When thinking about improving fundamental body positions, many athletes pay attention to squatting, pressing and, maybe, if they’re feeling really adventurous, lunging. But be honest: unless you’re a hardcore rock climber, alpinist or gymnast, when was the last time you thought about hanging?
Thousands of years ago, long before we were cooped up in offices and slumped in chairs, hanging was an essential pattern. Proponents of natural movement such as Erwan Le Corre, Gray Cook and author of Natural Born Heroes Christopher McDougall, have advocated that we imitate our Paleolithic forebears and hang around more, and yet many of us spend little to no time with our hands anchored above us, and our arms fully extended overhead. And why should we?
Well, there are several good reasons to incorporate hanging into your daily movement practice. Here are three of the main ones:
Very few of us ever take our shoulders to end range on a typical day and as a result, the soft tissues surrounding them get short.
Improved Overall Range of Motion
When you’re trying to send a route on a vertical granite face (or just trying to make it up that tricky climbing gym wall), you’d better be confident that you can hang in a stable position. The consequences aren’t as great in the CrossFit box, but you’re still going to struggle to master moves like the pull-up, muscle-up and toes-to-bar if you’re not well versed in dangling with your arms overhead.
Now certainly, we eventually need to work on the pulling motion as well to complete these skills, but as Dr. Kelly Starrett has frequently said, if you enter and exit any movement pattern “tunnel” with correct positioning, you’ll be setting yourself up for sustainable movement that doesn’t cause injury and requires less correction in the middle section. And for many rock climbing, parkour and gymnastics moves, not to mention paddling and swimming, the overhead shape is the start and end point. Achieving solid hanging is foundational in developing fluency in more complex movement patterns.
Enhancing Shoulder, Elbow and Thoracic Spine Mobility, Specifically
The second benefit of getting your hang on is improving end range and removing restrictions in the soft tissues of the shoulders, elbows, thoracic spine and chest. Very few of us ever take our shoulders to end range on a typical day and as a result, the soft tissues surrounding them get short. Then you add in weight training without mobilizing afterwards and the restrictions are compounded. Hanging can help recover full overhead capacity in the shoulders, and also helps reintroduce slack to the structures of the elbow, wrist and thoracic spine.
Improving Positional Strength
A few weeks ago, we explored how the farmer’s carry improved grip and hand strength – a “weakest link” for many athletes. So does holding your bodyweight steady in all variations of hanging. If you’re maintaining the hollow hold throughout, hangs also improve the integrity of this key position while improving strength in your lower back and abdominal muscles. Another benefit of hanging is better control of the scapula, which acts as the steering wheel for the shoulder.
How to Hang
There are three fundamental hanging variations according to the website of natural movement expert Ido Portal: passive, active and dynamic:
Passive Hanging: With an overhand grip and hands shoulder width apart, wrap your fingers around the bar. Instead of hooking your thumb over the top of the bar, wrap it over your index or middle finger underneath the bar. Position your pinky over the top of the bar. This will lock your hand to the bar and enable you to create more stabilizing torque in the shoulder.
Squeeze your core and pull your rib cage down. Position your legs together with your toes pointing down (this makes it easier to engage your glutes and core). Keep looking straight ahead. Don’t forget to breathe! Here’s a demo.
Active Hanging: From a passive hang, pull the shoulder blades back and down. Depress your shoulders down and move your body up a couple of inches, keeping elbows locked. Then return to the start position. Here’s a demo.
Dynamic Hanging: There are multiple dynamic hang variations. For the side-to-side one, start swinging by lifting one leg and hip up towards the ribs on the same side, dropping back toward the center and repeating fluidly from left to right. Once you’re swinging to the side, release the weightless hand at the top of your swing and then re-catch it. Repeat on the other side, trying to keep your shoulders active but not tense. Keep the shoulders blades back and down and ribcage down. Here’s a demo.
Try to spend a minimum of two minutes per day on passive hanging to begin with, then add in an increasing amount of active hanging until this becomes easier. Finally, mix in some dynamic variations. If you don’t have access to a pull-up bar, try to find a piece of playground equipment or even a tree branch (though it should be noted, a thicker anchor point will put more emphasis on your grip). After a couple of weeks, re-test your capacity – not only in the hangs but also in more complex movements that incorporate this position. Chances are you’ll perform better on the wall and in the gym.