ONE of the things I love about gymnastics is how it cherishes and encourages beauty.
In football a shanked shot that bobbles into the goal is worth as much as a mesmeric Messi dribble. In tennis a winning miss-hit return counts as much as a 20-shot rally that ends with a wave of Federer’s magic wand.
Yet in gymnastics an ugly move costs marks and potentially medals. This appreciation of beauty was at the heart of a dispute I had with some CrossFit-loving friends last week. My friends maintained that performing a series of hideously ugly, offensive to the senses muscle-ups was something worth celebrating.
I, on the other hand, argued that rather than chasing numbers the athlete in question should have been concentrating on doing a single, swing-free, muscle-up. Surely one song sung beautifully is better than the same song butchered five times over, I argued.
Now I’m a big believer in only criticising if you’re in a position to provide a solution so with that in mind I thought I’d throw together a cheat sheet for those who want to add some beauty to their lives.
1. HAND POSITIONING
Quite simply this is the key to the muscle up. Keep your hands in the right position and you’ll be shocked at how quickly you get the muscle-up. Let your hands drift and you’ll be asking ‘why can’t I get this?’ until the day you quit. It really is that simple.
The only problem is that the ‘right’ hand positions instinctively feel wrong. The right position is tight and cramped and close into your body. You hands naturally want to move away from the body to have some room to move around in. Unfortunately this is the worst thing that can happen.
2. THE TRANSITION.
While most people can easily perform a chin-up and most people can easily perform a dip, very few can easily link the two together.
Again it all comes down to hand positioning. And for the beginner a little bit of speed. The transition is a bit of a no-mans land for beginners. It’s the unknown bit in-between the two things they know. To make matters worse you can only ‘survive’ in this space for a split-second. Which means if you can’t swiftly transition from the chin to the dip you’ll quickly fall back to earth.
The key to the transition is keeping your thumbs tight against your body and not letting them flair out. At the end of the ‘chin-up’ phase your knuckles should be facing each other and at your collar bones. At this point your thumbs should trace an invisible line down and outwards towards your armpits.
To do so requires two things. First you have to roll your shoulders forwards and slightly downwards as if you’re trying to swallow your hands with your shoulders. Secondly you have to continue pulling to get your thumbs from your collar bones to your armpits. The quicker you can move your shoulders from behind and below the rings to over and in-front the easier it will be to perform the muscle-up.
[Incidentally this is one of the reasons Cross-Fitters wildly throw their hips forwards when doing their “version” of the muscle-up. By throwing the hips forwards they can use the momentum that comes with the back swing to elevate their hips backwards and upwards consequently sending the shoulders forwards and over. The problem with the swing – in addition to it looking unsightly - is that the momentum masks a lack of strength.
The second reason Cross-Fitters like the swing is that by swinging the hips forwards and pulling the rings to the bottom of the breast bone the pulling action is changed from the more demanding vertical pull to the easier horizontal row. In simple terms your pull-up has now become the much easier seated row. Now that the hands are low very little transitional strength is required as the body now pivots around the hands and straight into the dip position.]
3. THE CHIN PHASE.
There are 2 things that distinquish the muscle-up from a normal pull-up. The first is the false grip (see 4). The second is the positioning of the knuckles. The simplest way of thinking about the hand positioning is to ensure that the all the knuckles face each other during the pull phase. This position is retained throughout the entire pulling phase and only disappears when the transition phase begins. Keeping those knuckles facing each other will ensure you’re in the correct position to transition. Lose the correct position and you’ll lose your chances of performing a muscle up.
While the most beautiful MUs are the ones performed slow and seemingly effortlessly these are also the hardest to perform. So when you first start out a fast pull will give you more hand time to get those pesky shoulders forwards. To increase the speed of your pull try practicing your chins while wearing ankle weights or a dipping belt with 5-10kg attached.
4. THE FALSE GRIP.
The false grip – and the pain and discomfort that comes with it - is just one of those things that you just have to suck up. If it helps take solace in the fact that no-one escapes the suffering. It was painful for everyone until it stopped being so painful and now it’s just annoying. The only answer is to work on your grip. Try simply hanging from the rings to help strengthen yourself in the false grip postion. Add ankle weight to increase difficulty. If you don’t do so already liberally apply chalk to the inside aspect of your wrist.
5. THE DIP
Although probably the easiest part to the muscle-up the dip does require you to start at a depth that is probably alien to most conventional gym-goers. Like the false grip overcoming the problem is just a matter of going lower in your stand-alone dips. If you have adjustable rings its worth adjusting them so that the bottom of the ring is just under your arm-pit-level when you stand in-between them. Then simply practice pressing out of this position. Another great exercise is to perform Russian Dips on parallel bars or a dipping stand. Just be careful of slamming your elbows too hard on the frame as you come down.
And that’s it. Hopefully with this handy tips it wont be long before you too will be making the world a more beautiful place.