Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for Bar Muscle-Ups you must master its specific mobility, strength and skill demands: the three-headed monster that every athlete must conquer. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
There are two key positions requiring mobility in the Bar Muscle-up.
1) Hanging: Grasping the bar while maintaining body alignment and being pain free
2) Arch Position: The aggressive kip needed for most people to get to the top of a bar muscle up requires a solid reverse “C” from head to toe. If the thoracic spine (upper back) and shoulders can’t open fully the athlete will make up the ground at the low back and rib cage.
Here are a few of my favorite mobilizations to work on your overhead position in hanging and arch:
In order to solidly hit the positions needed and be safe the following strength baselines are suggested:
1) 2-minute Dead Hang: [see video] This is largely a test for grip strength, you should not be falling off the bar.
2) 5 Strict Pull-ups: If you are attempting a bar muscle up without this prerequisite you are wasting your time and risking injury.
3) 5 Parallel Dips: [see video] The higher you catch in a bar muscle-up the less dip is required. Often people who struggle with ring dips will get a bar muscle-up before having a ring muscle-up.
Related: Looking to get your first strict pull-up?
Check out this Pull-up Program.
If you do not have all the Mobility and Strength requirements, time spent learning skill will be much less productive. Build the basics, then layer on top.
This is especially true with muscle-ups. I have seem many people wasting their valuable time in the gym attempting muscle-ups instead of working progressions and strength protocols to get them well on their way to stringing several muscle-ups in a set.
The biggest thing holding people back from mastering muscle-ups if they have 5 strict pull-ups and 5 strict dips is a solid, balanced kip and straight arm pulling strength. These could be two missing links even if a person is very proficient at strict versions of the exercise.
Doing drills, mobility and strength work 2-3x per week is a good baseline for a beginner. Unless you practice these skills often the bar muscle-up will never “click.” Put in the time. As you do here is what to focus on…
Step-by-Step Focal Points
(1) The Mount
Many people overlook getting onto the bar and only try to organize their movement once they are actually hanging. This is a huge mistake. You must own your movement and momentum from the first contact with the bar. The best way to quickly produce a consistent, large kip is by jumping up to the bar from about a foot or a foot and a half behind the bar. As you jump up to grab the bar make sure you are in a hollow body position with abs turned on. When your weight begins to load the bar you will swing through the bottom of the bar and you will pull yourself into the arch position, initiating your kip.
This is a great drill to build a consistency and coordination with your bar muscle-ups.
Movement Mistakes | Bending the Knees (or) Spreading the Feet
These are two mistakes that are frequently seen during the arch position in the kip of the Bar Muscle-Up. As you enter an arch tension gather in the anterior (front) of the body from the tissues being stretched. This is useful because it provides extra power via the stretch reflex. However, athletes often avoid and lose this tension by allowing the knees to bend dramatically and/or spreading the feet apart. To maximize the effectiveness of your kip, keep your feet together and your knees straight.
Movement Mistakes | Starting Under the Bar
Most beginners jump up and hang from the bar and then begin to initiate a kip. Even with a very strong pull and a great kip, this makes the movement very challenging. The reason for this is your Center of Mass must go around the bar (it can’t pass through it).
Therefore, starting directly underneath the bar makes it challenging to get around it, while if you have horizontal momentum (jump forward to the bar) it allows your Center of Mass to move around and eventually on top of the bar much easier. In this video, I show the difference starting under the bar versus behind it can make.
(2) The Pull
As you come into the end range of the hollow position you will begin to pull with straight arms almost pushing down on the bar. This will continue your momentum behind the bar. At the moment you begin to travel upward instead of back you drive your knees up towards the bar in a dynamic action.
This creates momentum that you will direct up your body and create a moment of weightlessness in the torso to make the pull easier. You should keep straight elbows pulling down on the bar until you can see the bar out in front of you. Often this shapes gets skipped if a person does not close the angle of their shoulder through using the straight arm pull using their lats.
(3) The Transition
The transition is moving from pulling to pressing. Once that shoulder angle has closed (with straight arms) and you can see the bar you will attempt to glue your hips to the bar. This will result in some arm bend, depending on strength and skill level. A strong, efficient athlete will bend his or her arms very little doing a bar muscle-up.
If the arms do bend a lot because there was less height developed from a solid kip and strong lats, it will be necessary to get the elbows pointed up towards the ceiling as quickly as possible in order to make the rep. It helps to transition the gaze from up at the bar to down on the floor in front of the bar.
If you have the issue where you “chicken wing” to get over the bar, then you are likely failing at some aspect of the pull or kip. Sometimes this is created because your center of mass never moves behind the bar to in front of the bar (it stays underneath). If this is the case, check your mount. You should be jumping up the bar from a foot and a half to two feet back.
(Watch the video under “The Mount” again, this time paying attention to where I catch the transition.) This could also be a result of not pulling with straight arms long enough. If you bend your arms early without having the height you will never be able to press out quickly with minimal dip. A banded straight arm row and beat kips are great drills to help develop that strength.
Movement Mistakes | Chicken Winging
In the chicken wing, the athlete gets one arm over the bar (elbow pointed toward the ceiling) while the other arm is left in the position as if you just finished a Chest-to-Bar Pull-up (elbow pointed back). Typically, this is caused by a lack of height produced by the kip and straight arm pull combined with bad habits. Think about pulling with straight arms until you can see the bar and then gluing the bar to your hips. Often athletes are forced to chicken wing when they bend their arms and pull themselves to the bar, rather than around and above it. Work on developing a powerful kip and straight arm pulling strength through drills like Hips-to-Bar.
Here is another one my favorite drill for developing a strong turnover. The Russian Dip…
(4) The Dip
If a good pull is executed, less of a dip is needed because you caught the muscle-up high. This is often why people can get bar muscle-ups before ring muscle-ups if they aren’t strong with pressing strength yet they have good kipping skill. The dip can be awkward the first few times doing bar muscle-ups because the bar blocks the front of the body so you can’t descend with a completely rigid torso. If you catch the dip low your torso will have to be rounded around the bar initially as you press up. Practice a straight bar dip on a low bar or barbell set up low in a rack.
Here are two great ways to build strength and technique for dip in the bar muscle-up.
Two great drills to work on a solid dip and lock-out are the Banded Bar Muscle-Up and the Jumping Bar Muscle-Up. Both make the pull and transition (bottom half of the BMU) easier so you can focus on the lock-out / dip strength even if you don’t have a Bar Muscle-Up yet or they fall apart quickly. I demo both below.
(5) Cycling Reps
If you want to string reps together on bar muscle ups efficiently your finish to one muscle up must be an effective start to the next. If done correctly the next muscle-up should not be dramatically harder because you take advantage of the potential energy from being on top of the bar the previous rep.
Starting from the lockout on top of the bar, you will allow yourself to fall down staying close to the bar and allowing it to be near your face on the way down.
As you catch your body weight and begin to slide in front of the bar slightly you will pull yourself into the arch position where you will begin your next rep.
Many people push away from the bar at the top of the rep, which creates way too much swing that they can’t control. If you can do several singles in a row but fail to string reps, make sure to stay close to the bar on your way down.
Movement Mistakes | Pushing Away at the Top vs. Staying Close
One of the most frequent mistakes I see with CrossFit athletes who can get one rep consistently but struggle to string several together is pushing away at the top of the rep. Think about staying as close as possible to the bar (brushing it past your face) on the way down.
This prevents you from getting a really big swing in your kip, which can be difficult to control. Rather stay close until you catch your body weight in the bottom. As soon as you feel your arms go straight open up your shoulders, pulling yourself into the arch once again.
Reps 1 & 3 I make the mistake of pushing away from the bar at the top. Reps 2 & 4 I stay close to the bar on the way down and then pull myself into the arch position, which is much quicker.
Thumb or no Thumb?
If you have never done a muscle-up but you are attempting them…yes.
If you have less than 10 in an Unbroken set…likely.
If you are advanced at Bar Muscle-Ups, being comfortable and confident with gymnastics…personal preference.
The safety risk from not using your thumb has little to do with the pull (underneath the bar). If your grip is failing, it is unlikely that your thumb will save you. The difference is pretty minimal.
If there was a big difference, there would be no high-level athletes that would do it differently. For example, all Games-level athletes use a hook grip for weightlifting. However, not all elite athletes wrap their thumb for Bar Muscle-Ups.
The safety concern really comes down to the transition and dip of the Bar Muscle-Up. When your hand transitions to being on top of the bar, the wrist must bend to provide a base of support.
If it does not, there is potentially to have the hand slip off the bar. The lower you catch in a Bar Muscle-Up the more significant the dip is. This is part of the reason why it doesn’t matter much for elite athletes…they catch their Bar Muscle-Ups so high there is very little dip.
Some people will make the argument that you can claim a pseudo false grip (knuckles on top of the bar) easier without the thumb being wrapped. In my experience the difference is minimal and falls under the personal preference that comes with high-skilled personal experience.
My Advice: wrap your thumb until you are confident with bar muscle-ups and then play around with it. For me, I do a hybrid where I pull with my thumb not wrapped and as I transition above the bar I hook my thumb for safety and stability. This rhythm mimics the thumb action when cycling Power Snatches where you release and reclaim the hook grip. It seems complicated, but with practice you don’t even think about it.
Grips or No Grips?
There are a few considerations whether to wear gymnastics style grip or not when completing Bar Muscle-Ups. Either way I recommend buying a pair of high quality grips that you can use in certain scenarios. For example, almost everyone should use grips for CrossFit Open Workout 19.4 (30 Bar Muscle-Ups total not including warm-ups and no-reps).
Factor #1 | Workout Volume
How many Bar Muscle-Ups will you do in the workout? The higher the total is, the more likely it is you should wear grips. If you are a person who can only complete a few Bar Muscle-Ups it might not be worth the hassle of putting them on.
Likewise, if total volume is pretty low and they are paired with movements that are annoying to wear grips for (Handstand Push-ups, Barbell Work, etc.) I would opt to not wear them. However, as soon as the total volume reaches a point where you believe there is a possibility you could rip, put on the grips.
Doing high volume Muscle-Ups? I use the Bear Komplex 3-Finger Carbon Grips and also recommend them to my athletes.
Factor #2 | Pull-up Bar Coating
Some gyms have powder coated pull-up bars that provide little friction. Often times wearing grips on these bars makes holding onto the bar extremely challenging even with chalk. Removing grips can provide a better grasp while not resulting in tearing.
Other gyms have bare steel bars (like the Speal trademark bar from Rogue Fitness) which provide lots of friction and a “sticky” feeling grip. For these bars it may be a good idea to wear grips even with lower volume workouts because the intense friction can easily tear your hands.
Factor #3 | Grip Strength
This factor ties in with the last. If you struggle to get a good grip while wearing gymnastics grips and you don’t believe you will tear not wearing them, it is a good option to ditch them for a workout. Additionally, if your grip strength or traction feels better while wearing grips, why would you not wear them?
Factor #4 | The State of Your Hands
How ready are your hands to handle the demands of the workout? If you are used to high volume gymnastics, your hands are tough, your calluses are shaved, and you don’t have any tears, you will be ready to handle much higher volumes of gymnastics without grips. If you are newer to muscle-ups and your hands are relatively sensitive, you will want to wear grips.
If you have teared recently, wear grips. Likewise, use a callus shaver or pumice stone to keep calluses thin. Thick calluses rip quicker. Caring for your skin isn’t just about wearing grips. Take the five bucks and five minutes to put yourself in the best scenario for preventing a tear.
Factor #5 | Personal Preference
Lastly, it all comes down to personal preference. Where do you feel strong and comfortable while remaining tear free? I recommend practicing with your grips for a period of time before giving up on them…it takes some time to get used to them.
There are some tricks for workouts with multiple movements, like spinning them on your wrist so they are out of your way (on the back of your hand) during pressing movements.
Some athletes will simply not put their fingers in the holes so they can easily rotate them or even take them off once they have gotten through a gymnastics-dense section of the workout.
Play around with different styles and techniques and discover what works for you.
The Perfect Warm-Up
Get all the systems in the body humming so you are ready to train. The goal is to take your body from a cold, likely stationary position to being literally warmed-up. Muscles are able to produce more force and joints are more resilient to impacts and torque. Basically you are ready to mobilize and hit a movement-specific warm-up.
5-15 Minutes of easy “cardio.” Here is an approximate example for a CrossFit Competitor. The intention should be to move with better positions each round, rather than trying to increase the pace. This is NOT a workout.
4 Steady Rounds
-8 Ring Rows
-8 Wall Ball
-8/6 Calorie Row
Claim the fundamental positions you will need for the workout / movement to come. In this case it’s Bar Muscle-Ups. Per the mobility requirements (above), we know we need to address the hollow and arch positions, mainly with overhead and dip mobility. I recommend choosing a favorite mobilization technique for each of those two target areas. I show you my two top picks below.
C) Movement Prep
Begin to piece together the actual movement you use during the workout. Break down the parts and slowly add layers until its all back together. Each movement has sub-skills and you will need them for this step. This will look different for each movement, as you can see in the Movement Library. Lucky you, I provided five of my favorites for Bar Muscle-Ups below.
D) Working Sets / MetCon
Congratulations! You are ready to hit your workout!
Top Accessory Exercises
• Strict Chest-to-Bar (arguably the most underrated way to improve pulling of all kinds)
• Strict Chest-to-Bar with Slow Lower (learning to control each degree in the range of motion)
• Strict Chest-to-Bar with Pause at Top (for those who struggle with the last inch or two)
• Pronated Barbell Bent Rows (often athletes struggle to touch their chest with the bar)
Straight Arm Pulling Strength (Lats, Shoulder Extension)
• Hip-to-Bar (the best BMU drill in my opinion)
• Straight Arm Ring Row (another great transfer drill to Muscle-Ups)
• Banded Lat Row (also great for deadlifts and olympic lifting)
• Lat Activation Drill (A great drill for every gymnastics movement on the Pull-Up Bar)
Ski Erg Sprints (a personal favorite lat / tricep exercise)
Bicep Strength Movements (Elbow Flexion)
Transition Speed & Strength
6-Week Density Progression
Description: The most advanced gymnastics movement in the Sport of Fitness that is frequently tested is the Muscle-Up. In the sport of Gymnastics, the Muscle-Up isn’t even considered a skill because it is viewed as so basic. In Gymnastics, you attempt to do more and more advanced movements to get the best score.
By contrast, in the Sport of Fitness you get a better score or time by fitting more of the same movements into less time. This is known as gymnastic density. Once a Functional Fitness athlete has mastered the strength and skill needed for a given gymnastics movement, it’s all about increasing his or her ability for gymnastics density.
Here is a simply 6-week progression to improve your ability to do more work in less time (i.e. increase gymnastics density):
Week 1 | EMOM 8: 3 Bar Muscle-Up (volume = 24)
Week 2 | EMOM 10: 3 Bar Muscle-Up (volume = 30)
Week 3 | EMOM 9: 4 Bar Muscle-Up (volume = 36)
Week 4 | EMOM 11: 4 Bar Muscle-Up (volume = 44)
Week 5 | EMOM 10: 5 Bar Muscle-Up (volume = 50)
Week 6 | EMOM 8: 6 Bar Muscle-Up (volume = 48)
Change = 100% Increase in Density [3 reps per minute → 6 reps per minute]
A progression like this spread out over the course of several months can result in some pretty impressive density. Here I complete 40 Bar Muscle-ups in 2:57. That’s over 13 BMU per minute.
Is not having a Muscle-Up holding you back from success in the Sport of Fitness? Getting Your First Muscle-Up isn’t as far off as you might think. You just need a consistent plan, guidance on developing technique and access to a coach. Your First Muscle-Up provides all of these.
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3) Own the fundamental positions and reveal your capacity through movement prep & mobility.
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