Muscle Up Lesson #2: Master Pull Ups and Dips

This may sound obvious, but you must correctly train pull ups and dips if you want to ever be able to do a muscle up. The operative word is correctly. Many people train pull ups and dips, but not everyone trains them correctly.

Proper pull up and dip training will help lay the foundation for the strength it will take to complete a muscle up.

As I said in this post, you may not be as far from doing a muscle up as you think. You actually don't even have to be able to do a ton dips and pull ups. You just have to get great at doing a few reps WELL. (Take a look at the video to see how I like to see a dip and a pull up done.) 

Muscle Up Prerequisites

Pull Ups: 5 full range of motion reps (from dead hang to chin over the bar), with a 2 second pause at the top and the bottom. Absolutely no momentum, or raising of the legs.

Dips: 10 full range of motion reps (full depth and full lock out), with a 2 second pause at the top and bottom. Absolutely no momentum.

Once you pass these two tests, you can consider moving ahead with your muscle up training.

 

So, after watching the video, are you performing pull ups and dips well enough to consider moving on to the mighty muscle up?

 

 

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Half(ish)

Today I was able to hold a human flag for 15 seconds. I wasn't in a full flag position when I started the clock, so this wasn't a true 15 seconds. But I'm pretty happy with it for today.

This was the first flag I've held all week. I think the lower frequency is the way to go for me. 

I still need to get stronger in the flipped position. I haven't made much progress on evening that out.

 

 

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Muscle Up Lesson #1: Understand and Respect the Functions of the Scapulae

One of the biggest and most overlooked reasons people experience shoulder pain is the lack of respect for how the scapulae (shoulder blades) are meant to function. This lack of respect invites many into under training and over training certain muscle groups and certain movements, respectively. Over and under training will eventually lead to imbalances in muscular strength, and resting muscular lengths, which can pull the scapulae out of position. Improper positioning can lead to improper movement, which can lead to shoulder pain.

 All movements the scapulae are responsible for.

All movements the scapulae are responsible for.

When it comes to doing a muscle up, the missing link for many people is the lack of strength and/or mobility in downward scapular rotation, scapular depression and/or scapular retraction. To build a strong enough pull, and to set yourself up to push over the bar, you will need to be very proficient in controlling your scapulae through these movements.

One of the easiest places to overlook these movements is while training pull ups...

I see many people doing pull ups/chin ups starting and returning to only an "active" hang position. The problem with this is that you miss out on training some of this (downward rotation, depression, and retraction) range of motion. I believe the first part of this range of motion (the part you will miss when going only from an "active" hang) to be the most crucial part to develop. Instead of only doing pull ups from an "active" hang, it is important to learn to do them from a "dead" hang.

 Dead hang: scapulae upwardly rotated, elevated, and slightly protracted. Active hang: scapulae already "pinned" into some downward rotation, depression, and retraction.

Dead hang: scapulae upwardly rotated, elevated, and slightly protracted. Active hang: scapulae already "pinned" into some downward rotation, depression, and retraction.

The only way to fully train these movements is to go into a dead hang. The good news is that you will still reach the active hang position (albeit, for only a short duration) when doing pull ups from a dead hang. The active hang is essentially the initiation of the pull out of a dead hang position.

To venture into a dead hang, you need to allow your scapulae to do just the opposite of downwardly rotate, depress, and retract. You will allow your shoulder blades to upwardly rotate, elevate, and slightly protract. 

The next three images show how the position of the scapulae changes when going from at rest, to a dead hang, to an active hang position...

Scapular downward rotation, depression and retraction will continue until the pull up is completed, where it reaches end range of motion.

Although the pull is different in a muscle up than in a pull up (this will be covered in a future lesson), it is important to understand the need to have strong downward rotation, depression, and retraction. This will ensure you'll have a good foundation to transition from a pull to a push when completing a muscle up.

Don't just pin your shoulder blades back from the start of your pull ups. Allow them to rotate up, elevate, and protract before initiating each rep. Feel your arms separate from your torso a little. This will help you build the necessary strength and shoulder health to move on to lesson #2.

 

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Muscle Up

Each day I train, I incorporate some type of muscle up. I vary up how I do them, how many I do, and for how many sets. I normally like to do 3-4 sets as part of my warm up, no matter what the focus of the actual workout is. 

I love muscle ups because they train the entire upper body, and importantly, in an explosive manner. It is hard for me to think of another exercise that involves both a pull and a push, and requires use of the lats, traps, biceps, triceps, pecs, abs, and forearms. The involvement of many muscle groups is the reason I like to use the exercise as a warm up. The exercise gets blood to, and primes the upper body muscles.

I might even go as far to say that muscle ups are all you need to develop an aesthetic and functional upper body. A muscle up is somewhat advanced, but you may not be as far from being able to do one as you think you are.

If anyone wants me to break down the muscle up into a tutorial, please comment. I don't know if anyone even reads this stuff. I'm probably just writing to myself on here...

 

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Don't Get Too Specific

Prior to around a month ago, I had not done very much sumo style deadlifting. Probably less than 10 sets in my entire life. I started working in 1-2 sets of sumo each time I deadlifted, and slowly started to like them. This training video is the first session that I've pulled sumo for all sets. I'm not a powerlifter, so I don't care too much about perfecting my sumo pull, but I will continue to improve on these (especially speed).

What does deadlifting have to do with holding a human flag? Nothing specifically, just to continue getting stronger overall. Don't get overly specific with your training. Building a good foundation of absolute strength will always carry you the furthest.  

 

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15 Second Human Flag?

Yesterday I tested out my ability to hold a flag. I was aiming for 15 seconds. Nope.

 

 

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Frequency

Over the course of the last couple of weeks, I have really decreased the frequency of "flag training". This is because I felt like I was needing more recovery.

Flag training has proven to beat my body up more than I anticipated. I actually didn't even try holding a flag for over a week prior to today. The main thing I have cut back on are the doing of side bends every day. My plan with doing them every single day was to force an endurance adaptation, but I think I was actually keeping them so exhausted that it was hard to make progress on the actual human flag. 

For the next several weeks I'll see how doing more quality flag work with less frequency will pan out.

Toward the end of the video you will see some random flag holds for the day. Before that, I pretty much just messed around with some new stuff on the bar.

 

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There's a Problem...

It has been a week since I was able to accomplish my goal of holding a flag for 10 seconds (by the end of August).

Since then, I have not done much flagging. I am feeling discouraged. I have found that I am unbalanced. I am (very much) asymmetrically strong in holding a human flag.

When I am pressing with my right arm, and pulling with my left arm, I am much stronger than the opposite.

I would like to be equally as strong with both arm arrangements. My goal for the month of September is to close the gap in this strength discrepancy. Let's see how it goes!

 

 

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10 Second Human Flag?

Yesterday I did a flag test, two days early of my deadline to hold a 10 second human flag. Watch the video below to see how it went....

 

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Overhead Carries and Handstands

Today I did some overhead carries and holds with the yoke. Also did a little handstand work. I think I'll start throwing some of this stuff into my workouts throughout the week. These types of exercises will be great for overhead shoulder strength and stability, which will have good carry over to the bottom arm in a human flag.

 

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Three Minutes of Flaggin'

Today's video shows some footage from Friday's flag training. The clips are in sequential order from the workout....

  • :10 - :43....warming up with a barbell.
  • :44 - :56....some flag hanging just to stretch out a bit.
  • :57....is when I get into some actual flagging. The holds got slightly better as I went.
  • 1:38....is the best hold of the day. Do you give me credit for 7 seconds or not?
  • 1:48....my new favorite side bend variation!
  • 1:56 - 2:11....a couple more flags for the day after some sets of side bends. They weren't as strong as the earlier ones!
  • 2:12 - 2:40....more side bends. This time I held the loaded side at the bottom longer for more of a stretch.
  • 2:40....don't really know what to call these. I suppose I'll call them "bottom arm supported" flag raises. Let me know in the comments if you have a better name in mind.

 

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Training Footage 8-24-16

The video below shows some of my working sets from yesterday's workout. Nothing too specific to human flagging here. Just some power clean + push presses and DB rowing....

 

 

 

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10 Days Out

Last week I set a short term goal to extend my flag holding time to 10 seconds by the end of August. Yesterday was 10 days out. As you can see from the short video, the completion of this goal doesn't look promising....unless I get more generous by starting the clock even earlier....

 

 

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Elbow Tracking During a Push Up

To continue to make progress in the gym, you need to spend time mastering the push up. Just because you can "do" a bunch of push ups from the ground doesn't mean for a second that you have mastered them. I will even go as far to say that the majority of people I see performing "push ups" are not doing them well enough. 

It's not just about lowering to the ground and pushing yourself back up. It is about being able to lower to the ground and push yourself back up for years to come. If you perform push ups with poor form, you will eventually bang your shoulders up bad enough to not be able to do push ups at all.

Referring to the diagram above, notice where the subject on the right has placed their hands. Placing the hands near shoulder level is a common push up error. This encourages the elbows to track too high, which puts the humerus (upper arm) at an internally rotated position. This is unstable, especially when loaded with bodyweight (push ups) or with a barbell/dumbbells (bench pressing). The high elbow position also leaves less space for tissues that connect your arms to your torso to function correctly.

The subject on the left is demonstrating proper push up alignments. Their hands are around chest level. This puts the humerus at an angle from the torso. Once the arm is positioned here, a slight effort to tuck the elbows closer to the body will externally rotate the humerus. This stabilizes the shoulder joint and encourages proper function of the scapulae (shoulder blades).

Keep in mind that experienced trainees have the ability to create sufficient stability with improper elbow tracking (elbows tracking high, like the subject on the right). Having said that, if you have always done push ups (or find it more comfortable) with your elbows tracking high, you do not understand how to create this stability. Go back and make your push ups resemble the figure on the left.  

There is more to go over in regards to push ups, but I will save this for later posts. 

The training video below shows several push up variations, focusing on finishing in extreme external rotation. As I said, being able to externally rotate the humerus stabilizes the shoulder joint. Being able to do this will be essential in improving the human flag. 

(The beginning 4 minutes shows me jumping rope to warm up. If you want to get right to the push ups, skip ahead to the 4 minute mark.)  

 

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Flag Training Friday

I feel like I'm not making enough progress. It is time to take my own advice, and trust the process of getting stronger. My short-term goal is to hold a 10 second flag by the end of August. Here are some misc. clips from todays workout...

 

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Flag Test

Yesterday I held a flag to see how the training is coming along. Congratulations Drew, you've added zero seconds to your flag. Time to get to work...

 

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Training Regimen

This is the workout routine I have been using for the last several weeks. I plan to continue this training plan until my progress starts to slow. Notice again, this is not extremely specific to human flagging. I said in the “intro” that my goal of increasing total body strength still takes priority to my goal of holding a longer flag. 

In many ways, this is just a general strength training program with some focus toward flagging. I am testing my theory of…getting stronger overall will also lead to a stronger flag, but only getting strong at flagging will not necessarily lead to more total body strength. 

Take a look at my training split. Let me know what you think of it. Take some things from it to add to your own training!

 

MONDAY

Warm up with jumping rope, muscle ups, and rollouts.

A1. Front Squat (3 reps x 5 sets)

A2. BB Bench (5 x 5. Every 3 weeks, work up to 3 singles after 5 x 5)

B1. Power Clean (3 x 3)

B2. High DB Incline (6-10 x 3)

C1. DB Side Bend (x 2 sets. I do these every day to end the workout. The reps undulate on a three day cycle: Day 1= 30 reps, Day 2=20, reps Day 3=10 reps)

 

TUESDAY

Warm up with glute ham raises and muscle ups.

A1. Deadlift (5 x 5)

A2. BB Curl (10-15 x 5)

B1. DB Side Bend (x 2 sets)

 

WEDNESDAY

Warm up with jumping rope, muscle ups, and rollouts.

A1. Power Clean to Push Press (5 x 5)

A2. DB Row (5-15 x 5)

B1. DB Side Bend (x 2 sets)

 

THURSDAY

Warm up with glute ham raises and muscle ups.

A1. Front Squat (5 x 1, 3 x 2, 1 x 2)

A2. Miscellaneous Iron Cross Work (x 5 sets)

B1. DB Side Bend (x 2 sets)

B2. Miscellaneous Iron Cross Work (x 2 sets)

 

FRIDAY

Warm up with jumping rope, muscle ups, and rollouts.

A1. The rest of the day is specific human flag work, along with any other choice exercises.

B1. DB Side Bend (x 2 sets)

 

SATURDAY

Warm up with jumping rope, muscle ups, and rollouts.

A1. Deadlift. Work up to 3 singles.

B1. The rest of the day is miscellaneous human flag accessory work.

C1. DB Side Bend (x 2 sets)

 

SUNDAY

Off day, or some light bodyweight work if I am feeling good.

 

 

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Chin Ups vs. Pull Ups

I use the words “chin up” and “pull up” fully interchangeably. As far as I am concerned, a pull up and a chin up is the same exercise. To me, it is not the grip you are using that determines whether you are doing a chin up or a pull up. It is instead whether or not your chin actually clears the height of the bar (with a neutral neck!). This is my primary concern when pulling up. Yes, different grip orientations will be more difficult than others, and even stimulate the working muscles differently. But if you cannot even pull yourself to full range of motion with your strongest grip, you have no business differentiating between a “chin up” and a “pull up”. 

Just grab the bar (with whatever grip feels strongest to you) and get pulling. I always encourage my trainees to use whatever grip necessary to hit the prescribed amount of reps I assign. Once you develop sufficient pull up/chin up strength, you can then consider adding variety to your gripping arrangements. And when you do get to switching your grip around, I would rather hear the exercises called something like an “underhand grip” chin up or pull up, or an “overhand grip” chin up or pull up. Because once more, it is much more about getting your CHIN above the bar, than which grip you use to do so.

My favorite way to achieve a proper pull up is to signal your elbows to “drive” toward the ground. I like this cue for two primary reasons…

  1. It gives you a phycological break. Instead of thinking “I have to pull myself all the way up there?!” all you need to think is “drive my elbows down.” No matter which form of pep talk you choose to use, you will produce the same net effect - you will move toward the bar you're holding. It’s just that the latter seems much more simple and encouraging!
  2. It re-enforces proper use of the lats. If you dis-regard the cue to drive your elbows down, you may have a tendency to pull with only the biceps. This will be a weak pull. To pull yourself to full range of motion, you will need to develop sufficient strength through shoulder extension (pulling your elbows down from an overhead position). 

I have also found that this cue somewhat negates the tendency to “reach” up with the chin (I will go over this later in the post, and at the end of the video). Driving the elbows down simply makes the task of pulling up stronger. If you get in the habit of doing this, you won’t feel the need to reach up with your chin to clear the bar. You will have the strength to get high enough using the scapular, back, and arm muscles (the muscles used in a pull up). 

On to a video….

When human flagging, your top arm will experience a tremendous amount of pulling effort. Your bottom arm is pressing. This is what holds you to whatever you're holding onto. Once you have created a strong anchor, you will need to keep your spine locked in anti-lateral flexion (see yesterday’s post). 

There is even more to account for to complete a flag. Your hips and legs will need to lock to your spine. This is beyond the scope of today’s post, and I will cover that later.

If you don’t have a strong pull with the top arm, you won’t be able to generate enough tension to flag. This is why having a strong chin up/pull up base is essential.

I have been spending more time using a wide grip. I hypothesize it will have greater carry over to a human flag than a narrower grip will. The image below shows the angle that my top arm comes out from my body. This gives me reason to build strength with an ultra wide grip when pulling up.

 The resemblance in grip width for a human flag and a wide grip chin up. 

The resemblance in grip width for a human flag and a wide grip chin up. 

To finish up today, I want to further explain the errors that are demonstrated at the end of the video. Keep in mind that I am being picky with this breakdown. If you find yourself making any of these errors as you are developing the strength to do your first chin up, or if you only do them every so often (when you are stepping over plateaus), I am okay with it.

There is still some benefit to doing "non-strict" chin ups. Having said that, there is ABSOLUTELY no excuse to not take the time to develop strength and body control required to do a strict chin up!

Don’t make sloppy reps a habit. Once you can do one “non-strict” chin up, work toward doing several non-strict chin ups. Soon after that, work toward doing your first strict chin up. From there, leave questionable looking chin ups in the past. I argue that the benefits of doing one to several strict chin ups far outweigh the rewards of doing a ton of less strict chin ups.....

 

(GOOD REPS)

Strict.

Elbows are driven down. 

Body is straight. This indicates that the glutes, hamstrings, calves, and abdominals are active, and therefore a circuit of muscular tension is created through the entire body. More tension=more strength and better positions.

Neck is neutral. 

 

(REACHING NECK)

Not completing the range of motion with the shoulders and arms, but rather with the neck. 

Straining of the neck.

 

(NOT ENOUGH RANGE)

If you don’t practice full range of motion, you will not build as much strength.

If you don’t practice full range of motion, you will not develop as much stability.

If you don’t practice full range of motion, you will not experience as much flexibility.

If you don’t practice full range of motion, you will not experience as many training benefits!

 

(LIFTING KNEES)

Cheating into too much of a mechanical advantage.

Lesser training effect.

Actively lifting the knees decreases the total weight being lifted. The hip flexors are lifting the legs to a higher position so the upper body doesn’t have to do that work.

Allowing your body to move forward indicates a lack of tension being generated and held throughout the body. Refer back to keeping the body straight with the “good reps”

 

 

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Anti Lateral Flexion

Today’s focus was on “anti lateral flexion" accessory exercises. Anti lateral flexion is a fancy way of describing the maintenance of a completely straight spine (not allowing it to bend to the side). Looking at the below diagram of a human flag, you notice that you will need to be very strong at anti lateral flexion if you plan to perform the feat with success.

Regardless if you are flag training or not, anti lateral flexion is a productive movement to train…

  • It will help you develop a bulletproof midsection. 
  • It will keep your spine healthy. 
  • It will teach you to properly align your hips to your torso. 
  • It will encourage you to produce tension and transfer force throughout your entire body. 
  • It will even help with balance and coordination. 

To train anti lateral flexion, you will need to have only one side of your body loaded. This is what challenges your system to remain absolutely neutral: do not let the weight pull you toward the loaded side, and don't over compensate by leaning toward the un-loaded side. An indication that you are bracing against lateral flexion correctly, is that your shoulders appear to be level with the horizon. The below video contains exercises that fall into the category of anti lateral flexion. Give these a try and tell me what you think!

I presume that anyone who understands this type of loading, also understands that you must “even out” on the other side of the body. For example, If you do 10 reps with the right side loaded, make sure to do 10 reps with the left loaded up.

 

:10 mark…suitcase deadlift

:29 mark…suitcase reverse lunge

:35 mark…”bindle” reverse lunge (with more of the bar to the front) doing this created extra anti flexion (in the saggital plane). 

:46 mark…”bindle” reverse lunge (with more of the bar to the back)

:51 mark…single arm overhead press

1:01 mark…single arm push press (maybe this is more of a push jerk)

1:20 mark…single arm DB hold (looks easy, but try holding a heavy dumbbell for a minute on each side…if it still seems easy, you aren't using enough weight!)

 

I still need help with names. Do these names accurately depict the exercises shown in the video?

 

 

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The Warm Up

Day 1 was August 12, 2016. Check out the video at the bottom for some snippets. These are just a few of many exercises I will utilize to flag stronger. 

At the 30 second mark, you can watch my best flag of the day. By December 31st, I will be locked into this position for 30 seconds. Maybe I’ll even be able to hold it with a casual facial expression!

I don't know if the rest of the variations you see have names or not so I’ll call them what I want….

:12 mark…vertical flag

:38 mark…band assisted flag

:44 mark…band assisted flag pulses

:53 mark on…band assisted flag raises

What do you think? Comment to give me name suggestions!

 

 

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