How I Got My First Muscle-Ups with Basic Calisthenics Training

Hi! I am the author and founder of Old School Calisthenic

December 21, 2018

Muscle-ups are damn cool and because of this and their complexity, they inspire people to start bodyweight training as it happened in my case. Even though I practiced calisthenics mostly for physical fitness, doing muscle-ups was also one of my objectives.

A couple of years ago [when I was a beginner] I saw some guys doing muscle-ups and, motivated by them, I jumped on a bar to see if I am able to perform likewise. I didn’t know back then what was required for this great feat. I was skinny, untrained and weak. As a result, I failed in my attempt. Heck, I wasn’t even able to do 15 correct pull-ups at the time, but I hoped I could muscle-up over the bar instead.

If you tried too and failed then you’ll agree with me that they are tougher than they look at first glance. Of course that athletes with years of dedicated training will make muscle-ups look easy. This is only because we see their results without understanding all the struggle behind. It was foolish of me to believe I could muscle-up without knowing the details and without being well-trained.

However, my failure was soon filled with the ambition to train and master the skill properly. I was mentally prepared for what was going to come and my only hope was to be successful fast while putting in the work. I didn’t master the technique within the timeframe I wanted, but it came eventually:

With this article, I want to tell you how I did it and what you can do in order to be successful too. Let us dive in the specifics:

Get Lighter

Muscle-ups will come faster for you if you are lighter. This comes as a paradox if you watched my video. You can see me muscle-up easier at the end of it even though I am a bit more heavyset. The reason is that over time and with training I enhanced my strength and performance. I bulked up wisely by keeping a low body fat percentage whilst also maintaining my overall mobility [which matters for dynamic strength]. I didn’t end up looking like a bodybuilder: aesthetical, apparently strong but not functional enough. So each pound gained meant more power and functional strength.

Now, if you are heavy because you are fat, then that will never help you do muscle-ups unless you’re very strong and mobile. In this case, you have to get lighter first by cutting fats. But you must also do calisthenics training to increase your basic strength or lose weight as well with it, depending on what type of training you pursue. Some athletes lose weight with bodyweight training while others [like myself] do it by including cardio workouts. Like the saying goes: All the roads lead to Rome.

Going back, the physique I had at the beginning of the video was attained with basic calisthenics training. However, before that, I was also running long distances [cardio], almost every day, to get fit and light. These two activities allowed me to achieve the level of fitness required for my first very-bad-form muscle-ups. I just did it going through one training style to another.

Get Stronger

You have to develop a solid basic strength. You have to pull-up and dip with perfect form in order to muscle-up. Don’t try muscle-ups unless pull-ups, pushups, and dips feel easy enough.

It took me more than an entire year to lose weight and to increase my fitness level only for doing muscle-ups the way you see in the first clips. You may do it faster or longer depending on many particular variables and also depending on how consistent you are with your training. However, it took me another few months to a year to be able to muscle-up with a clean form and with more repetitions. You have to embrace the idea that performance will come with time.

My training schedule was to train for 5 times a week and included at least two workout sessions for pushups, dips, and pull-ups. However, my training log wasn’t designed for doing muscle-ups. I mainly planned to train for hypertrophy and strength. But, once in a while, when I felt it was right, I gave it a try. I failed almost every time I tried until one day. Afterwards, I couldn’t do it again. I could only muscle-up on the same bar I did the first time. It required continuous trial and error until I could do it every time and on every type of bar.

You have to understand that you have to get stronger, but I think it is best if I give you some numbers too.

At the time I was able to muscle-up with a decent form I could also do 20 straight and correct pull-ups, more than 50 correct pushups and more than 30 correct dips on parallel bars [1 set, without stopping]. Take this only as a reference. It might be different for you, I know that.

I’d say that if you can do over 100 pull-ups in a single workout, and 100 dips with over 200 pushups in another workout then you should have the required strength and endurance for muscle-ups.

Therefore, these are my numbers or at least how I see strength converted into something more practical. Obviously, your particular set of skills, sports background, training regimen and body weight are all variables that might influence those numbers. One thing to note is that  I saw guys that were able to muscle-up easy without being able to do 15 straight pull-ups or 100 pull-ups in a workout. But here we must take a closer look at other variables, as I discussed. Or maybe, their legs are just extremely thin.

To conclude, you can train to achieve this performance and then you know for sure that you’ve got what it takes.

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You Don’t Need Dedicated Training

Maybe those guys that can do muscle-ups without fitting into my recipe are the ones that constantly do dedicated training. I haven’t done any, even if all the YouTube recommends me doing negatives and straight-bar dips.

I think I could have achieved the skill faster if I’d integrated some dedicated exercises as well. But then again, I had to train for hypertrophy too.

You may not need dedicated training, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have to try muscle-ups anytime you feel it so. In my opinion, you can’t watch a video and simulate the technique regardless of how much they try to explain it there.

The technique is something you have to experiment and feel by trial and error. It’s like trying to cook the perfect meal. You will fail at the beginning even though you have the recipe and ingredients to hand.

Master the Following Exercises

I would strongly recommend you train with wide pull-ups, clapping pull-ups, chest-to-bar pull-ups or even weighted pull-ups. These variations will enhance your dynamic and maximal strength. The list goes on and you must also include dips, maybe weighted dips, diamond pushups, and skull-crushers.

The rest of your workout routine can include other pulling and pushing variations. You can do cardio and HIIT workouts too, they will help. With time, your performance will increase and you will want to give those muscle-ups a try. Therefore, I suggest you warm up very well and attempt muscle-ups before strength workout.

I am usually stronger and feel a lot stronger after a running session. I also don’t think you should use elastic bands to help you out because the elastic bands eliminate momentum.

You need momentum to generate enough acceleration to boost up on the bar, especially until you learn the technique.

How to Get Stronger

If you bulk up, then you might lose your mobility. You have to make sure you gain strength while keeping your elasticity. To ensure you do this right, you can integrate some mobility work too at the end of your workouts.

Train pull-ups, dips and pushups twice a week because strength is a skill. The nervous system gets stronger when you keep challenging it.

I hope you’ve found my tips useful and if you seek more content about how to get stronger with basic bodyweight training, just explore the blog section. Let me know how you got your first muscle up and how long it took you. Email or message me on Instagram.

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