Let’s Get High! How To Do A Muscle-Up

by Danny Kavadlo on June 13, 2017

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Danny Kavadlo Muscle Up

One of the things I love most about Progressive Calisthenics is the fact that it is a multi-faceted discipline.

You see, we human beings have a tendency to over-categorize and compartmentalize just about everything. Sadly, this can lead to an improper representation of concepts that can often be better expressed with blurred lines. In other words, not every peg fits so squarely into a hole.

An imaginary, over-lapping Venn diagram comes to my mind when I consider the virtuosity of the muscle-up. It’s a proverbial chameleon of classification. Is a muscle-up strength training or skill development? Conditioning work or muscle building? Power or control? Well, friends, the mighty muscle-up is all of the above and more!

In fact, this ultimate bar experience is the perfect fusion of raw strength and refined technique. It’s an upper body exercise that recruits full body harmony, firing up your muscles while also getting your heart racing. The muscle-up is the only upper-body move in the calisthenics kingdom that employs a push and a pull: it resembles a pull-up that transitions into a dip. But there is a lot more that goes into it. Dare with me if you will…

In The Beginning

If you consult the internet, you are sure to come across a multitude of memes portraying very fit individuals who make the muscle-up look easy. It’s not. To be clear, this is an advanced exercise and a solid foundation in the basics in necessary before exploring it.

On that note, people sometimes think there is a hidden trick or a “hack” to performing a muscle-up. There isn’t. It takes work. While the information detailed ahead will undoubtedly help your training and technique, I recommend that anybody who is serious about muscle-ups be able to a do at least 10 perfect pull-ups, 20 hanging knee raises, 20 dips and 30 push-ups before even attempting to tame this beast.

Get A Grip

Every exercise begins with our contact with the environment. In this case, the way we approach the bar is very important. To perform a muscle-up, position your hands only slightly wider than the width of your shoulders. Yes, this is narrower than you would typical place them for a pull-up. Keeping your hands closer together will help you bring the bar lower down on your body when you initiate the movement.

If you are new to muscle-ups, then use an overhand grip. (Again, this is unlike the pull-up, where beginners generally favor an underhand grip.) In fact, for many people, an exaggerated overhand grip, with the hands cocked over the bar as much as possible and the backs of the hands facing straight up at the sky, is preferable. This is sometimes referred to as a “false” grip, and can ease the transition from pulling yourself up, to pressing yourself over the bar.

Danny Kavadlo Muscle-Up 2

Breaking Down Your Muscle-Up

Pull the bar as low down on your body as you can. Get explosive! Aim to get the bar all the way down to your hips, although it will probably wind up closer to your chest. Use as much speed and force as you can muster up.

Danny Kavadlo Muscle-Up

It begins with an explosive pull. Practicing this movement pattern alone—without muscling over the bar—is a viable exercise in its own right.

At this point, press your chest forward and around the bar. Aiming to bring your elbows above your wrists will assist you in this transition. It’s also helpful to buck your hips out behind you and extend your legs out in front of you so they can act as a counterweight as you maneuver around the bar.

Danny Kavadlo Muscle-Up

This is the tricky part

Now press your hands into the bar, extending your elbows and straightening your arms. You want to “dip” yourself up, while maneuvering the bar down. It is not unusual for one arm to go over before the other at first. This asymmetrical act is sometimes referred to as “chicken winging.” While it’s OK to use this avian assist in the early stages (no one’s first is the best), it is something we want to avoid as we develop more strength and skill. Ideally, over the course of time, both arms will go over together like a dip on a single, straight bar.

Danny Kavadlo Muscle Up

This part of the transition resembles a dip. The straight bar dip is in itself a great lead-up step toward the muscle-up. Hell, straight bar dips are great even after you can do a muscle-up!

Once you are fully over the bar, you have completed the rep. Although advanced practitioners can train to do slow muscle-ups, generally speaking, all of these steps occur very quickly. Go for one or two reps at a time, so you can remain fresh for each attempt. Eventually, you can increase your reps.

Type Slow Negative

In addition to the above-mentioned explosive pull-ups and straight bar dips, simply practicing the lowering phase of a muscle-up can be helpful, too. Because muscle-ups have a huge neurological component, doing just half of the range of motion (the eccentric half) allows your body to rehearse how it feels spatially to do a muscle-up, without actually doing the muscle-up.

To do so, climb to the top position. You can use a step, a bench or the aid of a training partner. You can even assist yourself by jumping into it. When you’re at the top, pause and engage all the muscles in your body. Now lower yourself down as slowly as you possibly can. Hinge at the elbows and bend at the shoulders, as you lower your chest to the bar. Wring your wrists around the bar and extend your legs forward as you continue your descent. Continue all the way down until you are hanging from the bar. This type of slow, negative muscle-up will give you a taste of the movement pattern. Like all things muscle-up related, it’s harder than it may seem.

Bar None

It can take a great deal of time and energy to achieve your first muscle-up, but the feeling of getting high above that bar is worth it. Take your time, respect the journey and understand that, like many great things, it will require discipline, intensity and consistency. Even after you’ve done your first muscle-up, it may be a while before you do your second. That’s ok. It’s a long road; enjoy the ride. In time, the sky’s the limit!

Danny Kavadlo Muscle-Up

The sky’s the limit!

If you’ve experienced any breakthroughs with your muscle-up training, please let me know in the comments section below. Danny wants to hear about it! For that matter, feel free to post any questions you may have about muscle-ups. After all, we’re all a work in progress. I’m looking forward to hearing from you!

Keep The Dream Alive,




Danny Kavadlo is one of the world’s leading authorities on calisthenics, nutrition and personal training. He is the author of several best-selling Dragon Door titles including GET STRONG and STRENGTH RULES. Danny has been featured in the New York Times, Men’s Fitness, and the Huffington Post. He is a regular contributor to Bodybuilding .com and TRAIN magazine. When not working one-on-one with clients in his native New York City, Danny travels the world as a Master Instructor in Dragon Door’s internationally acclaimed Progressive Calisthenics Certification. Find out more about Danny at www.DannyTheTrainer.com

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  • Jim Poindexter

    This is great information. I am going through get strong program right now and as soon as I achieve the basic requirements of pull ups, dips, push ups, and knee raises I am definitely going to shoot for the muscle up. Thanks Danny.

    • Danny Kavadlo

      That sounds great Jim! Please keep me posted on the program and on your muscle up progress down the road. HELLYEAH!

  • Matt Schifferle

    Thank you very much coach! I also find there’s a lot of value to training with other people who are proficient in the muscle up to give you coaching and encouragement. I got my first muscle up at the PCC because of such help and accomplished a personal best of four in a row while working out with a buddy who is a muscle up machine. I got my first muscle up at the PCC because of such help and accomplished a personal best of four in a row while working out with a buddy who is a muscle up machine. There is so much value with training with others who have walked the path and can show you the way.

    • Danny Kavadlo

      Hey Matt,
      I remember that muscle up. It was epic!
      So true about what you’re saying here. Many times the best inspiration comes from the people we choose to surround ourselves with. Keep the dream alive!

  • Swiss_Olympic

    I’m at that phase in muscle-ups where I’m close yet so far. I just can’t seem to coordinate the pull down to my hips, which screws up my transition. Are there are any pre-requisites in the domain of clapping pull-ups that might be worth achieving before one dives into proper muscle up training?

    • Danny Kavadlo

      Hey Swiss,
      Yes… so close yet so far. I know how that goes! Clap pull-ups are definitely helpful in practicing explosive strength. Like you said, the coordination is key. This is why I recommend the slow negs. Continue working on explosive pulls where you try to press the bar low down. It is strength as well as technique. Good luck!

      • Swiss_Olympic

        Thanks for the clarification, coach. Gonna continue practicing slow negatives and clapping variations as you recommend. The muscle up will come soon enough. Until then, there’s always other ways to get stronger.

  • This is awesome, Danny. (And on a personal note, well timed as I finally have a great space to get back to training muscle-ups.) Can’t wait to get back on the muscle-up train and get rid of the “chicken wing” once and for all.

    • Danny Kavadlo

      Thanks Adrienne! I’m glad you enjoyed this one… and that you have more space in your new place! Awesome!

  • Marcos R Espinosa

    Nice article on the muscle up. After almost 10 years without working out, I am starting again where I started when I was 14 years old with calisthenics, a few years later I got on the bodybuilding wagon and stopped doing calisthenics completely other than pull ups and dips. This time I got me a great book to help me out, you may have heard of it ‘ Get Strong’. As I start this I can do 13 pull-ups with pretty good form, 12 dips, about 36 push-ups, and 15 knee raises. All those numbers are fresh after my warm up. I have to work on my dips and knee raises. By the way the book is beautiful.

    • Danny Kavadlo

      Hello Marcos,
      I am happy to hear your getting back to the basics! And thanks for the kind words about GET STRONG–much appreciated! Please keep me updated on your progress with the muscle up. Don’t rush the journey and you’ll get there. STAY STRONG!

      • Marcos R Espinosa

        Thank you for your reply Danny. It has been 4 months since I started and I haven’t been able to move past Phase 2. I keep failing the test on the handstand. I can’t get it up. I have been putting my feet against the wall in a push-up position and climbing the wall with my feet. Any suggestions on how to move forward with this exercise? I love the workouts and I have been increasing my strength in all of the others exercises significantly. Thank you.

        • Danny Kavadlo

          Hey Marcos,
          I’m glad you’re getting stronger! As for the wall handstand, it’s hard to say specifically what you need to do without personally observing your situation. Perhaps you could try a wall-facing handstand at a slightly lower angle and gradually progress over time? Maybe you need more rehearsal neurologically in simply being inverted? Is it that your shoulder strength cannot support you? If so, maybe try your feet elevated on a bench and your body “piked” up (think feet elevated pike push-up without the push-up). Food for thought….
          Keep the dream alive,

  • Helli Danny,
    I really dig the facial expressions, haha, love’em!
    When I was learning the muscle up, I used to think that doing eccentric muscle up will help me a lot. I used to do it for few weeks but I didn’t saw significant results and I gave up on that progression move and started doing something else.

    Now I see that if I should have stuck with it.

    I mean I was thinking about the same thing that the nervous system plays a big part with training and if I would do a lot of muscle up negatives one day I should be able to do a full muscle up.

    By the way I see a lot of people learning the muscle up by doing a one arm above the arm first.
    What do you think about that?

    • Danny Kavadlo

      Hi Lyubomir,
      Yes I agree with your experience. The nervous system plays a large role, that is why I suggest negatives. Of course, there are many ways that one could approach a muscle-up. Not every method works to the same efficacy for everyone so it’s important to try things and see what works best for you.
      As for one arm going above first, which I refer to in the article as a “chicken wing,” it can be helpful for some. It’s basically a sloppy muscle up and it’s fine at the beginning, but it should be avoided after some practice.
      Keep the muscle up dream alive,

  • Hi Danny,

    This is so awesome! I started Calisthenics 3 years ago. But a shoulder injury prevented me from doing calisthenics for 01 year. Just resumed doing it again.

    • Danny Kavadlo

      Welcome back!

  • Vít Stefanovič

    Danny, great article, thanks!

    I just started progressing muscle-ups last week, I am taking it slowly like the rest of my calisthenics progression.

    How often do you suggests training for muscle up in order not to lack results?
    I am also doing dips, leg raises, push-ups, pull-ups, handstand push-ups and free handstands progression in my weekly upper-body arsenal so I don’t want to over exhaust them muscles 🙂

    • Danny Kavadlo

      Hi Vit!
      Good question! There is an inverse relationship between frequency and intensity. In other words, if you’re training muscle-ups to complete exhaustion and muscular sore ness, then maybe train twice a week. If, however, you’re rehearsing the move and NOT going to failure, you can most likely train with greater frequency. Also, please note, you can do push-ups, pull-ups and dips in the same workout as muscle-ups. In fact, in many cases, I’d recommend it, as push-ups/pull-ups/dips are a great warm up for the muscle-up. Good luck and keep me posted!

      • Vít Stefanovič

        I know what you mean, but for example my push-up routine consists of several types of push-ups leading to one arm push ups and by itself makes me feel quite exhausted so it wouldn’t be ideal as a muscle up warm up! Same goes for my pull-ups routine. I try, however, to incorporate muscle-up practice into my leg raises daily routine and then whenever I can get out to work out on bars which is sadly not as often as I would hope it to be; anyway I will try to keep it to at least 2 times a week! Thanks for advice!

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