A muscle-up is a staple skill in Calisthenics training. Unlike pull-ups and dips that can be achievable on the first attempt if you are relatively fit and light, the muscle-up needs to be trained specifically to be able to do it.
On average, one needs to be able to do around 10 to 20 pull-ups to be able to do muscle-ups. The quality of the pullups matters more than the maximum number of pull-ups one can do. If the Calisthenics practitioner can do two clean below the chest pull-up, there is a greater chance for the muscle-up to be achievable.
Though muscle-up is a pretty impressive skill for beginners to achieve, it is also quite risky to rush into. The combination of power and coordination needed for this skill is too complex for a beginner to do correctly without risking shoulder or elbow injury.
10 to 20 pull-ups to do the muscle-ups
These numbers vary greatly depending on whom you’re asking, but my personal preference is to go for 20 reps of pull-ups before working specifically on your muscle-up. The main reason is working on the higher end of the range will establish a solid foundation, which will place you in a safer situation once you incorporate power and swinging movement in the latter part of the practice.
The swinging nature of the muscle-up movement, especially in the early attempts of a beginner, will expose your shoulders and elbows to awkward moments of catching the body to pull it over the bar. And every failed attempt of the muscle-up is a sudden letting go of the muscle contraction at the top of the pull-up in an attempt to take advantage of the recoil from the sudden drop of the movement.
Only being able to do a maximum of pull-ups shows how little time and training you have spent on the movement which we can safely assume that the ligaments and tendons have not fully adapted to the specific stress of the movement.
A research article from Frontiers in Physiology states that there is an imbalance in the adaptation of muscle and tendon, subjecting the tendons of athletes to higher levels of strain during maximum contractions. This simply means that our tendons will take a longer time to adapt than the muscles.
Spending longer time training on a specific movement will give our tendons to catch up from the strength gained by our muscles. In the early stage of your Calisthenics training, you will be more productive in building muscles and strength with the basic movements. Here are articles I wrote about how to build muscles in Calisthenics and how to program your Calisthenics workout specifically for strength improvement.
Here is a 6-week Ladder Program to increase the number of pull-ups you can do. You can do this routine for 1x or 2x a week and take a recovery week on the 6th week.
Max rep minus 2
Set 2 minus 2
Set 3 minus 2
Set 4 plus 2
Set 5 plus 2
Take no more than 60 seconds to rest in between sets. Try to beat your number every session for 5 weeks and recover on the 6th week by doing only half of the volume you did on week 5. In the 7th week, you can test your max rep and see if you have achieved your goal.
Once you can do 20 reps comfortably, you should be ready to do more explosive pull-ups.
The quality of the pull-up matters more than the maximum number of reps
While you are working on increasing the number of pull-ups you can do, make sure that you are not compromising the form of your movement. 12 clean and controlled pull-ups have more value than 20 sloppy ones.
When working with pull-ups for muscle-ups, you want to make sure that your elbows are pointing down and to the back as you go upwards, not flaring out to the side. Flaring your elbows to the side is not only risky but is also a weak position to be in to successfully transition to bring your chest over the bar.
Practice close-grip pull-up
Doing a strict close-grip pull-up will teach your shoulders and elbows to move in a downward direction which will transfer well to a muscle-up pattern.
Two clean below the chest pull-up
Once you are comfortable doing strict pull-ups for at least 10x, you can work more on explosive pull-ups and aim to hit the bar below the chest. You will need more power rather than just pure strength for you to reach this height.
Some practitioners will advise you to use a swinging movement to do high pull-ups, which can be good but sometimes a little risky if it is your first time doing explosive repetitions. Working on a strict form to do high-ups will benefit you more in terms of solidifying your foundation and strengthen the ligaments further rather than utilizing the momentum to carry you upwards.
Note in your program: Volume is inversely proportional with intensity when planning for a program. At this stage, you may want to reduce your max rep attempt and less total volume in general to optimize the results of gaining more power in your pull. Low reps, more sets, and longer rest time is best to develop power.
Program to work on high pull-ups
6-8 sets of 2-3 high pull-ups with 3 to 4 minutes rest in between sets.
The set of 3 high pull-ups can even be broken into 3 singles to make sure that you can really focus entirely on the explosiveness of your effort rather than grinding your upward movement.
If you still struggle to achieve high pull-ups, you can use a band-assisted pull-up so your body can get used to the pattern.
Swing and Pull-Up
The final pulling work that you can do before working purely on the muscle-up movement is the swing and pull. This is done by jumping a step from the back from the bar to create a swinging movement. Then do a pull-up on your way back just before you pass the centerline.
Let’s break it down into two parts.
1. Jump and swing for one rep - place a target object on the floor a step in front of the bar.
Start a step behind the bar and jump to hang.
Allow your entire body to swing but without losing its rigidity. Don’t soften your spine and legs at this point.Think of dipping your toes to the target object at the front part of the swing.
Jump back down to your starting point.
This pattern is very easy can be used as your warm-up.
2. Swing and pull
Once you are familiar with the swinging pattern after your jump, you can do your high pull-up just after you dip your toes to the target object. If you get the timing right, you will feel weightless, and you’ll be surprised at how high you can go.
You can use the same number of sets and reps as how you work with your high-pull ups.
If you have been working diligently on all the exercises above, the muscle-up will come easily at this stage, and you will be surprised how little effort it requires to accomplish the movement.
Enjoy your training!