One of the most useful pieces of exercise equipment I own is a pair of portable gymnastic rings. Now, I have to confess that these were purchased for me as a gift several years ago, to the tune of about 70 bucks, but they’ve been a staple of my training ever since and they’ve more than recouped that expense. Strictly keeping with the whole ‘no-cost’ theme of this site, I’ve seen ways to make one’s own rings using PVC pipe for very minimal expense, such as here. I’ve even considered the possibility of using towel rings, such as you’d find at any of the home reno stores, which would be quite cheap, coupled with any pair of automotive or utility straps/tie-downs capable of supporting a person’s weight.
The range of exercises one can do on rings is virtually limitless and are scalable in difficulty to the point that I don’t think even the strongest person in the world could exhaust all the possibilities. I had always seen gymnasts using rings, of course, but it wasn’t until about 10 years ago that their use as a general fitness implement really occurred to me. A friend of mine was working a summer job on a tree farm, the owner of which had a pair of iron rings attached to chains in his barn. I don’t know how often he used them or what the rest of his diet/fitness regimen looked like, but the dude was one of the most ripped, wiry, veins popping out of his forearms guys I’ve ever seen, and I imagine the rings played a role. I was doing pretty conventional bodybuilder-style training at the time and it registered with me enough to hang a few ropes from a tree in my yard and experiment a little bit, but I never got serious about it until years later.
Like I said, the rings are now an essential part of my training. I use them at least twice a week. The best aspect, for me, is their portability. They weigh virtually nothing and take up hardly any room in a backpack or briefcase. 99% of my ring training is done on my lunch break. I throw the rings up over a sturdy tree branch in the park across the street from my office and can get a great workout in in about 15-20 minutes. In the wintertime, a swing set at the playground also works well (Best avoided in the summer, as not to frighten any parents or kids!). Here’s a quick clip of a set of muscle-ups earlier this week:
Muscle-ups form the bulk of my ring work, just because they seem like such a complete upper body move. I also do some skin-the-cats (not as gruesome as it sounds), stability holds like L-sits, and I’m working gradually up to front levers and maybe even an iron cross one day.
After some months of failure, I finally got my first muscle-up on the rings back on Valentine’s Day of this year. It’s still one of my most memorable fitness achievements. It’s a useful move because it essentially means that anything you can jump and reach with your hands, you can now surmount. Therefore it’s a key element of parkour and free running, not to mention gymnastics. I remember first being aware of how cool it was (although I didn’t know the name of it) when I was a teenager playing Tomb Raider on an old Sony Playstation. In some spots in the game, Lara would have to jump across a chasm of some sort, catch a ledge and then pull herself up onto it and keep going. For some reason it made an impact on my juvenile mind.
Anyway, in training to do my first one, I was frustrated by the fact that it’s often quoted that you should be able to do about 15 pull-ups (and equivalent # of dips) in order to have the necessary strength to transition from the pull-up to the dip. I had been able to hit these marks for a long time, but I just couldn’t seem to get the transition phase right. It was finally an article on Chad Waterbury’s site that did it for me. Now I had heard a lot of similar advice before, but for whatever reason this made it through my thick skull and actually sank in. The trick, at least for me, was maintaining the correct backward leaning, legs-forward body position on the pull portion so that, come transition time, the momentum of your legs swinging backward forces the shoulder through and above the rings, enabling you to start the dip(pushing) phase. That and the false grip...
It takes time to develop a strong enough false grip, which you really need for the ring muscle-up. Essentially it means all of your weight is borne by the wrist, rather than the hand. It hurts like hell at first, but gets much easier. For the first month or so, I was only able to get singles because I would lose my false grip on the descent. However with practice, I’ve worked it up to sets of about 9 reps. That’s still shit in Crossfit/gymnastics terms, but for a 6’5”, 230 lbs dude with long arms and crappy biomechanics for this type of move, I’m starting to be happy with that.
Gloves help for the false grip. I use my motorcycle gloves because they go down past the wrist and provide a bit of protection. For the first while I was carving up pretty good blisters in my wrists. Chalk would be a good alternative but, as I said, I do these on my lunch hour and it would be annoying to go back to work with chalk all over my arms. Because it’s all anaerobic and the total work volume is fairly low, I don’t need to shower or anything afterwards. It’s a quick, effective lunchtime power-builder. And aside from the initial investment of the rings, the only requirements are a tree branch and 15 minutes of one’s day.