10 Muscle Up Alternatives (Beginner and Advanced)


Muscle Up Alternatives

Muscle Up is an incredible exercise. It challenges upper-body pulling and pressing strength. It also challenges grip strength, coordination and shoulder stability. The list of benefits go on and on.

However, there are times when you might need an alternative for Muscle Ups.

Maybe you don’t have gym rings (or a pull-up bar for the bar version of Muscle Ups). Or, maybe you’re just not able (yet!) to do Muscle-Ups because they’re crazy hard to do.

Whatever the reason, you’re in the right place. I’m about to give you 10 exercises that you can use as a replacement for Muscle Ups.

Alternatives for Muscle Ups

Before we get started, let’s get something straight. There really is no exercise that can be a one-for-one direct substitution for Ring Muscle Ups. You basically need a replacement for the pull-up portion of the movement and another for the press to extension.

So, the first five exercises on this list are alternatives for the pull-up portion. Then, the second five are going to be alternatives for the press.

I’m going to try to give as much variation as possible. Exercises that use different pieces of equipment and require different levels of lifting experience. Hopefully, you’ll be able to find a combination of exercises that works well for you.


Towel Pull-ups


Not only are Towel Pull-ups great for strength development, they’re also great for learning how to balance and stabilize through the range of motion. Those skills are critical for doing Muscle Ups, especially strict Ring Muscle Ups.

Equipment Needed

  • Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
  • Pair of towels

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • Wrap two towels about shoulder-width around a pull-up bar.
  • Use a bench to get to the bar if it is too high.
  • Grab the towels, engage the core muscles and do not cross your legs.
  • Engage the upper back and pull up until your chin is over the bar*.
  • Pause for 1 second with your chin over the bar.
  • Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.

Coaching Points

*When doing Towel Pull-ups, there is a good chance that you’ll be gripping the towels too far below the bar to then be able to get your chin over the bar. In this case, try to pull your chin higher than your hands at the top of the rep.

Make sure to test the integrity of your towels every time before using them. Towels can and will rip, especially if they are cheap and/or older towels. (Which is oftentimes the case for towels that are relegated for the gym)


Pull-ups


Pull-up Alternatives and Variations

Don’t get me wrong, there is a huge difference between a Muscle Up vs Pull Up. However, the better you get at Pull-ups the better shot you have at conquering Muscle-Ups.

Equipment Needed

  • Pull Up Bar (Either as part of a rack or a wall-mounted bar)
  • Weight belt (For weighted variations)
  • For modification purposes:
  • Lifting Band (To assist in completing the pull-up or doing more repetitions with a full range of motion).
  • Lifting partner (To assist in getting your chin over the bar)
  • Bench (To help reach the bar if it’s too high)

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • Approach the pull-up bar and grab the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away).
  • Use a bench to get to the bar if it is too high.
  • Later in the article, I will talk about variations, alternatives, and modifications where the supinated (palms facing in) grip will be discussed.
  • Squeeze the bar and engage the core muscles and do not cross your legs.
  • Engage the upper back and pull up until your chin is over the bar.
  • Pause for 1 second with your chin over the bar.
  • Slowly lower yourself back to the starting position.

Coaching Points

Take your time and master the Pull-up. The benefits of doing sound pull-ups will pay dividends for your shoulder health and the potential to maximize your upper body strength.


Inverted Rows


Inverted Rows with Gym Rings
Photo Credit: Mariia Korneeva / shutterstock.com

Equipment Needed

  • Barbell*
  • Squat Rack

*I generally do Inverted Rows with a barbell in a rack, but if you have rings they work great as well.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Start by placing a bar on the rack about waist height.
  • The higher the bar is placed, the easier the rows will be. The lower the bar is placed, the harder the rows will be. (Just make sure to leave yourself enough room to fully extend your arms at the bottom of the rep)
  • Set the bar on either the J-Hooks or the Safety Bars
  • Lay down underneath the bar.
  • Grab the bar with an overhand grip, brace the core and make sure your body is fully extended – including your legs.
  • You should be positioned to where when you pull yourself up towards the bar, the bar touches the same spot on the chest as it would for bench press. Slide up or down to adjust accordingly.
  • Now, keeping your body in a straight line, pull your chest up to the bar and lower back down until your arms are fully extended.
  • Repeat until all reps are completed.

Coaching Points

You should think of the Inverted Row like a reverse bench press. Keep your head back, chest out and pull your chest directly to the bar. Pull the shoulder blades down and back at the top of the rep and squeeze the back.


Barbell Bent Rows


Barbell Bent Over Rows

Equipment Needed

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • Approach the barbell and take a shoulder-width stance. Your shins should be almost touching the barbell.
  • Hinge at the waist and bend the knee until you can grab the barbell. Use a pronated grip (Knuckles facing the floor). I will talk later about the supinated grip (palms up) in this movement.
  • Always keep a flat back, and a neutral spine, and keep your eyes focused slightly down about 1 foot in front of you.
  • Take a deep breath, brace the abdomen, and pull the bar in until it makes contact right about the belly button.
  • Pause for about 1 second. Squeeze the shoulder blades and lock in the rep.
  • Slowly return the barbell back to the starting position (weights about 1-2 inches off the ground).

Coaching Points

The initial setup and stance for Barbell Bent Over Rows should be specific to the lifter’s deadlifting and Olympic lifting goals. Having identical setups and grips will be great for the lifts to carry over to the compound movements.


One Arm Dumbbell Row


One Arm Rows without a Bench
Just do NOT brace yourself on an actual dumbbell on a rack as they WILL flip off the rack on you.

Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells
  • Bench (optional)

A bench is helpful, but not totally necessary. Bracing one arm against the rack or even on your leg can work as well.

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Grab a dumbbell and a bench*.
  • Place the dumbbell next to the bench and set yourself up.
  • If rowing with the right arm, place the left knee and left hand on the bench. Keep the right foot flat on the ground.
  • Make sure the back is flat (neutral) to slightly arched.
  • Brace the core and pick the dumbbell up.
  • Row the dumbbell up, keeping the elbow close to the body as the dumbbell raises.
  • Squeeze the back at the top of the rep and then lower the dumbbell down until the arm is fully extended.
  • Repeat for the designated number of reps and then switch sides.

*One Arm Rows do not have to be done with one knee on a bench. You can keep both feet flat on the ground and lean forward and brace yourself with your off-hand on something sturdy. You can even lean your off forearm on your leg for support if necessary.

Coaching Points

The most common mistake I see my athletes make when doing One Arm Rows is not maintaining a flat back. The back should stay engaged and slightly arched – similar to the starting position of a Power Clean. Do not let the back round as this can cause unnecessary stress on the spine.

Also, do not twist and turn while rowing. You’re not starting a lawn mower. If you need to use your whole body to twist and rock the weight up then the dumbbell is too heavy. Lower the weight and maintain proper form.


Ring Dips


Ring Dips (1)

If you’re still struggling with how to do ring muscle ups then the more practice you can get on the rings themselves the better. One great way to do this is incorporating Ring Dips into your training plan.

Equipment Needed

  • Gym Rings
  • Squat Rack or something else to safely hang your rings from*.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Set your rings up on your rack. This process will vary based on your rings. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.
  • Set your rings just above waist height. This will allow enough room for your feet not to hit the ground while doing reps, but not so high you feel you have to jump up into your first rep.
  • Starting position is hands on rings, arms extended, knees slightly bent and feet crossed (crossing feet is optional but does help with unwanted swinging in my experience).
  • Descend down by bending the elbows and slightly leaning forward.
  • Lower yourself under control until the triceps become parallel with the ground and then drive yourself back up to the starting position.
  • Repeat until all reps are completed.

Coaching Points

An issue I see athletes run into is unwanted swinging front to back while doing reps. Stay under control, keep a consistent rep path, bend the knees and cross the feet. These are all solutions that I have seen help eliminate swinging while doing Ring Dips.


Dips


Man Doing Dips on Dip Rack Attachment

Equipment Needed

  • Squat Rack
  • Dip Attachment
  • A Dip Station can be used as well if you have access to one.

Step By Step Instructions

  • Attach your dip rack to your rack. This process will vary based on your rack and dip attachment. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.
  • Set your dip rack just above waist height. This will allow enough room for your feet not to hit the ground while doing reps, but not so high you feel you have to jump up into your first rep.
  • Starting position is hands on bars, arms extended, knees slightly bent and feet crossed (crossing feet is optional but does help with unwanted swinging in my experience.
  • Descend down by bending the elbows and slightly leaning forward.
  • Lower yourself under control until the triceps become parallel with the ground and then drive yourself back up to the starting position.
  • Repeat until all reps are completed.

Coaching Points

The biggest mistake I see with Dips is poor range of motion. If someone is struggling to be able to do reps, the easiest solution is to simply not lower yourself into a full rep, but this is incorrect. If a lifter cannot perform a full rep they should switch to one of the variations listed below.


Feet Elevated Push Ups


Feet Elevated Pushups

Equipment Needed:

  • Bench or Box

Step-by-Step Instruction

  • Lie face down on the floor and place your feet up on a bench or box.
  • Pull your toes in so that you’re on the tip of your shoes.
  • Eyes should be focused straight down or slightly up.
  • Pull your hands close to about the nipple line of the chest and bring them out about 2-3 inches away.
  • Take a deep breath, engage the core and brace.
  • Push yourself up in one unit. There should be no sagging of the waist. The entire body from head to toe should move up and then back down in unison.
  • Feel your scapula upwardly rotate and make sure the antagonist muscles (Back and biceps) are fully engaging.
  • Lock out your push-up and pause.
  • Slowly lower yourself back down and get ready for the next repetition from just above the ground.

Coaching Points

When doing Feet Elevated Pushups keep the elbows at a 45-degree angle. For maximal chest, shoulder, and rotator cuff engagement, do not let the elbows flare out away from the middle. Also, do not let the elbow hug right next to the torso.


Close Grip Bench Press


Close Grip Bench Press (1)

Equipment Needed

  • Multi-purpose lifting rack
  • Bench
  • Barbell
  • Bumper or Iron plates

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Set the height of the barbell so that when you unrack the barbell, you are only doing a very short upward concentric movement.
  • Lie flat on your back on the bench.
  • Keep your feet flat on the floor. (Some do find it comfortable to pull the feet back toward their butt as they arch).
  • Keep your butt on the bench.
  • Pull your shoulder blades together and keep the back of your head on the bench. You will slightly arch your back. Keep your core tight and keep the shoulder blades pulled back tight.
  • Take a narrow grip, right at the start of the knurling and completely close your grip. Keep your knuckles pointing toward the ceiling and squeeze the barbell.
  • Unrack the weight and take a deep breath.
  • Control the barbell down during the eccentric movement and draw the barbell in, keeping the elbows tight to the body.
  • The barbell will make contact with your torso right at the nipple line on the chest.
  • Once contact is made, drive the barbell back up to the starting position.

Coaching Points

Do not let the elbows flare out away from the midline when doing Close Grip Bench Press. The shoulders are incredibly vulnerable in these positions and the sheer force placed on the shoulders will lead to injury if the technique is not made a priority.


Dumbbell Skull Crushers


Equipment Needed

  • Dumbbells
  • Bench (Preferrable but they can be done on the floor as in the video above)

Step-by-Step Instructions

  • Using dumbells, lie flat on a bench with your head down, and chin up. If you don’t have a bench, you can simply lie on the floor.
  • Press dumbbells to arm’s length above the shoulder.
  • Lower dumbbells to just beside ears, bending arms at elbows, keeping upper arm vertical and elbows in.
  • Return to starting position and repeat.

Coaching Points

Keep the elbows high throughout. When Dumbbell Skull Crushers start to become difficult, the natural tendency of the lifter is to drop the elbows. Keep the elbows high and tight (try not to let them flare out to the side either).

Final Thoughts

Muscle Ups are an awesome exercise for developing upper body strength, but sometimes Muscle Ups just isn’t an option. Maybe you don’t have the proper equipment or maybe you’re just looking to add some variety to your workout.

In these situations, you’ll need a Muscle Up alternative and I hope that one of the exercises I’ve listed here fits what you were looking for.

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Ryan Horton

Horton Barbell was created by Ryan Horton who has served as a Sports Performance Coach for almost 20 years. My mission is to create a training resource to help as many coaches and athletes as possible maximize athletic potential.

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