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.