Sternum Pull-ups Will Make You Explosive and Prepare You for the Muscle-Up

I first heard of the usefulness of sternum pull-ups towards improving muscle-up performance from my colleague Milko Georgiev, Bulgaria’s top conditioning coach. Here is a video I shot a few years back of him doing 9 muscle-ups with great form.

Prior to that, I had read an article by Charles Poliquin mentioning this exercise. Poliquin himself was inspired by the great Vince Gironda if I recall correctly. However I never found a comprehensive guide on doing the sternum pull-up, much less on using it to work towards muscle-ups. So this article is a first in a series that will help you do your first muscle-up.

Above you can watch a video I shot demonstrating the basic sternum pull-up. Again, the three keys to the move are using your back, exploding and pulling the elbows back once the upper arms reach parallel.

What is the Sternum Pull-up


The sternum pull-up is simply a pull-up variation in which you need to touch the bar to your chest. The cool thing about this kind of pull-up is that it will teach and strengthen the groove that will eventually lead to muscle-up mastery.

Here is a simple progression towards getting good with the sternum pull-ups. Remember to watch your form. With the gymnastic type of movements it is quality that counts more than quantity.

How to do Sternum Pull-ups

  • Start with the lat pull down. The lat pull down machine is your first stop if you can’t do pull-ups.The reason for this recommendation is that this is the only machine that will teach you the correct full range form for pull-ups and, eventually, sternum pull-ups
  • Master the pull-up first. The best thing you can do is master the basic pull-up: from dead hang until your chin is over the bar. Here it is essential that you learn to engage and use your back – the lats (the muscles of your armpits that create a v-shaped torso).
  • Hands on top. For the purpose of working towards muscle-ups, we want the hands to be on top of the bar. Other variations have their merit, but this one – hands on top (pronated grip) – is the one to choose for now.
  • Learn to explode. The biggest obstacle in achieving the muscle-up is lack of speed. Sternum pull-ups are done as fast as possible. Contract the back lightning fast and pull yourself up
  • Elbows back. Once your upper arms pass parallel, you need to engage another muscle group – the mid back and rear delts, and pull back instead of simply down.
  • Chest to bar. Finally you want to hit or touch the bar to the chest: the lower the better.

I am shooting these pics and videos in the backyard of a high school near the gym. I go there after I get off work and surprisingly the kids from the neighborhood have no interest whatsoever of using the free pull-up bar. A pity.

By the way – although the photos look sort of ‘ghetto,’ this neighborhood is considered a very nice one. In fact there are ‘commercial’ sponsored graffiti on the facade of the school.

Sternum Pull-ups vs. Muscle-ups

Although these moves are similar there are two major differences between these exercises. Both of these share a similar groove. The muscle up however is finished with a lean forward and a rotation of the arms around the bar so that you end up in the lower portion of a dip position on top of the bar.

The other difference is that while the sternum pull-up can be done with relatively no momentum, few people posses the strength to do muscle-ups with no horizontal momentum. What this means is that the bottom of the movement there is a forward swing of the body.

This creates a swing backwards that, when coupled with a vigorous pull, will allow you to pull-up behind the bar as opposed to below it. Above is a photo of Marcus (link to the video) from Bondi beach, Australia setting a record in muscle-ups and showing the forward swing of the body. If you simply pull up from a dead hang, you will only hit the your chest and won’t be able to transition on top of the bar.

Advanced Sternum Pull-ups

Here you can see Mohamed Makkawy performing an advanced version of the sternum pull-up, where he is leaning way back so the move becomes a sort of a row at the end. The photo is from Vince Gironda’s book Unleashing the Wild Physique, a treasure chest of advanced training principles.

Makkawy is gifted with a naturally v-shaped body. Notice the athletic physique, a thing that is missing from the current sport of bodybuilding. Here is an example (video) of a current up and coming bodybuilding super champ. Notice the huge stomach (caused by excessive growth hormone usage resulting in enlargement of the internal organs). No comment.

Action Plan

  • Train often. The more often you can train a complex move like this, the better.
  • Train fresh. Fatigue and soreness will hinder your explosiveness. Don’t do force reps or reps to failure.
  • Add volume. Volume means more practice.
  • 3-5 reps, 8-10 sets. This is a great protocol for training explosive moves like the sternum pull-up or explosive push-ups
  • Complex training. Combine with heavy weighted pull-ups. Simply do your weighted pull-up training and then do the explosive sternum pull-ups. Watch as those bad boys feel super light after the heavy sets.

Note: the next article will teach you a special exercise that will bring strength and train the rotational part of the muscle up.

27 thoughts on “Sternum Pull-ups Will Make You Explosive and Prepare You for the Muscle-Up”

  1. David,

    kipping pullups + stenum pullups + rotation of the arms above the bar (in the lower dip position) = muscle up (stronger people can do the muscle up without the kick though)

  2. Ok, it makes sense now 🙂

    We have a set of rings at my gym and I can’t do a muscle up on those. It’s a good idea to break the exercise down into sections so you can focus on your weak spot.

    Another great tip for bodyweight exercises is to do reverse reps. By slowly letting yourself down from the top position of the pull-up you actually work out the same muscles, even if you can’t do one rep of “normal” direction. This is good if you don’t have bands.

  3. David,

    I tried the negative training with muscle ups and failed. That’s why I’m writing these articles to teach how I found success 🙂

    Regarding rings – if you train pullups and dips on them, you will reach the strength level necessary for muscle ups. The advantage there is that there is no bar in your way.

  4. Yavor,
    I think i’m reasonably strong until I read your articles. And then get put into my place.

    You seem to find the hardest exercises.

    This one looks unreal to develop strength I’m reluctant to try it cause I’d fail miserably, but its great how you give tips on how to build up for it.
    Raymond

  5. I can do MU on rings and I’m currently working on bar MUs. This article was exactly what I was needing. How did you know? I love your site! I love it when you post something new. Keep up the good work.

  6. Yavor,
    Here you go again with some obscure exercise to put me in my place! I just love the stuff that you come up with on your site. You have such a fresh approach to building strength. I can honestly say that I could follow your style of lifting for the next ten years and never get bored!

    I agree with your take on the up and coming “super champ”. I give anyone credit that is passionate about something that they love to do, but I also know how hard guys like you and me train. The public can look at a guy like him and say’ “wow, he really trains hard and knows what he is doing!” Meanwhile there are a million people that get up in the morning and train hard, but don’t choose to take drugs to help them to reach cartoon-like proportions. I guess everyone is different, but I would rather be smaller and look like Frank Zane, one of my childhood idols, than this kid.

  7. As usual, you provide a wicked new exercise to try. I’ve been trying to get my chest above the bar for a long time, but what I never thought of is how important the explosiveness is. I’ll try to do it now while summer is still around.

    I like the video too, nice job!

  8. great post yavor!

    pull ups are the staple to a well rounded body and back for sure!

    Too many people neglect EXPLOSION in their lifts. Especially pull ups!

    Even doing 2-3 explosive pull ups broken into sets of 5-8 will produce some amazing results.

    I like doing plyo pull ups where you explosively pull yourself up and actually let go of the bar at the top.

    You can do a variation where you switch grip positions at the top while your exploding through the movement.

    Great stuff!

    Keep the content coming bruddah!

  9. Just wanted to update a bit. I focused on these today during my workout. Was able to add far more weight to my weight belt than doing some of the other variations that Yavor has on his site.

    More weight is always a good thing. At least, it is when you’re lifting it in the gym 🙂

    -Drew

  10. Dave,

    you are exactly right. These are the bridge between muscle-ups and pull-ups. Give them a go – not only you’ll become more athletic, but you’ll develop your mid back muscles.

    Raymond,

    If you try it for a few weeks, I have no doubt you will get very good at it. You have already done the hard part – getting rid of the excess weight!

    Matthew,

    My pleasure. Stay tuned for the bar muscle ups article.

    Drew,

    Glad you like them! If you can do weighted sternum pull-ups, you are very close to a very clean muscle up. Actually – have you already tried them?

    Jim,

    Give them a go. You’ll not be sorry I promise!

    Kelly,

    Frank Zane is great role model if you are after training for pure looks. Of course, he had great genetics to begin with (small hips, naturally wide shoulders). The bodyweight series is my tribute to outdoor training and summer in general 🙂 You yourself have achieved quite a lot physically – I’m excited to learn from your experience!

    Alejandro,

    yup – you need to be explosive and pull your elbows back. The ultimate secret however will be revealed in the muscle up article. Btw – you are super lean so with a bit of pull-up strength you will crank muscle ups in no time!

    Travis,

    Welcome back, beast! I’ve tried explosive pull-ups – they kick ass. Actually one of my new goals for this summer is explosive pull-ups with a clap. (Almost ran out of goals – I had set 5 physical goals and achieved 4 of them!)

    Thanks for reading guys,

    Yavor

  11. Hi Yavor,

    I loved this post and will try out this pull up from tomorrow for sure. At present I do pull-ups as part of my warm up routine and try to do them as slowly as possible as intuitively it seems like this should be building greater strength.

    What I wanted to know was, what exactly do you mean by explosively? Do you mean very fast? The speed at which u did it in the youtube video seems normal to me.

    Also, what are the advantages/disadvantages of doing this sort of stuff fast versus slow? Thanks for your thoughts.

    Regards,
    Rahul

  12. Rahul,

    explosive means speed. I do that as fast as I can 🙂 Think of it as driving a car – at first you may shift to first gear but then you accelerate. So try to do them as fast as possible. WEighted ullups will help a lot with the explosive start. When I train for a few months with weighted pullups, my explosiveness increases.

    The purpose of the sternum pullup is to work towards a muscle-up. You can’t do a muscle up slowly, unless you are mega strong. But this is another muscle up – the super strict version.

    The only disadantage is that you need to watch out not to hurt your elbows when going down.

  13. Hi,

    I tried these today and I must say they are a whole quantum tougher than ordinary pull-ups. Let’s see, i’ll stick to this for some time and see how many I can get to…. I’d love to do a real muscle up some day. This is a great series of posts you have got.

    Thanks,
    Rahul

  14. Rahul,
    the muscle-up tutorial is almost ready. Btw – if you can do around 15 pullups you are ready for the muscle-up.

  15. Yavor – Found your site yesterday because I am relearning (elbow tendonites) how to to the bar muscle up and was doing some research. So far, I like what I see very much.

    Looking forward to more from you!

    Jack

  16. Jack,

    first of all – welcome. I was doing research to so that’s why I wrote the articles. Final one is almost ready. AS for the tendinitis – be careful!!! Muscles get strong very fast, while tendosn lag behind. I too have had pullup injuries and maybe will write a post on them…

  17. Great article Yavor!

    I tried to “master” sternum pull-ups about a year ago, but didn’t do that well. They are really tough, but as with anything if you stick with it you will get better. You’ve inspired me to get back into these.

    Although I think I’ll have to invest in some gymnastic rings if I want to attempt the muscle-up and there is only a foot distance between the the top of my pull-up bar and the ceiling. Or track down an outdoor pull-up station. Ungrateful kids!! 🙂

  18. Dave,

    the sternum pull-up is hard at first but eventually the muscles of the mid-back will wake up 🙂 and it gets easier. As for outdoor training – do it while it’s summer/autumn still… I’m blessed that there is are a bunch of pullup bars and playgrounds, albeit in not the best of condition, around my apartment.

    Yavor

  19. Hey guys honestly I don’t see y the muscleup is really a big deal I did first try with rings and bar but I used the false grip for both. I honestly thought they were simple but I have always did heavy weigthed pullups all variations followed by explosive pullups so I geuss that made muscleups so easy but I never trained for a musecleup. Instead of sternum pullups I do basically front lever pullups with feet all the way extended for my horzontal rowing and I think they are awesome.

  20. My thought – make sure you are lean and strong for muscle ups first. I think resistance band muscle ups and pullups are a gimmick.

  21. Hello Yavor,

    I have been training on my muscle up regime close to two weeks now. I am trying to learn the muscle up.

    Usually my routine will be like:
    3 sets of 6-8 Explosive PU ( 2nd set i can’t explode anymore, only can reach my chin )
    3 sets of 5 Pull over + Negative Muscle Up
    3 sets of 6 Wide PU ( This is the part where i get tired very easily, i can’t even pull 6, maybe even 3 or 4 )
    3 sets of 6 Close PU

    After that i will do a few isometric hold on top of bar and halfway through or even dead hangs.

    However i feel, i still do not have the explosive power that is strong enough for me to get over the bar.

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