Getting Your First Muscle-up

No single bodyweight exercise works your entire upper body as thoroughly as a muscle-up. It is truly the king of bodyweight exercises, bar none.

I’ve blogged about muscle-ups before, but it’s a topic that people continually ask about. With that in mind, I’ve created this guide towards getting your first muscle-up on a straight bar. (If you are using rings, check out my muscle-up on rings tutorial.)

Beyond Pull-ups
Before you can achieve a muscle-up on a straight bar, you must be able to comfortably perform pull-ups and dips on one, but there is no set rule for how many reps are needed as a prerequisite. Some people who can only manage six or seven pull-ups can muster up a muscle-up, others who can bang out twenty dead hang pull-ups still continually fail at getting through the sticking point; the muscle-up is a unique challenge and must be treated as such.

Get High
Before you’re ready to do a muscle-up, practice doing pull-ups with an exaggerated range of motion. Instead of stopping when the bar is below your chin, pull that sucker all the way down past your chest. Get as far over the bar as you can!

Jump Right In
It can be helpful to practice a modified muscle-up on a bar that is about chest height so you can use your legs to help jump into it. (If you can’t find a low bar, bring a step or a bench up to a high bar.) This will let you get a feel for the transition from being under the bar to getting on top without having to overcome your full bodyweight. With practice, you’ll learn to rely on your legs less and do most of the work with your upper body. Once you’ve gotten the hang of jumping into a muscle-up, you’re ready to attempt the real deal.

Kipping is Appreciated
When you are learning to do a muscle-up, it’s helpful to use your hips and legs to generate additional power to get your chest beyond the bar. Do whatever it takes to get yourself up and over – nobody’s first muscle-up looks perfectly clean. As you get stronger and more comfortable with the movement pattern, you can begin to work cleaning up your muscle-up technique, as well as working on other types of advanced muscle-ups.

More Muscle-up Tips
Like all bodyweight exercises, trunk strength plays a big part in performing a muscle-up. Always practice your planks and L-sits to keep your abs strong.

Beginners might find it helpful to use a false grip when performing a muscle-up on a bar. This entails bending your wrists over the bar so that your palms are facing toward the ground.

Just like when you are working on getting your first pull-up, it can be helpful to practice negatives and use manual assistance while learning to do a muscle-up. If you are going to spot someone on a muscle-up, I suggest giving them a boost by holding them under one or both heels, as if you were helping them over a fence.


For more information about muscle-ups, pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.

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  • yikai

    Thanks for the tutorial! :D
    Going to practise and get a muscle up on video, then i will show it to you (:

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    You’re welcome!  Now get to work!  :)

  • Lee

    Al, your videos are very motivational.  Thank you.  I am pretty solid on ring muscle ups.  The first time I tried on a bar, I assumed it would be easy because you don’t have the instability factor of rings.  Boy, was I wrong!  I still cannot do a single muscle up on the bar.  The transition just seems so much harder to get. It is very frustrating because I am generally pretty strong having lifted weights most of my life and having even competed in some powerlifting and won a few bodybuilding competitions.  I now mostly do bodyweight work because I think the results are generally better than with weights and I think it is much easier on the joints and back.  Although I am 52 years old, I am determined that I will learn to do muscle-ups on the bar largely because of motivation from your videos! Thanks again.  BTW, I just ordered your book.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yeah the ring m-up and bar m-up are both unique skills.  Keep at it, Lee!

    And thanks for your book order – can’t wait for you to read it!

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  • Christopher Walker

    Hey Al, thanks for the pointers this morning on the muscle up and for pointing me here.  Appreciate the help.  I’ll be working on this and will let you know when I get it!  Great site btw.  See you at the park.

  • http://twitter.com/CTheFlow Christopher Walker

    Al, did my first three muscle ups today!  Thanks for your and your brothers’ pointers.  Helped a ton :)  

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Congratulations, Christopher!  Sounds like a Christmas miracle!  :)

    Glad I could help!

  • reincarnate100

    Hey Al, I can do a Muscle-up if I have a slight back and fourth swing, combined with a kip, and also with my arms bent at 90 degrees.

    I don’t think I can do it from a Dead Hang, even with the swing and kip.Does that mean I need more work at explosive/high Pull-ups?

  • reincarnate100

    Actually, perhaps I can do it with a Dead Hang too but it’d require a big swing and kip. I guess the only really way to get a strict Muscle-up is to practice sets and reps of momentum variations? Also, is it harder doing it on a thicker bar? My park only has a really thick bar, and I swear it was so much harder to do! I found it hard to pull without slipping.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    You’re pretty good at answering your own questions!  I find muscle-ups to be more difficult on a thick bar too.

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  • reincarnate100

    Hey Al, yesterday I managed 21 pull-ups, which was special to me. And today, I managed my first ever muscle-up! I didn’t swing, and it was from full extension. But I had to kip. Nobody give up if they’re working on this. I thought I’d NEVER do this, as if my body wasn’t genetically able or something, but just keep working at it! We’re working out!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZhaKh4yFoPI

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Congrats!!  That looked a lot better than my first muscle-up!

  • Rob White

    Hey Al,

     is it possible to do a strict muscle up on a power tower (i.e one of those free-standing chin up / dip / vkr frame gizmo’s)? I’m quite light – only 71kg bodyweight.

    I have rings, but i also want to work my muscle up on a straight bar.

    I’ve moved recently and there’s no parks near me, so i cant practice it on a straight bar in a nearby playground or anything.

    I’m renting an apartment at the mo, but i do have a garage with alot of overhead space. I cant screw any permanent fixtures into the wall / ceiling, so a free standing power tower is about as good as it will get for me. 

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    It’s possible to do a muscle-up on just about anything!  Though a power tower is not the ideal set-up to learn the technique, sometimes you’ve gotta work with what you’ve got.

  • Grandslammer94

    I just got my first muscle up today. Dead hang but i had to swing on use legs a little.

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  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Congrats!  Keep practicing and you’ll get it cleaner with time.

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  • Dave

    Al, what do you think about the muscle up progression method where you pullup and then put one arm over the bar first, then the other?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    It can be a good way for a beginner to get started.  I address that technique here: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/05/client-spotlight-kartiks-first-muscle-up/

  • high pull up

    i just can’t do these high pull ups. so that means i need to do at least 20 pull ups?

  • Dave Cyco

    Thanks!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    It means you need to keep trying!  Be patient and don’t give up!

  • reincarnate100

    Hey Al! I’ve been working hard since I last commented here and can now do muscle-ups a lot better than before. I’ve been trying to reduce all leg movement: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbARcRcO1dA&feature=player_detailpage#t=39s (skip to 39 seconds if it isn’t already there). I have a problem though – I’m using my hips to gain extra momentum (even though it doesn’t look like it), and when I don’t do that, I have a hard time at the transition and changing my grip. I’d like to be able to do a perfect no swing muscle-up like Zef. I think I’ve seen you do them perfectly in one of your videos too, so do you have any tips, or is it just a matter of increasing my pull-up power even more? Right now I’m training pull-ups with +45 lb added (never done weighted until this week). I hope it increases my power. What is your opinion on that? Thanks!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Nice reps!  Keep practicing and refining that skill.  You’re on the right track!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Al!!! I’m so excited! I just randomly decided to try a slow bar muscle up, and to my astonishment I did it!!! I’ve only done a few muscle ups since I started focusing on one arm chin training about a week ago. But it looks like my one arm chin training is really helping my muscle ups! Although I have to agree with you; I don’t think muscle ups will help one arm chins beyond a certain point. I still have a lot of joint conditioning to do, though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    Not necessarily. I, personally, found better results for the muscle up by focusing on generally harder pull up/chin up variations. After I did slow ring muscle ups I did those a few times but when I started training for one arm chin up is when I really started noticing gains on the slow bar muscle up. But, I never tried the kipping one. Just do whatever you can do; harder stuff will tend to build more strength, which is crucial for muscle ups. Al recommends the high pull up not only because they are harder, but because they are the exact move to practice for muscle ups. But, other advanced variations will benefit you as well. There’s a lot of carry over between exercises, I find, with calisthenics. So just keep training smart and hard and you’ll get there eventually!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    I use one of those towers myself. I hang the rings on the bar, although that’s not ideal as I don’t have tons of clearance but it allowed me to learn and get enough strength from ring muscle ups to do a slow muscle up on the bar. I have some free weights holding down the legs, though, because that bar can get wobbly. It’s not sturdy enough to do muscle ups with momentum, because the wobbliness destroys your ability to slingshot yourself, but it is definitely sturdy enough for a slow muscle up.

  • Rob White

    Hey Robby, yeah i saw a few guys on youtube (small and lean like me) do very slow controlled muscle ups on a power tower. I’m not really interested in learning kipping muscle ups, so to stick with the controlled ones is fine with me. In fact, like you, my main approach is to focus on the one arm pull up as a priority.

    However, since my last post here i decided i wanted something more portable, with an adjustable bar height that can go from a fairly low position to a fairly high position (for good ring height), a good bar thickness, and capable of handling plyometrics as well. A tall order, but the TAPS bar seems to meet those requirements. Its absurdly expensive for what it is, but i’m viewing it as a long term investment. You can even set up a stretch band on it to use it as a handstand rebounder. I spoke to the manufacturers and they said it might even be possible for a smaller fella like me to practice clutch flags and full flags on it if i angled my body towards the centre of the frame where it would be most sturdy.

  • adrian

     hm, it is exactly the back of the elbow tension-pain the main reason i cannot do one muscle up. i can do 16 pull ups and 25 dips, however the pain i feel at the back at the elbows when even doing negative muscle ups is unbearable. i am not sure why is that since there is no pain when doing dips, hand stand push ups or even one arm push up.

  • Robby

    Adrian, i also find the muscle up to put a unique type of strain on the elbows. the only solution to this is conditioning. keep practicing your muscle ups, but when your elbows start to hurt, back off! joint strength conditioning takes more time than muscular strength conditioning. I found that, if i backed off at the earliest stages of this discomfort, i could still door other exercises without irritating my elbows. advanced pull up variations (as you would do to train for one arm chins) are something i found to be helpful for muscle up training. once you can do a muscle up, gradually ramp up your reps ans you will be building joint strength. also, i found that doing the negative slowly helps develop joint strength. also, try to focus on flexing and using your shoulders, chest, and back as much as possible. to me, this seems to alleviate some of the pressure from the elbows. good luck!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Congrats on your progress, Robby!  It sounds like you’re starting to really understand these movement patterns.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Good advice!

  • adrian

    Thanks a lot!

  • reincarnate100

    1 more question: when aiming to pull the bar to below my chest (stomach), should I be actively focussing on pulling up and AWAY from the bar so as to avoid my chest prematurely hitting the bar?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Yes.

  • reincarnate100

    For some reason I forgot to do that last week, and I was getting stuck at the transition!

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  • jacfabel

    hi Master ALKAVADLO, i learnt the muscle-up by your video on youtube one year ago, thanks man, i do muscle-ups 2 day every week, each day i do 150 muscle-ups, my worst time is 40 minutes my better is 38 minutes,
    average = 3.75-3.95 MU/minutes, MUST I IMPROVE THE AVERAGE OR TO DO MORE MUSCLE-UPS WITH THE SAME AVERAGE? thanks

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Glad my video helped! There are many ways you could progress from here. I’d suggest working on getting your form cleaner instead of going for more reps or a faster time.

  • jacfabel

    that is true man, thanks

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