Begin With the Basics

A guide to butterfly and muscle-up progression
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A guide to butterfly and muscle-up progression

For many beginners, butterfly pull-ups and muscle-ups are appealing skills they hope to someday acquire. Advanced athletes can make difficult movements look simple and smooth, so it’s natural to want to attain those skills.

Having said that, there’s a structured order athletes should adhere to as they set goals and make personal progress. This system is designed for proper physical development to build a solid foundation, which aids in injury prevention, as well. As athletes explore their capabilities, be sure the following progressions are provided as a guide.

Butterfly Pull-Up

  1. Begin with strict pull-ups. Your ability to do a strict pull-up demonstrates the shoulder and arm strength required to keep your joints safe when you make the transition to butterfly. If you’re unable to do strict pull-ups, add a band and focus on slow and steady pulls. However, avoid kipping with a band — you won’t improve your strength. If you’re diligent about working on your strict pull-ups a few times per week, you’ll see gradual progression to lesser bands and eventually a strict pull-up.
  2. Master kipping pull-ups. For some, kipping pull-ups may come before strict pull-ups. And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s still important to put time into building up your strength. Your kipping pull-ups should be controlled, and your descent should be a half-circle motion rather a drop straight down. Before moving on to butterfly pull-ups, an athlete should be able to knock out 15 unbroken kipping pull-ups.
  3. Work on the butterfly shoulder movement. Most people look like a fish out of water when they start butterfly pull-ups. Which is why you need to start small, with just the shoulder movement. The butterfly movement pattern is very different from a kipping movement pattern. Begin with a dead hang, and start with shoulder circles. Gradually, allow that movement to get larger, all while keeping your body tight. Once the movement is large enough, your body will want to follow like a wave. Your legs should remain fairly close together and fairly straight ... think butterfly kick in the swimming pool.
  4. Once you have a rhythm, rock them in a workout. The only way to get comfortable with butterfly pull-ups is to do them. So begin with a workout that has a low to moderate number of pull-ups, and commit to doing them butterfly. Like anything, it will require practice and tweaks as you go and grow.

Muscle-Up

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  1. Master strict pull-ups. Again, a strict pull-up is a great point of reference for strength. Without a strict pull-up, your shoulders and arms likely lack the strength necessary to complete a muscle-up safely and successfully. Begin with a band if you must, and work your way to several unassisted.
  2. Master Rx push-ups. Push-ups are another basic movement that serve as an indicator of strength. Without Rx push-ups, ring dips are almost out of the question. Always begin workouts with the most difficult version of a push-up you can. If you hit a point of failure, then transition to a modified version. Keep in mind that although going to your knees is a quick and easy modification, the exercise isn’t doing you much good unless it’s difficult. If you’re somewhere between an Rx push-up and doing them from your knees, work on the ascent from your knees and a descent in a plank position. This will intensify the movement and provide some extra strength development.
  3. Master Rx ring dips. Ring dips aren’t always as simple as they seem, specifically for women. They not only require arm strength, but they also require the ability to maintain a tight core to control the movement and keep the arms tight to the body. Bands are a simple solution for ring dips, but again, don’t get too comfortable. If you’re going for speed but not working terribly hard, there isn’t a lot of strength development happening. Ring dips are a great accessory movement to do on your own time right after a workout. Create a ring dip EMOM (every minute on the minute), or knock out a few sets at a level of assistance that’s difficult for you. You’ll see improvement quickly if you commit three days per week to strict dips.
  4. Master controlled but strong kip on rings. While you may not be prepared to hop on the rings and knock out a muscle-up, there’s no reason you can’t practice your kipping. The rings function differently than the bar you’re accustomed to, so work on your hand and arm positions, your body control, and the power you generate through your kipping motion to prepare yourself for the real deal.
  5. Focus on transition progressions. There are lots of great muscle-up tutorials out there. The transition from being under the rings to getting your chest over the rings is the most difficult part for a lot of people. It’s a fast movement. You don’t have time to think or feel in the middle of the muscle-up, so you need to be confident in your ability to throw your head forward while still maintaining control at the top. My favorite exercise specific to the transition involves a band. Loop the band through each ring like you would for an assisted ring dip, but sit down on top of it. Lean back so your arms are straight and your body is in a reverse plank position parallel with the ground. Take three very gentle pulls toward the rings (maintaining that plank position), and on three throw forward. It’s a great option.
  6. When you’re prepared, don’t overthink it. If you’ve worked on the movements noted above, you’re strong enough and your body should have some muscle memory built up. Focus only on getting from a hanging position to a ring-dip position. Sometimes if you try to remember too many details, it can be overwhelming, so keep it simple and trust your body to do the work. Muscle-ups require strength, speed and control, which is what makes them so difficult for a lot of people. But it’s also a pivotal movement in a CrossFitter’s journey and for most is celebrated as a big milestone.

While big goals are great, it’s important to recognize that there’s a lot to do in between making that goal and achieving it. Make injury prevention and proper progression a priority to keep yourself safe and steadily improving. Most of the time, all it takes is hard work and patience.