MOTM: The Strict Muscle-Up

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A gymnastic classic, this has been made popular in the last few years by the growth in calisthenics and CrossFit. Not just for gymnasts, now bodybuilders, weightlifters and athletes are adding this move to their routines. Now you find people in commercial gyms, garages and in parks doing it on pull-up bars and in the rings. Either way, it’s a potent move that requires just as much body awareness, core power and slick co-ordination as it does upper body strength. If you haven’t seen it before, it’s a move where you start hanging in the rings or off a pull-up bar, and then without swinging or momentum, you pull yourself up and over the rings, and then press yourself out of a dip up into a straight-arm, locked out position in the rings. A little warning, this is not just a combination of a pull-up and a dip, it’s a lot trickier. It looks MUCH easier than it actually is. You need to be strong just to do one of them. To help us with this MOTM, Chris Oman, the head coach and strength and conditioning expert from Cape Crossfit, and the man in the picture, provides tips and tactics. He’s also able to rep these out at will – see the clip below for proof. “I love the strict version of the muscle-up as it tests a lot of things simultaneously. You need good body control and the strength to be able to pull yourself from below the rings to above them, and then to dip out,” explains Chris. “Flexibility and co-ordination are two other important factors.” And if you’re concerned that this move is just for gymnasts, it’s understandable, considering they use strict muscle-ups just to start their routines. But then you’ve got ask, don’t you want to have the same strength, bodyweight power, and a torso shoe-horned with muscle that gymnasts have? Exactly. The good news is that you have a lot of progression options to get to a strict muscle-up, you just need to get started.


  1. Arguably the ultimate upper body move. Al Kavaldo, a leading calisthenics coach and bodyweight specialist, wrote in an article here for T Nation that the muscle-up is the best upper body move in the world, beating the bench press soundly. Now before all the weightlifters and powerlifters cough into their protein shakes, he has sound motivation: bench press just works the “pushing” muscles while the muscle-up does both “pushing” and “pulling”. And the muscle-up adds a huge focus on your core and your co-ordination, while the bench press can’t claim to work your whole upper body. In our opinion, both moves have their place, and you should have both in your workout plan.
  2. No queues. In a global or chain gym, how often do you have to wait for a pull-up station versus a bench or a squat rack? If you’re working on a bar or in the rings (more gyms are stocking them), you’ve normally got no one competing for training time.
  3. Body awareness. To do this move, you need to “link” the separate moves (pull-up, sit-up, dip) and the way your body moves to make this exercise a fluid and easy one. It helps you with proprioception (knowing where your body is in space) and makes you more co-ordinated. This provides a more functional, interconnected strength that athletes are famous for.
  4. Train it almost anywhere. Buy a set of rings here or here (we prefer wooden over plastic) and then take it on holiday with you. Throw the straps over a tree branch, building strut or bar and you’re good to go. Chris prefers rings for good reason. “They’re such a versatile tool, after you mastered the muscle up there are so many other movements that you can practice on the rings. And on top of that, the rings are moving objects (compared to a pull-up bar), so they strengthen the stabilisation muscles in your shoulders and upper body,” says Chris. “But this is also the reason why you should treat them with respect – these moving objects can really hurt you if you don’t practice in a supported position first.”

“The order for the muscle-ups goes (from easier to harder): Kipping Bar Muscle-Up, Kipping Ring Muscle-Up, Strict Ring Muscle-Up, Strict Bar Muscle-Up,” says Chris. The reason why strict bar muscle-ups are toughest? “When “kipping” (swinging or using momentum) against a fixed object like the bar you can create more momentum than on a moving set of rings, but when it comes to the strict version it’s easier on rings as you can pull “through” them which is obviously impossible on the bar.”

Start at the beginning. Can you do at least 5 or so strict pull-ups? Then start working on chest to bar pull-ups. “Once you’ve got that in your arsenal, it’ll imitate the range of motion better,” says Chris. “You also need to make sure you have enough strength to do a few strict ring dips with good technique (locking out with straight arms at the top) – you don’t want to be the guy that gets over the rings but then cant dip out to lock out fully.” You also do a few hollow rock sessions too. Then the most important part of the training is work on the transition, but while supported on the rings and your feet in contact with the floor the whole time. “Kipping can help you get your first muscle-up BUT my recommendation is to start with a strict version to build strength, correct movement patterns and to ensure that you’re in the safest position once you get over the rings for the first time,” says Oman. For the strict muscle-up,a false-grip makes it much easier.

If you want to learn how to do a muscle-up better (and can’t come to train with Chris), and then check out these two clips. Start with one of my favourite coaches, Carl Paoli, here or see the clip below. Then move onto a this athlete Chris Spealler and his video with efficiency tips here. And Spealler knows his stuff, he does 30 of them in less than four minutes – check it out here.

5 reps strict bar or ring muscle-ups. But even one is very respectable.


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