I love gymnastics rings. They are the best piece of exercise equipment I have ever acquired. If you have gymnastics rings and somewhere to hang them, you have a superior gym. The reason that they are so good is that they can be used to perform or assist with just about any calisthenics exercise that you can think of, from advanced gymnastics moves like the iron cross or the planche to intermediate moves like muscle
ups, dips and L sit pull-ups, to basic moves like push-ups and rows. They can also give you access to a new set of exercises that you cannot do with a high bar or the ground, such as lateral raises and tricep extensions. And because the height of the rings can be quickly and easily changed, you have available to you a nearly infinite number of possibilities for exercise selection and difficulty. Furthermore, gymnastics rings are cheap and they travel well. Most importantly, because gymnastics rings move rather than being fixed like a bar, they require you to stabilize yourself while performing the exercises, which helps to develop strength. And, because you can vary your hand position throughout the range of motion of the exercise, they can be much easier on the joints than a rigid bar.
Advanced exercises like the iron cross or planche are not in the cards for most people, including me. But that is just fine, because rings can be used for just about everything else as well, including basic exercises that anyone can begin working on right now. Additionally, rings can be used as an assistance tool for exercises not normally requiring equipment, such as the pistol squat. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate all the basic exercises that you can do using gymnastics rings either as the apparatus or as assistance.
I should point out that although suspension trainers such as TRX bands will give you some of the same benefits as gymnastics rings, they are not a great substitute and do not offer nearly as much.
If you are considering buying gymnastics rings, you should first scout out a location from which to hang them. You need a stable object that is at least seven feet high, but higher is better. A good strong tree branch that is parallel to the ground is optimal. I have a lot of trees in my yard but they are old trees and mostly poplar, which means the cross branches are all too high to reach. I have my rings hung over the top of my kids’ swing set, which they outgrew years ago. I’d like the height a little higher but it works well for me and I enjoy exercising outside. I have also hung from the iron support beam in my basement but this is a bit too low to be optimal. You do want to make sure that what you hang them on does not have a sharp edge that could cut the straps.
Getting Ready: Stabilizer Exercises
If you’re new to rings you’ll want to spend some time getting used to stabilizing yourself. Performing a simple exercise on gymnastics rings for the first time can be very sobering because of the stability requirement. The best way to get ready is to get yourself into the starting position for some of the more basic exercises and just hold that position while varying the position of your hands and shifting your body weight. Try to hold the position until it feels less awkward to you. You can do this with the push-up starting position and the pike push-up starting position. You can also position the rings for pull-ups and practice hanging. Once you are comfortable and used to this, you’ll become less wobbly and feel stronger. At this point, and if you are strong enough, you can try holding your entire body weight at the top position of a dip and then lowering yourself back down slowly (a negative rep). These methods are shown in the video below.
Push-up hold, pike push-up hold and dip hold
Push-Up – there is a very wide range of options with any push-up simply by varying the placement of the hands and the feet. This is also true of gymnastics ring push-ups, with the added benefit that you are able to change the position of your hands while executing the movement. Turning the hands outward towards the end of the push-up can add a challenge and extra stimulation to your chest. Similarly, you can start with a fairly wide spacing between the hands and then bring them in toward the midline of the body as you approach the end of the push-up, which you cannot do with a floor push-up. This is an excellent way to work the chest muscles, as one of their functions is the help pull the hands toward the center of the body, as you would do if you gave someone a bear-hug from behind and tried to lift them off the ground.
Another great benefit of push-ups done with gymnastics rings is in range of motion. With regular push-ups, you are only able to lower your body to the ground or floor whereas with rings you are able to lower your body further, which makes the exercise more difficult and provides more stimulation to the muscles involved.
As with any kind of push-up, elevate the upper body to make them easier and elevate the feet to make them more difficult.
Dip – dips require you to push your entire body-weight and are made much more difficult with gymnastics rings because of the need to keep your hands in close to your body and stable. This is a very challenging exercise at first and will take quite a bit of practice to master. Fortunately gymnastics rings are so versatile that you can place them low enough so that you can use your legs to assist you with the dip. Once you are used to this assisted dip, move the rings up a bit so that your legs are providing less assistance. You can also try assisting with a single leg as your build your way up to full dips. You can also use negative reps to help you get stronger and used to the movement. Get yourself into the top position of the dip either by jumping or using a chair, and then lower yourself down as slowly as you can.
Chest Fly – as mentioned earlier, one of the functions of the chest, or pectoral, muscles is to bring the arms in toward the midline of the body like you would have to do when bear-hugging someone. Therefore, one of the best exercises in weightlifting to build the chest is the dumbbell or machine fly. You can perform the same movement with body-weight calisthenics using gymnastics rings. I find this exercise very challenging on rings, so I usually keep the rings higher off the ground than I do with push-ups. Small changes in ring height make a big difference in difficulty with this exercise.
Triceps Extension – this push exercise removes the chest from the equation. Bending only at the elbows and not at the shoulder puts all the work on the triceps, which are the horseshoe shaped muscles on the back of the arms. In weight-lifting this exercise is sometimes called the “skull crusher” because it is performed while on lying on the back on a bench and with a weighted barbell lowered down to the forehead and then pushed back up. The skull is not at risk, however, in the gymnastics ring version of this exercise. Again, ring height makes a big difference in difficulty here.
Pike Push-Up – this exercise got its name because you put your body into a pike position to perform it. The idea here is to get your upper body as close to perpendicular to the ground as you can by bending at the waist and keeping your feet as close to your head as you can. The smaller the angle formed by your upper body and legs, the more difficult the exercise will be. This exercise primarily targets the deltoids, or shoulder muscles, and is a good way to build up the strength necessary for the handstand push-up. To make the exercise more difficult, you can elevate your feet on a stool or bench. In the weightlifting world, the overhead or military press would be the corresponding exercise. Many weightlifters choose dumbbells over barbells for this movement because of the extra effort required to keep the dumbbells stable. The same benefit is also available when using rings for pike push-ups rather than the ground or floor.
Row – I used to think that because I am pretty good at pull-ups, I don’t need to do rows because they are significantly easier. But this is really not true at all. Rows are actually as important as push-ups and the different angle afforded by the body position in the row versus the pull-up makes them a great way to work the many muscles of the back and also the biceps. Furthermore, if you can’t do a pull-up yet, rows are a great way to build the strength necessary to get there. Ring height and also whether your legs are extended or bent allow you to vary the difficulty of the exercise. Elevating the feet and keeping the legs straight will make it the most difficult.
Full Body Tuck Row – this is probably the most difficult exercise included here because of the strength and balance requirements. On a good day I can get maybe five reps. Don’t try this unless you are good at rows with your feet touching the the ground. In this exercise you are lifting your entire body-weight. Once you can do at least 12 good reps of regular rows, try getting yourself into the tuck position and holding it for as long as you can. This exercise is a great way to prepare for the almighty front lever.
Assisted Pull-Up – I love gymnastics rings for assisting with just about any exercise. If you can’t yet do a pull-up, adjust the rings to about chest height and use your legs to assist you with the movement. It is really easy to vary the amount of assistance that you give yourself and once you are feeling stronger, you can work in some negatives. Once you get to the top position, take your feet off the ground and hold yourself for as long as you can and then slowly lower yourself to the starting position.
Chin-Up – once you are pulling your entire vertically-positioned body weight up, you are doing a pull-up or chin-up. Generally speaking, if the palms are facing your back you are doing a chin-up. In this position more emphasis is placed on the biceps than when the palms are facing forward for a pull-up. But keep in mind the gymnastic rings give you the unique opportunity to change your hand position while performing the exercise. This provides a range of stimulation and also helps to spare the joints. Keep a relatively slow tempo and do not kick your legs or jerk your body while performing the movement.
L-Sit Pull-up – this is one of the most difficult movements included in this article. Sometimes done of necessity because you cannot raise the rings high enough, the L Sit pull-up is a king maker. Keep your legs straight out in front of you throughout the entire range of motion. You will feel a strong core activation and will likely have sore abdominal muscles the next day. To build up to the full L Sit, you can start by bending your legs (more of an “N Sit”).
Bicep Curl – like the tricep extension, the bicep curl is an exercise that targets a specific muscle of arm, the biceps, and can be made very easy or very difficult depending on the placement of your feet and height of the rings. The closer you are to standing straight up the easier it is. Keep your elbows tucked in rather than flared out.
Lateral raise – one of the main functions of the deltoid, or shoulder, muscles is to move a straight arm out to the side of your body, much like you would do if you were trying to flap your wings and fly. In weightlifting, the lateral raise is a key exercise for the deltoids. You can simulate this movement using gymnastics rings. Again, the more upright your position when starting, the easier the exercise will be. The easiest version is shown in the video below.
In calisthenics, leg exercises are primarily squat-based and the gymnastics rings can be instrumental in assisting you with the more difficult movements such as one-legged squats or lunges. They can be used as support to help with the balance component and/or to make the exercise less difficult by taking some of your weight off the legs.
Sissy squat – the sissy squat was a staple exercise a few decades ago and with the increased popularity of calisthenics I have seen it make a comeback. This exercise is performed in such a way that the quads are almost completely isolated, as in the leg extension weightlifting exercise. You bend only at the knees with this exercise, taking the back and hamstrings and glutes out of the equation to some extent. Use the rings to stabilize yourself and bend only at the knees so that your upper body slowly moves down toward the ground. Go as low as you can without experiencing knee discomfort, then raise yourself back up.
Assisted Drinking Bird – the drinking bird, or one-legged body-weight deadlift, is an excellent exercise for the glutes and hamstrings. However, I find it very challenging because of the balance and flexibility requirements. You can use your gymnastics rings to help with this. When viewed from the side, the proper execution of this exercise will have you looking like a toy bird that dips down and drinks water and then comes back up.
Assisted Pistol Squat – the pistol squat is the mother of all calisthenics leg exercises and as with the drinking bird, the challenge comes from balance requirements AND strength requirements. I find regular pistol squats almost impossible to do on a regular basis, but assisted pistol squats are very manageable and really help me get a good leg workout. Lower the rings to about waist height or a little lower and then stand back a bit and keep your arms outstretched in front of you while holding the rings. Perform the pistol squat while keep the ring straps tight and use your arms to provide as much assistance as you need. Once you get stronger and more comfortable, you can try it with one ring only. If you are using this method to train for the unassisted pistol squat, make sure your upper body is leaning forward while performing the movement.
Assisted Hover lunge – the hover lunge is a bit like the pistol squat but with the non-squatting leg behind you rather than in front. This makes the exercise easier than the pistol squat but still demanding a lot of strength and balance. Use the rings to assist you with the balance component. Try to lower yourself far enough that your non-grounded leg’s knee almost touches the ground
Hack Squat – the hack squat is a variation of the squat in which the back is stabilized and the body moves at an angle rather than straight up and down. When there is a load on the back, the hack squat removes the stability requirement that you have with the regular squat; the body cannot lean forward in the hack squat and therefore, the quads are isolated and the movement allows a greater range of motion. This is very effective at allowing an intense quad stimulation. You can simulate this movement using gymnastics rings. With the rings at about waist height, grasp them in the hands and lean back about 15 to 30 degrees. With your arms extended in front of you and holding the rings, squat down as far as you can without leaning your upper body forward. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Toes to Bar (Ring) – This is one of the more difficult core exercises that you can perform on rings or a pull-up bar, and it’s a great way to train for the front lever. I don’t have the optimal setup in my back yard as I can’t quite get the rings high enough, but the important thing is to keep your legs straight throughout the movement. It is best if you can get the rings high enough that your body can stand upright while holding the rings.
Hanging leg raises (L Sit) – this is a good exercise to practice if you plan to do the L Sit Pull-Up, discussed above.
Hanging Knee Raises – this exercise is the most accessible if you are new to core exercises and hanging from a bar. In fact, hanging from the bar might be the most challenging aspect and might warrant some practice. Bring the knees up toward the chest and then lower them back down. To prevent, swinging, return to the starting position with your feet a bit out in front of you rather than straight down.
AB “Rollouts” – this exercise is similar to what you would do with an ab rollout gizmo and even has some overlap with the pullover from the weightlifting world. It’s a great core exercise. The lower the rings, the closer your body is to parallel to the ground and the more difficult the exercise is. You can also do this exercise with your knees on the ground to make it easier.