I get asked quite frequently whether or not it is correct to use a false grip on rings, especially when working muscle-ups. The simple answer is yes, but it requires some explanation. The first rule is to stop thinking about a strict muscle-up and a kipping muscle-up as the same skill. They are very different and need to be approached as such.
The strict muscle-up is a purely strength-based skill. The action should be as vertical as possible. Most people are impatient with getting from hang to support, which can lead them to focus on a kipping muscle-up before they are strong enough to be able to handle or stabilize the action.
If you ever watch a gymnast get ready for a ring routine, watch when his coach lifts him to the rings. He will take a second to lock in his false grip before starting the routine. The shortening of the lever arm that is created by getting that false grip in place is critical for doing these strength movements effectively.
As an athlete, take the time to build wrist and forearm strength and flexibility to be able to lock the false grip in place. It will go a long way towards your development of the strength-based ring movements.
Here is one exercise I like doing that helps build wrist/forearm strength: Take a lacrosse ball in your hand and wrap your wrist over a ring as if you are trying to lock a false grip in place. With your free hand, grip the other ring for support and added stability. As best as you can, try hanging with locked out elbows from that wrist without involving your hand for grip.
This will allow you to focus purely on building false grip strength in your forearm, without relying on your hand for support/grip. It will probably be uncomfortable at first, so don’t get intimidated. Over time, probably months in most cases, as your grip gets stronger, try hanging without the other hand on the ring. Once you get to the point where you can support your whole body weight from one hand in the engaged false grip, you know you have built the necessary strength for a powerful false grip.
As I mentioned earlier, this skill should be thought of as something completely separate from a strict muscle-up. This skill is known as a “front uprise” in men’s gymnastics and when done correctly, requires very little strength. The power is generated from a technically sound swinging (kipping) action, where the body works as one continuous, unbroken piece from fingertips to toes, to create maximum potential.
I tell people all the time that no matter how strong you are, gravity will always win. This means that even athletes with the fiercest false grip will tire after a while and be pulled to the absolute bottom of the hang position. When working on swing-based elements, the aggressive false grip we see engaged with strength based elements (ie: strict muscle-up) does not come in to play. That’s not to say that the wrist or forearm is not engaged at all. In fact, the ideal position is a neutral wrist angle that I like to call the “neutral false grip.”
The intention of this name is to reinforce the idea of being strong in the wrist/forearm position and to constantly be working towards being in complete control of what your wrist is doing. Not maintaining a false grip often leads to a loose or floppy wrist, which is a much less advantageous position. The neutral false grip allows for maximum force to be generated through the point where the body is coming through the vertical position in the swing/kip. Any wrist angle at all will create slack at the bottom (vertical) point, which translates to a loss of potential energy. You should be working towards a smooth, tight transition through the bottom of that swinging/kipping action, which can only be achieved when the body is free of angles and at complete extension.
The strength of the neutral false grip is built over time by working on a full false grip. So, is a false grip engaged when doing a kipping muscle-up? My answer is yes, but the position and application is much different than the aggressive false grip seen in the strength based ring elements.
Beyond the Standards of Today
As elite gymnasts, technique is at the center of everything we do. There is never a moment in our careers when we stop training basic, foundational movements. Countless repetitions of basic movements are what enable us to perfect things like handstand pushups, muscle-ups, and beyond. Artistic gymnastics continues to push the limits of human potential because athletes are finding better ways to apply technique, become stronger, and have a never-ending thirst for pushing the limits. It is impossible to carve a new path for a sport without a solid foundation.
Right now, the CrossFit world is fascinated by the muscle-up. It has become a must-learn skill, no matter the cost. Many people are skipping the critical strength-building step associated with a strict muscle-up and jumping straight to a kipping muscle-up because it is easier. Using the momentum that the kipping action gives you might get you on top of the rings, but are you strong enough to support yourself once you are there? What if you come across a workout with fifty muscle-ups? Would technique help in this case? Doing a skill one time does not equate to mastery. Strength must be gained first if you ever want to become truly proficient.
Essentially, what building strength and proper technique allows you to do is be ready for anything. If the standards change next year and strict muscle-ups (or another variation) are required, most people would have to start over from scratch in the way they approach ring training. Working towards one particular skill without consideration for foundations puts you in a box that does not allow for adaptation. Building strength and body awareness will allow you to be prepared for any standard that might be thrown your way. Change is on its way, so set your foundation now. The muscle-up is just the beginning.
Featured in the April/May issue of BoxLife Magazine