Calisthenics is a big part of my training. I fell in love with it after discovering and devouring Steven Low’s exceptional book, Overcoming Gravity. Some of the first words in the book are Low’s dedication to ”…those who have pioneered the extraordinary capacity for human movement”.
It was this idea—the extraordinary capacity for movement—that got me hooked on doing pull-ups, push-ups, dips, rows, trying to do handstands and HSPUs, muscle-ups, front and back levers, and all the other visually impressive skills and progressions.
And while you don’t need any equipment to begin or progress your journey to realizing your own extraordinary capacity for movement, some key pieces certainly help. That’s why I have a pull-up bar installed in my backyard. It’s why I have parallettes and an ab-wheel. And it’s why I had a set of dip bars.
I say ‘had’ because those dip bars made way for my new squat rack (I love Powerlifting too). I always intended to get a set of gymnastic rings, and when I got rid of the dip bars, their time had come to join my equipment arsenal.
Now, after owning and using a range of different gymnastic rings, I’m left wondering if they’re the only piece of equipment I actually need. Could they legitimately replace all the other equipment I have?
I figured others may be thinking the same thing. So, that’s what this article is going to explore…
Rings vs Pull-Up Bar
We’ve all had encounters with a pull-up bar at some point in our lives, especially if you’ve ever spent time on a playground as a child. Though the use of the bar has changed over time for most, a good pull-up bar remains a staple piece of equipment in most gyms. But, is it a must-have for you?
Pull-up bars are relatively straightforward pieces of home gym equipment that can range from a simple bar that extends across your door frame to one that’s permanently mounted to your wall or ceiling. The doorway and mounted versions of pull-up bars are fairly budget-friendly and great for small spaces.
Pull-up bars are great for developing a strong and muscular back, arms, and shoulders. Grip and form variations can also help to strengthen your core, as well as improve your aerobic capacity, flexibility, and mobility.
Gymnastic rings are kind of like the cute cousin of the pull-up bar: You tend to eye them intently while simultaneously fearing interaction with them. Rings are portable, affordable, durable, and wholly doable for your home gym. Not only can you perform all the same exercises you can with the pull-up bar, but you can do so much more.
There are three key areas to consider when comparing gymnastic rings with a pull-up bar:
- Injury prevention and joint health
- Strength and muscle building
The pull-up bar offers more stability than the free-swinging rings. With the pull-up bar, there is a stable point at which to hold on, whereas rings require you to actively control your body to stabilize the rings.
Injury prevention and joint health
With pull-up bar exercises, your hands remain static in their grip, which can lead to injury with improper movement. With rings, however, the angle of the grip changes throughout the movement of the exercise, decreasing the incidence of joint injury.
On the pull-up bar, the range of motion and freedom of movement is restricted. The arms and joints have to follow a predetermined path of movement set by the bar, which can lead to injury and joint pain. Whereas, rings offer a level of mobility that allows for the natural movement of your arms and joints, thus decreasing pain and joint injury.
Strength and muscle building
The instability created by the rings may seem like a disadvantage but in reality, it’s not. The fact that rings are not fixed in place forces the shoulders and core to stabilize the body throughout exercises, meaning more muscle activation per rep performed, which creates effectiveness not seen in static station bodyweight exercises.
Both the pull-up bar and rings require you to possess (or build) a strong grip, strength, and endurance.
The pull-up bar can isolate specific muscle groups with grip changes, whereas rings recruit multiple muscle groups to perform each motion, thus increasing overall strength.
Here’s an easy run-down of pull-up bar vs rings:
|Stability||Injury prevention/joint health||Strength and muscle building|
|Pull-up bar||Stable||Higher risk of injury||More isolated|
|Rings||Unstable||Natural movements mean less risk of injury||More holistic|
Ring pull-ups vs bar pull-ups
In terms of strength and muscle-building ability, pull-ups from the bar and rings both have a host of things going for them. Gripping either the rings or pull-up bar will help to not only strengthen your grip but increase the size and strength of your forearms.
Both versions of the pull-up utilize the same basic primary muscle groups, the latissimus dorsi (lats) and biceps, to perform the exercise.
One main advantage of the pull-up bar when executing pull-ups is that you can easily change the emphasis of the muscle being worked most by simply switching up your grip.
Want to build the biceps? Use a chin-up (supinated) grip. Want a broader back? Shift your hands further apart and use a pull-up (pronated) grip. The ability to isolate areas that you want to accentuate and build mass in is something specific to a stationary pull-up bar.
The rings, on the other hand, utilize multiple muscle groups when executing a pull-up. Yes, the lats and biceps are still the primary groups activated during a pull-up, but with rings, you’ll also bring in the use of the shoulders and core as stabilizing muscles.
When using the rings for pull-ups, your core will have to activate to keep the body stable and control the unstable movement of the rings. More muscle groups under activation equate to a higher potential for strength and size gains.
The most important advantage that ring pull-ups have over bar pull-ups is the natural movement of the arms, wrists, and shoulders. Without a fixed plane, like the bar, the body can move more naturally and in a way that helps to reduce joint strain and injury.
Rings vs Dip Bars
Dip bars are a great piece of home gym equipment if you have the space for them. Dip bars enable you to practice parallel dips (utilizing both bars) and straight bar dips (using a single dip bar) at any time you please. They can be a great alternative to parallettes. Any exercise you can perform on the parallettes, you can also perform on dip bars, like L-sits and push-ups. Dip bars are honestly great for any fitness level and allow you to work on push/pull movements easily, regardless of ability. Dip bars can help you build the stability and strength needed for ring dips.
If you’re in the process of developing body control, dip bars may be the perfect complement to your home gym. You are limited, though, in what exercises you can do and what muscles you can work on the dip bars.
Rings, however, take up little to no space, minus the need for an overhead anchor, which you should be able to find in just about any place you turn (that tree branch outside, the monkey bars on the playground, the basketball hoop at the park), and offer a plethora of exercise choices, far beyond dips and rows, that can aid in building the physique you want.
|Space Needed||Strength Level Needed||Exercises That Can Be Performed|
|Dip bars||Moderate amount of floor space||Low-to-moderate||Dips, rows, leg raise exercises|
|Rings||Small amount of floor space, but do need overhead space and an anchor||Moderate-to-high||Upper body and core exercises|
Ring dips vs bar dips
Ring dips and bar dips are both great for building chest, triceps, and shoulder strength. Both variations on the dip can yield great results in overall strength and size gains. There are some pretty drastic differences between the two, though.
Dips on the rings require a level of control and strength that most do not initially start with. Yes, you can build up to being able to utilize the rings for dips, but I do not recommend rings being the starting point for your journey into dips.
Ring dips can result in shoulder injury if you haven’t mastered the level of strength and conditioning needed to execute the movement properly. Bar dips are safer on the joints and tendons for the initial mastery of the movement and to build the strength necessary to properly execute ring dips.
Again, the three main key areas of comparison for bar dips and ring dips are:
- Injury prevention and joint health
- Strength and muscle building
If you aren’t a big dipper yet, starting on the bars is the way to go before jumping on to a set of rings.
The instability of a set of rings can make beginner dips harder than they already are, and even result in injury. Although, it is that instability that lends to greater gains with dips, the rings are not something you can immediately jump into.;
Once you can successfully perform three sets of 10 or more on bar dips, can hold a solid support position for 45-60 seconds, and perform a support hold with the rings turned out for 15 seconds or more, you should be ready to progress on to the rings.
Injury prevention and joint health
As we’ve already discussed, gymnastic rings allow for the natural movement of joints, thus decreasing the rate of injury.
With that said, if you haven’t attained the physical ability to properly execute a ring dip, you’re setting yourself up for the possibility of AC joint and rotator cuff injuries.
If you’re not strong enough to control the rings while supporting your body weight, a small amount of lateral movement (the rings moving away from your body) can result in painful shoulder impingement and damage to your rotator cuffs.
Similarly, bar dips can put dangerous stress on shoulders and wrists if they’re too wide for your frame (slightly wider than shoulder-width is good). The danger of impingement and damaging your rotator cuffs is identical to ring dips. However, when done at the correct width and practiced with proper form, bar dips are much kinder on your shoulders.
Strength and muscle building
When it comes to building lean muscle, time under tension can be influential. Research suggests that 30-60 seconds under tension is optimal, which roughly equates to 8 to 15 dips at moderate speed.
It can be difficult (not impossible, though) to perform that number of reps on the rings, leaving bar dips better for stimulating muscle hypertrophy (that’s muscle growth, by the way). You can also isolate specific muscle groups by adjusting your grip and body placement.
However, (you knew I was going to say that), gymnastic rings force you to slow down through reps and don’t let you ‘cheat’ the workout. The instability of the rings also forces you to recruit more muscles to maintain stability and form, which is, coincidentally, also great for hypertrophy.
There comes a point where you need to add more weight to increase strength gains. Beyond making changes in rep speed or technique, the easiest way to do so (when your weight has been dropping) is to add external weight with a dip belt, weight vest, or loaded backpack.
|Stability||Injury prevention/joint health||Strength/muscle building|
|Dip bar||Stable||Lower risk of injury||Isolated strength/muscle development|
|Rings||Unstable||Instability creates higher risk of injury||More holistic strength/muscle development due to involvement of stabilizer muscles|
Rings vs Other Calisthenics Equipment: Parallettes & Ab Wheels
We’ve covered the basics with pull-up bars and dip bars, but there are a few other players in the game of calisthenics that can be replaced by gymnastic rings:
- Ab wheels
Rings vs parallettes
Parallettes are small, portable, parallel bars that are a great piece of equipment for those who may have wrist issues or experience discomfort when performing handstands or push-ups.
They’re great for those just starting with bodyweight training and can provide a segue into more complicated movements. A good pair of parallettes are great for building a base for core-centric movements like L-sits and V-sits, as well as helping to build the shoulder and grip strength needed for the rings.
Most parallettes are also small and compact, which means they’re great for people who work out in confined spaces (e.g., bedroom or living room) and need equipment that can easily be stowed away.
However, their small stature severely limits the range of exercises you can do with them (e.g., most parallettes are far too short for inverted rows). Gymnastic rings, in comparison, can be used for pretty much every exercise performed on a set of parallettes, plus a whole bunch more.
Providing you have a suitable overhead anchor, and once you’ve developed the strength needed for effective use of your gym rings, you’ll wonder why you ever considered getting a pair of parallettes.
Rings vs ab wheels
Ab wheels might seem like an easy, fun, and even gimmicky fitness accessory. But while a good ab wheel can certainly be fun, it is an intense piece of workout equipment for even the most advanced fitness buff.
When using the ab wheel correctly, you are engaging several muscles in your core and much of your upper body, as well as maintaining control throughout your whole body. Unfortunately, ab wheel rollouts are often performed incorrectly and without properly engaging the muscles of the body needed to control the movement and make it effective.
Gymnastic rings can be used to ring rollouts instead. And while these don’t challenge your core to quite the same extent* that full ab wheel rollouts do, they’re safer and ultimately just as, if not more, effective.
When comparing ab wheel rollouts and ring rollouts I think that rings are the clear winner. With rings rollouts you can:
- Easily and incrementally adjust the level of difficulty (thus performing the exercise correctly) by changing the height of the rings or by shifting the position of your feet. It’s much harder to do this with an ab wheel. It’s either on your knees, which can be too easy or on your feet which can be an impossible step up.
- Have full freedom in the movement of your arms which will allow for you to work on stability, shoulder mobility, wrist mobility, and more.
- Progress the difficulty of the exercise as you gain strength.
*When doing ring rollouts, your hands always end up higher than your feet and hips due to the rings being anchored overhead. For this reason, ring rollouts are less demanding on the core muscles compared to wheel rollouts, where your hands are always at the same height as your feet and hips (when the body is fully extended). The difference is fairly minor though, and the pros of ring rollouts far outweigh the cons, in my opinion.
Rings to Rule Them All Or Horses for Courses?
Calisthenics training is one of the easiest paths to a better physique without having to leave the comfort of your home. Whether you are a beginner bodyweight worker or an elite aficionado, there’s a benefit to being able to throw your weight around.
Of course, if you could outfit your home gym with every piece of equipment on the planet, you would. Not many of us can do that though, sad as that truth is. That said, when looking to round out your workout with calisthenics training, one of the best pieces of equipment you can purchase is a set of gymnastic rings.
All the exercises you can perform on a dip bar, pull-up bar, set of parallettes, and ab wheel can be performed with ONE singular piece of equipment. Yes, there are a few limitations, but nothing you cannot bypass with a few tweaks!