Coaches Chat - Brian Foley Discuss Improving Ring Muscle Ups

Coaches Chat - Brian Foley Discuss Improving Ring Muscle Ups

18 Sep

Coaches Chat - Brian Foley Discuss Improving Ring Muscle Ups

People who try to fast track improving muscle ups generally stop progressing or get hurt. This is directly opposite to successful athletes. Athletes who build a base of support of skill + volume make much faster and longer term improvements in their muscle ups! 

Big Dawgs Coach Brian Foley, and I had a really good time discussing all things muscle up in this video. Secretly, muscle ups were at one point in my competitive CrossFit career an achilles heel for me, so I have always loved to discuss them out of selfish curiosity!

In the video, we hit on these big topics:

  • What is a ring muscle up? - a definition and explanation to give context to the conversation
  • Why are muscle ups challenging for people? - be it technique, strength, or muscle endurance, there are some barriers that people need to overcome.
  • What technique and drills help improve the skill of the ring muscle up?
  • What type of training or programming helps to improve your max muscle ups set?
  • What helps you improve muscle ups in workouts when you're tired?


What is a muscle up?

Brian defined this really well for me:

“A muscle up is a combination of a radial pull up into a dip that results in a full supported position over the rings”

In layman’s terms - a ring muscle up is where you start hanging underneath the rings, pull yourself up, transition to being over the rings and finish with your arms locked out on “top” of the rings.

For reference - Ring Muscle Up

I did ask Brian what he meant by radial (mainly because I’m not smart enough haha), and Brian beautifully explained it as “circular motion as opposed to up and down.” Brian meant that it isn’t so much of a purely vertical pull, it is more of a side to side pulling movement.

Why are muscle ups challenging for people?

Brian, referring more so to the skill of the muscle up, said that muscle ups are challenging for most people because muscle ups require an advanced amount of connection and proprioception in space. It’s very challenging for people to create and maintain tension on the rings - the straps allow a lot of energy to dissipate during the movement if the athlete doesn’t actively move to maintain that tension.

I asked Brian how important it is to be strong to have a pull up, and Brian went into a few key areas that he likes his athletes to have prior to doing kipping ring muscle ups:

  • 5 strict pull ups
  • 5 strict dips

Without that ability, it’s very challenging to show control in the movement especially to do more than 1 muscle up. That baseline strength not only helps people do reps, it also helps them stay protected in the shoulders and elbows when they do reps. If your tendons haven’t built up enough strength and exposure, and then all of a sudden you add violent swinging around the joint into your life, you leave yourself more open to injury.

End of the day...too many people are trying muscle ups or trying to rep out muscle ups prior to understanding tension in the rings and strength inside of the movement.

I asked Brian if muscle endurance limits people, and he said yes but that he more often sees technique efficiency being more important than muscle endurance. Without technique efficiency, it exacerbates people having to use muscles which would bring in muscle endurance too much.   

What are great technique cues or drills you give to improve people’s muscle ups?

Going back to technique skill, Brian likes to build up a quality “tense” swing forward and backwards to learn how to exploit the ring straps to your advantage. As you improve and build quality tension, you build up to an almost too high back swing.  When you are high enough in the back swing, you have created stored energy that you can then “drive” back forward through the legs and ultimately hip, lats, and arms to fire over the rings.

When people have learned a quality pull (toward the rings), Brian helps people make the transition from below the rings to above the rings in a really interesting way. He mentioned having them drive their hips as high over the rings as they can, like a pole vault almost, and then miss that fictitious pole vaulting bar with their hips on the way through. That really helps people understand where their hips need be to set them up to whip through the rings. 

I also mentioned that I have seen thousands of people make these errors in the movement:

  • When people’s feet/knees stay too high as they are trying to transition their head through the rings - the only person who is amazing at this is Amanda Goodman
  • When people keep their hands too tight on the transition - if your hands are too tight, your hands literally stop your elbows from getting into the right position

Amanda Goodman setting a world record 1:06 into the video!

How do you improve a max set of muscle ups?

I tried to put some context to this question by asking Brian how he helps people go from 3-10 muscle ups in 1 unbroken set.

Brian described this portion in a program design - or workout progression - way. Here is a simple layout of how Brian helps to progress max sets with his athletes:

  • Get their max set in the front of the week of training - have them perform a max set
  • Take 50% of that max set as their baseline rep number to build from
  • In the next muscle up workout - often 2-3 per week for clients focusing here - Have them do a 5 minute EMOM (every minute on the minute they do 2-3 reps). Assuming they maintain quality and can hit the sets, success
  • In the subsequent workout, you add a minute to the set
  • You build volume this way for a few weeks
  • You add progressive sets such as
    • 3 sets by 3 reps + 2 sets by 2 reps, 1 set by 1 rep
    • 4 reps by 1 set + 3 sets by 3 reps
  • After volume has built where volume is total reps per week
    • You test your max set
    • You take 50% of that from the new number
    • You add minutes to the EMOM
    • You add progressive sets
  • Then - lather rinse repeat for weeks depending on the person

The real goal of a strategy like this is to add total volume plus check ins on endurance for people. As they build experience, technique, and strength, they gain confidence and pure ability to hit higher numbers.

How do you improve muscle ups when you add in fatigue and other movements to them in workouts?

Brian discussed a brilliant foundational framework as to how to look at this progression. An athlete should go through this progression to build muscle up capacity with fatigue and in workouts with multiple or numerous movements:

  • Do muscle ups in a skill based way to learn - this is really just learning the movement
  • Do muscle ups in a non-fatigued, volume building way - these are your EMOM’s
  • Do muscle ups in a cyclical, fatigued way - this may be Assault Bike + muscle ups in intervals
  • Do muscle ups in a complementary movement + fatigued way - the movement other than the muscle up is one that doesn’t directly “harm” your ability to do muscle ups. Think of lunge walks (no weight), that shouldn’t hurt your ability to do muscle ups outside of becoming tired
  • Do muscle ups in a non-complementary movement + fatigued way - this time, the additional movement to the muscle up is one that does “harm” the muscle up, perhaps it could be burpees (upper body pushing is similar to the dip), or maybe it’s rowing (hip extension/flexion + upper body pulling)

Of course you can work complementary and non-complementary movements into EMOM’s as well to progress, and some people need those steps particularly in the non-complementary movement scenario because they get tired so quickly initially.

What is an example of somebody who was not able to improve their muscle ups, and what is an example of somebody who did improve their muscle ups rapidly?

People who try to fast track improving muscle ups generally stop progressing or get hurt. This is directly opposite to successful athletes. Athletes who build a base of support of skill + volume make much faster and longer term improvements in their muscle ups! 

And with that...we’re out!  Thanks for reading!

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