An interview with Howard Baetjer
Rings Strength Training
There’s strong. There’s really strong. And then there are rings specialists.
Rings strength training constitutes the peak of bodyweight strength and conditioning. If you doubt it, watch a minute of this video and come back. Now that you’re fully convinced, I’ll lay out what a lifetime of rings strength training might look like by pointing out the goals and milestones you should be aiming for in your development.
A word on equipment
I built a nine-foot tall pull-up bar in my backyard following mainly this guide. I purchased the materials at a hardware store, and ordered these wooden rings and adjustable straps from Amazon. You can also hang your rings from a doorjamb pull-up bar indoors. It goes without saying that you should ensure your equipment is properly installed since there is a risk of falling and injury.
A word on form
It’s not sufficient to merely hang or support yourself on the rings. For essentially all elements where your mass is at or above rings-level, you should maintain a rings turned out or RTO position to target stablizer muscle development (as well as not lose points if you’re in competition). Observe, the support position in rings with RTO:
The training program
The journey to rings strength is rewarding but long. It’s best not to think about how long it will take, since the process of getting stronger is enjoyable in itself. Stick to the process, and learn to enjoy the delayed-onset muscle soreness-it means you’re getting stronger.
Shooting for attainable element and exercise milestones is very motivating. Not only does training build muscular physique, improve the strength and condition of connective tissues, but accomplishing these feats is a reward in and of themselves as I wrote in my encomium of gymnastics.
The rings novice has likely never been on the rings in their life. Some standards to aim for include:
- hanging from the rings for a minute
- holding themselves in the support position for a minute
- performing several, maybe ten dips
- holding an L-seat position for 15 seconds
The novice will find all of these incredibly difficult at first. The support position will frustrate even accomplished weightlifters. Why are rings so difficult? It has to do with mechanical forces at work: the hand-and-arm connection between the rings and your body is not braced by a fixed object at the hands, but instead is floating on the same frictionless plane as the rings. Your arms have to not only hold your mass up but create the fixed object in space against which your arms brace your body by stabilizing the rings. The novice’s goal is to strengthen these stablizer muscles, as well other connective tissues, through repetition. You’ll find that these muscles are the main impediment to early progress, not the strength of your large muscle groups.
An appropriate program would be several sets of each exercise a day with several minutes rest between sets, several times a week. After two weeks improvement, the quantity of the repetitions should increase. For instance, after the athlete warms up (which should include elbow and wrist mobility work, a program might look like:
|Exercise (3-4 sets per workout)||Weeks 1-2||Weeks 3-4||Weeks 5-6|
|dead hang||30 seconds||45 seconds||60 seconds|
|support hold||10 seconds||30 seconds||45 seconds|
|dips||10 assisted dips||one or several unassisted dips||5 unassisted dips|
|L-seat hold||5 seconds||10 seconds||15 seconds|
|rows||10 assisted rows||one or several unassisted, inverted hanging rows||8 unassisted, inverted hanging rows|
|pull-ups||10 assisted pull-ups||one or several unassisted pull-ups||8 unassisted pull-ups|
Note: for assisted movements, consider placing feet (or just one foot) on an elevated surface, placing a band through the rings and stepping on them, or having partner assist you by holding your waist.
Consider approaching the intermediate level when you are comfortable with holding a RTO (rings turned out) support position for a minute, and can do ten dips and ten pull-ups. The programming (sets and reps scheme) should conform to the approach above: several sets of a handful or more of reps, increasing volume, intensity, or upgrading the difficulty week by week. The links are to videos that demonstrate form and provide suggestions for element-specific advancement.
Advanced; or, the sky’s the limit
Here’s a bucket list (you can follow my progress on my fitness account). Suffice to say that progressing to this stage is legendary.
|Iron cross + L-seat|
|inverted Iron cross|
Closing thoughts, plus more resources
I hope that seeing what’s possible is inspiring. And I want to leave you with a thought.
High-level artistic gymnastics is generally too competitive for all but prime-age, most peak-conditioned athletes. The vast majority of professional gymnasts retire in their twenties. However there is a notable exception.
No discussion of the rings apparatus is complete without mention of Jordan Jovtchev (also transliterated Yordan Yovchev). This gymnast from Bulgaria has competed in six consecutive Olympics Games, and won the silver medal on the rings event at 31. At the European gymnastics games in 2008 he won another silver, and the bronze at the same competition in 2010, at the age of 37. He retired at 40 years old after competing in his sixth olympics.
- 23-minute video of Jovtchev’s rings strength elements and routines, great for visual on proper form of many rings elements
- Just search YouTube for most difficult rings elements and you’ll find these videos
- Tyson Edwards’ video on planche progression is worthwhile, as is his entertaining fitness channel
- A guide for beginners with more visuals of progressions for some basic elements
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