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How to prevent shoulder pain while doing muscle ups

Updated: Jul 20, 2023

ring muscle up transition

Strict or kipping. Bar or Ring.

Whichever way you cut it, the muscle up is an explosive movement that requires rapid force development, aggressive shoulder internal rotation, and end range shoulder extension.

Yes, there is a skill component however it is mobility, stability and rate of force development that will improve your bar or ring muscle up and keep your shoulders injury free.

It is also these things that most people learning bar or ring muscles up are not aware of.

In this blog, we want to share with you some of the principles to think about when you’re training muscle ups to help you prevent shoulder pain and injury. We’re going to share three problems we see when people try to muscle up and how to overcome them.


Let’s use a simile to explain.

For those of you in CrossFit, you can liken the muscle up set up to the first pull in Olympic Lifting.

If you don’t get that first movement correct, you’re going to find the rest of the lift is less efficient and you won’t be able to shift as much weight.

The same applies, particularly to a kipping muscle up. A big issue we see is a lack of thoracic spine extension in the kip which causes an upstream sequencing problem.

If your thoracic spine is jacked up and stuck in flexion (hunched over) no amount of ‘skill work’ is going to get that ring muscle up looking smooth, simply because you can’t get into a good position at point 1 to sequence the movement.

Thoracic spine extension allows you to create a strong tight arch kip pattern which in turn allows you to drive the hips higher and more explosively out of the bottom position to reach the transition.

If you don’t have that mobility, your upper body and shoulder have a much harder job to do.

Fixing your thoracic spine could very quickly fix your ring or bar muscle up problem.

Here is one of our preferred ways to gain more thoracic spine extension.

Self-myofascial release: overhead thoracic spine


Before you can be powerful you first need to get stable.

Creating dynamic stability around the glenohumeral and scapulothoracic joint means you have as stable base upon which the lats can pull and transfer that force into the bar.

Whilst this is possibly more important in a strict bar muscle up, the ability to create tension across the shoulder serves both protection and performance in kipping muscle ups too.

In a kipping muscle up, you bypass having to pull from a dead hang position as the hip drive moves you from end range shoulder flexion into the horizontal transition position. Yet, you still want high levels of dynamic stability around the shoulder in preparation for what is coming next.

For those targeting a strict bar muscle up, get good at moving from a dead to active hang position by doing all your pull up reps from a full hang each rep. Then learn to do that faster as you move through your explosive phase of training.

This is all about keeping the ball (humeral head) on the socket (glenoid fossa on the scapula) and the socket on the ball. Do this with sufficient control and you have a shoulder that can start to play with higher forces.

Rate of force development...

Do you specifically train upper body speed without including the complexity of a muscle up?

In strength and conditioning, if we want to get someone better at sprinting, we train plyometrics. You don’t just sprint.

No one thinks like this around muscle up training and it matters because you need to get your shoulder to exert maximal force in a minimal amount of time.

When we look at shoulder anatomy, we have a humeral head that is three times bigger than the socket it sits on.

The dynamic stability of the shoulder serves to keep the humeral head in the socket.

From a rate of force development perspective, you need to get the stabilising musculature to ‘turn on’ quickly. If you can’t do that and you apply force, the humeral head has the potential to move around in the socket. It’s this uncontrolled translation that can cause problems.


As we transition into a deep dip in a ring muscle up or catch position on the bar, we see a massive dynamic stability demand on the shoulder which, when working well, prevents the humeral head from excessively gliding forwards in the socket.

The more aggressive the kip, the faster the transition and the deeper you catch the bar or rings, the more dynamic stability you need.

You also need to be aware that as fatigue levels rise, the risk of injury also goes up.

We don’t want to be in a position when executing muscle ups that we redline shoulder stability. To avoid that we need to build a bigger bank and anyone training CrossFit would benefit from doing this.

The final point to consider is mobility. When we see humeral heads riding forward in a muscle up transition, we often also see a lack of shoulder extension (elbow moving behind the body).

If you lack shoulder extension and try to do it anyway by practicing muscle ups, your humeral head is going to translate forwards to find a way to complete the movement. The problem is that this is far from optimal.

One of the biggest reasons we see so many people with CrossFit or calisthenics shoulder problems acquired through muscle up training is because they can’t control the shoulder position as they go from flexion into extension in the deep dip position.

So here are the takeaways:

  1. Think about your thoracic spine mobility, it’s an important element of getting into a more optimal shape to set up the kipping muscle up.

  2. Dynamic stability is the number one thing to think about when training athletic, explosive upper body movements.

  3. Don’t redline the shoulder when it comes to mobility or stability. This is a primary cause of shoulder injuries.



In this webinar, we take a look at muscle ups and the demands it places on the shoulder, covering the most common problem points and the principles to pain-free movement.

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