Inconsistent on the Rings? – Sun 6.25.17

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I was speaking to a co-worker this last week who lost his muscle ups  and we were talking strategies to getting them back.  Like all skill work, The Compound promotes working these movements with a good plan, knowing where you are now, and then working with a coach to development plans and goals along the way.

I always refer to the CrossFit Journal, because they usually have good, succinct training information. They didn’t fail me this time:

Inconsistent on the Rings?

“I lost my muscle-up.”

Every gym has an athlete who has uttered those words.

Usually the lost-my-muscle-up athlete is the guy or girl who managed to squeak out a rep or two one magical day but can’t seem to repeat the feat.

CrossFit athletes and coaches Alexandra LaChance and Louise Eberts would like to prevent the existence of one-hit wonders. They do this by helping their athletes acquire the prerequisite strength and skill needed to develop consistent muscle-ups.

“People do sometimes get lucky and manage to throw themselves through the rings once or twice, but in order to do safe and consistent muscle-ups, you need to build the foundational strength so you don’t put your body in jeopardy,” said LaChance, a former college gymnast at the University of Arkansas and an individual competitor at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games. LaChance works with athletes of all levels to improve their gymnastics, and she frequently hosts gymnastics seminars.

She added: “I teach a lot of adults without a gymnastics background. For them, flying through the rings can be scary. So you need to make sure you’re strong enough not to get hurt. If they don’t have a certain amount of strength, they shouldn’t even be jumping up to the rings.”

Prerequisite Strength

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The muscle-up requires skill, but it also requires strength. No amount of skill will help you if you can’t perform pull-ups, dips and ring supports before attempting a muscle-up. (Stephan Idemori)

Before her athletes are given the right to attempt a muscle-up, they need to prove they’re physically ready first, said Eberts, a coach at CrossFit 604 in Vancouver, British Columbia.

“A certain amount of strength and skill is needed before I would even consider letting someone attempt a muscle-up,” Eberts said. “And it takes time and patience.”

When someone approaches Eberts for muscle-up help, she first establishes strength and skill numbers.

“How many strict pull-ups, strict ring dips and ring rows with their feet on a box can they do? And also push-ups. How many push-ups can they do?” she said. “But it goes beyond just dip and pull-up strength. If they don’t live locally, I also get them to send a video of themselves performing the movements so I can see their body positions. If they can’t even keep a hollow body then I know they’re lacking in midline strength.”

LaChance, too, puts all new clients through a week-long series of tests to evaluate the athletes she’s working with.

“The most important thing is that they show strength throughout the entire range of motion before they can just chuck a muscle-up,” Lachance said. “The athlete needs to be able to do strict pull-ups and ring dips before we start thinking about muscle-ups. They also need to be able to hold themselves in every single position of a muscle-up, meaning they have to be able to do a static hold at the top of the ring dip and the bottom of the ring dip, and they need to be able to hold their chest at the rings.”

Other important pieces of the puzzle are an understanding of the hollow-body position and the ability to hold it, she added.

“Most people don’t know how to hold a proper hollow-body hold. Being able to do that is crucial to most gymnastics movements we do.”

In a nutshell, LaChance’s testing week includes:

  • Max unbroken strict ring dips (scale to kipping if needed).
  • Max unbroken chest-to-bar pull-ups (scale to kipping pull-ups if needed).
  • Max hollow hold.
  • Max arch (superman) hold.
  • Accumulate two minutes at the top of a ring dip with locked elbows.
  • Accumulate two minutes at the bottom of a ring dip.
  • Jumping ring muscle-ups (to make sure the athlete is strong enough to catch himself or herself).
  • Kipping hips-to-rings test.

Building a Program

Eberts takes a host of factors into consideration when creating a program that targets gymnastics weaknesses. Each program is specific to the athlete and takes into account the client’s strength, fitness goals, muscular imbalances and weaknesses, injury history, age, and training time.

The athlete’s current strength numbers are critical to the design.

“If the athlete has zero strict pull-ups or ring dips, we obviously work on getting them a pull-up and a ring dip first,” Eberts said.

In this case, the early stages of the program will focus mostly on gaining basic strength.

If the athlete can already do strict pull-ups and ring dips—generally 5 of each unbroken, Eberts explained—she will then complement the strength work with transition and kipping drills. Eberts said she isn’t opposed to using bands for certain movements, as they can help the athlete figure out proper positioning, coordination and timing of the movement.

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Louise Eberts (foreground) uses spotting and banded assistance to help athletes get closer to their first muscle-up. (Stephan Idemori)

LaChance relies heavily on tempo work to build strength in movements such as ring rows and pull-ups, she said. Working on the negative portion of these movements is also really useful, she added.

“If someone is so weak they can’t do a negative pull-up, then we add a band so there’s some tension, and I might have them do something like 5 sets of 5 banded negative pull-ups instead.”

Eberts particularly likes to use spotting as athletes get closer to unassisted muscle-ups.

“Spotting can really help cue the athlete into the right position. Even just placing your hand on their lats as they’re swinging, for example, can help them keep better tension in their lats throughout the movement,” she said.

Spotting is also helpful for developing powerful, efficient ring swings in which the athletes use the hollow position throughout, Eberts explained.

“More than anything, spotting helps create the right motor pattern, technique and timing. Then when the spotter goes away, the athlete knows what a muscle-up is going to feel like. It’s so much better than watching them try and fail over and over because they’re making the same mistake over and over,” she said.

Finally, spotting also helps build volume into a program for people who can already do some muscle-ups, Ebert said, because a light spot helps athletes string together more muscle-ups than they could on their own.

Other Challenges

LaChance and Eberts agree that lack of strength isn’t the only cause of missed muscle-ups: Poor coordination and timing, poor mobility, and the inability to fire the right muscles are common issues they encounter.

Often athletes are strong enough to do a muscle-up, but a lack of flexibility prevents them from being able to get through the rings, Eberts explained. For these people, she includes additional mobility pieces in their gymnastics program.

“Often it’s men who are the most tight, in their shoulders, their chest, their backs. Sometimes their erectors are so tight they have no movement in their spine. For them, I build in more dynamic stretching before their training session. Things like skin-the-cats on the rings are great for opening the shoulders,” she said. “And then some more static stretching after their session, too. Partner stretching with some resistance is really helpful.”

Lachance said she often finds clients are unable to fire the lats.

“When I run seminars, I’m always amazed by how many people don’t really know how to use their lats or how to set their scapula correctly.”

For these people, she includes a lot of simple banded movements to engage the lats.

“It also trains them to fire their lats evenly,” she said. “Often one lat works, but there’s an imbalance so the other one doesn’t fire.”

Single-arm strength work and accessory work also help even out the imbalance, she added.

Many athletes who approach LaChance for help can already do muscle-ups but want to get better at them. These athletes come with common problems, too, LaChance explained. For example, LaChance said many athletes’ palms are in the wrong position during the transition.

“I see so many people whose palms are facing down when they catch the transition. When your palms are facing toward the ground, then your wrist will bend and you’ll usually need to chicken wing. You need to keep your palms facing your body when you catch.”

More advanced athletes also catch the muscle-up too low in the dip position, she said.

“To catch it higher, you need to squeeze your butt as you’re snapping your hips. Most times people are kipping through the knees and their body isn’t really moving as a unit, so there’s a disconnect between their swing and their catch. You need to kip through the hips, not the knees, and squeeze your bum hard while snapping through with your core.”

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An “active catch” will help athletes avoid getting stuck in the bottom of the dip. (Stephan Idemori)

She also recommends athletes be “proactive” in the dip to avoid a low catch.

“People sometimes tell athletes to throw themselves through the rings, but then they end up absorbing the rings and catching low in the dip. If you think about being vertical in the torso and being proactive and anticipating the catch, then you’ll be able to catch higher. The key is to finish vertical. Don’t catch with your chest facing the floor. Finish tall and be ready to press down against the rings as you catch.”

Final Tips

For athletes looking to take on some additional gymnastics training on top of their CrossFit programming for general physical preparedness (GPP), Eberts recommends coordination and moderation.

ALT TEXTGymnastics is a long game. Athletes are encouraged to make note of small improvements as they work toward larger goals. (Stephan Idemori)

“For athletes who have other coaches who program the rest of their CrossFit training, I always try to get them to work with their coach to make sure their gymnastics homework complements the rest of their (GPP) program so they’re not overdoing it on certain movements.”

She added: “My programs are mostly about technical work and building efficiency in gymnastics movements, and I find that two days of additional weakness work on one or two specific gymnastics skills is usually enough when you’re already following a well-rounded program.”

Eberts said is filming is equally important when it comes to movements like muscle-ups.

“Reviewing film helps people learn a lot about how they’re moving. Gymnastics is frustrating. It’s a slow process. So keep a film journal and remember to look back sometimes to appreciate how far you’ve come.”

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