While attending a Mov Nat workshop last Spring, I saw the instructor Kellen Milad do a muscle-up. It wasn't part of the official Mov Nat instruction, it was just something he casually did when no one seemed to be looking. I noticed, however, and asked him how long it took him to learn the move. His response was "a while!"
Looking at Kellen, it would seem as though he was born with the ability to do muscle ups, flags, and backflips. He has that type of "heroic" physique that screams "good genetics!" So, to hear that it took him "a while" to learn the muscle up flipped a switch in my mind.
|Kellen hanging out...sideways...off of a pole.|
For those of you you aren't familiar with a muscle up, it's essentially a combination of a pull-up and a dip. The movement is done explosively so that both motions are seamless but it's the transition between the two that is the real crux of the problem. Many people can do pull-ups. Many people can do dips. Not many people can do muscle ups.
I was one of the people who could do pull-ups and dips, but after talking to Kellen, I became determined to learn the muscle up.
The Problem with YouTube
Once I decided that I was going to figure out how to do a muscle up, I went on YouTube to see if I could find some tutorials. I found hundred of videos demonstrating how to do a muscle up, but 99% of them were completely unhelpful. The individuals in the videos had clearly mastered the muscle up quite some time ago and, while their own progress was impressive, it didn't do me a bit of good since I was nowhere near as strong as they were.
The Good Thing About YouTube
Fortunately, even though 99% of the videos were unhelpful, 1% was extremely helpful. I had stumbled upon Global Bodyweight Training's channel and it was the first one to show an actual progression that I could use.
I finally felt like I had the tools I needed, so it was time for me to get to work.
How I Learned The Muscle Up
Prep Work - Pull-ups and Dips - I could do at least 10 really strict pull ups and about 20 strict dips, so I didn't worry about doing more. It was clear that the muscle up required a lot of strength and explosiveness, so building endurance (by doing more pull-ups and dips) would have been a waste of time. Instead, I focused on doing pull-ups and dips with a weight vest that allowed me to work with 5-25lbs of additional resistance and also learned how to do the kipping pull-up (shown in Global Bodyweight Training's video).
Progression One - Assisted Muscle ups
To get the "feel" for the movement (ie. training my nervous system to start develop the specific firing pattern of the muscle up) I began with "assisted" muscle ups. Using a low bar, I utilized my legs to guide my upper body through the muscle up pattern. This showed me how important hand position is and that using a "false grip", one where your wrists are bent, putting your hands "above" the bar is essential. Without the false grip, you won't rotate over the bar as you do your kipping pull-up and won't end up in a position to press up from the dip.
Progression Two - Jumping Muscle Ups
Moving up to a higher bar, but one that was still low enough for me to jump up to, I began working on the "jumping" muscle up. First, I just focused on getting my chest to the bar. I stood about a foot or so away from the bar and used my arms to guide the movement as I jumped into position. Gradually, I began moving my feet closer to the bar and increased the amount of extension through my shoulders and back. This gave me a way to develop a feeling for the pre-stretch. This initial stretch is like pulling back on a rubber band and is what actually allows you to do a full muscle up.
Progression Three - Partial Muscle Ups
This step was simply a continuation of the previous step, but using an even higher bar. Doing this forced me to use the pre-stretch phase exclusively because I couldn't just jump up to the bar even if I wanted to. It took me several weeks just to get consistent doing this progression, but as I went along, I started to feel like I could do a full muscle up.
Progression Four - Muscle Up
The final step, a full muscle up, happened one day while I was working on the partial muscle up progression. I did a partial muscle up to get over the bar, and as I let myself down, swung forward and immediately swung myself back up into a full muscle up. It was a pretty amazing feeling to finally get this as it had taken me a couple months of dedicated training to get to this point. The feeling didn't last forever, since doing something once is very different than doing something consistently.
Since doing that first muscle up, I have had to go back and work the previous progressions numerous times. It took an additional month or so of training to be able to now do a muscle up consistently and It is now my goal to do consecutive repetitions (currently at 2-3 depending on the day) by continuing to develop strength, power, and refinement in my technique.
A Note on Workout Frequency
For training a complex movement pattern such as the muscle up, I believe that frequent training is most effective. I found that working on my muscle ups at least 3 days a week (with rest days in between) was most effective. Part of this, however, was consciously avoiding muscle failure and maintaining a commitment to doing only quality repetitions. As soon as my form became sloppy, it was time for me to either work on an easier progression or to call it quits for the day. This not only helped avoid injuries, but it also "taught" my nervous system proper form.
A Note on Callouses
As I increased the frequency of my training, I found that the calluses on my hands started to tear off (sometimes called a "flapper"). Aside from the pain of exposing the nerve endings and blood vessels on my hands, each time this happened meant at least a week of missed training. Tired of this, I went to Wal-Mart and bought a $10 pair of finger-less bicycle gloves. They worked like a charm and without them, I don't know if I would have been successful in my goal.
Check out my video "How to Muscle Up - A Step by Step Progression" to see the process in action!