10 Reasons you can’t do Bar Muscle-Ups – Legion Strength & Conditioning

10 Reasons you can’t do Bar Muscle-Ups

The bar muscle-up is an elusive skill for many athletes.

Even athletes who are somewhat capable in the movement often find themselves repeatedly slamming their chest to the bar – unable to make it through the transition point and unsure what mysterious factors result in their “hit or miss” capacity in the bar muscle-up.

There’s also a large group of folks who are able to get through bar muscle-ups when fresh, but devolve into chicken-winging, grindy mayhem once they do more than a few reps or are more than a little bit out of breath.

So, what’s going on here?

Just as with a lot of movements in our sport, a bit of time searching around on the internet will give you all kinds of clever drills.

You can also do all of the jumping, banded transition drills you want – but, if your issue is elsewhere in the movement, you’ll still always struggle to get over the bar.

And, spending any time in a gym will get you a bunch of cues like “Use your hips more!” Or “make sure to be aggressive on the transition!”

But, these kinds of vague coaching pointers rarely get to the root cause of why an athlete may struggle with bar muscle-ups.

We’ve identified some of the most common reasons that athletes struggle with bar muscle-ups and put together some recommendations for each of these issues.

You can click below to be taken to the session that may apply to you.

Strength
Movement Patterning
Technique

Issue #1: Inadequate pulling strength

Bar muscle up 101 – if you can’t pull yourself high enough to get over the bar you’re not going to be able to do a bar muscle up.

While using power from your kip to help elevate your body is a key part to a kipping rep, having the absolute strength to pull high enough is also key.

As a prerequisite you should have multiple strict pull ups and preferably strict chest to bar pull ups to find bar muscle ups manageable.

We’re not just concerned with having adequate strength to pull your body high enough to complete a rep – we also want to ensure that you have an adequate base of support in contractions to enable you to tolerate the volume of pulling, pushing and swinging required to even begin to practice the skill of the bar muscle-up.

This pulling strength we are looking for isn’t just vertical pulling (like on a pull-up).

We also need to be able to pull in a horizontal plane of motion (like on a bent over row) in order to bring our body around the bar.

We recommend working in horizontal pulling exercises into your training such as bent over rows, single arm rows and seated rope sled pulls to improve this, alongside standard strict pull-up progressions such as negatives, weighted and tempo reps.

The muscle-up also requires the ability to til the torso “backwards” such that the athlete is looking at the ceiling as they elevate themselves with their pull.

In order to develop this strength, athletes can use a combination of strict gymnastics work, barbell-based strength work, and accessory work.

A weekly split to work on this three days per week might look something like this:

Day 1 – Strict gymnastics strength
A1. Eccentric-only jumping chest-to-bar pull-up
3×6-8; Building; 30A0 tempo; Rest 90s
A2. Eccentric-only bar dip
3×6-8; Building; 30A0 tempo; Rest 90s
•The notation 30A0 for tempo means lower for a 3 count, 0s pause in the bottom, use assistance (“A”) to get yourself back to the top of the movement, 0s pause in the top of the movement.

B. EMOM 10:
1st: 2-4 strict pull-ups w/ 1s pause up top
2nd: 2-4 strict bar dips w/ 1s pause in bottom
•Use assistance as necessary to maintain good positions.

Day 2 – Barbell-based strength
A1. Pendlay row
3×5; 31×0 tempo; Building; Rest 90s
A2. Close-grip bench press
3×5; 31×0 tempo; Building; Rest 90s

B1. Supinated bent over barbell row
3×8-10; 20×0 tempo; Across; Rest 1 min
B2. DB Z press
3×8-10; 20×0 tempo; Across; Rest 1 min

Day 3 – Strict toes-to-bar + Isometrics
5 sets:
6-8 strict toes-to-bar
5-15s/side single-arm hang from pull-up bar
30-60s crab plank
-Rest as needed
+
5 sets:
50’ seated hand-over-hand sled pull
100’ farmer’s walk (tough)
30-60s wall bugs, alternating
-Rest as needed

Each of these pieces can be progressed and modified on a weekly basis to create adaptation over time by either adding volume, increasing the difficulty of the movement, or reducing the rest periods.

There is nothing particularly special about this specific structure, but this is a framework that could be used to build up adequate strength in order to work on accumulating volume of skill work in gymnastics movements.

Issue #2: Grip muscle endurance limitation

Many athletes find their “grip strength” to be a limiter in their ability to do bar muscle-ups.

Using the term “strength” in this context is probably a bit of a misnomer, since we are usually not referring to the absolute maximum contractile capacity of the gripping movement.

Rather, we are referring to the muscle endurance of gripping movements, and the fact that many athletes often experience a “pump” in the forearms which can prevent them from continuing on in a workout or can alter their technique.

The first step is ensuring you wrap your thumb around the bar.

Yes wrap your thumb around the bar.

We know, you have small hands, it rubs on your thumb, you don’t feel like it’s a strong grip. But trust us, it is better long term for improving your strength and abilities.

Yes we know some of the top CrossFit athletes don’t wrap their thumb around the bar. We don’t care.

Do it.

It also makes a safer catch position as you don’t have to worry about your handing sliding off the other side of the bar as soon as you turn over.

Just like any new movement pattern, this will feel awkward at first if you’re not used to it.

If you wear a watch, switch which hand you wear it on and it will feel strange and terrible for a few days until you get used to it.

If you ever had braces, you’ll recall that you were unable to stop running your tongue over the astonishingly smooth surfaces of your teeth for a few days after your braces removal before the excitement of that feeling fell into the gray mundanity of normalcy.

The same thing will happen if you start wrapping your thumb around the bar consistently. You’ll get used to it.

Otherwise, if you find your grip to be a limiting factor in the number of unbroken reps you can do, think about adding some grip specific work to your training.

We want to think about training the capacity to do repeated bar muscle-ups in an environment of metabolic fatigue. If we don’t have a baseline capacity in this movement to be able to train it, it’s not enough to just try to do workouts with bar muscle-ups in them.

Nor is it enough to just do grip training like farmer’s walks since that doesn’t always translate into the skill of fatigued bar muscle-ups.

Instead, we want to think about the progression of integrating a skill into a fatigue-based environment.

A theoretical template for training (over the course of several weeks or months) may look something like this:

Accumulation of isometric muscle endurance
Example:
Accumulate 3-5 min of hanging from a pull-up bar in consistent sets

Accumulation of isometric muscle endurance in an aerobic environment
Example:
15 min:
90s assault bike @ moderately high effort (~5 rpm slower than 10 min time trial pace)
AMSAP hang from pull-up bar (-5) – leave 5 seconds in the tank on each set

Accumulation of strict gymnastics muscle endurance in an aerobic environment
Example:
E90s for 6 sets:
30s assault bike @ high effort + 3-5 unbroken strict chest-to-bar pull-ups
•Modify volume of strict pull-ups or movement pattern to make this sustainable

Accumulation of bar muscle-ups in a non-fatigued environment
Example:
EMOM 10:
1st: 3-6 unbroken bar muscle-ups
2nd: 20s jumping switch lunges

Accumulation of bar muscle-ups in an aerobic environment
Example:
15 min assault bike @ 75% effort
•Every 90s get off and do–
1st: 3-6 unbroken bar muscle-ups
2nd: 25′ handstand walk

Small sets of bar muscle-ups in a testing environment with minimal interference from other movements
Example:
10 min AMRAP:
2 bar muscle-ups
4 box jumps, no rebound (30″/24″)
6 Russian KB swings (70/53)
8 assault bike calories

Small sets of bar muscle-ups in a testing environment with interference from other movements
Example:
10 min AMRAP:
50′ farmer’s walk (70/hand – 50/hand)
5 bar muscle-ups
50′ farmer’s walk (70/hand – 50/hand)
6 lateral burpees over the KBs

Large sets of bar muscle-ups in a testing environment with interference from other movements
Example:
4 rounds for time:
13 assault bike calories
12 deadlifts (155/105)
11 hang power cleans (155/105)
10 shoulder-to-overehead (155/105)
9 bar muscle-ups

Issue #3: Inadequate shoulder range of motion in internal rotation and extension

Many athletes struggle to achieve a solid catch position because they’re missing the shoulder range of motion to achieve the position.

A solid catch position requires both shoulder internal rotation and extension – meaning the ability to drive your elbows back behind your torso.

Since the term “shoulder extension” is a bit confusing to a lot of folks, here’s a quick video showing what we mean:

If you’re missing either internal rotation or extension, you may find yourself compensating by flaring the elbows out or struggling to turn the wrists over to get on top of the bar.

Asymmetrical shoulder range of motion can also lead to the dreaded “chicken winging” that can occur as athletes fight to get themselves over the bar.

It can also lead to athletes getting right to the transition point and being unable to get through.

This can be due to either stiffness through the tissues preventing shoulder extension, improper movement of the scapula preventing the joint from being able to articulate properly, or inhibition since the nervous system recognizes that it doesn’t have full control over extension.

Check out this video from Instagram where we show an athlete with some restrictions in shoulder extension:

Unraveling shoulder range of motion issues is often something more suited for a movement professional like a physical therapist and often requires a lot of patience and an individualized approach.

That said, there are a few principles that may be helpful.

Many CrossFit athletes hold their scapula in an excessively “pinched together” position.

Check out this video from Mike Reinold explaining some of the intricacies of scapular positioning.

The “pinched together” scapula also often correlate with excessive extension through the upper back, or having a “flat spine.”

In order to create extension, athletes need to be able to loosen up their thoracic spine so that the scapula have freedom to move on the ribcage.

Athletes will also benefit from attempting to hold their shoulders “wide” rather than “down and back” as this will set them up for a better position in order to articulate their scapula.

If you feel like you struggle with your scapular position and you live in extension, there’s a few exercises you can try.

The reverse reach can help create flexion through the thoracic spine and inhibit some of the musculature that pulls us into extension.

The dead bug is a classic that can teach engagement of the anterior core to stabilize the midline (rather than relying only on lumbar extension) which creates a flared ribcage position.

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The crab plank is an exercise that can train stability and scapular positioning in shoulder extension – just be a bit cautious with this exercise since, if you’re missing shoulder extension, this can feel unstable or cause excessive forward translation of the shoulder joint.

Issue #4: Inappropriate grip width (too wide)

The appropriate grip width for doing bar muscle-ups is not the same as the appropriate grip width for doing other kipping bar skills like toes-to-bar, pull-ups or chest-to-bar pull-ups.

This can create a lot of confusion and challenges for people when they attempt to get themselves up and over the bar in a muscle-up – only to find their chest repeatedly slamming into the bar.

Many people attempt to do bar muscle-ups with their grip far too wide.

While this grip width may be appropriate for things like butterfly chest-to-bar pull-ups, it creates a significant mechanical challenge in terms of actually allowing the chest to transition on top of the bar during the turnover portion of the muscle-up.

It can feel awkward for people to switch to a more narrow grip – especially if they’re used to doing high volume pull-ups or toes-to-bar with a wider grip – but this can be a game-changer in terms of consistency of success in bar muscle-ups.

If you watch this video, you can see that a wider grip creates a challenge in terms of getting the shoulders in a position that allows enough space for the chest to rotate over the top of the bar.

By narrowing the grip, the hands end up lower on the torso at the transition point, which allows more opportunity for the torso to pivot forward on the transition – without having the chest slam into the bar.

It’s difficult to come up with an exact heuristic for grip width, since everyone has slightly different anthropometrics – meaning that overall arm length as well as the relative length of the upper arm relative to the forearm – will impact the width that is appropriate for someone.

Also, the bar muscle-up requires significant amounts of force through the shoulder in internal rotation and extension as you transition into the catch position. These are potentially sketchy positions for people, so folks will often modify their grip width in order to make their shoulders feel “safer” as they transition.

Based upon this, there is some amount of playing around that you will have to do to find an optimal grip width.

In terms of a universal recommendation, though, almost everyone should have their hands more narrow on bar muscle-ups than they do on kipping pull-ups.

Issue #5: Sloppy kipping technique

People often assume that “bigger is better” when they’re trying to create power and get more height on their kip, but, in chasing this, they usually compromise on tension and mechanics.

The first focus in a kip should be tension throughout the chain.

You can’t afford to have one weak or loose point between your hands and your toes for optimum power.

These are the universal points of performance that we want to hit in our kip:

  • Feet together – squeeze your toes together to create tension and avoid your feet coming apart when you start moving
  • Toes pointed – the further you can point your toes towards the ground the more tension you can hold through your legs and hips
  • Straight arms – avoid the temptation to bend your arms at any point in the kip. Bending your arms means you’re working hard to hold tension using your biceps or compensating for missing shoulder range of motion
  • From here start your kip with short and tight movements.

    Build your kip gradually until you’re hitting a limit in the range of motion you can reach. Don’t sacrifice any of the above points to increase your range of motion during your kip.

    Watch out for the key downfalls during a kip – breaking at the knee as the feet come back, bending the arms as the chest comes forward, having too much of a “swing” that pushes your body into the wrong position in relation to the bar when it comes time to pull.

    All of these will lower your tension and power of the kip, requiring you to use more strength in the pull and ultimately leading you to fatigue earlier and accumulate less reps

    Issue #6: Improper body position relative to the bar at turnover

    When attempting to do bar muscle-ups, a lot of people who have the requisite pulling strength get themselves in trouble by attempting to pull themselves “higher” to get on top of the bar.

    While a certain amount of height on the pull is required to achieve a bar muscle-up, body position matters much more once you’re high enough to turn over.

    When people pull “too vertically,” they end up up underneath the bar, and they often make contact with the bar far too early with their chest – which halts their progress and makes it difficult for them to get on top of the bar.

    Some advanced athletes with great technique and pulling strength are able to do effective bar muscle-ups with a much more “vertical” pull, but this is often not the best strategy for beginners attempting to learn the movement or for people looking to do high repetitions in a fatigued environment (aka the bulk of the bar muscle-ups in our sport).

    In order to work on creating proper body position to maximize the turnover position, working on getting the hips to the bar in the kip is one of the best drills out there.

    By getting the hips to the bar, we have achieved more than enough height to facilitate the turnover in the bar muscle-up, and we’ve also created a layback position that allows us to easily transition on top of the bar by flexing at the hip and rolling the torso forward.

    Ideally, we want to get excellent timing between the creation of the “layback” position where the hips are high and the athlete is looking at the ceiling, and the explosive transition when we create flexion at the hip and the athlete is looking at the floor once they’ve gotten on top of the bar.

    Check out this progression we posted on Instagram a few months ago:

    View this post on Instagram

    Next up for the Bar Muscle Up progressions: . A key part to bar muscle ups is understanding that you have to pull yourself around the bar, a different path when compared to a pull up. It’s not a vertical pull, more so a middle ground between vertical and horizontal pull . Pull Backs – perform a kip, pulling down on the bar with straight arms, with the goal of getting your hips behind the bar without bending at the hip. It involves lat engagement and actively working to pull yourself back, at he same time as keeping your hips high . Hips to Bar – next up perform the same movement, this time adding in an arm bend to get your hips as close to the bar as you can. You actively have to pull with your biceps to avoid being too far behind the bar. If you can get within 6” then you’re in a great place to get your bar muscle ups moving . Give these a try and stay tuned for our next series of bar muscle up drills . #CrossFit #legionsc #barmuscleup #gymnastics

    A post shared by Legion Strength & Conditioning (@legion.sc) on

    Issue #7: Sloppy jump to the bar

    Some athletes will find that their jump to the bar plays a surprisingly large role in their ability to either make or a miss a rep on the bar muscle-up.

    If we’re deliberate with how we approach jumping to the bar, we can potentially dramatically improve our consistency on bar muscle-ups.

    An easy way to do this is to practice your jump to the bar to incorporate your first part of the kip and then go right into a rep. We call this the jump to hollow

    For this stand approximately one foot behind the bar – too far and you’re going to end up with a full body swing instead of a kip.

    Jump to the bar and catch with your body in a hollow position. Stay focused on pointed toes, straight arms and feet tight together. When you catch hold that hollow – don’t let your body go into a kip, just fight the momentum and maintain your position

    Once you’re comfortable doing this you can progress into the kip.

    Jump to your hollow and then immediately bring your feet back and your chest forwards creating the kip with power.

    DON’T sacrifice the tension that you’re holding in your toes, feet, legs, and arms.

    As soon as you hit the front of the kip pull back through and perform the bar muscle-up. Check out this post we did on Instagram detailing this drill:

    View this post on Instagram

    Part✌️of bar muscle up drills – give these a try to learn how to fly . Lat Pull to Hollows – start in a dead hang on the bar, squeeze down in your lats as you pull your torso behind the bar. At the same time point your toes and pull yourself into a hollow position . This is great for understanding the sequence of motion needed to create power through your shoulders and hips as you perform a bar muscle up . Jump to Hollow – jump onto the bar and as you catch pull yourself into the same position you just worked on from a dead hang (toes pointed, hollow position, squeezing down in lats) and perform one powerful kip . This helps you develop the timing of your kip create maximal power from your hips and shoulders to give to speed on the pull . Hit us up in the comments with questions! . #CrossFit #legionsc #barmuscleup #gymnastics

    A post shared by Legion Strength & Conditioning (@legion.sc) on

    Issue # 8: Improper timing of the pull with the arms

    Just like in the snatch and the clean, early pulling is a massive problem in bar muscle-ups.

    A lot of the momentum utilized to get the athlete high enough to create the transition comes from the kip as well as a straight arm pull (almost a “push” down on the bar with the lats) to create elevation of the body.

    Check out the straight arm kip here:

    By creating significant height and speed with straight arms, the athlete puts themselves in position to utilize the pulling of their arms to bring their torso closer to the bar and initiate the transition.

    The bending of the elbows does not create the bulk of the speed or movement that gets the athlete on top of the bar – instead, it initiates the transition and guides the athlete’s body around the bar so that they can complete the muscle-up.

    Think of it like the third pull in a snatch or a clean. The barbell is already moving fast through space, and the arms bend in order to pull the athlete’s body under the bar.

    If an athlete is pulling early with their arms in the bar muscle-up, they will often both struggle to create appropriate speed and body position through the kip, and they will end up “under” the bar too early and struggle to transition on top – even if they have appropriate pulling strength to get themselves high enough.

    Issue #9: Missing wrist turnover on the transition

    In both ring and bar muscle-ups, people can get themselves in trouble with their wrist position as they attempt to turn over.

    The transition point in the muscle-up is a complicated balance between “pulling” yourself high enough to create the transition point, then “pushing” your body through the transition.

    Many people think of the muscle-up as a “pulling” movement. As such, they think that they need to be actively pulling with their arms the entire time to make it through the movement.

    When this happens, they often end up “hoooking” their wrists the entire time – which can make it almost impossible for them to make it through the transition point.

    If the wrist remains hooked, the shoulders often flare out since moving the wrists into extension is required for the torso to rotate over the bar and the shoulders to move into the extension position required at the catch.

    The exact timing of when to move the wrists from the flexion-based position of pulling into the extension-based position of pushing can be very challenging for athletes – and this is often one of the final sticking points before someone becomes confident and competent with bar muscle-ups.

    There is a balance point where the athlete’s weight can shift forward and “roll through” the transition relatively smoothly. Once the athlete reaches this point in the pull, they need to be able to quickly flip their wrists and allow this transition to occur.

    Think of this like the transition point as someone kicks up against the wall for a handstand. Once you hit the tipping point, all you need to do is allow your weight to shift and you will find yourself balanced against the wall.

    However, for people who are not totally comfortable with this movement, they will end up kicking up very aggressively, but becoming stiff and rigid and not allowing themselves to fall through the transition point.

    A similar phenomenon occurs on the bar muscle-up when someone is attempting to “pull through” the transition rather than “push through” the transition. It feels very effortful and rigid – and like you’re getting “stuck” in a way that doesn’t quite make any sense.

    Check out this video showing a slow motion clip of the wrists transitioning from “pulling” into “pushing” during a bar muscle-up:

    If you can figure out the timing of when to flip the wrists and “push through” – which then allows the torso to fall over the bar based upon the athlete’s center of mass relative to the bar – the transition suddenly becomes smooth and easy.

    There’s unfortunately not a perfect drill for this skill, other than doing a lot of repetitions and developing an intuitive grasp for the timing of this transition.

    And, it can feel very frustrating and difficult until you suddenly get a few good ones in a row – and then you wonder why you ever struggled with this aspect of the movement.

    This is a great opportunity to use the jumping bar muscle-up from a box to work on this transition point.

    Issue #10: Too Much Tension During the Turnover

    Bar muscle-ups are hard, right?

    So, how do you do hard stuff?

    Obviously by trying really hard!

    However, in movements like bar muscle-ups, we need to be able to coordinate moments of extreme tension with moments of relaxation.

    As mentioned above in the section on wrist position, ideally the transition in a bar muscle-up feels like “falling.” It should not be a grindy, difficult movement.

    Many athletes, however, maintain the tension of their pull throughout the transition, which makes the movement far too difficult and can result in unnecessary missed reps.

    Check out this video of Levi. In his first attempt, he remains far too tense during his transition so – even though his body is in roughly the right position to transition over the bar – he’s effectively resisting the natural transition of his center of mass falling forward as he tries to get on top of the bar.

    Based upon this, he gets stuck and misses the rep.

    Sure, we can nitpick other aspects of his technique and positioning, but – by simply cuing him to relax and “fall through” the transition, he’s able to achieve a much more fluid rep on his second attempt.

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