The Psychology of Muscle-Ups

My article below was first published in WODTalk Magazine a few months ago.  Given the announcement of the CrossFit Open workout for this week, I was asked by some readers to post it again here.  The photo below is of me in the summer of 2010 while on a family vacation in my home town in New York, at my elementary school playground.  I had dragged rings across the country to be sure I could practice my muscle-ups, for fear of “losing” them.  Yes, I can laugh about it–could then and DEFINITELY can now! 

allisonmunyjuly2012

In elite gymnastics, the muscle up is basically a way for an athlete to get up on the rings so he can do the real work of the apparatus.

For CrossFitters, the muscle up has become something far more significant, some kind of stock-taking, measuring device to assess one’s worth.  For many elite CrossFit athletes, the muscle up, like most skills, is but a new trick to learn and with which to seek relative mastery.  We all recall Annie Thorisdottir fighting to get her first muscle ups at the 2009 CrossFit Games in Aromas.  It doesn’t hurt that she was gymnast prior to starting CrossFit, but she is not alone among elite CrossFitters in their capacity to pick up the movement and incorporate it into their bag of tricks, right alongside movements like the snatch and the pistol, despite a lack of familiarity with them for most of their lives.

While relative mastery of the muscle up is not reserved only for the elite among us, and there is certainly a large crew of athletes who are fairly competent with the movement, for most of us, achieving our first muscle up takes hard work and plenty of time spent imagining what that first time will feel like.  In many cases, athletes develop some sort of low-grade preoccupation at best, and full-fledged obsession at worst, with the goal of muscle-upping.  I’ve heard from stock market traders who’ve stolen time away from their desks to watch muscle up videos on their iPhones between transactions.  I’ve heard from a nanny who did the same during naptime for the kids in her care.  I’ve fielded emails from many a mom in her 40’s, desperate to get pointers on ways to train to increase her chances of attaining the ultimate skill.  I’ve experienced the allure of the muscle up, myself, and while it’s been just over three years since I attained the tenuous standing of muscle-upper, that pesky movement still looms large in my psyche from time to time, despite the hard fact that most of my life is lived and enjoyed outside the realm of rings hanging from the ceiling.

My own intermittent preoccupation with my muscle-up skills has left me wondering what it is about the muscle up that has captivated, intrigued, and flat-out tormented so many CrossFitters since the inception of the CrossFit movement.  We all hone in on certain skills from time to time, and we sometimes obsess about our performance with other movements, as well. Indeed, a quick glance through the Facebook news feed of a CrossFitter reveals much about our intense focus on performance and skill attainment. But there’s something especially loaded about the muscle up.

My husband, TJ, and I have two daughters, ages eight and ten.  Through the years of their early childhood, we’ve watched as they, like so many kids around the world, find their place on the playground, navigating the world of body weight movements unfettered by instruction and coaching or any formal education in gymnastics.  The monkey bars can be a powerful thing, bestowing ranking on unassuming youngsters with a significance similar to that of wearing the right clothes in high school.  There are kids who master the monkey-bar traverse with relative ease in preschool or kindergarten, while others work tirelessly to gain membership into the monkey-bar club throughout first grade and beyond, for those unlucky few. There are the kids who skip one, two, even three bars at a time, despite the occasional arm break that occurs in playgrounds across the country.  There are the kids who can kip up on top of the bars, perching themselves victorious, the reigning kings and queens of the recess kingdoms.  And of course there are all sorts of variations on the task, from the spinning circular bars that require a whole other level of competency, to the speed with which one can move, to the ability to stop on a dime and go backwards.

While this all may sound a little melodramatic, the truth is that there’s a whole lot of social jockeying that goes on at playground time.  Psychologists and teachers have known for decades that recess time, with its lack of structure and inherent physical activity, can be a breeding ground for social anxiety and requires a great deal of self-preservation on the part of the tiny people forced to engage.  For the ones who possess a natural capacity for movement and basic gymnastics competency, self-confidence can come in large doses, via the “oohs” and “aahs” of playground bystanders.  This soon can be seen in games and sports, including four-square and kickball, where the studs of the games tend to become the social elite.  Those with wheels also do well early on, as tag holds great import, especially for cross-gender relating.

So what does this have to do with adult CrossFitters obsessing over muscle ups?  I’m suggesting that our pursuit of excellence–heck even mediocrity—with regard to this elusive gymnastic movement harkens back to those playground experiences, where we all knew, whether consciously or not, that our skills were placing us on some kind of continuum of capacity that had simultaneously nothing and everything to do with our social standing.  While we know as adults that it doesn’t really matter in any deep way to our friends and fellow gym members whether or not we can muscle up– at least as far as assessment of our overall character and personality go– there is still something super cool for people about being able to do muscle ups in a group.  Somehow, we feel we have arrived and have a ticket to the exclusive muscle-up ball.

Kelly Starrett, founder of San Francisco CrossFit and mobilitywod.com, aptly describes something about this social phenomenon: “With muscle ups there’s a party-trick element.” He explains how cool it is to watch someone do a strict muscle up on demand, as though it’s “no big thing.”  But as Starrett points out, “the reality is that very few people can ever do that without trying really hard,” meaning that people are driven to be able to perform that party trick at just the right time.  Starrett goes on to point out the irony in the social appreciation of the trick. “Very few naive bystanders would watch in awe as someone does a much more technically challenging movement like a heavy snatch balance,” but it’s the muscle up that holds the social cache and has become the spectacle of choice.

Perhaps it’s because, as Starrett notes, “It’s entirely one or zero.  You may complete it with horrific form, but it’s unambiguous: one or zero.  There is no scaled muscle up.  You can either do it, or you can’t.”  This instantly categorizes us as being a person who can do muscle ups or a person who can’t. And for all of human history, we’ve been a species who likes to categorize.  We feel more organized, grounded, and sure of ourselves when we can put people into groups.  Plus, it makes us strive to be in the preferred category, in this case a person who can muscle up rather than one who can’t.  As Starrett has seen far too many times, “people are willing to throw tissue safety and technique out the window” to join the club. Somewhere in our psyches, the social stakes are high, and we are social creatures.

The flip side of the ‘cha-ching’ moment of being able to do a muscle up in a crowd is the dreaded moment of trying and failing to do one while others are watching.  This may prevent people from getting the coaching or practice they need in order to develop the skill, just like they would with other, less loaded movements.  Megan Kaden, a TJ’s Gym coach who also has a life coaching practice, recently did her first muscle up.  She explains something about how loaded the muscle up was for her in terms of fear of failure and holding herself back.  On the heels of her successful and fun participation in a small throwdown, Kaden wrote the following:

My recent experience competing reminded me that if I don’t take the risk that I will fail, I have no potential to grow. And so today, I attempted to do a muscle up. After a couple attempts with my coach/boyfriend/biggest supporter as a spotter, I got some confidence under my belt to try unassisted. Then, much to my surprise, there I was, on top of the rings. I kipped out the dip and done: my first muscle up. The buildup to this moment has been huge. The truth is a good part of me knew I had a real shot at getting one, which is probably why I let myself try publicly today.  Although I haven’t practiced this skill much out of fear of the discomfort of failing, it has been a gnawing awareness in the back of my mind: I need to practice my muscle ups. And now, the gnawing awareness will change: I need to let myself fail. I must practice things at which I am likely to fail, so that I can practice tolerating the feeling. That is where growth, as an athlete and as a person, becomes possible.

Kaden also acknowledges the effect of that all-or-nothing quality of muscle ups, which also made practicing them so unappealing: “Everything else was about improving, while this was about simply achieving…Plateaus at a skill I can already do at least made me feel like I was doing something.  With the muscle up, it was all-or-nothing, and every time before the day I got them it was just nothing.  I felt like nothing got accomplished when I practiced.”

Happily now, Kaden joins the ranks of thousands of other CrossFitters who “have muscle ups.” Unfortunately for her and for all of us, the muscle up is typically not a faithful companion, always there when we need or want it. It is a high-maintenance partner requiring all kinds of nurturance and dedication, and sometimes just the right environment and conditions to make its presence known.

According to Starrett, it is this uncertainty that fuels our fires and makes us want our muscle ups even more. I agree.  I suppose it’s like the allure of the ‘bad boy’ as the boyfriend for the ‘good girl.’  I got him, but will he be there next time, when there are other girls around or when his friends are watching?  Or perhaps it’s like the complex math problem you finally figure out with your parents at home, but can you pull it off under the pressure of the timed test when your teacher is roaming the rows of desks and the cutest girl in school is sitting next to you?  And maybe you’re sweating, so your hand is slippery on your pencil.

In fact, it’s the moments when the fittest CrossFitters fail to achieve a muscle up in the heat of a competition that bring up the potency and mystique of the movement for Craig Howard, co-owner of Diablo CrossFit.  He calls this “the worst moment in competition for a CrossFit athlete–when the muscle ups go away and the spectators and fellow competitors gather round to cheer him/her while making suggestions.”  Howard goes on to note:

Muscle ups have been the pinnacle of gymnastic achievements in CrossFit since the first post of thirty muscle ups for time.  Of course, the “Nasty Girls” fueled the muscle-up hype and reinforced the belief that you’re not a legitimate CrossFit athlete unless you can muscle up.  Almost anyone can deadlift, squat, clean, overhead squat or snatch.  But even some of the fittest athletes in the world have failed to achieve muscle ups.  So, when an athlete hits his/her first muscle up,  we cheer, celebrate and post it on the whiteboard and Facebook.  And the hype – along with the pressure – is passed on to the next generation of CrossFitters.

For TJ Belger, owner of TJ’s Gyms, this hype is instilled early on for most CrossFitters:  “When you walk into a CrossFit gym, you will see many movements that your ego tells you are doable.  Lifting, jumping, squatting. Then you see the muscle up and your heart sinks. It looks impossible. You soon realize that only the top ten percent of athletes in your gym can do it, and your ego suffers a crushing blow. Is a 500-pound back squat or a sub-five-minute mile any less of an accomplishment?  Of course not, but we also don’t care, because we tell ourselves that those are meant for specialists. But muscle ups are for everyone. Why?  Because everyone has the hanging-off-a-cliff dream. The problem is, that is a dream and the muscle up might not be your reality.”

It is probably true that the muscle up holds a place in our collective CrossFit psyche for a large host of reasons, different for each of us. Whatever the underpinnings, the muscle up’s uncanny hold on us seems to penetrate deeply, and it makes our first one a cause for celebration.  Starrett jokes, “Nobody remembers the first time they deadlifted, but everyone knows where and when they got their first muscle up.”

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