So you want to nail a muscle-up? I already know all the reasons you supposedly can't. You're too tall, too big, not strong enough, or your legs are too huge. I've heard them all! And I'm here to tell you they're excuses we use to comfort our egos, and to give you the tough love you need.
It won't be easy, but hardly anything of worth ever is. Start with me, right now, and we'll get there faster than you think.
The Buildup to the Muscle-Up
Before you get your first muscle-up, you'll need to get seriously good at five simple buildup exercises. These exercises simulate different portions of the muscle-up, and, put together, they'll help you progress to the final goal.
If you find that you're doing the "chicken-wing" on your muscle-ups (getting only one elbow over the bar rather than both at the same time), the answer is here. Humble yourself, put your ego aside, and get better at these movements—especially the pull-ups and straight bar dips.
1. Explosive Pull-Ups
You will never do a muscle-up if you can't do a pull-up. And not only one, but at least 10-15—and probably the higher end of that range. The pull-up is the motor that gives you the strength to pull over the bar.
When muscle-ups are the goal, though, you'll need more than your basic slow-tempo pull-up; You need explosive pull-ups. Start at a dead hang, and then try to touch the bar with your chest as fast as possible (don't slam it, though). Then, control the descent.
If you can't reach your chest, don't worry. But that is the goal you should be working towards. Practice this in high rep ranges (at least 10). If that's out of reach, I have a plan to help you get there, too.
2. Muscle-Up Knee Raises
These will simulate the bottom portion of the muscle-up, and help you master the transition around the bar. Hip movement is an under-recognized part of the muscle-up but it comes into play a lot, especially at the beginning stages of the movement.
These are not your regular knee raises. For these knee raises you want to be explosive, with a slight lean back at the end of the movement. Picture picking your knees up and tilting your body back. Practice these for high reps as well.
3. Jumping Muscle-Ups
Now it's time to work on the top portion of the muscle-up. You want to find a pull-up bar shorter than you, or move a box or bench to one at normal height. Grab the bar shoulder-width apart, and squat down low.
Now jump from this bottom position, and pull yourself to the top of the bar. Then, finish with the dip. As you get stronger, move to a higher and higher bar. If it is too difficult at first, move to a shorter bar. This is form practice, so keep this in a relatively low rep range and focus on making your form perfect.
4. Straight-Bar Dips
Perform the jumping muscle-up to the top. From here, curve your stomach out and lean forward slightly. Now dip down towards the bar, aiming for your lower chest. If your stomach touches the bar, move your stomach back so that your chest goes down instead. Practice these for low to medium reps.
5. Negative Muscle-Ups
The best way to learn a difficult move is often to practice it in reverse. That's the idea behind the negative muscle-up, which you perform from the top of the jumping muscle-up.
But here's the thing: You don't just come down. Do it slowly and with control, especially during the dip to pull-up transition. Do these 2-3 reps at a time and focus on going slowly.
Nailing the First Rep
If you've practiced those five movements and gotten your explosive pull-ups up to 10-15 reps, you have the strength. Now it's time to work on the technique. All the strength in the world won't save your muscle-up if you don't know how to direct it properly. Turning that pull-up strength into muscle-up strength happens across three steps.
Step 1: Master the Swing
Grab the bar. See where your feet are? Your goal is to swing them about two feet ahead of you, and two feet behind you. Don't aggressively swing, but the swing should move your whole body forward and backward in unison. This is different than a CrossFit kip. Picture a swinging pendulum, like in a grandfather clock. Now try to match it.
Step 2: Add the Swinging Knee Raise
You can only get here if you've got the swing down, so don't try to skip ahead. Master this step-by-step, and it'll teach you how to go around the bar, rather than just up and over it. That's the real difference between a pull-up and a muscle-up, and it's essential.
At the highest point of your swing forward, right when you are about to go backward you want to do an explosive knee raise, almost like you're stepping on something in front of you and pushing off backward. Once you get this, you'll find that you move upward into a C-shape. This curve is the key to your first muscle-up.
Step 3: Turn Your Wrists and Put It all Together
Now for the muscle-up. Do your swing, then do your knee raise to capture the momentum, then pull as hard as you can while also turning your wrists up over the bar. You can't get over the bar with your wrists still in a pull-up position. You've got to put aside your fear, rotate them around, and get over the bar. Your jumping muscle-ups should help you find the right feeling. Master that last element, though, and you'll pretty quickly get your first muscle-up.
Congrats! You've conquered the pull-up bar and made it your bitch. Now just keep practicing. Don't neglect the movements that got you here, and work towards making it cleaner every time.