Theo Caldwell is the co-owner and founder of Push N Pull Fitness and a fitness motivator and influencer
Strict bar muscle-ups aren’t just for calisthenics athletes: they’re a move that show that you’ve got full control over your body, and a way to build muscle in areas that are otherwise difficult to hit. When I first started strength training, I was so strong in the gym but I couldn’t pull myself over a bar – I never ached like I did after my first calisthenics session. Now, I can do multiple strict muscle-ups – but it’s not how many reps you do, it’s the form you do it with, the grace you can show, your breathing technique, and your activation of the right muscles. Instead of trying to find an easier way to do your moves, why not try to make the moves as hard as possible and master them like that? Here’s how to do the cleanest muscle-up you can.
Clean up your pull-ups
First and foremost, you should be aiming to pull extremely high on your pull-ups: to at least your lower chest. If you aren’t doing that, then you’re always going to need some form of kip, and you’re reinforcing bad habits. Also with that in mind, keep your legs and toes pointed, with everything contracted. You should be engaging your lower back, your lower abdominals, glutes. Glutes especially are key: if they’re weak, it makes your core over-reactive. Keep your body in a straight line, aiming to move straight up and down like an elevator. Doing less reps per set but keeping the quality high is better than cranking out a bunch of junk reps.
Ditch the kip
A couple of years ago, my attitude about ‘kipping’ muscle-ups was basically: if you can’t do it clean, why do it at all? But if you’re training with smart progressions, and using a bit of a kip because you don’t have the form and technique completely clean I don’t have a problem with it. The problem starts when people use kipping as a crutch and look for more and more reps with sloppy technique. Use kipping if you need to, but commit to cleaning up your technique as soon as possible. Once you’ve got a kipping muscle-up down, you should be able to do a strict muscle-up in a month or so.
Work the transition
The muscle-up isn’t just a pull-up and a dip: learning to master the transition is key. First, make sure you pull the bar down in front of you – if you’re pulling the bar to your chest and struggling to get over it, then your elbows are probably moving too far backwards. Keep your wrists strong, then lean slightly forward and pull the bar to your hips. This lean is essential, as it gets your weight over the bar and flips your elbows over in preparation for the dip. Bring both elbows up and over at the same time: some people will do the ugly version of the movement, with one elbow at a time, as a progression, but it looks nasty and it’s an injury risk. Aim to do it clean, with minimal kick. Once you’re over the bar, just dip it out. Assuming you can do a dozen clean bar dips, this is the easiest part of the move.
It’s not about adding a crazy amount of weight or reps with bar muscle-ups, but mastering the form, trying to make it beautiful. That’s what will add strength, and muscle. It takes time, but it’s worth it – so start today.