TLDR: I recently managed to do muscle ups, and I’m writing this to tell you that they are a lot of fun, and you should do them.

I also want to share a little about my training, and about how miserable wrong expectations can be.

Here are some things you can do in order to do a muscle up, in order of importance:

– Accept that it may take a very long time (and not one workshop, like some youtube super stars would have you believe)

– Eat enough protein to build muscle and cut simple carbs as much as possible until you are muscular and not fat

– Do lots of pull ups until you can do explosive pull ups until you can do weighted pull ups until you can do explosive weighted pull ups.

– Do lots of push ups until you can do dips until you can do bar dips until you can do deep bar dips

– Do crunches and planks until you can do knee raises until you can do l-sit and toes to the bar

– Do bench press 5×5 of whatever you can handle, and then increase weight

– Do bent over rows 5×5 of whatever you can handle, and then increase weight

– Do lots of body rows on low bar until you can do explosive body rows

– Prevent shoulder injuries. Seriously, take your time

The long story of how I got there

Two years ago my fitness routine was mostly two-fold:
1. 12k on the weekend and try to get my time under an hour.
2. Do some sit ups in the morning and push ups at night all throughout the week.

I’d occasionally participate in a half marathon, or 10k beach run, and usually come in somewhere in the first half of the crowd. So I knew that there were people who were a lot better, but I was still prided myself being “above average”.

I also worked my way up to doing 80-90 push ups in one go, and even though I was never able to reach a solid 100, I felt pretty great about getting close.

But at the same time, I was able of doing no more then three, perhaps four good pull ups. I would watch the “bar brothers” on youtube, and I felt like I should be able to do the same stuff they did. After all, it wasn’t like they were lifting super heavy weights and stuff. They were just using their bodies. Kind of like me, with my running and push ups, right?

Wrong expectations

So I started adding exercises to my weekend running routine. I changed my route slightly by going to playgrounds, and if there were no kids around I’d do a few push ups and pull ups before each run and a few after. I also started doing dips half way the run. The whole thing took me about two hours, and I was pretty beat after each run. I was getting stronger, and faster, and I kept thinking that a muscle up was just around the corner.

I was able at some point to get myself over a low bar by setting off with my feet. A few weeks later I could swing myself up and hook one shoulder over the bar, and then sort of claw my way up there. It wasn’t a muscle up, but It felt good to get to that point. Little did I know how long the road ahead would still be.

Here’s a sample of my progress at that point:

My problem was that the youtube guys made it look so easy. And I heard from somewhere that once you can do ten pull ups in a row, you should be able to do a muscle up. So I trained and trained, but when I could do my ten pull ups, the muscle up was still impossible. Later on I heard that dips were a really important part of it too, so I extended my dip routine. At first I could only do three sets of five dips before breaking down. But over the weeks I went to four time five, and then four times six, and then 8-8-5-5, and then four times ten. And I trained and trained and one day I did over a hundred dips with 27 straight in a row as a personal best. But still the muscle up was impossible.

And slowly but surely I began to understand. This was going to take a lot of time.

Wrong priorities

Had I continued my routine, I probably would still be getting stuck at getting “stronger” without getting the results that I wanted. The cardio from the run was eating up my muscle almost as fast I could build more. And the two hour sessions made me too sore to work out for three or four days after. Something needed to change, but I didn’t know what.

What changed

The first change that would come was a 18 kilo kettle bell. It allowed me to work out a part of my body that wasn’t sore from the run. I was able to add a few kettle bell workouts throughout the week and get stronger, which paved the way for other exercises. I’d switch it up with some HIIT and for a while I felt stronger and healthier then ever. But it wasn’t enough.

When my girlfriend and I bought a house in a new area, my running routine changed. We didn’t move too far away from our rented apartment, so I could resume my old running route with a little detour. But that detour involved a lot more opportunity for bar workouts. I was doing more pull ups and more bar dips then before. Then later I found a fantastic path off-road with lots of hills and sandy paths. It was a really hard trail to tackle, so I could release all my energy but make the run shorter, and prevent muscle loss.

I also made some changes to my diet. It really started by testing a home-made protein bar recipe from youtube celebrity Scooby. But around the same time my girlfriend decided to cut sugar from her diet, and figured I might as well follow her example. I started prioritizing protein rich foods over simple carbs, and eating more whole foods in general.

And then we get more and more fitness focused people at the office as well, which resulted in some push up and core strength sessions after office hours. The peer motivation had me working harder then ever before, and with my new diet fueling my progress, I was starting to see changes in my body that motivated me to push even harder.

Eventually I decided to just cut my weekend runs short, and limit it to 6-8 kilometers. I got some heavy weights and started lifting. I went from bench pressing five reps of 40kg to five reps of 75kg (my body weight at the time). I added rows, squats, military presses, etc. to my routine, and kept upping the weight each week. The bench press strengthened my triceps and allowed me to do much lower bar dips then before.

And finally, I got a weight belt and started doing weighted pull ups. At first it was just five kilo, but that turned into ten and then fifteen and then twenty. And then one day…

The first muscle up felt like flying in a lucid dream

I did two pull ups to warm up, and noticed that the weighted pull ups had allowed me to rise higher above the bar then before. So I turned on my phone to film it just in case, and then it happened. After two years of being stuck under that fucking bar, I pulled myself higher then before. My shoulders locked into position and instead of falling backwards like I had every single time up till then, I pressed and rose up. It was just fantastic.

The workouts that will get you there as well

– Do lots of pull ups until you can do explosive pull ups until you can do weighted pull ups until you can do explosive weighted pull ups.

I was able to do three pull ups when starting. If you can’t do that, then find a low bar and star doing negatives first. After that do chin ups, do pull ups with an elastic band, do anything that will strengthen your arms, lats, chest, and shoulders. Then work your way up to doing something like 5-4-3-2-1 regular pull ups. Do all the kipping you need to get your chin over that bar because it will help you get stronger in time. Keep working till you can do 5×5, and then perhaps 10×5, and then perhaps 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-4-4-4. Meanwhile work on your explosivity and don’t just get your chin over the bar but your collar bone as well.

After that add weight. Get a weight belt, or just put a barbell in a backpack (the latter is really uncomfortable though), and go back to just trying for five regular pull ups. And once you can do a 5×5 routine with that weight, add more weight next time.

– Do lots of push ups until you can do dips until you can do bar dips until you can do deep bar dips.
Dips are hard. I could only do 3×4 when I started and my chest and arms hurt real bad the entire week. Remember that push ups work a lot of the same muscles, so practice your push ups first if dips are too hard in the beginning. Also don’t dip too low at first. Just get to a point where you can do 5×5. Then when you have enough control over the dip motion, get a little deeper and try for 4×10 and then 4×15.

After that you will need to find a low bar for you dips. The bar dip is very different from a regular dip, because you need your triceps a lot more. Work your way up to 5×5 bar dips and then go deeper and deeper. Try to get all the way down your nipples (assuming you are a guy) or even lower. But be weary for shoulder injuries, as the deep bar dips put a lot of pressure on your shoulders, which should already be weakened by all the other exercises you’ll be doing.

– Do negatives
Find a low bar and from a dip position lower yourself into a hanging position. Try to do it as slow as possible and not drop to the ground when you get below your deepest dip. I’ve heard that when you get better at doing negatives, about a third of that improvement translates to the regular version of the exercise. So being able to add ten reps to your negativesmay add three or four reps to the regular version. I sometimes add negatives at the end of a training session, to squeeze out the last bits of remaining stamina. It’s a good way to add to the overall time under tension, and to flush the muscle with lactic acid (which will stimulate growth).

– Do assisted muscle ups on a low bar by jumping up in the middle of your swing
Find a bar that’s just slightly above your head. This should be low enough for you to do a muscle up with a jump. This exercise will mostly help you work on the transition between the pull up and the dip. I tried to replace this exercise by handing a rubber band on a high bar, but the band made it super hard to get around the bar and was ultimately useless.

– Do crunches and planks until you can do knee raises until you can do l-sit while hanging on the bar and toes to the bar.
The final form of toes to the bar will build strength in your core that will help you in your upward motion. It will also build your back in a similar way that a lat pulley does, except it has better skill transfer for the muscle up, since it’s done on the bar. The toes to the bar exercise is important because it helps build the muscle that helps you to get around the bar, whereas regular pull ups will just get you to the bar instead.

– Do bench press 5×5 of whatever you can handle, and then increase weight
The bench press will build you chest which gets activated a lot right at the transition between the pull up and the bar dip. And more important then that, if will get your triceps used to pushing a lot of weight with ease. It’s not a crucial exercise and you need equipment for it, so this may be optional for some people. Also, be sure to keep an eye on those shoulders. For me, going up to benching bodyweight (75kg) was the best I could do, because my shoulders were being used up in all the other exercises already.

– Do body rows on low bar until you can do explosive body rows bent over rows 5×5 of whatever you can handle, and then increase weight.
Build your back strength with body rows on a low bar until you have good control over that motion. This will allow you to go heavy on your bent over rows safely.

– Do some curls
I thought that doing heavy curls would get me over the bar, but I found later that the biceps are not as important as the back, or the triceps, or even the chest. I now do curls only because they are my weak point when doing reverse bar rows. You don’t want to under train your back, just because your biceps are burning up before your back does. But other then that, biceps are not all that important for your muscle up.

– Save time by alternating muscle groups
You can alternate between pull ups and dips, or bench press and rows for instance, to speed up your training. Basically, you will be using one muscle group while the other one recovers.

– Prevent injuries by skipping ahead to an exercise that you are not ready for, as it will result in losing a ton of time while recovering. Also don’t do that thing I did with getting one shoulder over the bar and then climbing up. That is not a muscle up, and can also be bad for your shoulders.