We’re all familiar with the standard pull up. You know the one pretty much every fitness program includes? Where you put your palms on a fixed bar in a rack and pull your body up until your head is over the bar. It’s one of the fundamental bodyweight exercises and it is a killer exercise for building strong backs and improving functional fitness. Walk into any gym and you’ll see athletes performing many variations of the pull up on gymnastics rings (also called Olympic ring pull ups) and straight bars (also called pull up bars).
But what are the differences between these pieces of equipment? Is one better than the other? These are the questions we’ll try to answer, as well as guiding you through some exercises.
Ring Pull Ups vs Bar Pull Ups
A common question in the gym or CrossFit box is “which is best?”. Well, the answer depends on your goals, your abilities, your workout ethic, and your access to equipment. The best is always what you make of it. If you had both then the choice is narrowed down to your goals. The questions to ask are:
- Are you trying to improve your muscle ups or general gymnastic training exercises?
- Is fitness a priority over gymnastic technique or complicated movements?
Apart from the obvious difference in shape, how do pull ups on the rings and bar differ? On the face of it, ring and bar pull ups look very similar. They both work the lats, biceps, and core, and have the same plane of movement. But, there are some distinct differences. The biggest difference being stability. But even that is more of a factor when you are above the rings (doing dips and holds) rather than under the rings (doing pull ups). For elite athletes, there is evidence to show that static strength training on rings may be compared to eccentric muscle contraction training – an effect of the work required to overcome gravity while maintaining the static positions.
Gymnastic Rings Benefits
Perform a dead hang on the rings and then on the bar. It’s harder to remain still on the rings, right? The rings are unstable, having only one connection point to a fixed object. This instability adds an element of difficulty to any movement on rings. Keeping your body from swinging or moving out of a “safe” position requires control of the core and shoulder stabilizers.
You benefit, by way of increased muscle engagement, from the very act of remaining stable. So this increase in difficulty level becomes a benefit. I must point out that there’s not a huge amount to be gained here in terms of strength improvements.
A second benefit of Olympic or gymnastic rings over the fixed bar is their ability to move with you, rather than remaining in a fixed position. This is to our advantage for two reasons. One: you will improve your shoulder joint health (and potentially avoid injury) because the rings allow you to move in a wider range of motion. And two: holding rings means less strain on your wrists.
And if we want to add another benefit we can also say that rings are portable so they are great for home workouts or training on the go.
Straight Bar Benefits
A straight bar allows you to target specific muscle groups in a different way to the rings. For example, supinating your grip will place more emphasis on your biceps. Alternatively, performing a pull up with a pronated grip focuses more on the lats(both can be done on the rings but it’s harder to maintain form). You can also play around with the width of your pull ups, placing further emphasis on specific muscles.
If you are trying to build strength or size in certain muscle groups, the bar would be more beneficial than the rings. If you’re looking for a little more freedom in the shoulders and can maintain an engaged perfect-form core, then rings will get you some new gains. Both types of pull ups target the middle and lower trapezius, rhomboids, pectoralis minor and major, posterior deltoid, infraspinatus, latissimus dorsi, teres major, subscapularis, biceps, forearm flexors, external obliques, and erector spinae.
Are Some Exercises Easier or Harder?
Strict pull ups are harder on the rings than the bar. We’ve spoken about the instability of the rings, and this is exactly what makes them harder. In addition to performing a pull up, you are also trying to remain stable, meaning you are exerting more energy per rep. You’ll need more core strength to perform the same exercise on the floating rings.
However, movements such as kipping pull ups and kipping muscle ups are easier with the rings. The degree of ease will depend on your strengths and weaknesses. You’ve probably noticed that some athletes find it easier to kip on the rings than the bar, or vice versa. On the bar some athletes can generate more power into their kip, making bar movements easier. Others find the ability to move the rings around the movement easier. It really is a matter of preference and ability.
Gymnastic Rings and Straight Bar Exercises
Here are some exercises that will help you mix it up in the gym using both pieces of equipment (or “gym furniture” as we like to call it). Build strength, power, and size with these basic but challenging movements.
Strict Ring Pull Ups
Set the rings to a height that allows you to hang without touching the floor. Grab the rings and tighten your abs, quads, and hip flexors. Straighten out your legs so they are slightly in front of your body, similar to a hollow hold. Internally rotate your wrist, and use your back and arms to pull your chin over the rings.
Think about pulling the rings down, rather than pulling your body up. This will create less momentum, allowing you to start the next rep without having to stop any unwanted momentum.
Strict Bar Pull Ups
The strict bar pull up is very similar to the strict ring pull up but with the bar your wrist will not rotate during the pull. Play around with grip and hand positioning to target different muscle groups (wider for more lats, narrower for more rhomboids).
Grab onto the bar and tighten your abs, quads, and hip flexors. Straighten out your legs so they are slightly in front of your body, similar to a hollow hold. Use your back and arms to pull your chin over the bar.
Kipping Ring Pull Ups
Set the rings to a height that allows you to hang without touching the floor. Take a false grip on the rings, then swing between arched and hollow positions. While in the hollow position, use your arms to pull your chin over the rings.
Kipping Bar Pull Ups
Kipping bar pull ups are similar to kipping ring pull ups but require a shorter, faster kip. Take a full grip on the bar, with hands just outside shoulder width. Swing from the shoulders, alternating between arched and hollow positions to generate momentum. Use your arms to push down on the bar, while lifting your feet up. Extend the hips then use your arms to pull your chin above the bar. Push the bar away to generate momentum for your next rep.
Ring Muscle Ups
Arguably the most aesthetic movement in CrossFit, the ring muscle up. It’s a movement we all want to be able to do. The ring muscle up is similar to the bar, but you’ll want to take a longer, slower swing on the rings. Set the rings to a height that allows you to hang without touching the floor. Take a false grip on the rings, then use your shoulders to begin the swing. Alternate between hollow and arched positions to generate momentum. While in the hollow position, drive your hips towards the rings, lean back, and pull the rings to your chest. Once the rings are in line with your chest, lean forward to bring your head over the rings. Then, keeping the rings close to your body, drive through your palms to reach full lockout.
Bar Muscle Ups
Take a full grip on the bar, with hands just outside shoulder width. Swing from the shoulders, alternating between arched and hollow positions to generate momentum. Push down on the bar while driving your hips towards the bar in a hollow position. Lean your chest forward to bring your head over the bar. Press out to bring your arms to full extension.
Ring dips are a great accessory exercise if you struggle with locking out a muscle up. Set the rings to hip height, then position yourself in the top support position. Unlock your elbows to lower your chest until it aligns with your hands. Push through your palms to return to a locked out position.
Performing dips on an unstable platform, like rings, is where the true benefits lie. As performt the movement, your body will need to recruit extra stabilizing muscles just to keep you from falling off.
Ring Push Ups
Ring push ups provide more range of motion compared to regular push ups, therefore great for your shoulder joint health. Set your rings between knee and hip height, then grab the rings in a push up position. Place your feet against a wall for greater stability. Keeping your body straight, unlock your elbows to lower your chest until it aligns with your hands. Drive through your palms to return to a locked out position.
CrossFit fan. Ex-personal trainer, triathlete, and cross-country mountain biker. Masters Competitive CrossFit athlete. Writer and blogger.