Though much debate surrounds the concept of bodyweight exercise, there is one thing that is almost unanimously agreed upon; at the elite levels, calisthenic athletes are capable of some pretty impressive feats.
One among these is an exercise known as the muscle up, a combination of the standard pull-up and a dip that requires tremendous practice, exercise familiarity and physical strength to accomplish.
When it comes to ascertaining how many people are capable of pulling off this feat of strength, it can become rather difficult, as though it is quite obvious the muscle up is an advanced calisthenic movement, the best we can do is make a rough estimate of how this difficulty stacks against the average person’s own physical abilities.
For the most part, we can estimate that less than 1% of the world’s population can perform a muscle up with correct form, whereas the percentage may be significantly higher among the fitness and athletic community.
In more technical terms, the muscle up is a bodyweight compound resistance exercise often performed at low volume due to the level of intensity involved therein.
To perform, it only requires a suitably shaped overhead object with which to pull oneself up to, but can also be performed with dip rings, pull-up bars or certain types of playground equipment.
The muscle up is a wide-reaching exercise that can recruit the latissimus dorsi, triceps brachii, deltoids and biceps brachii to great effect - while also contracting the core, pectorals and brachialis to a similar level.
The muscle up is usually purposed as an advanced to elite level exercise meant to save the athlete time during their calisthenic workout, or as a method of showcasing one’s own physical abilities.
Considering the fact that it is largely a momentum-driven movement, the muscle up is not frequently used as a method of developing gross muscular strength or inducing hypertrophy.
As a foreword, it is important to differentiate between bar muscle ups and ring muscle ups, as the technique utilized in a ring muscle up is somewhat different and requires greater explosiveness while also featuring a relatively shorter range of motion.
To simplify things, it is the far more common bar muscle up that will be explained.
To perform a muscle up, the exerciser will grip the bar overhead in both hands, clearing their feet off the floor and beginning at a dead hang.
Flexing the chest muscles and bending the elbows simultaneously, the lifter will then produce explosive momentum in a swinging motion, drawing themselves upwards and somewhat back so as to produce space between the body and the bar. It should feel as if you are swinging around the bar, rather than parallel to it.
Once the bar is at eye-level, the exerciser will then flex their biceps and back muscles, multiplying the momentum and drawing their torso forward and over the bar in a single smooth motion. The hands should rotate as they do so, ending in such a way that the arms are fully extended beneath the torso as if pushing the bar downwards.
This completes the muscle up, with subsequent repetitions requiring that the exerciser simply return to the dead hang position in order to repeat the motion.
Though performing the muscle up does indeed require an impressive level of physical strength, it is not entirely based on the amount of force your muscles are capable of outputting - mastery of certain calisthenic exercise mechanics and maximizing your own body’s unique proportions for greater leverage is also required.
For the most part, individuals who can perform double-digit sets of pull-ups should have the required upper body strength to execute a muscle up with some effort, though this does not necessarily mean that they will have the technical understanding to do so.
Ideally, an exerciser who can perform pull-ups and dips for quite a number of repetitions, while also being familiar with the usage of leverage and momentum during exercise will be the best equipped to perform a muscle up properly.
Though there has yet to be a large-scale census into how many people can actually perform a muscle up, comparing the difficulty of the exercise to the average number of pull-ups that the average western citizen is capable of shows that approximately less than 1% of all individuals are capable of pulling off this feat.
As such, if you are capable of performing even a single muscle up with proper form, then you are likely among the highest percentile of individuals in terms of physical fitness and athletic ability - or, at least, among the general global population.
This means that very few people can actually perform a muscle up, with likely less than 1/10th of all individuals being capable of doing so.
Note that this is an estimate based on only loosely related data, and it is entirely possible that the number of people that can do a muscle up is slightly higher or lower.
Fortunately, data regarding muscle up performance among trained individuals is somewhat more common, though largely self-reported.
When investigating this specific demographic, it can be seen that the average or “intermediate” level male exerciser can perform approximately 7 muscle ups at maximum effort, whereas the average female exerciser can perform 5 muscle ups at the greatest level of exertion.
Furthermore, the upper percentile of over 95% (otherwise known as the “elite” range) numbers in at a whopping 22 repetitions for men, and 19 for women on average.
Note that these values are self-reported among a sample size of 95,701 instances at the time of writing this article, and it is entirely possible that this number is inaccurate due to the nature of the data.
In the event that you find yourself unable to complete a single repetition of the muscle up - or simply want to be able to perform multiple repetitions in a row - then some level of specific training methodology will be needed.
Unlike the more general goals of growing your muscle mass or improving your full-body strength, training specifically to perform muscle ups will require you to perform certain exercises and focus on specific muscle groups so as to reach your goals in the most efficient way possible.
Because of the specific mechanics utilized during a muscle up repetition, performing certain exercises in order to “practice” these motions is the best way to develop the strength and familiarity needed to successfully execute a muscle up.
These are primarily the bodyweight dip, the conventional pull-up and the push-up, as these three bodyweight exercises are the closest to a muscle up that can be done for novice or intermediate level calisthenic athletes.
Other exercises that may be of use as the machine lat pulldown and the reverse row - two back muscle exercises that can aid in developing the necessary musculature and familiarizing the exerciser with the correct motions.
Though the muscle up can recruit practically every muscle group in the upper body, it is important to ensure that the primary mover muscles that are responsible for much of the force involved are up to the task.
These are the latissimus dorsi, biceps brachii, deltoid muscles and rhomboids - as well as the triceps and chest muscles during the latter half of the movement.
Other aspects of the exerciser’s fitness and lifestyle should also be managed so as to aid in reaching the muscle up, such as performing mobility work of the wrists, shoulders and scapula in order to maximize recovery and prevent injury from performing the muscle up.
Furthermore, it is advisable that exercisers consume an adequate amount of protein and take a sufficient amount of time away from training so as to allow the body to fully recover, speeding up the process of physical development.
A major source of force during the movement of a muscle up is in the initial swing, where the exerciser will draw themselves upwards and backwards in an explosive movement that produces significant momentum within a relatively short frame of distance.
A suitably experienced calisthenics athlete or gymnast will have the technical experience to easily master this movement, producing a smooth transition from the dead hang at the start of a muscle up to the “dip” over the bar with a suitably explosive swinging movement.
One of the best ways of practicing this is to perform kipping pull-ups, a classic variation of the standard pull-up that greatly reduces the difficulty of the exercise in exchange for greater momentum utilization - though it is not very effective for inducing physical developments, it is indeed otherwise excellent for the purpose of practicing muscle ups.
For novice lifters just starting on their journey to performing a muscle up, performing pull-ups for any significant amount of volume may prove to be quite difficult - so much so, that it could be otherwise impossible to accrue any meaningful training stimulus from the few repetitions that they are capable of.
While performing negatives is the usual advice in this situation, utilizing the help of an assisted pull-up machine may prove more efficient when striving to perform a muscle up, as it will provide greater reinforcement of the mechanics needed in the latter exercise.
One way of improving your control over the muscle up is to utilize your abdominal muscles. Doing so can aid in maximizing force produced during the initial swing, reducing instability during the transition from the dead hang or when pulling oneself over the bar, as well as allow a greater “kip” to be executed by swinging the pelvis alongside the legs.
This, of course, requires that the exerciser have sufficient control over their abs, and that said abs are well-developed enough to actually be useful in such a way.
To achieve abdominal muscles suitable for a muscle up, perform isometric exercises like the plank or static leg raise so as to build strength and neuromuscular control as efficiently as possible.
Bar muscle ups are considered to be somewhat more difficult than their ring-based counterparts due to several factors - the majority of which have to do with the fact that the bar is a fixed object that requires the exerciser to adjust to its shape and position, something that is not the case with ring muscle ups.
This can extend the range of motion of the movement, demand greater force output from the exerciser’s muscles, and otherwise place greater torsion and stress on the tissues of the body - thereby reducing the maximum number of muscle ups one can perform.
There’s a reason gymnasts are considered to be experts on the muscle up, as it is a comparatively basic movement in relation to other advanced gymnastic feats.
As such, if one of your goals is to be capable of performing as many muscle ups as possible, taking the time and energy of practicing gymnastics and its subsequent exercises is a surefire way of doing so.
By all accounts - yes, you are indeed considered strong if you can perform a repetition of the muscle up exercise with proper form.
While the muscle up is not entirely based on the total force output of your body, it will nonetheless require significant gross muscular strength from multiple muscle groups, all acting in concert within a relatively short length of time - something that the majority of untrained individuals cannot achieve.
In truth, the muscle up is not just a matter of skill or strength.
Instead, it is an exercise that requires proper development in both factors, as well as a few smaller aspects of athleticism such as a sense of proprioception and properly conditioned non-muscular soft tissues.
So, to put it short; the muscle up is an exercise of both skill and strength, among other things as well.
As was mentioned previously, performing even a single proper repetition of the muscle up can mean that you are stronger than the large majority of individuals world-wide, as most ordinary people are not capable of such a feat.
However, among trained individuals and athletes, a single repetition is less impressive.
Instead, being able to perform 7 consecutive muscle ups as a man, or 5 as a woman, can be considered impressive and likely greater than the majority of all trained individuals.
Checked how you compare against the average person, or even your fellow athletes?
Just remember that comparing oneself to your peers is rarely a constructive act, and that it is far better to ensure you are making relative progress by comparing your current abilities to what your past self would have been capable of.
If you work towards it, there is no doubt that you could easily be performing double-digit muscle up sets within a short time frame. Follow proper training methodology and the tips covered in this article for the surest way of doing so.
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