Although there are many ways to earn your power, muscle-ups offer a full-body solution to the power problem. It connects the biceps through the lats to the shoulders, traps, chest and triceps, all while training momentum transfer.
It is a benchmark that many power-hungry boulderers dream of achieving, and a great way to improve the larger muscle groups required for campus-boarding, competition-style paddles, and anything that asks the climber to pull from high above their head through to near their waste.
To begin, there are many types of movement that wear the name muscle-up. They all ask the climber to effectively pull up into a dip and then press through the dip. Sometimes people will wrestle with the bar and pull one arm over at a time. This is considered bad form. Many will not count this as a muscle up.
In its most pure form, the movement of the athlete’s left side is reflected by the right. Instead of swinging, they start in a static, hanging position and complete the exercise without kipping. A person kips when they generate upward momentum with their hips. As we want to complete the exercise in a way that builds power, we will strive to complete the movement with perfect form.
So how do we get there?
As this exercise is so multi-faceted, we will need to hit a few strength benchmarks before we reach our ultimate goal. The first is a pull-up. The next is a dip. These components make up the two fundamental exercises of the muscle up.
For most people, the most challenging aspect of the exercise comes from transitioning from the pull-up into the dip. The difficulty comes from the nature of the pull. Though it may seem like a normal pull-up, a person must pull beyond the bar with enough momentum to flip into the press. Conversely, a person could instead build enough strength to use their lats to slowly press over the bar, but this more static approach is significantly more difficult.
For climbing, this level of stability and strength has value, however, today we will focus on power over strength. Power is a measure in strength over time, where strength is a measure of maximum resistance. In other terms, we are not training the maximum amount of weight we can pull, but instead training how fast we can move our bodies upward.
To do a muscle up, it will help to be able to complete pull-ups in sets of 10. Similarly, being able to complete 10 dips in a row will allow a level of certainty when you do manage enough speed to flip over the bar.
Now that you can do the pull ups required, we will need to work on the power aspect. There are two approaches to this. You can try and complete power pull-ups where you complete four sets of three pull-ups per session to try and increase speed. You can also do weighted pull-ups.
Weighted pull-ups offer easily measurable improvement and will necessarily make it easier for you to move your body at body-weight.
First, attempt at a muscle-up three times with three-minutes rest in between each. The first goal will be a swinging muscle up. Here, you allow yourself to cheat by swinging into the movement. Once you can do this, you will replace weighted pull-ups with swinging muscle ups.
Weighted pull-up training for muscle ups
Step 1: Find your three-rep maximum weight for a pull-up. We want to build power through increasing our strength.
Step 2: Complete four sets of this three-rep max, three times a week. If you complete the exercise at the beginning of your session, you will get better results, but you will lose power for the rest of the session. If you complete it at the end of your session, you will have worse results, but you may be warmer for the exercise. The choice is yours, but do not exhaust yourself before completing the weighted pull ups.
Step 4: On the third week, rest. Only complete one set per day of weighted pull-up training.
Step 5: Repeat the cycle as needed, increasing weight when possible. If you are incapable of meeting your max one day, reduce the weight. If you reach an added weight of 50% of your body-weight, you are definitely capable of a muscle-up. You will likely be capable of a muscle-up before then.
Depending on your starting position, learning to do a muscle up could take a couple of sessions or two three-week training cycles. The reason it could take so few sessions comes from how much beta is involved. Knowing how and when to activate the different portions of your body are helpful.
Once you can complete swinging muscle ups, you will aim to complete consecutive swinging muscle-ups. The goal will be three in a set for three sets per session. You will aim to complete each repetition with as little swing as possible. At a certain point you will have achieved a practical perfection of the exercise.
You will have to learn many of the tricks yourself, however taking the bar in a false grip helps the body rotate over the bar.
Rings Versus Bar
Rings allow for a more static approach to the muscle up. For many, the rings are an easier place to start. It is worth trying both. Learning how to muscle up on the rings, makes it easier to muscle up on the bar.
Aim to almost jump upwards off the bar through pulling power alone. The higher you can get on the pull, the easier the transition will be into the press.