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You Can’t Muscle Up: Are you lacking Technique Or Power?

Top of a muscle up

When I got my first kipped and chicken winged muscle up I thought I was the man. I wanted to write a tutorial on mastering the muscle up; I wanted to do it everywhere – swing parks, scaffolding, goal posts……whatever.

Around the time I remember listening to a podcast with Al Kavadlo. On that podcast I clearly remember Al saying there’s a difference between a pistol squat and a perfect pistol squat; same goes for muscle ups. Back then it didn’t make much sense. I was under the spell of thinking once you can do a muscle up (with whatever form), you can then try more advanced stuff – think close grip muscle ups, weighted muscle ups etc…..

Image result for al kavadlo muscle up

(alkavadlo.com – Al demonstrates an ‘X’ grip muscle up)

It’s an arrogant line of thinking and one that’s never shaken without investment of time. Making mistakes, falling in shit and hurting yourself, then looking back and realising what those more experienced than you were talking about. Words only carry so much weight without experience.

There’s been over 2 years between my first grotesque muscle up and today. My muscle ups aren’t perfect but they’re strict enough and I’m relatively content with them. Having been through a year long shoulder issue that stopped me in my tracks, I’m now back in business. Once you get better at muscle ups you find people ask you a regular question……

Why can’t I do a muscle up?

The internet is full of pre-requisites telling us we need X amount of dips and pull ups, and placing magical numbers on muscle up proficiency. Here are some reasons why these pre-requisites are bullcrap and no way to gauge your chances of success with a muscle up:

1) The muscle up isn’t just 2 moves, it’s actually 3. 

All the pull ups and dips in the world aren’t going to do anything if your transition strength is weak. And the transition is all down to your rotator cuff & scapula stability. The phase of going from pull up to dip involves heavy internal rotation of the shoulders. It’s for this reason kipping is virtually useless; kipping muscle ups are for those who aren’t strong enough to handle the transition. It’s blatant cheating and it can be dangerous in my opinion.

You may think you’ve got strong lats and pecs so why would internal rotation be a problem? You have to keep in mind the rotator cuff works as a unit which has TWO functions: internal and external rotation. Therefore, if your external rotators are weak this can inhibit the internal rotators. This is something I experienced very much hands on as I spent a significant portion of time developing better external rotation, while rehabbing a shoulder impingement. I found this done 2 things: 1) aided my shoulder pain and 2) improved my muscle up transition – not only did I not have pain but I was stronger. 

2) There are so many types of pull ups; everybody’s pull up style is different. 

Some pull up styles are ‘muscle up friendly’ – think hollow, slightly false grip high pull ups. While others are disastrous for muscle ups – think arched back, wide grip pull ups.

This isn’t a knock on wide grip pull ups, more an illustration of why you may not be getting the carryover you’d like from your pull ups to your muscle up attempts. The bottom line is: if you can’t get your chest to the bar on your pull ups, you’ve no business wanting strict muscle ups. An arched back position is coupled with a relaxed core. Having core tightness helps generate extra force – which in turn helps with pulling higher. You need this tightness to help you go around the bar in an arc-like motion. Very few people are strong enough to do muscle ups with no forward swing at all!

In the clip below you see me doing 4 muscle ups. Notice my body is hollow throughout and I’m pulling around the bar.

3) You don’t understand the mechanics of a muscle up. 

As we just touched upon, the muscle up isn’t a totally vertical pull, it’s a pull AROUND the bar and not just over. Simply learning this motion is a skill in itself. One thing that always seems to happen is people mistiming the pull and ending up too far behind the bar. As you pull towards the bar you need to be close to it; your chest needs to be able to essentially glide over the top of it.

Training explosive pull ups with a muscle up-like pendulum swing AND chest to bar contact (or higher) on each rep is the remedy for this. I used to do 3 sets of 3 reps at the start of every workout and focused on the motion and the power aspect, I didn’t give a hoot about doing an actual muscle up.

Below you see me demonstrating hollow body pull ups that will get you a muscle up. Again, notice the trajectory.

What’s the verdict, is it power or technique as to why most people can’t nail a muscle up?

My honest opinion is a distinct lack of strength stops people being able to do muscle ups. If you took someone who wasn’t powerful with pull ups but could do muscle ups, I’d be very willing to gamble on them being a crossfitter or chronic kipper. I see it all the time: people claiming to be ‘monstrous’ at pull ups yet they can’t get chest to bar contact on a single rep! These guys are also dip masters that don’t even break 90 degrees and struggle with straight bar dips……..

Come on now!

Because the muscle up is reasonably wide spread and there’s tutorials everywhere, people seem to think they don’t require the degree of athleticism and strength that they do. The strict muscle up is a feat of power and knowledge. The knowledge element is simply respecting the need for power and understanding the biomechanics of a muscle up.

Even those with very strict muscle ups can always use more power and strength. With power and strength comes more grace and ease. With grace and ease comes mastery.

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JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

3 thoughts on “You Can’t Muscle Up: Are you lacking Technique Or Power? Leave a comment

  1. Good stuff man! I like how you go over muscle groups and which should be activated. I always had a hard time with the bar muscle up and I wish I had this when I was learning!

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