Relearning The Ring Muscle Up (My Humbling Story)
In 2019 I did a 28kg ring muscle up with relative ease.
I basically just rolled over the transition with speed and only went up to 28kg to outdo an upstart I used to train with who, like all 16 year olds (his age at the time), had to keep getting his ‘dick’ out and willing it to be bigger than anyone else’s.
On this occasion though, his ‘dick’ wasn’t big enough. The old man (me) had the bigger ‘dick’ and he needed to be reminded who was boss.
I can’t even remember why I ended up ramping up to heavy singles that day but I remember doing a relatively easy 22.5kg ring muscle up, and controlling the negative to the point where time froze and my forearms were just suspended in that awesome looking, parallel to the floor position.
Then I asked my upstart training partner what his current best was (he would try and max out every session – yep, like every 16 year old again). 24kg was the answer, so I thought f*ck it, I’ll jump to 28kg and put the yardstick there.
Obviously I stopped there but I’m CONVINCED to this day I could have done more. The speed was the clue. Almost all true personal bests/1 rep maxes involve a slow and struggled transition from the pull up to the dip.
Maybe 30 or 32kg would have been doable?
We’ll never know but the story ends soon after that as bringing us round to more recent times (the beginning of 2021), I’d all but lost my muscle up prowess, especially on rings.
Sure, I could still do 3-5 reps and hit semi-respectable weights but they were painful, slow to warm up and not anywhere near as elegant as they once were.
A left shoulder/bicep issue left me experiencing pain as I’d roll over the rings to finish the transition phase of the move. Funnily enough the faster I’d go the less it would hurt but as result, I ended up completely unable to transition with any real control.
Anytime I tried to do my old trademark negative on the last rep of any set, where I stopped right in the middle of the transition, my elbows would scream death and I’d just fall to a bent arm hang with my arms around 90 degrees or so.
There was just no strength there at all now and a ton of pain. And I didn’t know why.
But I set to find out…
The mystical transition
I’ll keep the preface here brief but I fixed my injury before I seriously embarked on regaining my ring muscle up proficiency. The position was so bad I couldn’t even train the lowest level progressions pain free, so it made zero sense to even try.
The formula was simple: Remove and avoid pain + rebalance shoulders + then reintroduce gentle, light ring muscle up work.
For anyone interested, much of my journey with injury has been written about in older posts so I’ll leave a link here if you’d like the fuller backstory: How I BUTCHERED My Pull Ups For YEARS
So, getting back to the transition part of the muscle up. My nemesis even before injury. See, I was never one of those who found the transition easy; you see some people getting their first ever muscle up with that all out dogfight through a super sticky transition, to find eventual success at the bottom of a dip.
For me though, I always had plenty pull power to almost skip the transition. I know, first world problems right?
But this meant I was weak there and it took me some time to suss it out and even when I had slow ring muscle ups on lock for reps, they never felt natural or easy. My body & brain’s default was the accelerated ‘bar muscle up on rings’ style.
And while that might seem like a nice problem to have, it cost me and was a pivotal part in why I got injured and that was a pivotal part in why I was never particularly great in the transition anyway.
The transition – what is it?
We know it’s ‘the hardest part of the muscle up’ & ‘the reason you can’t muscle up even if you have the prerequisites’ but what’s actually happening from an anatomical standpoint? What muscles are involved and can we define the movement pattern once and for all?
I did some digging. I found reddit threads, old Gymnasticbodies forums and plenty of YouTube videos. As you might expect, a lot of the YouTube videos were almost carbon copies of each other…but the forums and reddit threads were interesting as the common theme seemed to be the muscles involved in extension of the shoulder, are the strongest players.
- The posterior deltoids
- The long head of the triceps
- The Lats
- Teres Minor/Major
In Steven Low’s MUST READ book, Overcoming Gravity 2, he says the transition is most comparable to a row, as the elbows have to be pulled behind the body in a row like motion.
I’ve also seen and thought about it as an active internal rotation of the shoulders. This is particularly true in the case of the bar muscle up.
But still, no official dictionary definition. Maybe I’m being picky but I wanted one. I wanted to know what was happening definitively when you’re going through the transition of a muscle up and what correlates to it…
Just Do Something
Instead of being a pubmed jerk off sitting around getting off to studies and trying to find more to get me off, I took action and started retraining the transition right back at ground zero with foot assisted transitions with the feet on the ground.
This was hard on the shoulders and even harder on the ego. Despite nobody being around to see it, there was still an element of slight shame at having to come this far back. But the optimistic side of me knew this was one of those powerful scenarios where I was doing the work in the dark, to eventually have my moment in the light.
There’s something magical about that. It’s kept me hooked to this stuff for years. Wanting something seemingly untouchable and quietly chipping away at it, to reveal the fruits of your labour later and ultimately, enjoy them.
And while hard work repeated usually equals results. This wasn’t enough. I wanted to understand why I’d lost strength here and why I had always found it hard to do the transition part of the movement.
So I kept studying and searching while patiently working away at whatever low level I found myself. Then one day I was scouring YouTube, consuming content as you do, and I found a video from the legendary Simonster on paused reps.
Around the 2:03 mark he says top paused rows are useful for the muscle up transition. It was one of those moments where all I could remember of the video was that line. So I went back to it and it got louder and louder despite the volume being fixed…
I immediately tried some top paused ring rows on my doorway setup…
I SUCKED. I struggled to keep the rings at my chest even at a 45 degree body angle, regardless of grip! Yet without a pause and relying on acceleration, 10+ reps were pretty easy.
A weakness in the strength curve – a glaringly obvious one.
From then on I vowed to substitute ring rows for paused rows. Again I was going to swallow the ego dent and just accept whatever puny angle I had to use to get a strong 2 second top hold at the top of each rep. And it sure was puny.
Carryover & correlations
This discovery led me to do more observing and analysing of ring muscle up technique and the drills leading up to the full move. An absolute staple is the false grip chest to ring pull up. I always advocate and coach these all the time; they’re a pretty good gauge for whether someone’s got the pull up proficiency for a muscle up: can you consistently pull to the chest?
Chest to bar pull ups and bar muscle ups were still in my locker with relative ease and so were chest to ring pulls. But, paused chest to ring pulls with the rings on the chest were, like rows, impossible. I just couldn’t hold the rings there! There was an annoying gap that made my elbows feel like they’d explode.
In the clip below you see my friend Rob, who runs Crossfit CM2 demoing perfect chest to ring pull ups with a deliberate pause where the rings touch the chest.
Of course there’s a strong connection between the row top hold and the chin up top hold; I was crap at both. This top position requires strong retraction/depression of the shoulders, as this is essentially the engine and key to high pulling & transitioning through the sticky part of a muscle up, to where you eventually find yourself in the bottom of a dip.
While I’ve dabbled with many things in my training career, top paused pulling was absent the entire time. I’d gotten so good at accelerating from the bottom (my strength) that my body had actually become weaker at the top. This was obvious when lifting big weights as I’d get them moving quite well from the bottom but stall out towards the top.
My mini roadmap to ring muscle up success
Here’s essentially a step by step guide to develop a ring muscle up or to recondition one if you’ve been detrained, or if you struggle with the transition phase of the move, and the simple generic cues like ‘just headbutt your way over the rings’ and ‘lean forward’ aren’t working.
Step 1 – STRONG top holds
The higher you’re able to hold yourself above the rings and the lower your hands are down your body, the easier the transition phase will be as you’re already some of the way through it. It’s one thing to pull explosively here but another thing to slow pull or even hold it here.
What I did at first to get my body and muscles used to what it feels like to have a firm contact with the chest, was set the rings to around chest height and step into the hold. So I would pull them into my chest with my feet still on the floor, firm up and really tighten in, then release the feet slowly.
At first this was really tough and the rings would want to come right away from the chest as soon as the feet came up, but over time the contact not only got firmer but also lower.
10-15 second holds were all it needed and I’d spread these throughout the day, GTG (Grease-The-Groove) style.
Step 2 – pulling to HIGH holds
There are 2 versions of this:
1. Pulling fast and holding for a brief moment before lowering.
2. Pulling slow to a hold.
I found the second version harder as it went against my natural strength but you may be different. I built up to doing 5×5 with a 2 second top hold, rings touching the chest over time. Eventually this was done with a progressively slower pull.
Step 3 – assisted transition dips with the torso VERTICAL
Here we switch from transitions in a row position, to a vertical position. Now the classic way to do this is the toe assisted floor transition drill but I found it tricky to not let the feet do too much with this.
The method I found to be better was the toes on box version, where you have a box in front of you, knees bent, feet lightly on the edge of the box and you perform a foot assisted ring dip and then control under to what’s essentially a foot assisted top pull up hold, then use the toes to assist as you pull back through.
Again, I built up to 5 sets of 5 reps here.
Step 4 – FOOTLESS transition dips
This is the major milestone! Doing the version above but without foot assistance this time. You want to lower to the bottom a dip and keep the elbows in by the sides as you control the elbows down and behind you. The trick here is to keep the scapula depressed and engaged while tracing the rings around your chest from the armpit to the nipples.
As you lower, letting legs pike out in front of you to keep you counterbalanced will help make this more manageable. Then as you get stronger you can keep the legs underneath you more/hips ‘muted’.
And yep, you guessed it, I built up to 5×5 of these with a full ring muscle up before the 5 reps as my official comeback milestone to this move!
Even when I had the slow ring muscle up locked down and hit the 28kg rep, I’d never done this amount of volume on this movement.
‘But how long until I can ring muscle up?!’ said everyone ever. ‘How can it be a great program? It’s been 2 weeks and I still can’t muscle up?!’ said Mr & Mrs program hopper.
And the non-sexy realistic answer here is: it takes as long as it takes. There are too many factors at play to make a super accurate call.
- How strong are you?
- Are you recovering from injury and a previously high strength level (like I was)?
- What else are you training in conjunction?
- Are there any weak points unaddressed to hold you back?
- What’s your recovery like – sleep, diet, lifestyle?
- How patient are you with not rushing progressions and fully owning the one you’re currently on?
This isn’t just conjecture, I tested this empirically from November 2021 when I couldn’t do 1 clean transition, to my recent success milestone with the move.
If you’re looking for a solid routine to put some of these moves into practice, check out Sondre Berg’s app – Berg Movement where you’ll find a solid ring & bar muscle up routine, among almost an indefinite amount of other routines focused on calisthenics skills and hand-balancing.
In the near future I intend to independently review more of Sondre’s routines so stay tuned for that.
Thanks for reading. Clean ring muscle ups with no strength deficits anywhere in the range are more possible than ever before.
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.
I wish I’d seen this post 5 years ago 😉 This is probably the most detailed roadmap to getting a strict ring MU that I’ve seen. When I was fighting for my first one all the standard cues (“nose to toes” etc.) were just patronizing, and I found foot-assisted / baby MUs to be pretty useless for the same reason you did (hard to keep your brain from using your legs to push off).
Even after I got the strict ring MU I’ve always wondered what the actual anatomy of a controlled transition is, so thanks for digging into that. My experience lines up with yours: I’ve had my smoothest ring MUs when I’ve been working through programs that had heavy volumes of false grip ring rows (looking at you, Gymnastic Bodies!). I think you nailed it with top pause ring rows — if I was trying to get this move for the first time, that would be the absolute best strength builder for transferring to the strict MU itself.
Only other advice I’d add, from my experience: if you want a smooth transition, focus on *narrow* arms — you want the rings to almost be touching each other, as well as touching your armpits/chest as you glide through the transition. That’s basic physics (leverage) but it’s easy to forget when you’re just trying to rip off MUs with pure pulling strength. At the end of the day, the most aesthetic MUs are slow, and once you figure out the movement pattern, it really starts to become more of a skill move than a strength move.
Hey Kurt! Good to hear from you, been a while haha.
That’s great to hear you got so much from this post. I wish I’d understood and read this 5 years ago, too. It’s crazy how you can slip into bad habits over time even if you have a very high level to begin with!
Definitely agree with the rowing and the top holds in the FG pull up – they were just moves I never trained myself and thus, I was super weak at them! I think elbow flexion plays a part too, even though I didn’t cover it in the article. Mine is still pretty poor and that makes the top holds much harder as the ‘trace the chest with your thumbs/hands’ cue isn’t so easy….I like to blame my bigger arms haha.
Definitely agree that slow reps display full control through the fullest range. What’s also nice is how many options there are for progression: wider muscle ups, fully upright slow muscle ups, L-sit muscle ups etc etc. I’m about to restart the training journey for the L-sit wide ring muscle up, even though towards the end of 2019 I was there or thereabouts with it, so we’ll see what that brings!
Thanks for another amazing comment though, Kurt and I hope training is going well!