I’m comfy in the gym. Give me a bit of rubber matting, an AirBike, and a heavy barbell and I’m happy. A good insight into the kind of training I like is the name of the program I follow: “Thundrbro.” It mixes big compound lifts with isolation exercises, and its goal is to get you jacked. So, as I entered my new gym, Lift: the Movement and met my new trainer, co-founder Angus Martin, it became clear that I’d left my comfort zone far behind.
There was nothing thundr-y or bro-y here. There was incense burning. There were no heavy dumbbells to press—instead, it was filled with rows of perfectly aligned gymnastic rings.
My coach was confident. “You’ve got bags of lifting potential, so the pull and the dip shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “We just need to open up your shoulder mobility to get you through the transition.” Four weeks to loosen off some tight shoulders sounded easy enough: I was going to muscle my way through a muscle-up and add the archetypal show-off move to my gym arsenal. The only question was: how soon could I post it on Instagram?
Shock To The System
My first session wiped me out. Returning to the office, I was shaky and a little grey in the face. It reminded me of the first fitness challenge I did for MH, four years ago: a weight-loss challenge, in which I spent 12 weeks grimacing through giant sets of squat jumps and lunges. Yet this was a different kind of fatigue. My central nervous system had given up.
As I worked through the slow, technical exercises, it took all of my energy and concentration to engage my entire body. Unlike in the metcons I’m used to, I wasn’t giving up as a result of the burn of lactic acid—I was failing because I could no longer get my brain to switch on my muscles. It was a strange, unfamiliar sensation.
I was drenched in sweat and had a splitting headache, too, the likes of which I’d only experienced after an hour of CrossFit. This time, however, I’d only worked through a few sets of bodyweight moves. I wore my tracker to a cardio session and a rings workout for comparison.
Unsurprisingly, I burned through a whopping 712kcal in an hour of AirBike and rower work. But I also culled 643kcal in 75 minutes of muscle-up prep. It was so close that it even made Martin double-take. “It would explain why I can train like this and eat pretty much whatever I want,” he mused.
After a couple of weeks at Lift, I was moving with more confidence. My combinations of dead hangs and skin-the-cats on the rings were loosening up my shoulders, made tight from hours at a laptop. I felt more comfortable with the false grip needed to transition from pull-up to dip.
When I was strapped into a bungee harness, which took some of my weight, the patterning and technique needed to move through the rep came relatively easily.
Then, all of a sudden, I stalled. I tried to do too much in one week. I was rushing. I went to my next session fatigued, and nothing clicked. Something would always go wrong: my false grip would slip, or I’d focus so much on my pull that the tension would go out of my glutes and legs. The early confidence I had in my pulling power turned out to have been misplaced.
It was time for a pep talk. Despite his early enthusiasm, Martin had seen this coming—he just wanted me to work it out for myself. “People view the muscle-up all wrong,” he says. “They see it as a show-off move that’s a sign of strength. It’s not. A muscle-up shouldn’t be hard. Seven-year-old girls in gym class do them easily.
“It’s about undoing the ills of modern-day movement,” he continued. “We’re hunched over our desks and phones, then we go to the gym and focus on pushes, presses and curls. All this does is tighten us up, and it often leads to pain. The muscle-up’s emphasis on pulling and opening up your shoulders can fix that.”
This realization forced my hand. I scrapped the four-week deadline and instead decided to train towards the muscle-up for all the right reasons. The first thing I needed to do was rest. I’m pretty heavy – about 90kg – and hauling myself up and through the muscle-up transition on consecutive days was taking its toll on my tendons. At times, it felt as if my elbows were filled with molten lava. My Thundrbro attitude to training had to change. More was not more. Equally, I had to drill down into exactly what my weaknesses were.
The solutions to both were readily supplied by Martin. My new attitude to training was to be determined by the distinction between practice and training. “When you’re looking at skill acquisition, the aim is to rehearse the movement in the most efficient and accurate way possible,” he said. That’s practice: practicing technique allows you to then train effectively. If you haven’t practiced to a high level, you’re going to train ineffectively, which results in bad habits and the reinforcement of inefficient or incorrect movements.
“Consistency over intensity is key,” he continued. “When your patterns fail, stop. Come again another day and apply yourself properly.”
Next came an explanation of the strength curve and how it could help me to achieve true pulling power. The curve depicts the difficulty of an exercise throughout the range of motion and where the need for force application is greatest. In a pull-up, this comes at the beginning and end of the range. “It’s the reason you see many people doing partial chins, never locking out their arms at the bottom and never locking out at the top,” says Martin. “This is the hard bit, and they’re avoiding it.” To master a muscle-up, you need to adapt your pulling routine to attack your weaknesses, not mask them.
I was two-thirds of the way there. I had the strength to get out of the bottom of the rep. I could also do the bulk of the pull. But then I’d come screeching to a halt about 15 cm short of the top. No matter how much I gritted my teeth, I couldn’t haul myself high enough to get up and over the rings for the muscle-up transition. I’d get caught, awkwardly try to force it and go purple in the face. After realizing this, however, the solution was simple—isometric chin-up holds at the top of the rep, to be exact. Every session, I had to lift my chin as high over the rings as possible and hold it there. And hold it. And eventually my weakness would become a strength
Hang in There
My deadline to achieve bodyweight mastery— this photo shoot—came and went. I’d spent four weeks huffing and puffing, trying to persevere, but had come up short. I couldn’t do a muscle-up. Not even one. But I learned a lot: the nuances of the strength curves and false grips, but also where my training ethos had been going wrong. My weeks at Lift with Martin saw me ring the changes on my entire approach. No longer do I fixate on heavy barbells, quick results and show-off moves. I’ve slowed down. I may only be 30, but I’ve shifted my focus to mobility and looking after my joints, which will stand me in good stead come 40 and beyond.
That isn’t to say I won’t still Thundrbro. Of course I will—it’s fun. I’m heading to the beach for my honeymoon in a month, and you can be sure I’ll be hitting eight sets of eight reps of bench to fill out my T-shirt. But that’s OK, according to Martin. Unlike a lot of trainers, he’s no zealot preaching his way or the highway. “Everything works, as long as you do it well,” he told me. “There’s room in training for everything. You just need to understand your body and even things out.” And that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve made room for one rings session a week where I hang and pull to offset all the pushing and hunching I do elsewhere. I am moving better and feel stronger – and, after taking the pressure off for two weeks, I finally did complete a muscle-up. Easily. I can’t wait to show it off on Instagram.