Mastering Calisthenics: 11 Tough Gymnastic Rings Exercises

Dust off the Olympic rings that have been abandoned in the corner of your local gym and learn how to perform these 11 exercises. You won't be disappointed.

See that set of gymnast rings hanging ominously in the corner of your local gym?

What if I told you that simple piece of equipment could be the key to taking your calisthenics game to the next level, building incredible core strength, improving coordination and increasing upper body power output?

Chances are you have probably been avoiding the rings or just using them to play around on occasionally post workout, but it’s time you take the rings seriously as a major training modality.

While they can appear intimidating, particularly when watching a gymnast or a seasoned CrossFit vet perform muscle up after muscle up, the rings can be utilized by athletes of any age or fitness level.

Here are my 11 favorite Olympic ring Exercises, complete with starter and advanced variations of each movement.

1. Push Up

Ring push-ups are one of my favorite push up variations. The stretch and contraction of the pecs during this movement is unlike any other push up. The rings require a good bit of secondary stabilizers and your hand position can change throughout the movement.

My favorite grip is to sink down into the push up with the rings in a similar position as a dumbbell press - right at the armpit and very slightly supinated. As you press up, bring your hands together and completely supinate your hands to an underhand grip as you squeeze your pecs.

Starter: Standing with your body at a roughly 45-degree angle. The higher the angle of your body, the easier this movement will be as less of your body weight is on your hands.

Advanced: Feet elevated, body parallel to the floor.

2. Ring Layout

The ring layout is one of my favorite movements because not only do you work every area of your core - from the abdominals to your serratus to your spinal erectors - but these also give you a great upper body pump as well by taxing the lats, delts, and triceps.

Start standing with the rings at waist height and your elbows locked. Keeping your abs flexed, slowly extend the rings out in front of you. Pull the rings back and flex your abs hard at the same time.

Shoot for 2 sets of 10 reps, once you are able to complete 20 unbroken reps, do the movement with your feet elevated so you are starting in a push-up position.  The goal on the advanced version is 2 x 5.

Ring Layout

Starter: Standing

Advanced: Feet elevated, body parallel to the floor.

3. In and Outs

The easiest way to think of this exercise is to picture it as a combination of ring push-ups and layouts.

One arm is going to stay tight to your body and press (like a push up) while the other extends out (like a layout). Alternate sides for each rep and try to move your arms in synch.

Starter: Again, standing.

Advanced: Feet elevated, body parallel to the floor.

4. Dips

The ring dip is probably the toughest dip variation due to its instability and is a prerequisite to doing ring muscle ups.

The real key is keeping your hands in a neutral position and very close to your sides.  The further the rings get from your body, the less stable your shoulders will be and you can even open up the possibility of injury.

Gutcheck Guide to Bodyweight Training

Starter: Try lowering the rings far enough that you can bend your knees and rest your toes lightly on the floor. This will allow you to assist the movement and also eliminates some of the instability by anchoring you in.

Advanced: Weighted ring dips are always an option, but my favorite advanced variation is to do them on high rings with legs straight and perform a gymnastic hollow body position at the top of each rep. As you lock out supinate your hands to bring palms facing forward. Push through your elbows for full lockout, tightening your abs and hunching your upper back.

5. L-Sit Holds

Holding an L-sit position is key to many gymnastic movements and a great indication of core strength. Being able to hold your legs straight out, knees locked and toes pointed when hanging from a bar or up on a set of parallel bars is tough, but doing it on a set of rings presents an entirely different challenge.

The instability of the rings will require massive stabilization and activation through the entire upper body, making the L-sit hold one of the few bodyweight exercises that utilize the "push” and “pull” muscles simultaneously.

Hoist yourself up on a pair of rings and squeeze your arms tight to your side. Slowly raise your legs and lock in at 90 degrees. Hold for 5-10 seconds.

Starter: First try a bent leg version. This will look like you are sitting in a chair, with your legs hinged at the waist and bent at the knee. As that position becomes easier, decrease the hip angle by holding your knees as high as possible.

Advanced: Once you have locked in with your legs straight out, supinate your hands to point your palms forward. Make sure to push down and forward slightly, locking your elbows out completely.

6. Rows

Performing a bodyweight row on a set of rings is a very versatile pulling exercise.  Hand position, grip, pulling angle, dynamic rotation, and body angle are all variables that can change the training target of the movement.

Begin by laying under a set of low rings. Grab the rings and straighten your body so only your feet are touching the floor. Perform a row, pulling your ribs towards the rings, squeezing your shoulder blades at the top.

Utilize either a neutral, overhand, underhand, or rotating (overhand transitioning to underhand throughout the movement) hand position.

Starter: The more upright your body is (greater angle with the floor), the easier this movement becomes as you are rowing a lower percentage of your bodyweight. Start by standing at a 45-degree angle with your arms completely extended. Keep tension in the line and make sure not to allow any slack in the straps at the top.

Advanced: Lay underneath the rings, bend your knees just lightly and bridge up so your body is parallel to the floor. Do a single arm row, trading arms at the top of the movement.

7. Y’s

Ring Y’s are a great prehab type exercise to build strength and stability in the upper back and posterior shoulder. I use these often as a warm-up before heavy pressing movements.

Begin by grabbing the rings and walking back, arms extended and palms facing each other until your body is roughly at a 45-degree angle. Pull the rings up and back, bringing your rigid body forward until your arms are extended overhead in a “Y” position.  Slow and deliberate is the key to this movement, as any momentum or swinging will limit their effectiveness.

Starter: The higher you stand at the beginning, the easier these will be.

Advanced: Decrease the angle behind you between your legs and the floor. Pause at the top.

Gutcheck Guide to Bodyweight Training

8. Forehead Curls

While most ring exercises are compound movements, this is about as close to an isolation exercise on this list. Start in the same position as a ring Y but with your hands supinated. Keep your elbows high as you curl the rings towards your forehead. Pause as you completely contract the biceps, then slowly lower to starting position.

The key to this movement is keeping your upper arms stationary and avoiding pulling with your lats.

Starter: The higher you stand at the beginning, the easier these will be.

Advanced: Decrease the angle behind you between your legs and the floor. Pause at the top. Not tough enough? Try a single arm ring curl.

9. Skull Crushers

The bodyweight skull crusher has long been a favorite tricep exercise of mine, and the ring version adds a healthy dose of core strengthening to the mix.

Start with the rings in front of you, hands pronated, standing at a 45-degree angle.  Bend at the elbows while keeping them locked in (do not “flare” out), and lower your body until your forehead touches the rings. Press up to starting position, locking the elbows out.

Starter: The higher you stand at the beginning, the easier these will be.

Advanced: Begin with your body as close to parallel to the floor as possible and rotate your hands as you lower into the movement. Rather than touching your forehead at the bottom, allow the rings to pass behind your head, ending in a supinated position and your elbows in line with your shoulders. Twist as you press and extend back to starting position.

10. Muscle Ups

This, my friends, is the ultimate test of upper body power and strength - the ring muscle up. A muscle up is essentially starting in a dead hang, performing an explosive radial pull up then transitioning into a dip position and pressing your body up.

Completing a muscle up on straight pull up bar is typically a prerequisite for the ring version, so let’s assume you’ve already mastered the bar movement. The first, and most crucial, component to the ring muscle up is what is known as a “false grip”. The transition from pull up to dip is near impossible with a normal grip as you will find yourself “stuck” at the top of your pull.

Grab the rings and flex your wrist, rolling your hand over until the pinky side of your wrist is sitting on top of the ring. This will allow you to pull with greater power and will help you roll over into the bottom dip position.

The second thing you just pay attention to the angle of your pull. While a normal pull up follows a similar pulling angle as a lat pulldown, to complete the muscle up you must lean back and pull towards your hips. The faster you pull and the closer your hips get to the rings, the easier the transition will be.

Starter: Begin by using a low set of rings and starting a similar position as a ring row.  While not a true muscle up, keeping your feet in contact with the ground will allow you to master the false grip and the feeling of transitioning from a pull into a dip.

Advanced: Slow, with no kip. Super advanced? Slow and weighted.

11. Archer Pull Up

In my opinion, this is the only ring exercise more difficult than a muscle up. This movement is essentially a single arm chin up on one side while keeping your other arm straight and extended.

Begin by hanging from a set of high rings. Pull yourself up towards one ring by doing a chinning underhand pull on one ring while simultaneously pushing down into the other ring. Utilize lat adduction on the straight arm side, and that arm should end up straight out from your body at the top of the movement. The other ring should be under your chin. Alternate sides with each rep.

Starter: Begin by using a low set of rings and starting a similar position as a ring row.

Advanced: This is about as advanced as it gets, no need to make it tougher other than trying for more reps or pausing at the top.