Photography: Glen Burrows. Model: James Stark
If you’re like most of the population, your first look at gymnastics rings probably came via the Olympics, courtesy of improbably-muscled athletes doing moves that look like Batman’s warm-up.
But now, thanks to the popularity of CrossFit and calisthenics training, more and more gyms are dangling rings from the rafters (and reasonably priced sets are readily available online) – even if it’s still rare to see anyone use them for anything other than dips or pull-ups. But there’s a middle ground between the basics and the Olympians, and it makes sense to find it.
If smartly planned, ring training combines strength, hypertrophy and joint health, forcing your body to work in unexpected ways and build the straight-arm strength that’s so important in calisthenics.
“They’ll also allow you to work your shoulders through ranges where they’d normally be weak, helping your shoulder joints get healthy and strong,” says James Stark, an ex-gymnast and calisthenics coach. “Some people go too far too fast, but with appropriate progressions, it’s an excellent form of training.”
Finally, there’s another, less obvious benefit. Moves like the pull-up and dip can put excess strain on the elbows if you do them every day, since your wrist wants to naturally rotate but can’t. Rings provide a simple solution, because they let your wrists rotate throughout the movement.
With joint health taken care of, you can embrace high-frequency training – and since you can sling your rings up anywhere, you can use them more often than your thrice-weekly trips to the gym might allow. Time to ring some changes.
Getting Set Up With Gymnastic Rings
Here’s what you need to know before you start your ring training regime
What type of rings should I get?
Wood is most comfortable on the wrists and easy to grip, but expensive. Plastic is cheaper, and you can hang them out in any weather. Metal is ultra-durable but not friendly on your wrists. If it fits your budget, wood’s the best bet – it also absorbs sweat, meaning you’ll be able to hold on better when things get tricky.
Where should I hang them?
A tree branch or outdoor pull-up bar is ideal, if it’s sturdy enough. At home, you can use rafters in your garage, a door-mounted pull-up bar – though not for “inverted” moves – or eyelets bolted to your ceiling, if you’re the DIY type. Alternatively, take them to the gym. Just ask before you hang them up.
How high should they be?
It depends on your training. Generally, you’ll train above-the-ring and below-the-ring moves separately, so there’s no problem with adjusting their height between rounds. Until you can do the basics under control, it’s always a good idea to be able to touch the ground at any point during a movement, so you can dismount under control if your strength fails you.
The Starter Plan
Before anything else, you should self-assess to make sure you’ve got the strength, control and shoulder flexibility to pull off tougher moves. One advantage of rings training is the increased range of motion it allows, but without strong shoulder ligaments, that can cause trouble. If you can do the below, you’re all set; if not, start on one rep or three seconds of each move, and increase it with every workout.
Jump into the top position of a dip – elbows locked, rings close to your body, knuckles facing your sides. Hold for a second, then turn your knuckles outward. This locks your elbows into position, making the position more stable.
With the rings above you, grab on and hang with “activated” shoulders – aim to pull your shoulders away from your ears while keeping your arms straight. Tuck your knees to your chest and hold.
Target 5 reps
It’s harder than the regular version, though keeping the rings close to your body will help. Lean forward on the rings and lower until their edges touch your armpits, then press up.
Target 5 reps
Start with your palms facing each other and brace your abs to minimise swinging. As you pull, twist your palms to face you, pause at the top – then lower.
Gymnastic Ring Exercises To Work Up To
The Shoulder Fixer: Skin The Cat
When you did this as a kid, it was easy. Now that you’re grown up, it’s fundamental to full-ROM shoulder strength. By hanging from the rings and then rotating your body through your arms, you take your shoulders to full extension, where you can hang in the position known as the German Hang for a stretch. Here’s the advanced version.
Word of warning: if you’ve had shoulder injuries take your time and progress slowly.
Progression 1: Tuck
Start from the tuck hang position. Use your abs to bring your knees up and over your head, then slightly behind you. If it’s comfortable, lower them behind you until you feel a stretch in your shoulders. Keep the rings low so you can put your feet on the ground when you’re done.
Progression 2: One-leg Hang
Next, bring one leg out ahead of you and do the move again. This time, focus on keeping your palms facing forward: this’ll make you stronger for the full straight-arm version.
Progression 3: German Hang
Now you’re going to keep both legs straight. Doing the move with your legs straight is an advanced version that requires a lot of core strength. Try to pull yourself over into the position and back again without any bend in your elbows or knees. It’ll also improve your pulling motion from the hips, making you better at everything from muscle-ups to Olympic lifts.
Show-off Move 1: Archer Pull-up
This move looks good alone, but it’s the entry-level version of something much more impressive. “If you’re trying to do a one-arm chin-up, it makes more sense on rings,” says Stark. “The rotation of the rings makes it much easier on your elbows.” There are three progressions to the full move – no added weight required.
Level 1: Push At The Top
For this variation, perform a pull-up as normal. Then, at the top, press one arm out to the side and bring it back in. Do another rep, and repeat on the other side. It’s barely tougher than the normal pull-up, but it requires control.
Level 2: Slow Down
Next , do your pull-up, press your arm out to one side at the top, then lower with that arm still straight. Repeat on the other side for the next rep. Focusing on the eccentric phase builds strength, while letting you keep control.
Level 3: Straight Up
For the toughest variation, keep one arm as straight as possible throughout an entire pull-up. You’ll get some assistance from the straight arm, which you can reduce as you progress to the one-arm chin.
Show-off Move 2: Strict Muscle-up
You’ve probably seen people do the “kipping” version, jerking and flinging themselves above the rings like a salmon ascending a waterfall. In gymnastics, though, the muscle-up is done strict: it’s a pull-up that transitions smoothly into a dip with minimal movement from the legs. It’s also a move that commands respect wherever you bust it out.
The version pictured above, with legs straight, requires a huge amount of core strength and is an advanced demonstration of the move. Start by using the form guides on the right – once you’ve perfected the basics, you can try the straight-legged version.
Step 1: The Grip
For the muscle-up, you’ll need to use a “false” grip, which means keeping your wrist above the rings. To do it, grip the ring and then point your knuckles back towards you, bringing the ring close to the crease of your wrist. At first, you’ll barely be able to straighten your arms from this position. Work on hangs, rows and finally pull-ups to get used to it.
Step 2: The Pull
You’ll need a solid body position and a strong pull to get up to the transition part without kicking. Bring your feet forward with straight legs and brace your abs, then pull your body as high as possible while holding the position – your goal is to get to the point where your chin’s above your knuckles. Keep it slow and controlled. Do five sets of as many reps as possible two or three times a week, until you can do five controlled reps.
Step 3: The Transition
The tricky bit. During the transition, you’ll need to roll your shoulders forwards to get your weight over your hands for the final push. Your body comes between your hands as you bring your head forwards. To get used to it, use the “baby muscle-up”: kneel on the ground and pull, using assistance from your legs as you move through the transition. Practise for a few sets each session until you’re comfortable.
Step 4: The Push
This is the easy bit – if you can manage a handful of full-range ring dips, you’ll do it easily. From the top, reverse the move and control the transition down to build eccentric strength throughout the whole rep.
Show-off Move 3: Forward Roll
It’s not even entry-level in Olympic gymnastics, but it’s one of the most impressive things you can do in a gym and it takes serious strength, control and co-ordination. “You’re essentially starting at the top of a dip, rolling over the rings and then pulling back into the start position by doing a very controlled form of muscle-up,” says Stark. So the strict muscle-up is a prerequisite. Once you’ve nailed that, here’s how to do the move.
Start in the top support position, then raise your hips as you lower into a dip. Your hips should be higher than your shoulders as you reach the bottom of the dip. Keeping your arms bent, maintain a false grip and keep the rings close to your chest as you allow your head to roll under the rings. When your hips start dropping, fight to keep your feet high. Go straight into a muscle-up to return to the support position.