Alternative exercise instead of muscle-up

Straight bar muscle up

I somewhere, came across someone searching for an alternative to the muscle up. At first I thought it would be rather silly to look for something that replaces this fine movement, but the more I thought about it, I actually liked the idea of writing an article about it, since breaking movements down, often gives you a better understanding of how they are performed.

What I suspect this posts ends up being, is actually both a guide to alternatives, but probably also; a guide that would enable you to train your way to the actual muscle up.

There can be several reasons why you would be looking for alternatives to muscle ups. You may want to reap the benefits of the muscle up, without performing the actual exercise since you are either unable to perform it, or does not have the equipment available.

Let’s start by breaking down the muscle up, which is done rather easily. It basically consist of a high pull up and the pressing part of a dip. I am very well aware of there being a thing, as the transition in between, but training/strength-wise and looking at alternatives to the actual movement, this transition phase is insignificant.

Let us start with the pull up part of a muscle up. Anyone can see, that a muscle up is started by doing a pull up, but if the start of a muscle up is; just a pull up, then why aren’t everybody that are able to do a pull up, capable of muscle ups? Some will claim, that the reason for this, lies in the transition, that I just labeled, as being insignificant. You could also argue that the difference comes with the grip, as you, for the most part, will use “false grip” on muscle ups and regular finger/hook grip on pull ups. But then teaching any person capable of pull ups, false grip, should get them their muscle up; or at least in conjunction with teaching them the transition.

This could happen; for the very few that actually have spend some time doing their pull ups all the way up, not just stopping at the chin, but pulling all the way till the chest touches the bar, or your shoulders are all the way above it. That is what really separates a regular pull up and the pull up that is part of a muscle up. Therefore drilling it down, in our search for alternatives to muscle ups, we need to have a pull up, that focuses on pulling ourselves as high as possible. But merely getting us there is not enough. We need to be able to stay in the top part of the pull up long enough to make the transition.

Therefore wrapping up the pull-part, we need to perform a pull up bringing us as high as possible, preferably chest to bar and then making a 1 sec pause, at the top, before descending.

The press part of the muscle up is, as explained earlier, pretty much just the pressing part of a dip. But there are some rather significant differences as we are trying to emulate the muscle up. When you do a regular dip, you for one thing often will not go much lower than your upper arm being parallel to the floor. But in a muscle up you will never, unless doing kipping muscle up, land in a position where your upper arm is parallel to the floor; you will be much lower. Therefore to emulate you need to go as low as you can in each repetition of your dips.

Just going really low, will be adequate to resemble the pushing part of a muscle up in rings, but if you want even more of an challenge, you should look for a straight bar or a table. Straight bar strict muscle ups are way harder, than in rings. You cannot put your body in between your hands, to gain a slight mechanical advantage. Therefore looking for a challenge when ordinary dips becomes easy, emulate the straight bar muscle up by finding a bar or a table where you can perform your dips. I would recommend that you keep your hands close together with your pointing fingers just touching and creating a 90 degree angle between them.

These dips can be very demanding and challenging to do, as both strength and balance is tested, but your strength returns once you are able to go all the way down and up on these are incredible.

To wrap this up, I will claim that if you have been training to do these alternatives and are able to pull you all the way to the bar and pause there, plus being able to push your way out of a low dip, you can with a few technical pointers actually perform the full muscle up movement.

Having bodyweight goals with barbell routines

Handstand Parallettes

This is fifth part of a series of posts about going from bodybuilding/barbell training to bodyweight/gymnastics(BG), the first part is here, second part here, third here and fourth here.

So we arrive at integration. How to incorporate these more complicated movements into our existing barbell routine. This is where the fun begins, where critics and naysayers will get in line with admirers and most everyone who watches you train, will have an opinion. You are now separating yourself from the other gym-goers. This can be a fun experience, as some people are very impressed by the exercises you do; but it can also be a bit tiring when you, for the tenth time, try to explain to the meathead, which muscles this exercise is training, and if that succeeds, then follow it, by telling him why you do it. Focus on movements over specific muscles can make some people look completely disorientated. But the great thing in this world, is that both of you, can be on the perfectly right track, towards your goals. So no need to discuss which approach is superior.

As I briefly touched upon, in the last part, you would put the exercises that have the highest priority on your long term goals, at the start of your workout. This is not something that is unique for bodyweight/gymnastics(BG) hybrids, but rather a basic element of good programming. Start with the things which have the highest priority for you, whether this is a 250kg deadlift, a straight arm pike press, one arm HS or 100 meter sprint times. When both your body and mind are fresh, your performance will be superior and your ability to learn and adapt, is at its highest.

When I say start with, this of course means after, you have done your proper warm up. You can have a very generic warm up, you do each time, and you know, will get you warm. But I always strive to make the warm up, specifically aimed at the workout, I have that specific day. This means, that if I start my workout with for instance, standing overhead press and deadlift, before moving on to bodyweight exercises, my warm up, would be geared towards the barbell exercises, that I start with. Therefore in that case I would use a specific barbell warm up routine I have developed. If I would start of either in rings or doing some handstand press, then my warm up would consist of shoulder mobility and some shorter freestanding handstands(HS), just to get a feel of it, and get both my body and mind geared towards the exercises I have lined up.

Whatever your approach is, the takeaway point is; do some sort of warm up that is geared towards, what you are warming up to do. I could sit 10 min on a stationary bike and be “warm” when I am done, but I would probably still need some specific warm up sets before my freestanding HS would be consistent. Even though I have a super stable freestanding HS, I will still wobble and not feel totally in control, before my core is warm, wrists and shoulders have been stretched and I have had a few freestanding HS. If you are a beginner, this “problem” will magnify, so keep your preparation in mind.

Now to give a few specific examples on how I would go about integrating bodyweight/gymnastics(BG) into my workouts.

For 4 months, leading up to february this year my main goal was to increase my overhead strength, as I was part of a hand-to-hand act, that was due to be shown in february/march. My secondary goal was putting on some lost muscle mass to my back.

Having established these goals as primary, it was pretty easy for me to start my two weekly workouts with standing overhead press and deadlifts. I used wendlers 5/3/1 template for these two lifts in that period, with great results. Then following these lifts I would do some “maintenance” BG work with rings. Maintenance, because in that period, I did not push through, to come closer to having an iron cross or planche on rings, as this was not my primary focus, but I kept working on my straight arm strength(SAS) and ring skills, so my performance on these, did not delude that much.

Following that period I had 5,5 weeks of preparation for a crossfit competition, where I totally skipped BG, because my main goal at that point was CF; just to one more time, underline the fact, that your goals should dictate your workouts.

Now I am back to working on my BG goals, which are iron cross and straddle planche on rings, I will still keep standing overhead press, as this has just become one of my favorite barbell exercises, and makes my shoulders even stronger. As I am still an aesthetics-guy, deadlift might stay as well, but might be swapped at times, for some other good mass builder for the back, like pendlay rows or the like. Or maybe just changed slightly to snatch-grip deadlift, in order to put more stress on the upper back. But now, I will only do these barbell movements once a week, keeping the other training day pure BG, and I would consider splitting them; keeping standing overhead press in the start and deadlift at the end. My reasoning for doing this would be, that my performance on standing OH press will decline dramatically by being at the end, but my deadlift(with mass as opposed to strength as goal) will not suffer from being in the end.

The day that had the barbell movements, would then consist of BG movements that supplemented my iron cross and rings planche goal, but a little less demanding than the “pure” BG-day. This would be done by doing feet supported iron cross pull outs, instead of unsupported. It could be doing tuck ring planche training, instead of advanced ring planche. But just keeping in mind, that going all out several times a week, may lead to injuries as your joints and ligaments, may not be able to regenerate. I am not saying that this approach will keep you injury free, but having the thought in your head, may serve as a good pointer, steering you clear of some nasty surprises.

The second training day, would then be pure BG, and this focus would be right from the warm up. Doing shoulder mobility, making sure that my wrists were properly warm and flexible, then followed by some handstands.

Today I did L-sit – pressing as high as possible and then going from there to bent arm pike press to HS. I have reached a point where I can do these without going all-out, and they just make for an awesome bridge between warm up and the main exercises, as they work your core, your shoulders in full range of motion and your concentration, as you need to balance, while doing them. As soon as you are able to do these, either on parallettes or between some step boards, then have them as a stable part of your workouts. Your shoulders will thank you for doing so, and your press proficiency will skyrocket.

I followed those, by doing L-sit iron cross pull outs to advanced tuck planche. I knew that now my shoulders and entire body was ready for some serious beating. I do them by lowering as far as I am able to on the iron cross, then reversing and pressing/leaning into the advanced tuck planche. Apart from this being an awesome exercise as it works my two primary BG goals, the pure feeling of pressing through straight arms and moving your body around those straight arms, just makes you feel absolutely awesome – it suddenly feels like you are within ring-gymnast territory, in a way that bent arm ring movements are not able to replicate. SAS takes a long time to build, but the payback, makes it all worth it!

Today these were followed by L-hang to wide grip L-sit muscle up, then strict chest to bar wide grip pull ups, and finally snatch grip deadlift. Normally, I would have put something like wall planche push ups, in before the snatch grip deadlift, but running low on time, they were left out.

This was just some examples, to give a little insight, on how you could incorporate BG into your barbell routine. As I wrote this I actually thought about doing some more examples in the format of; if your goals are this and this, I would program like this etc. Then choose some of the most common goals like muscle ups, front and back lever, press handstands and the like. Now the idea is written down, and then I can consider doing it in the future.

Strict muscle up prerequisites

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So, first of, why do I have a picture of a chest-to-bar pullup – probably THE most used pullup/chest-to-bar picture on the entire planet, at the start of a blog posts, that from the title, seems to be about muscle ups? Apart from the fact that I just love that picture, it actually shows one of my points, I will get to in a few seconds.

This is by no means going to be an in depth post about muscle ups, there are quite a few of those around.  But more, a few points, on what you should have under your belt, before expecting to be able to train, the muscle up. Remember that this is for strict MU. All your swinging, dancing, wavering around kipping-stuff, can most certainly, enable you to do a MU without these prerequisites – but a strict MU, is just cooler – and that’s a fact!

 Getting back to why I have a picture of a chest to bar pullup. The reason for this should be quite obvious; if you plan on getting you body over the bar, then you better be able to get it all the way TO the bar. The best way to ensure this, is to be strict with your pullups. Always go as high as you can, pause for a second, then lower yourself back down. You will experience that your strength will decrease rather quickly, and you may only be able to get your chest all the way to the bar the first repetition or two, but keep having it as a goal. Keep your body tight, and do not allow your knees to come in front of you, at least not before the last 1 or 2 reps. As you get stronger, pull even further down and allow your shoulders to come over the bar or rings – still pause a second at the top, to eliminate any momentum from your initial pull. Time spent working on this top pullup position, will pay itself back once you get to working on the actual muscle up. And the adverse effects of having done so, is an impressive strict chest to bar pull up!

 Next, make sure that you have a good “false grip”. This can be incorporated in your pullup training, but do not try to do all your pullups with false grip, since your grip will fail, before your back muscles get their proper workout. But work on it and get comfortable with it.

 A little tip for rings is; when you normally grip the rings you would grip at the bottom of the rings, with the “south” part of the ring(north being where the strap attaches), in the middle of your hand, between your ring and middle finger, you now, when going for false grip, instead grip a little “forward” in the ring as shown in the last picture.

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Now on rings, you can manipulate the space between you hands as you go. Keep the rings rather close, as you pull down, and once you passed your nipples, get your hands just outside of your chest and underneath your shoulder, which of course then is a bottom dip position – from there; you just push yourself up. Doing strict muscle up on a straight bar, is a lot harder than rings, since you cannot put you body in between your hands, as you are able to on rings. But the tip here is; that the narrower the grip you can get, while maintaining false grip – the better. Wide grip muscle up is way harder than narrow grip.

 Finally an old clip of me showing 3 parts of muscle up. First high pullup, then muscle up with focus on transition phase and finally a wide muscle up.