Most people assume that after thirty their best days lay behind them, but that doesn’t have to be the case. At age 49, Paul Roberts overcame a life-disrupting shoulder injury and achieved the first of many muscle ups. Read his story below and follow his training program for a shoulder-friendly and sustainable route to performing your own muscle ups.
The Paul Roberts Guide to Safe, Strong Muscle Ups
I’m 51, I have hardly any hair and even less fashion sense, but I can do something that most gym goers of my age, often of any age, can’t: muscle ups. A well-performed muscle up isn’t just a great upper body exercise, it’s a statement. It sets you apart from the crowd.
Unfortunately, the negligent pursuit of muscle ups can very easily lead to injuries which can strip you of the ability to do any kind of training for months at a time. I found that out the hard way, in fact I’d claim it’s exactly because I got injured that I’m able to do muscle ups safely today. I’m going to share my shoulder-friendly, strength-based training approach with you in this article. You can jump straight to that if you wish, but I hope you’ll also read the intervening sections to appreciate why shoulder health should never be taken lightly.
Shoulder Tendon Injuries Are Terrible
Before we get to the training, I want to impress upon you just how limiting shoulder injuries can be. Unless you’ve experienced such an injury first hand, you have no idea of the misery it can bring. Forget upper body pushing exercises; they’re out of the question. Forget the classic lower body exercises because handling heavy discs is a no-no, and anyway that shoulder isn’t going to like the arm position for squats or taking weight in a deadlift. Even running could be off the menu due to the repetitive arm movements, and sleep is also likely to suffer, because lying on your side is a recipe for pain. What’s more, this will be your life for quite a while, because anything involving tendons heals slowly.
It’s important to realize that shoulder injuries often start small, creeping up on you slowly until it’s too late. In my case, my shoulder problem first presented as a minor niggle about four months after I’d started pursuing muscle ups in earnest. When I was throwing a ball for my dogs, I’d sometimes feel a slight twinge on the first throw. A month later, I’d get slight soreness on the first couple of reps of a shoulder press. The sore would be gone by the third or fourth rep and wouldn’t return no matter how heavy I went, so surely it couldn’t be anything serious? In retrospect, this was a classic symptom of shoulder impingement, but it was easy to ignore it, and so I did. When it later became bad enough to make me look into shoulder rehab exercises, I figured I could just include those exercises in my regular training and carry on as normal. I’d done the same with countless injuries in the past, even a bout of Achilles tendon trouble, and everything had worked out. It looked like things would play out the same this time too.
About a week later, and more by luck and momentum than strength, I managed a muscle up on rings. That was my first ever muscle up, and my last for eighteen months. As soon as I came down from the rings I knew I was in trouble. The pain was bad enough to make me accept that further muscle up training was out of the question for a while, but at least I could keep training in other ways, right? Wrong. Again and again I backed off the things that caused pain and kept going with the rest, only to lose another exercise, then another. In the end I was left with nothing but pistol squats, morale-destroying shoulder rehab with 1kg hand weights, and gentle jogging.
When it comes to shoulders, please heed this advice:
- Don’t think it can’t happen to you.
- Don’t ignore niggles. They are a sign that something you are doing, or not doing, is upsetting the delicate balance of your shoulder joint. Fix it now, or pay dearly later.
- If you do allow that niggle to develop into an injury, stop training and visit a sports physiotherapist who really knows shoulders. Then follow the physio’s advice religiously, but at the same time self-research your condition as completely as you can. This has several benefits: it allows you to perform a sanity-check on the advice you’ve been given, it may get you better treatment, because most professionals will be more motivated to help a patient who wants to educate themselves, and it will help you to continue your rehabilitation and avoid re-injury after your physio sessions have ended.
- If you’re over a certain age (let’s say over 40), be prepared to challenge any advice that you can never return to your desired training. Often this advice will be based on the average client in your age range. Would the expert still be saying “never again” if you were in your twenties? Always explore the alternatives—are there exercises you can do that will offset imbalances or other problems your training may create?
Incidentally, finding a good physio can be much harder than you might think. On my third attempt I found a physio who had looked after a national wrestling team. Unlike her predecessors who had given me a variety of exercises, she gave me just two, but scrutinized my form. Where the others had given the go-ahead to continue with most pulling exercises, she insisted on a strict six-week hiatus from all upper body exercise, save for the rehab. After already losing months of training this was not what I wanted to hear, but everything she told me checked out. I followed her advice to the letter and saw genuine progress. It’s worth noting that even with this excellent physio, the first two sessions were the most useful; the remaining two were essentially check-ins to ensure that everything was progressing as expected.
When I was finally released back to training I had lost a lot of condition, my shoulder still felt fragile, and I could only manage three pull ups before fatigue set in. I hadn’t lost sight of muscle ups, but this time I was determined not to rush things. I wanted to achieve them safely and in a way that was sustainable, which brings me to the “how to” part of this article.
Training For Your First Muscle Up
My approach to muscle up training is based on strength. There are a handful of technical points to remember, but beyond that, it’s all about building strength specifically for muscle ups, and balancing that training with complementary exercises to stay injury-free. Once you’ve gained sufficient strength, you will be doing muscle ups.
As you’re aware, there are several variants of muscle up. They can be performed on a bar or on rings, and they can be achieved through brute strength or instead utilize the stretch-reflex and the so-called “kipping” motion. I’m going concentrate on what I consider to be the most shoulder-friendly form: bar muscle ups achieved through strength and strict form (arms in near-perfect sync), with no pre-stretch and no deliberate swinging or kipping.
I’ll outline the elements that I consider essential for a successful first bar muscle up. Read this section carefully. The details matter and can make the difference between success and failure.
Rotated Grip and Grip Width
How you grip the bar is a hugely important factor in a successful muscle up attempt, yet there seems to be a lot of conflicting advice on the web and in tutorial videos. Some say you need to use a “false grip.” Others say the false grip is unnecessary, and yet others seem confused about what a false grip is anyway.
I’ll make this really simple, because it is really simple. In order to transition from the pull up phase of a muscle up into a dip, you must have the major knuckles of your hands facing forwards rather than upwards. Unless you do this, the muscle up will not be possible. You may have seen videos of people starting a muscle up attempt with a regular pull up grip (knuckles pointing upwards). Go back and watch those videos again and you’ll see the athlete’s hands rotate forwards as their shoulders clear the bar.
It is far, far easier to start with your hands in this rotated, knuckles-forward position. The more rotation you can get, the easier the muscle up will be, but how you achieve this position is a matter of personal preference and physiology. If the bar width and the dimensions of your hands permit, you may be able to simply rotate your hands with your thumbs still around the bar; this is my preferred position because I don’t feel “in command” of the bar unless my thumbs are an active part of the grip.
However, you may feel more comfortable if you take your thumb out of the grip entirely. In a still more extreme variation, neither the thumbs nor the fingers are actually gripping round the bar; instead, the hands are “hooked” onto the bar, with the finger tips trapping the bar against the heel of the palm. Theoretically this provides the maximum advantage in the transition phase of the muscle up (the shift from pull up to dip), because the knuckles are not only rotated to the front but are shifted forwards on the bar. Experiment to find the grip style that suits you and stick with it.
The distance between your arms is just as important as the rotated position of your hands. When most people are told to adopt a shoulder-width grip, they actually go wider than their shoulders—their arms end up splaying outward from each other slightly. This makes a muscle up considerably more difficult to achieve and increases stress on the shoulders.
Using a gym mirror or feedback from a training partner, make sure that your arms are either strictly parallel, or perhaps tapering inwards very slightly. This is how you’ll achieve your first muscle up. You can experiment with different grip positions later if you wish.
Pull Up Behind the Bar, Not Under It
During a muscle up you pull yourself up behind the bar, rather than staying directly underneath it. You must do it this way in order to achieve as much height as possible before you transition into the dip above the bar. Another way to think of this is that instead of pulling yourself up to the bar, you’re trying to pull the bar down towards the tops of your thighs.
Use Your Legs As Counterbalance
As you pull up towards the bar, there’ll be a natural tendency for your upper body to lean back away from it. This is the opposite of the position required for the transition phase of the muscle up. Instead, your head and shoulders should be aiming forward and over the bar. To help you achieve this position you need to bring your legs forward, as though adopting a loose “L-sit” posture.
The best way to learn this is to try some dips on a low straight bar, such as the bar of a Smith machine; more on this later.
Keep Your Elbows from Lifting Up and Out
Most people, myself included, have a tendency to raise their elbows away from their sides as they attempt the transition from pull up to dip. While this may be a natural response, it isn’t mechanically helpful, robs you of strength when you most need it, and increases the stress on your joints. It’s a lose-lose proposition. Always try to keep your elbows close to your sides as you enter and battle through the transition phase of the muscle up.
Foundational Training Exercises
What follows is a summary of the main exercises I used to achieve my first muscle up. You’ll notice that they don’t feature a regular serving of triceps dips. Triceps dips on a bench have been out of favor for reasons of shoulder health for some time, but I’m not keen on the regular dip-station variant of the exercise either; the distance between your arms can rarely be adjusted and it’s very easy to stray into shoulder-damaging bad form. I didn’t need dip training to get my first muscle up (other than the counter-balance practice I’ll describe later), and I certainly didn’t need it once I could do muscle ups on a regular basis. Once in a blue moon I do try a handful of weighted regular dips just to gauge my strength. I usually find I can comfortably handle more weight than most other people in the gym. Dips just aren’t necessary if you do the transition-specific exercises I describe below.
I’m also not an advocate of doing negative muscle ups on the bar until you’re strong enough to do the whole thing under your own steam—your form will be lacking, you won’t fully understand the movement, and you’ll strain your shoulders, elbows, and wrists unduly. The exercises I’ve listed below will get you the results you want while minimizing the stress on your joints.
Obviously pull ups are a going to be an essential part of your training, but at what point can you declare yours to be “good enough” for muscle ups? A common metric used in tutorial videos is the maximum strict form reps you can perform in a single set, and the magic number often quoted is twenty. This usually comes without any justification, and prior to my shoulder injury, I dismissed it as too arbitrary. Now I endorse it, and here’s why.
Some contenders for pull up world records have stated that there is a very close correlation between strength and max reps up until twenty or so; only after that does endurance play a bigger role. My own experience tends to confirm that. I set twenty pull ups as my ceiling as I fought back to fitness after my injury, and on reaching that, I began to include weighted pull ups in my training for the first time in more than a year. I discovered almost immediately that my one rep max for weighted pull ups had actually increased over my previous personal best, achieved when I was only capable of fifteen continuous pull ups. What’s more, the training that got me to twenty reps brought other benefits: my grip strength and grip endurance were better, my pull up movement was more efficient, and when fresh, the height and speed I could achieve in an explosive single pull up were much improved.
This brings me to another important metric for pull ups: height. The more height you can gain from the pull up, the easier the transition to the dip becomes. As a guide, videos I took from my early muscle up attempts indicate that “good enough” is when, at the very top of an explosive pull up, the bar is at mid-chest level. Prior to that, you’re asking too much of your transition strength.
So what training can help you reach these milestones in your pull ups?
As a starting point, I recommend trying the legendary Armstrong Pull Up Program until you get a feeling for the types of exercise that get the best results for you. In my case, I found that the workouts involving escalating hardship and timed rests suited me well, both physically and psychologically; the “pyramid” was and still is my favorite pull up routine (timed rests between sets, adding one rep each set and ten seconds rest for each rep done in the previous set, until failure).
There is one exercise I credit most for getting me past my final sticking point on the way to twenty reps, and it may surprise you: pull ups assisted by a resistance band. Yes, I’m talking about the classic beginner’s configuration, with one end of the band strung over the bar, and your knees or feet inside the loop at the other end. One day a week, and in the privacy of my own home (because using the band in public takes unusual bravery) I would do four sets of twenty reps using the band. As I fatigued I even allowed myself to use the rebound from the band to get extra help on the final reps, but I always refused to quit before I’d reached twenty. I believe this helped in two ways:
- Mechanically I was getting significant help for the first 30-40% of the pull up but at the top, which is the hard part, I was still on my own.
- Psychologically twenty now became an obtainable number. The importance of this should not be underestimated, especially if you subscribe to “central governor” theory.
To further help with height and the top portion of the pull up, I’d recommend two drills: speed sets and iso-hangs.
- For speed sets, do two rapid-fire repetitions of the fastest and highest pull ups you can manage. Rest for a fixed period such as thirty seconds, then repeat. Perform as many sets as you can before speed and height seriously degrade. Try to keep the movement as smooth as possible as this will produce the best speed and height; tension from an overly vigorous approach is a barrier to performance, not an aid.
- For iso-hangs, get a partner with a stopwatch, pull up to maximum height, and hold there for as long as you can. You really do need a partner for this, not only to handle the timer but also to provide encouragement; it’s a truly unpleasant exercise. As fatigue sets in try to pulse higher on the bar to eke out a few more seconds. When your hold time approaches a minute, try it weighted.
There is one other thing I’d like to add: I’m a big fan of “scap pull ups” as a warm up prior to a conventional pull up workout. A set of ten reps causes no fatigue but gets the shoulders moving smoothly, efficiently, and ready for what is to follow. Prior to including this in my warm up routine I always felt that a workout-opening max reps attempt would end prematurely due to inefficient movement; my second set of pull ups would feel much better mechanically, but of course now fatigue would rob me of the new personal best I was seeking.
Front Tuck Levers
I believe there’s a big crossover between front levers and the transition phase of the muscle up; as I got closer to being able to perform a front lever, my transition strength increased. It’s a simple exercise, but it’s easy to perform incorrectly.
While hanging from the bar, bend your knees; the greater the angle at your knees, the easier each rep becomes. Keep your arms straight, and your core engaged to maintain your posture, raise your feet up towards the bar. Do not bend your elbows, and refrain from using your abs and hip flexors to curl your legs up to the bar unless you absolutely have to. Imagine that everything below your shoulders is carved from stone, rigid and unable to move; the entire lifting and rotational movement occurs at the shoulders. Hold for a second when you reach the top, then lower as slowly as you can and repeat. If you do this correctly, two or three sets of five reps will be challenging. You can always increase hardship by reducing the bend at your knees, and by stopping and holding position for a few seconds at various points.
Cable Lat Pulldown Transitions
If you could only do one exercise for building transition strength, this would be it. It allows you to train the basic muscle up movement with variable load and provides a consistent way to track your progress.
The ideal candidate for this exercise is a cabled lat pulldown machine with a leg restraint, and enough travel to allow the bar to reach that restraint. If your gym’s lat pull down machine doesn’t measure up, you can substitute any tall cable station or even resistance bands, with the drawback that you may pull yourself off the floor unless you load yourself down (weight vest, chains draped around shoulders, etc.)
This exercise can be done after pull ups, but make sure that your triceps haven’t been pre-exhausted by any prior training.
Here’s how to set it up:
- Fix a straight bar to the machine; as long as it’s at least as wide as your shoulders, you’re good to go.
- Adopt an overhand grip on the bar much as you would for a muscle up attempt; you can even use your preferred rotated grip style if you wish.
- Starting with your arms overhead, bring your elbows smoothly down to your sides against the resistance.
- Keeping your upper arms fixed by your sides, continue pushing the bar forward and down toward the knee restraint until it makes contact. As you do this, curl your hands so that your major knuckles face forward, or even forward and down slightly.
- Slowly return to the start position the same way; let the forearms come up first while keeping the elbows fixed by your side, then let the upper arms rotate up too.
I used to perform two variants of this exercise. The first prioritized strict form and control over the speed of the bar, progressing to the heaviest resistance I could handle while still maintaining a slow smooth movement throughout each rep, for five reps, perhaps stopping and holding briefly at random points. The second variant was basically a negative transition. I upped the resistance, getting the bar down to the lowest point any way I could, then tried to slow the return movement as much as possible.
When you first approach this exercise it’s natural that you’ll try to match the resistance to your body mass, on the assumption that when you can perform the exercise at that level, you must have enough strength for a real muscle up transition. In all likelihood you’ll discover that what you can handle falls well short of your body weight, and you’ll feel demoralized. The good news is that if your pull ups are strong and high enough, you will be able to do muscle ups before you reach this landmark. As a guide, I achieved my first muscle up when I could manage 55kgs (versus the 75kgs that I weighed) in the strict version of the exercise.
Simple Tiger-Bend Push Ups
A great way to follow lat-pulldown transitions is to perform a few sets of so-called “tiger-bend” push ups. These come in many different flavors, but the simplest variant will suffice. Start much as you would for a regular push up, but with your hands slightly further forward than usual and strictly body width apart. Lower your forearms down until they make contact with the floor, taking care not to splay your elbows out to the side, then push back up into the start position.
Bar Dips For Counter-Balance Practice Only
As already stated, the muscle up transition requires you to know how to counterbalance your upper body by bringing your legs forward, as though in a loose L-sit. The Olympic bar in a Smith machine or squat rack is fine for practicing this, even if it is free to rotate.
Set the bar around chest height, jump up into the top position of a dip (like the finish of a muscle up), and get your balance. Now slowly lower your chest down towards the bar, bending your elbows. As you do this, you’ll instinctively feel the need to project your legs forward to maintain balance. The lower you go, the more you’ll need to involve your legs, bringing your feet upwards and further forward. Push back up and notice how your leg position returns to near vertical.
Once you’ve got the hang of this, you’re done. There’s nothing to be gained by doing more straight bar dips; the earlier transition exercises will give you what you need.
Exercises to Balance All Those Pull Ups
In a typical training week I average more than two hundred pull ups, and you’ll probably be doing much the same. By most regular gym-goer standards that’s a high number, and if you don’t actively seek to balance it, there must eventually be consequences. Your lats, already large and powerful muscles, may become dominant, leading to posture and shoulder problems. Push ups are a partial counter to all that pulling, especially if you focus on protracting the shoulder blades at the top (as in a “push up plus”). I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Armstrong pull up site promotes push ups as a companion to its program.
Push ups are only part of the equation, however; you also need to work on your core and ensure that you keep upward shoulder rotation healthy and unimpeded. There are abundant choices for building and maintaining core strength, but when it comes to upward shoulder rotation, careful selection may be needed.
Rather than including traditional shoulder presses in my workouts, I prefer alternatives that are more forgiving if any shoulder dysfunction is present, known or otherwise:
- Scaption with a shrug: starting with arms by your sides, raise dumbbells upward in a wide V (not directly to the side) with your thumbs uppermost, until your arms are parallel to the floor. Now execute a shrug and make a controlled return to the start position.
- Landmine shoulder press: although a simple exercise this has a multitude of variants, each with its own benefits. As long as you maintain good form, they all provide a more shoulder-friendly upward pressing motion.
- Face pulls with neutral grip: A well-executed neutral grip face pull activates the upward rotators, rear delts, rhomboids, and external rotators. Don’t let your elbows drop and keep the resistance low enough to execute the whole movement, especially the return, in a slow and controlled way.
If you’re wondering how many reps and sets are needed to counter all those pull ups, I’m afraid I’m not going to give you a direct answer. My feeling is that you don’t have to provide an equal and opposite level of exercise to avoid problems. I believe it’s enough to maintain good functional strength in the opposing movements, and perhaps more importantly, retain a strong mind-muscle connection. I have no data or research to back that up, but that’s what guides my own training and it hasn’t let me down yet.
Rotator Cuff Exercises
It’s wise to include exercises that specifically target the rotator cuff muscles, regardless of the main activities in your workout. My favorites are:
- External rotation: there are many variations for this; learn good form for a few and cycle through them each week. Keep the resistance light, and only do concentrated sets at the very end of the workout; continuing to exercise hard with fatigued cuff muscles is a recipe for injury.
- Side-lying abductions for the supraspinatus: this is almost certainly overkill, but regardless, I like to follow my general cuff exercises with one that specifically targets the supraspinatus muscle. Lie on your side, uppermost arm straight, holding a light dumbbell. Rest the dumbbell on your leg and let the upper arm relax completely for a second, then slowly roll it off to your rear and begin a small upward and downward pulsing motion, with your arm externally rotated so that your thumb is uppermost. Keep the movement small; in particular, don’t raise your arm more than fifteen degrees from your side, otherwise your delts may join the party. Repeat until fatigue is felt.
Reverse Wrist Curls
Once you begin using your preferred muscle up grip and making muscle up attempts, your wrists will be subjected to more stress than they’ve previously encountered; I find reverse curls to be a great way to offset this and avoid strains. With your forearms supported, hold a barbell or dumbbells with a pronated grip and curl your hands upwards; a couple of high rep sets to failure at the end of your workout should suffice.
Thoracic Spine Mobilization
Just about everyone should do regular thoracic spine mobilization, but given that muscle up training requires curling forward and around the bar, I think it’s particularly wise to keep the reverse movement healthy. There are plenty of exercises to choose from. I favor the “barrel” on a foam roller or slam ball, and lying rotations. Just be sure to cover both extension and rotation.
Trigger Point Release
Though once a huge skeptic, I am now a firm believer in the benefits of trigger point release. I believe it does help resolve muscle knots and tightness, but equally importantly it can detect incipient problems before they hinder normal training. I always carry a hard rubber lacrosse ball to give my pec minor, lats and triceps muscles “the once-over.”
Putting Everything Together
Mountain climbers have to be wary of summit fever; the desire to reach to the top can be so strong that it compromises decision making and leads to avoidable accidents. Similarly, the desire to achieve your first muscle up can lead you to push your body too hard. Always remember that the fastest route to success is to maximize progress while avoiding injury.
It will be tempting to make very frequent attempts at muscle ups, but I’d advise against that— it’ll become a distraction from the training you need to succeed and it’ll put you at greater risk of injury. Instead, try the following test-train-test cycle:
Re-read the bar muscle up essentials section of this article to load the crucial points in your head. Warm up thoroughly then video at least two attempted muscle ups, one from the front or rear, and one from the side. If any part of the muscle up movement feels unbalanced, or if your arms fall out of sync as you enter the transition phase, abort immediately, rest, and try again. Never try to fight your way through an attempt that has gone wrong; you’ll just fatigue your muscles prematurely and may injure yourself.
Study your videos carefully. Look for simple technical flaws: was your grip too wide, or not sufficiently rotated at the start? Did your grip slip out of rotation during the pull up? Did you remember to pull up behind the bar and use your legs to keep your upper body upright as you ascend? Did you allow your elbows to wing out? Now, look at the height you achieved in the pull up phase; if your armpits didn’t at least clear the top of the bar, you need to concentrate on getting higher pull ups. The higher you can go with the pull up, the less work you’ll need to do in the transition.
Now, commit to a period of training during which you will not make any further muscle up attempts. I recommend a month, but if you gain strength rapidly a shorter period such as two weeks may be more appropriate.
When this period is up, make your new attempts, scrutinize the videos, and either celebrate madly or get started on your next training cycle. How you structure each training cycle is, of course, a matter of personal preference; much will depend on your current condition, training history, and other commitments, but here’s how I did it.
I prioritized my pull up training above everything else, always doing pull ups before any other exercises, and training four to five times each week until I’d achieved the landmark twenty rep set. After that, I switched to doing pull ups three times per week, but they remained the first thing I did in any gym session. I introduced front tuck levers, lat pulldown transitions, and tiger bend push ups to my routine twice per week to build my transition strength, allowing at least two days recovery between each such workout. Throughout all this, I would run through the injury prevention exercises three times per week, every week, at the end of my main workout.
Training like this, I found that every six weeks my progress would begin to stall, requiring a “deload” week to recharge. During deload weeks I refrained from pull ups and transition training, doubled-up on the injury prevention exercises, and diverted more effort in to my legs. I hated these “off” weeks but on my return to normal training, progress always took a leap forward.
To finish, I’ll deal with the question that everybody asks: “how long until I get my first muscle up?” The only way I can answer is to say this: in the absence of technical flaws such as a bad grip, it will happen when you achieve sufficient strength. Have faith in the training, and one day when you’re making a scheduled attempt you’ll find yourself up above the bar.
1. Paul Roberts is a life-long fitness enthusiast and fitness photographer. You can view his work or get in touch via his website.
2. I’d like to thankPerformance Gym in Kilwinning, Ayrshire who allowed me to use their excellent gym for the videos and photos in this article.