar. This causes you to pull yourself underneath the bar instead of around it. No muscle-ups are possible like that.
Dead-Hang Speed Pulls
This is simply training the body to generate force without the stretch reflex giving assistance. It’s early in the program because I want you to be able to know how to pull explosively in the first place. I don’t expect you to get all the way up immediately, so it’s perfectly all right to only make it halfway. The point is to get into the dead-hang position (shoulders into their socket, see photo), pause for a second, and then pull as hard as you can (with control). Remember that in the dead-hang position, you are not situated directly underneath the bar. When you pull your shoulders in, your spine will be at a slight angle to the ground and your chest should be slightly behind the bar. Each time you return to the hang, pause for a moment. This is about pure and raw power. Remember what it’s like to pull with this much force, because you’re going to be calling on it after you’ve learned how to kip properly.
You can use a weighted vest or drape chains over your shoulders if you have them available, but more than likely, you’re just going to have dumbbells handy. Place a DB between your legs, right underneath your groin, and hold tightly. For the love of God, don’t kip. I mean, you can, but it’s not going to do anything with the weight where it is and you run a good chance of grinding your special fellow against a knurled steel handlebar.
Remember that dead-hang position we just talked about? This is going to be really important here. Letting yourself hang loose with added weight is a recipe for disaster. It might feel like a good stretch, but if you go from the stretch to trying to contract the muscles, you stand a chance of impingement. Not only that, but it just flat-out hurts to go slack with extra weight.
Most people should know what these are already, but plenty don’t and a Youtube search is probably going to show you a hundred different things, none of which being what I want. A KTE goes from a dead hang to a tuck lever. That’s right, after your hips are flexed, I expect you to pull with your lats up into a tuck lever. If you can’t do this, you’re making excuses. By this phase of the program, your lats should be strong enough to pull into that position even if you weren’t able to do it before. It might take some time to get used to the movement pattern, but it’s as simple as raising your hips. Remember to keep your shoulders retracted and in their sockets throughout the movement. Squeeze your shoulder blades together. The KTE is a renowned “ab” exercise, but its utility here is in further activation of the lats, familiarity with hanging from your arms, and also the hip contraction that comes with the kip (not quite as powerful or fast in the KTE, but still useful).
The Kipping Pull-up
Oh God, here we go. Remember everything I said about the Jumping Pull-up? It’s pretty much the same thing, only you’re hanging this time. Keep a good false grip and you should at this point be able to pull your clavicle over the bar. At minimum, your collarbone should be able to touch the center of the bar. If it touches the underside of the bar, you’re pulling too early.
Pay close attention to the photograph. The first shot is the hyperextension. The second shot is when the power comes in. Note that my shoulders have contracted, closing the angle between my arms and my torso. My knees are up because my hips have flexed. It is this “clam-up” movement that gives you power and momentum in the kip. Pay very close attention to the middle photo, because chances are, if you’re not getting it, it’s this position that you aren’t managing to fall into.
Under the Bar
I’ve warned a lot already about pulling underneath the bar. The kipping pull-up is the notorious exercise where this happens most often. The photo to the left shows what your body looks like when you go under the bar. Your back arches dramatically; your head is knocked backwards; your chest is nearly horizontal at the bottom of the bar. You are absolutely nowhere near where you want to be! Here’s a refresher to doing it correctly: Hang, hyperextend hips and shoulders, powerfully contract your hips and shoulders, now pull hard! Up and around the bar. When you become really powerful, you actually have to decelerate your body as you approach the bar, or you’ll go into a muscle-up. Yes, that’s right. After a certain point in time, the kipping pull-up requires more effort/work than the muscle-up does.
If you pay attention to the sequenced picture of the kipping pull-up, you’ll notice the movement pattern is exactly the same as the jumping pull-up, even down to the angle of the arms at extension and contraction. If your timing is off and you can’t quite get into a good rhythm with the kipping, get your feet back down on the ground and drill the jumping some more.
The Plyo Pull-up
This is a quickly kipped pull-up to a release of the bar. You can clap, flap like a bird, or scratch your butt; I don’t care. The important thing here is to pull with enough speed that you can momentarily allow yourself to be airborne. Keep in mind that you need to learn to decelerate as well as accelerate! Lower yourself back down with control. Your shoulders will thank you later.
Passing the Bar
After completion of this program, you should have a firm grasp of how to kip efficiently and utilize the momentum to power your way up over the bar. If you’re not quite getting it yet, but are getting high up on the bar, then it’s a matter of timing and technique. Be patient, analyze what you’re doing, and you’ll get it in no time.
I know asking for three months of your time is a lot, but let’s look at it this way: how many years have you spent of your life not being able to muscle-up? How long have you been actively trying to, and failing? It’s a time commitment, sure, but with good and consistent hard work, I assure you that you’ll get it.
If it’s technique that’s ultimately the issue, then I recommend traversing over to our friend Jim Bathurst’s blog Beast Skills to read his muscle-up tutorial. He goes over dead-hang and kipping muscle-ups on rings and bar.
Andy Tran is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the NSCA. He has been involved in North America’s Parkour community for over six years and is one of Urban Evolution’s lead instructors. Andy is also a competitive powerlifter, holding a state title and the raw open records in Virginia for squat, bench press, deadlift, and total at 148lbs with USA Powerlifting.