A Beginner’s Guide to Training With Gymnastic Rings

If I was stranded on a deserted island and could only bring one thing… it would be a Super Nintendo.

But if I could bring TWO things, the second would be a pair gymnastic rings.

(Apparently both food and water don’t rank high on my list; I’m cool with that.)

In this nerd’s humble opinion, there’s no greater piece of equipment for building strength, adding muscle, and gaining mastery over your own body than having the ability to do some basic moves on gymnastic rings. And the best part? ANYONE can learn how to use gymnastic rings to get in great shape.

(Yes, even you.)

In fact, it’s our opinion here at Nerd Fitness that building a great-looking, great-performing, great-everything body comes easiest as the result of three major training philosophies:

  • Barbell training with things like squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses
  • Bodyweight training with core movements like pushups and pullups, and rings training training with muscle ups, dips, push-ups, and pull-ups.
  • Fun “cardio” – walks, dancing, ultimate frisbee, whatever you actually enjoy.

Show me somebody, male or female, who trains with their bodyweight, with rings and with barbells, and I’ll show you one healthy, bad-ass individual!

I used to think rings were only for gymnasts. But much like other bodyweight exercises, rings are great tools for beginners, too.

Young or old, male or female, big or small, you can start simply by spending a few bucks on a set of gymnastic rings and working on some very basic movements.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a complete beginner or a super-advanced fancy person (and it certainly doesn’t matter if you’re “skinny” or “stocky”, male or female, Gungan or Wookie): Anyone at any experience-level can train successfully — and safely — with rings.

“BUT STEVE I DON’T KNOW HOW TO TRAIN WITH RINGS, HALP” you’re probably saying to your computer right now.

Don’t worry boo, I got you covered.

Male, Female, In the Hotel, or At Home — Anyone Can Train With Rings Anywhere.

small child rings

My love affair with gymnastic rings began as a simple crush many many years ago. I watched Olympic Gymnasts doing crazy stuff on the rings and said, “I also want to do crazy stuff on the rings some day, but I don’t know how.”

It was around this time that I had just moved to Washington, DC, and discovered that one of my fitness heroes, Jim Bathurst of BeastSkills fame, ALSO lived in Washington, DC. Eventually, I sheepishly asked him if he could show me around the rings, and he taught me how to get started with them.

In fact, he helped me get my first muscle up (flash back to Skinny Steve in 2011):

After that, I’ve been in love with ring training and they never leave my side. For the past three years, I’ve been using my rings and training remotely with my friend and coach Anthony Mychal– the results have absolutely blown me away. Which is why anytime I travel, I throw a set of rings and some chalk in my suitcase and I know I have a portable gym anywhere I can find a tree branch or swing set to hang them from!

I firmly believe that my quest to become Captain America has been aided by my ring training – it’s helped me build functional strength, bigger arms, broader chest, wider shoulders, and more. Plus I can now do cool things like this:

And rings aren’t just for dudes! You know Staci from Team NF, right? Here she is doing muscle ups with added weight:

In addition to ring push-ups and ring l-sits.

Now, you might have watched all those videos and then looked down at your stomach and said, “Uh, yeah. There’s no WAY I could ever do that stuff!”

WRONG!

Like any video game, there’s a leveling system you can follow. You start with basic movements (like hanging from the rings or holding yourself up in the push-ups support position), progress to slightly more difficult things (like a chin-up or full push-up) and eventually end up doing all sorts of crazy stuff (like muscle-ups and iron crosses).

If I haven’t scared you off yet, let’s get you started down your path to Ring domination. You know my friend/hero Jim that I mentioned earlier? He’s now on Team Nerd Fitness, and he helped us put together a pretty killer resource to help you become…

THE LORD OF THE FLIES RINGS

[cue the Rivendell music]

Where do I get gymnastic rings?

You might be lucky enough to train in a Crossfit Gym or a commercial gym that happens to have gymnastic rings available.

However, if you’re like me, you might train at home or in a gym that doesn’t have rings, which means you’ll need to buy your own.

That’s okay!

Rings are cheap (especially when you’re just starting and don’t need anything fancy). I’ve probably gone through 6-10 different pairs of rings to test them all out, and I’ll share my thoughts with you below.

For starters, you can either go with plastic/composite rings, or wooden rings. Jim, Staci, and I agree that wooden rings provide a better experience than plastic ones, but if plastic is your only option, make do with what you have!

CHEAP AND EASY: If you’re not sure if rings are for you, but you’re ring-curious, I would consider starting with a set of wooden rings like these Peak Fitness Wooden Rings for less than $30. I guarantee the last thing you spent $30 won’t change your life the way these rings will.

HIGHER QUALITY: My friend Peter runs FringeSport.com, and I can testify that his wooden rings are the highest quality rings I’ve ever used. If you KNOW you’re going to love rings and want to have a great pair that will last forever, go with these.

FAST SET UP AND TAKE DOWN: These days, I use Rogue Competition Rings for one reason above all others. I have to set up and take down my rings each time I train, and the carabiners and segmented straps make for a quick set up and take down.

SMALLER HANDS?: Look for rings that are in “FIG” size. These International Gymnastics Federation rings are a bit smaller and thinner, which allows for better control for smaller hands.

How to Set Up Your Rings

Now, if you’re responsible for hanging your own rings, either at home or in the gym, there are a few key things you need to be aware of.

For starters, where will you be hanging them from? Depending on your clearance or where you choose to train, ANY of the following could be anchor points for you to hang them:

  • A tree branch in your local park (Be safe. If there’s any doubt of stability, move on!)
  • The top bar of a swingset in the playground down the street
  • The highest pull up bar at your gym
  • The bar on the top of your squat rack in the gym
  • Two eye-bolts in your garage ceiling or use rafters/ i-beams in your basement or garage.
  • Hanging from your door frame pull-up bar

THE FIRST THING you need to do, if you have rings with proper clips, is learn how to hang them properly! I’ve seen MANY people hang rings improperly and can be very dangerous.

Here’s a video we had NF Team Member Jim shoot about the importance of hanging your gymnastic rings properly:

 

If you are hanging them over something square or rough, it’s recommended to lay down some old towels first to minimize wear to the straps.

What’s that? You don’t have a place to hang your rings at home? Do you have a door frame? If so, you can MacGuyver a set up like Jim has done here in his home with a door frame pull-up bar! (His pull-up bar is this one.)

"I shall either find a way or make one." . . I learned handstands + handstand pushups in my bedroom, which was about the size of a walk-in closet (plenty of kicked furniture). . . I got my first one arm chin-up in a musty basement next to a washing machine. . . Now that I work from home for @nerd_fitness, I bought a doorway pull-up bar and some rings for workouts and to keep myself sane during the work day (h/t @caseyneistat) . . Now I know that not everyone is going to feel comfortable with this combo on a home set-up (stay safe!) – and a big, fancy gym is always awesome – but just understand that it's the Wizard, not the Wand. You don't need perfect conditions to get after it! . . L-sit muscle-up to forward roll. Your move @stevekamb! . . Also, @Nerd_Fitness is going to be releasing a Rings/Handstand course soon! Buy your equipment and get excited!! . #NerdFitness #CampNF #Gymnastics #Rings #Bodyweight #Calisthenics #MuscleUp #Hannibal

A post shared by Jim Bathurst (@beastskills) on

Depending on how much clearance you have, you might need to adjust the ring height a few times so that you can do work above or below the rings. (Exercises like dips, supports, l-sits require different heights than rows and front lever holds).

WHAT ABOUT GLOVES? Working with rings and barbells will inevitably build up some callouses on your hands. While we here at Nerd Fitness will simply pumice or shave off the extra skin, that might not appeal or be an option to you.

You can certainly wear gloves during your ring work, but we recommend against it. A better alternative? Take care of your hands and use some chalk to hold on tight! Gymnastics chalk can be applied lightly to the points of contact (fingers, palm, and wrist) in order to absorb sweat and oil and give a better grip. There is even a “liquid chalk” product if your gym doesn’t allow regular chalk!

  • Chalk bag (this is what I use on my hands when I train)
  • Liquid chalk (what Jim uses in Gyms that don’t allow traditional chalk)

Basic Moves to Get Started With on Rings

The exercises below are a can help anyone get started TODAY; you don’t need a childhood full of gymnastics practice. For those a little more seasoned, these basic moves can start getting tough REALLY fast.

Hang From the Rings

steve_hang_rings

One of the simplest exercises to do? Hang from the rings! This exercise is accessible to beginners, but is no joke.

It will help build up the grip strength necesary for future skills, and you may not be able to go long at the beginning.

If this is too difficult for you, simply adjust the rings so that you can hang from your arms and have part of your feet on the ground. Don’t worry if you feel like 99% of your weight is still in your feet, there is still that 1% in your hands and arms, and that will definitely improve over time!

For those hanging from the rings with no problem, you can practice hanging scapular retractions. This is a fancy way of saying that we’re going to pull our shoulders and shoulder blades (scapulae) down away from our ears. Do this with elbows totally straight, so all movement is going through the shoulders. Retract, relax, repeat. Tough stuff!

 

Support Position

arm_support_steve

If you have never used rings before, even just holding yourself up with straight arms will be challenging! The rings will want to move all different directions.

Just like the hang from the rings, you can also set the rings up to a height where you can assist with your feet on the ground.

And again, even if you feel like 99% of your weight is in your feet, we can still work and improve the 1% that you are putting into your arms!

Ring Rows

standing_ring_row

Ring rows are a classic exercise to build yourself up to a pull-up. You can set the rings up somewhere around hip to knee height. Then grab the rings and lean back to start the exercise. By moving your feet forward or away from the anchor point, you can position your body in an infinite number of angles (which will adjust the difficulty). Make it easy by leaning back just slightly, or hard by putting your feet up on a bench and starting horizontal. With an infinite number of angles you can position your body (to adjust difficulty), they are for absolutely everyone.

steve_ring_row

Make sure whatever your rings are attached to is solid before leaning back with straight arms and body. Puff your chest up and pull it to the rings!

Ring Chin-ups

steve_chins

Chin-ups on rings work the same as they do on the bar. You can also move your hands around easily to different positions (palms forward, inward, and backward). Not quite at a chin-up pro yet? Adjust the height of the rings to be able to assist with your feet!

Ring push-ups

Push-ups on the rings will be much more challenging than ones on the ground, because you have to stabilize the “ground” before you even move! Just like rows, you can adjust your body at an infinite number of angles to the ground to make the exercise easier or harder.

Ring Dips:

steve_ring_dipsRing Dips are one of my favorite exercises for the awesome challenge they provide. Lower yourself down until your chest touches the rings (yes, that low!) and then push up until you are in a straight arm support position.

As with many of the other ring exercises, you can easily adjust the height of the rings so that your feet can assist a little or a lot.

False Grip Practice

 

The false grip is a way to hold onto the rings so that the wrist is in contact with the inside edge of the rings. This will allow us to build up to more advanced skills like the muscle-up! (Aka a ring chin-up that transitions into a dip!).

You can think of the false grip as a hook that you make sure your hand and forearm. Any of the pulling and hanging exercises we went over can be done with a false grip, just be warned that they’ll be a lot harder!

Ring Tips and Tricks

gymnastic rings drawing

Your relationship with rings isn’t going to be a “do this for a month” and be done. This is a lifelong relationship – if you like it then you should put a ring on it. Get it? Because Beyonce and also Gymnastics.

Get used to playing with rings as often as you can… wake up your inner kid again and just enjoy moving around on the rings. You didn’t think about a structured workout when you were a young kid on a playground; you just moved around and had fun. And while you’re discovering that fun again, your grip, muscles, and joints will be getting stronger.

“What if I don’t have rings?” Well, if you want to learn to swim, you’ll have to eventually get into a pool, right!? But if you’re at home, waiting for your rings to arrive, you can still perform a number of these exercises! Pushing and support exercises can be done on two sturdy chairs or the ground. Pulling and hangs can be done at a jungle gym (even the false grip can be practiced on a bar!). Be safe, but get creative!

GO SLOW AND BE PATIENT! I know people who starting doing violent kipping muscle-ups before their body, joints, muscles, ligaments, and tendons were ready… and they injured themselves pretty seriously.

I even struggled with elbow tendonitis for a bit thanks to pushing myself too hard too soon on the rings. So slow down, build up your strength in each exercise slowwwwwly, and…

Have fun with them. Remember, our goal is to find a workout that is not only something we don’t dread, but something we can look forward to! Working out without realizing it is a sure way to commit for the long term.

Join Nerd Fitness Rings and Handstands

In case you are somebody who’s ready to put all of this together in a fun package, check out our Nerd Fitness Rings course, which walks you through absolute beginner basics right up to nailing you first strict muscle up!

Join the Nerd Fitness Rings Course Today!

Ever swing around on the monkey bars and on the playground as a kid? Same concept here! We’re designed for this stuff!

Have fun with them! Hang and tuck and twist and pull and flip over and have some freaking fun.

I’d love to hear from you:

  • What sort of questions do you have about getting started with rings?
  • What is the biggest thing holding you back from giving them a chance?
  • Have you already trained with them?

-Steve

PS: You should totally check out the Gymnastic Rings course we put together – it’s built with a videogame-like skill tree progression so you always know exactly what you need to do to progress to the next skill!!

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