Rings Training

Rings training has been around for a long time, since the 1800s.

Today, it has evolved into a formal apparatus and discipline in the sport of artistic gymnastics practised predominantly by male athletes, due to the staggering strength requirements of a typical competitive rings routine.

We have all seen it before on TV when the Olympics are being aired – heavily-muscled men with cannonballs for deltoids, bulging biceps and huge lats that resemble meaty wings, performing breathtaking routines that include spectacular swings and brutal strength elements.

Most of what we get to see of the rings discipline is pitched at such an advanced level that the average fitness enthusiast will tend to shy away from it, thinking that rings training is something reserved solely for the elite and the professional sportsperson.

However, while it is true that rings training is tough – the need for the practitioner to stabilise the freely-moving apparatus places a much greater demand on both muscle and joint strength as compared to the use of a static bar, anyone who’s in reasonably good shape can incorporate rings training into his or her fitness and exercise programme.

Sure, it will probably take you 6 – 7 years of training for 6 – 8 hours a day, 6 – 7 days a week to achieve the level of skill and proficiency that is exhibited by an Olympic rings gymnast, but you can still achieve plenty with 1/2 hour sessions on the rings, 2 – 3 times a week.

I have just gotten my own set of wooden rings along with a few like-minded friends about 2 weeks back, and I have been blown away by the sheer versatility of this ancient apparatus.

I know I’ll be raising hairs on some people by saying this, but if you’re serious about building some real strength and muscle, forget about all the new-age fancy stuff like your TRXes and your suspension trainers. The rings are a piece of time-honoured equipment that has been in use by athletes for more than 100 years, and it has helped build some of the strongest and most impressive human physiques that our planet has ever seen.

The unique challenge that is presented by the circular shape of the apparatus develops enormous grip and forearm strength when handled correctly. While it is entirely possible to use a normal finger grip on the rings, if your aim is to eventually perform more than just simple hangs and pull ups with the apparatus, you will have to learn how to do the false grip.

A false grip simply involves you gripping the rings with the meat of your palm, with your wrists flexed powerfully downwards, so that your hands and forearms resemble a pair of muscular hooks. This grip allows you to bring your torso above the level of the rings, so that you can transit into a huge variety of moves (when you become strong enough).

Another important aspect of rings training is the massive strain that it places on all of your upper body joints – the wrists, elbows and shoulders must be kept tight for you to even have a hope of stabilising yourself in basic positions. Rings gymnasts owe their prodigious physical development to the sheer amount of straight-arm strength that they employ – think iron crosses, maltese crosses, planches and inverted crosses.

Ease into rings training by practising simple supports to get your upper body joints, especially the elbows, used to the type of straight-arm strength that will be needed for you to progress to the more advanced moves on the apparatus. Over time proper training with rings will give you joints and tendons of steel.

Although rings has been the traditional realm of male athletes, there are women who have accomplished amazing feats on the apparatus. Lillian Leitzel, a circus performer in the early 1900s, could reportedly perform 27 one-arm pull ups on a suspended ring, along with a series of one arm holds and levers.

CrossFit has brought rings training back to the fitness community at large in a big way, and the Internet abounds with videos of lady CrossFitters banging out dozens of consecutive muscle ups on the apparatus. During the Ido Portal upper body strength coaching certification course I had the distinct pleasure of witnessing such a specimen of the fairer sex in action for myself – a female CrossFit Asian Games champion, making ring muscle ups look like a piece of cake.

If you were to get your own rings, I’d suggest wooden ones for better feel and grip as compared to their plastic or metal counterparts. This eliminates the need for wraps or chalk on most movements, and hence cuts alot of hassle. My own set of rings come from Rogue Fitness, which offers a huge array of sporting equipment and is the official equipment supplier for the CrossFit Games.

Easy to set up, easy to use, and easily portable. The rings ship in a cardboard box, and the whole set consists of a pair of rings (duh!), a pair of heavy duty nylon straps with sturdy metal buckles for securing and adjusting the length of the set-up.

For now I’m limited to performing a very basic rings routine which I’m sure a 10 year-old gymnast could pull off with ease and aplomb. But hey, I’m not a professional, and I’m just getting started. 🙂

My routine consists of a muscle up to a L-support, and then a drop to inverted hang, and lower to straddle front lever, before pulling out of the front lever back into a muscle up. I’m also training to lower myself from a support position to the coveted iron cross, and I’m making some progress and getting stronger in that respect.

If you are new to rings training, start out with whatever you can do, and build yourself up progressively as with all other forms of training. I’d say it’s wise to master the straight-arm support and the muscle up first, before you move on to stuff like planches, levers and crosses.

I know rings training may seem like a pretty intimidating prospect for those of you who’re thinking about incorporating it into your routines, but do not worry or fret. No one’s born a gymnast – gymnasts can do what they do simply because they train. So can I. And so can you.

So for those of you out there who’re serious about your strength training, and are looking to add a new dimension to your trunk and upper body work, look no further. Rings training will build you a great deal of strength, and because you’re working with your bodyweight the ladies will not need to worry about looking like He-Man or the Hulk from working the rings.

If you’re not chemically-aided or drug-assisted in any way, your body will retain its ideal proportions from bodyweight strength work. That’s the reason why gymnasts have such aesthetically-pleasing physiques – slender and supple for the gals and lithe and muscular for the guys.

Would you like to have the strength and physique of a gymnast, and master a host of cool skills to boot? Rings training is the perfect, age-old answer for the well-informed modern-day fitness enthusiast. 

What would you call a hundred bucks, give or take a little, for something this awesome?

Me? I’d call that a good investment. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

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Bent Arm Strength, Straight Arm Strength & Scapular Control

As promised, here’s some of the more important stuff that I learnt during the Ido Portal certification course that not many people know, but which everybody should.

Upper body strength is often the favoured focus of most male fitness enthusiasts. Let’s be honest, training the legs is downright boring as compared to the stuff that you can do with your upper body.

This is because our hips, the major joint through which most lower body movements are expressed, are capable of much lesser complexity as compared to our shoulders, the primary joint through which virtually all upper body movements originate.

Those of you (and this should mean all of you) who have read Convict Conditioning should know that there are 3 main upper body movements (overhead pressing, forward pressing and pulling), as compared to only 1 for the lower body and legs (the squat).

Humans crave complexity, as articulated most expertly by Ido Portal. We get bored doing the same thing the same way. We are seized by a constant need to find new and more challenging ways to do the same thing once the old method has been mastered. This is human nature.

The focus on this post will be on a few of the central tenets that underpin the whole concept of upper body strength:

Bent arm strength, straight arm strength and scapular control.

There are only 2 major types of upper body movements as expressed through the arms – pulling and pushing/pressing.

There are also only 2 main types of upper body strength – bent arm strength and straight arm strength.

Bent arm strength refers to the type of strength that is required in any upper body movement in which the arms are bent at the elbows at any point in time during the execution of the movement. Some classic examples include your conventional push ups, pull ups and dips.

Straight arm strength refers to the type of strength that is required in any upper body movement in which the arms are kept straight at the elbows throughout the entire duration in which the movement is executed. Some examples are front levers, back levers, side levers (human flag), planches, handstands, iron crosses etc.

Bent arm strength generates movement in the upper body by bending the elbows and thus engaging the surrounding muscles of the arm (mainly the biceps and the triceps). Straight arm strength generates movement in the upper body by pivoting the entire body on the shoulders alone, and the elbows are kept straight and locked by muscular effort.

That straight arm strength is more challenging as compared to bent arm strength is a simple observation to make.

Many people can do “planche” push ups, but out of every 10 of these guys, I’d go so far as to say that probably only 1 or 2 can hold a proper planche with straight arms. This is because bent arm strength is something that comes to us quite naturally, and it is by far easier to develop as compared to its straight arm cousin.

You’ll notice that most of the straight arm strength movements are extremely disadvantaged in terms of mechanical leverage. Great strength is required to hold the arms locked out and supporting the rest of the body in the required position.

The difficulty also increases because there is greater demand on scapular stabilisation and control in straight arm positions as compared to bent arm movements.

The scapulae, or shoulder blades, are the bones that connect the humerus (upper arm bone) with the clavicle (collar bone) as defined by wiki. The scapulae are very mobile structures, and their movement is linked to the engagement of the many muscles that are attached to them, such as the trapezius, the rhomboids, and the serratus anterior to name but a few.

Ido Portal brought across the concept that scapular stabilisation and control is the true source of upper body strength, especially at very high levels of strength and power output and connected to the development of straight arm strength in particular.

If you can stabilise your scapulae, they will form a powerful platform upon which great strength can be generated. But if you fail to stabilise your scapulae and if they shift away from a power position when your perform certain upper body strength movements (esp. for straight arm positions), your strength and power output will be greatly reduced and hugely limited, to the extent that some of these movements become nigh on impossible for you to perform.

In general for upper body movements there are 2 planes of scapular movement that you need to concern yourself with – the vertical and the horizontal planes.

The scapulae can be moved up and down. When you shrug your shoulders, the resultant upward movement is known as elevation. When you bring your shoulders down below their normal, neutral positions, the resultant downward movement is known as depression.

The scapulae can also be moved towards the front and back. When you push them forward of their normal, neutral positions the resultant movement is known as protraction. When you bring them back as if you’re trying to squeeze something between your shoulder blades the resultant movement is known as retraction.

General scapular cues for straight arm hanging/pulling movements and positions such as the pull up and the front lever are for the shoulders to be depressed and retracted. General scapular cues for straight arm pressing movements and positions such as the push up and the planche are for the shoulders to be depressed and protracted. And of course the shoulders should be kept neutral in both the vertical and horizontal planes of movement for the conventional handstand.

Of course when you become extremely proficient at these moves you can perform them with virtually any shoulder positioning; however at the start it is best to stick to the most optimal shoulder positions for maximum strength and power output.

Ultimately scapular control is a form of muscle control, for the movement of the bone is dependent on the movement of the adjacent muscles. Don’t worry at first if you are having trouble with some of these shoulder positions; some of them may be relatively new to you and it will take time and effort to cultivate the control that you desire with practice.

Hopefully what I’ve shared in this post will be useful for you; they were a great insight for me that cleared up some of my long-time confusion concerning upper body strength training. Become a master of scapular control and straight arm strength, and you will scale new heights in your upper body strength training that you may never have dreamed of previously. 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~

The Things That You Didn’t Know About Pull Ups

When I was a platoon commander on the sunny island of Pulau Tekong during my days in full-time National Service, one of my main jobs as an instructor was to ensure the physical fitness of the recruits who were placed under my charge.

My constant self-training in the gym and at the pull up bars had resulted in my being labelled as “the fit guy”, and I enjoyed a certain amount of fame for some of the acrobatic feats that I could perform on the chinning bar. Hence I was naturally, and regularly, subjected to many questions and requests for pull up tips and advice.

You may or may not know of the things that I’m going to cover in this post, but I hope that among the stuff that I’m going to share with you here you’ll be able to find something useful for your own pull up training, or for training your friends or clients in this bodyweight strength movement.

Alright, let’s start off with the basics.

How do you know whether you, or your trainee, is ready to attempt the full pull up?

The answer is simple and straightforward. If you cannot perform an active hang for a good 30 seconds or more, you have no business attempting a full pull up.

What do I mean by active hang? By active hanging I don’t mean for you to hang off from the bar by just hooking your fingers over it and with your shoulders loose in their sockets.

By active hanging I mean for you to grip the bar, squeezing it firmly as you would if you wanted to wring the water out of a wet sponge, and with your shoulders well pulled in.

How to train up your grip and shoulder strength for the active hang? Perform scapular pull-ins, or what we call straight-arm pulls in the army. This will strengthen your grip and teach you how to engage your scapulae optimally for the pull up, which is a movement that requires the depression and retraction of the scapulae.

Once you can perform a good solid active hang for half a minute or more, we can start talking about achieving the full pull up.  

Of course, it is best that you first build up a foundation of pulling strength from exercises that require you to move less than your full bodyweight. One example of such an exercise is the inclined row, or what is more commonly known here as the inclined pull up. Once you can perform 3 sets of 30 inclined rows with good form, pulling your chest to the bar on every repetition, you should have developed a level of pulling strength that will stand you in good stead to attempt the full pull up.

How to grip the bar for the full pull up?

There are 3 ways of doing it.

1. Finger Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at your second knuckle, which is located at the midfinger.

2. Palm-Finger Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at the base of your fingers, where they meet your palm.

3. Palm Grip – This is done by gripping the bar at the top of your palm, which should place the first row of your knuckles directly over the bar.

So which way is best?

There is no absolute answer to this. Find out which grip feels stronger and more comfortable for you. However, with that being said, I’m a big advocate of all-round training, so I always recommend my clients and pupils to train all 3 types of grip. Don’t limit yourself unnecessarily, because bars of different diameters and textures will favour different grips. So work on all 3 to ensure that you’ll always be on top of your game.

What are some of the pros and cons for each type of grip?

1. Finger Grip – This may be the most comfortable grip that induces the least amount of calluses on the hands, which can be a painful process. However, the finger grip can be weaker than the other 2 types of grip because it is harder to flex the forearm with the bar positioned at your fingers, which will reduce your pulling strength and leverage. I’ll adopt this grip for very thin bars.

2. Palm-Finger Grip – This being an in-between strikes a balance between the finger grip and the palm grip. The palm-finger grip is relatively easy to set up, and it offers more leverage than the finger grip although it is less comfortable. This grip is less painful than the palm grip, but it does not provide as much leverage as the latter. I’ll adopt this grip for bars of moderate thickness.

3. Palm Grip – This may be the most painful grip, and will induce a great amount of calluses on the hands. However, the upside is that the palm grip is arguably the strongest of the 3 different grips, offering a great deal of mechanical leverage and facilitating powerful forearm flexion that will increase the pulling strength. I’ll adopt this grip for thick bars.

Another common question on the grip: thumb above or below the bar?

Placing your thumb above the bar should give you more pulling power by facilitating forearm flexion, but with that being said it is difficult to set up a palm grip (and sometimes even a palm-finger grip) with your thumb on top of the bar. I personally prefer the greater security and stability that results from placing my thumb below the bar when gripping it. In my opinion the thumb is made to be an opposing digit for a reason, so let’s make use of it, especially when the bar is wet or slippery.

For those of you who want to know why placing your thumb above the bar will facilitate greater forearm flexion as compared to placing your thumb below the bar, try this:

Make a clenched fist with your thumb curled up under the rest of your fingers. Then flex your fist downwards powerfully, as far down as it will go. This is known as a “gooseneck” pose, which is used by bodybuilders and models to display forearm development.

When you feel that your fist is “jammed” and can’t be flexed downwards any further, take your thumb out and position it alongside and in line with the rest of your fingers. You will notice that you can now flex your fist downwards just that little further, and greater forearm flexion is achieved.

Or you can do the reverse: Make a clenched fist with your thumb alongside and in line with the rest of your fingers. Then flex your fist downwards powerfully, as far down as it will go. Now in this position try taking out your thumb and curling it up underneath the rest of your fingers. You should find it impossible to do so, unless you haven’t been flexing your fist downwards fully, or you were born with an anomalous biological structure in your hands, wrists and forearms which enables you to perform full forearm flexion even with your thumb placed below the rest of your fingers. I congratulate you if you find yourself in the latter category.

So thumb above or thumb below? I’ll leave that up to your own discretion.

Next question: What’s the difference between a supinated (“reverse”/underhand), pronated (“normal”/overhand) and a neutral grip?

Let’s go through these 3 different ways of gripping the bar:

1. Supinated Grip – I find that this allows you greater use of your biceps in the pulling motion. The supinated grip also facilitates the creation and maintenance of abdominal tension, which helps to stabilise the body better as it travels through the air during the pull up. So for those of you with melon-sized guns and relatively weaker abs, you could choose to start off your pull up training with the supinated grip. 

2. Pronated Grip – I find that most beginners find this the most difficult grip to perform for the pull up initially. My guess is that it requires greater coordination and control of scapular movement, which tends to present great difficulty for the novice. However, I am of the opinion that everyone should work towards performing pronated grip pull ups, due to the greater engagement and activation of the muscles across the back and the lats, which will translate into greater pulling strength and higher consecutive reps down the road.

3. Neutral Grip – This gripping method is best performed with the hands placed on 2 separate and parallel bars of the same height, such as that found on the horizontal ladder (monkey bars). Both palms will be facing inwards. It is not very convenient to use this grip on a single bar, as the hands will then be at different distances to the body. If the supinated grip is analogous to a dumbbell curl, and the pronated grip to a reverse curl, the neutral grip will be your hammer curl. I find that the neutral grip engages and activates the biceps more than the pronated grip, but comparatively less of the lats and back. The lats and back engagement and activation in a neutral grip is superior to that in a supinated grip, with relatively less achieved for the biceps.

There is actually another grip variation, what we call the “mixed grip” in the army. This involves having one hand in a pronated grip and one hand in a supinated grip. However, I personally feel that this gripping method should be adopted only as a supplement or for variety in your pull up training; you should not endeavour to make this the core staple of your programme in any way.

And now moving on to the question of grip width: how far apart should the hands be spaced on the bar for optimal pulling performance?

I will not attempt to break down for you every single type of grip width in the continuum, for there is far too many for me to elucidate within the extent of this post. However, I will go through a few of the more common variations: 

1. Close Grip – This is where the hands are touching, or almost touching.

2. Shoulder Width – This should be self-explanatory. The wrists and elbows are roughly in line with the shoulders.

3. Wide Grip – This is where the hands are spaced more than shoulder width apart. I shall focus on the “double shoulder-width” standard where the angle at the elbows when the latter is bent to the point that the chin exceeds the bar is about 90 degrees.

The first and most obvious difference between the 3 different grip widths that I’ve outlined for you above (less than shoulder width, shoulder width, more than shoulder width) is the distance that you have to pull to get your chin above the bar. The wider your hands are spaced apart on the bar, the less you have to pull for your chin to get over it. This is physics so simple, you probably won’t even recognise it as science.

However, although it seems then that it is most prudent to space your hands out as far apart as possible in order to reduce the range of motion that is required, ultra-wide grip chins can be extremely difficult to perform due to the greatly reduced mechanical leverage. The exact biomechanics that underpin this phenomenon eludes my limited abilities of articulation, but it should be clear to you that this isn’t an approach that should be taken to the extreme.

My guess is that super-wide grip chins require so much in the way of shoulder stabilisation that you will expend alot of muscular effort and energy to maintain safe and proper shoulder positioning, and hence greatly reduce the amount of strength left for you to exert upon the actual pulling portion of the exercise.

So which grip width is best?

Again this is up to your own judgement. People of different body types and proportions will prefer different grip widths. Experiment to find out what is most suitable for you, in terms of ease and comfort of performance. However, it is my advice for you to include all types of grip width in your training, to develop weak areas. Your own preferred grip width should form the mainstay of your training routine, but do the others once in awhile to fix up any weak links, so as to improve your overall pulling performance.

I will share with you a few last tips and tricks for the pull up:

1. Lift your head and look up towards the sky as you are pulling, and nearing the bar. This will allow greater engagement of your lats and back muscles and facilitate the necessary depression and retraction of the scapulae, which will confer greater pulling strength.

2. Keep your abs slightly tensed throughout a set. This will stabilise your trunk and reduce unnecessary swinging of the torso, which will hinder the pulling motion. It will be tiring to do so at first, but as your body gets used to creating and maintaining the necessary level of core tension you will be able to perform your reps more efficiently, without the need for additional effort to counter uncontrolled and excessive swinging of the body.

3. Grip the bar by squeezing it as you would when drying a wet sponge. Think about how you would pick up a heavy object from the floor. Would it grip it tightly or loosely? The answer should be obvious, and instinctive. Your hands are the only points of contact with the bar, and keeping a firm grip will facilitate your exertion, and enable you to “channel” your strength effectively. The grip is the limiting factor and often the weakest link in the body for the pull up due to the smaller size of the muscles involved as compared to the lats and back and bicep muscles. So grip tight, and you’ll be able to pull hard

4. This one is for safety’s sake: Maintain full control over the entire range of motion. Do not explode upwards or let your body drop down too quickly if you’re a beginner. Chances are you’ll jerk or wrench your shoulder and elbow joints, because they haven’t been conditioned for the increased demands of the new exercise. Pull up smoothly, and lower under control. Unless you’re a pro in competition, greater speed = less control = greater chance of injury. So stay safe, and stay under control!

5. Last tip – power breathing. When you become more proficient at the pull up you’ll be able to maintain a steady breathing rythm. In the beginning when you are struggling with a few reps, “pack” your breath into your body before every pull with a deliberate inhalation under strong mental focus. As you pull up release the air in your lungs as required; the exhalation should occur naturally as you exert. You may not get this now, but try it out, and you’ll experience the increased pulling strength as a result of this power breathing technique.

The full pull up is an excellent upper body strength builder, and it should feature as the staple of any upper body pulling work. Get good at this exercise for massive strength gains in the muscles of your arms and back.

  

That’s all for now folks, I’ll update you guys again if and when I do come across any new material for the pull up! 🙂

~ This post is written by Lionel Ng, part-time Personal Trainer & full-time Fitness Enthusiast. ~