Our routines in a gym environment or with HIIT type classes and workouts generally consist of a lot of compressive type movements such as squats, deadlifts, jumping and running. One aspect of training that has been neglected within many training programs in years gone by is a simple hang from a pull up bar. This has the opposing affect to the body, where it tractions, elongates and opens the body up. The hang is an incredibly good exercise for everyone but particularly for those looking to improve grip strength, shoulder and thoracic mobility, posture and trunk control. It can, and should be, used as a stepping stone for other, more difficult loaded exercises like a pull up, or muscle up. After reading this blog I can guarantee that you’ll be reaching for the pull up bar next time you are at the gym, and whether that means a 5 second hold or a 60 second hold, it is all going to help and the benefits will flow from there.
There are two types of hanging that we can do:
1. Passive Hanging
This is really nice traction force on the shoulder joints and thoracic spine where the main strength component comes from the grip strength in the forearm, wrist and fingers whilst the rest of the body remains relaxed and opened up.
2. Active Hanging
This type of hang is great for shoulder health and those people with hypermobility or instability. The active hang requires you to engage through the muscles around the shoulder and builds strength and control of the joints.
One of my favourite reasons to prescribe or personally do a long passive hang is to offset the posture that we easily fall into on a day-to-day basis. The typical looking posture of shoulders falling forward, slouching throughout the spine and the hip flexors shortening due to being seated for prolonged periods. These factors, amongst others, contribute significantly to a wide range of aches and pains that we see in the clinic. With our screen and desk time only increasing in this technological age, the trend of poor posture continues to worsen and it’s affecting people even earlier in life. The passive hang is a really effective and nice way to lengthen out the spine and get the thoracic spine into a more extended position. It also engages the muscles around the back of the shoulder blade, the shoulder and throughout the spine. By allowing the legs to straighten out it lengthens out the hip flexors and reverses the effects of our prolonged sitting i.e. cars, desks and couches. Whether it is at the end of a big day at the desk, or in your lunch break, it is always a good time to get hanging off something in order to realign the posture and offset those effects.
Shoulder strength and shoulder health:
The hang is also a really good activation drill for the muscles around the scapula (shoulder blade) before, during and after upper body exercise. In terms of preparation for overhead lifting, the hang engages a large range of muscles that connect our shoulder blade to our trunk. In doing this we become more actively aware of these muscles prior to engaging in heavier lifts. The latissimus dorsi, amongst the other muscles, is crucial to shoulder position, but can often limit our range of motion if not opened up and lengthened. When performing a hang, the latissimus dorsi muscle has to be active to support the trunk and shoulder but in an elongated and lengthened position which is ideal for creating strength throughout the full range of motion. This significantly improves the function of the shoulder.
An area that is so integral to almost all lifting exercises and part of a whole range of movements in daily living yet seems to be something that is being neglected. Conditions such as tennis elbow (lateral epicondylalgia), golfer’s elbow (medial epicondylagia) and other injuries to the wrist/elbow can all be avoided, improved or managed better with an increase in grip strength. The hang is essentially a really high load, isometric gripping exercise that promotes the healthy position of the wrist and control of the muscles that support it. If you do have injuries around the wrist and elbow, it is important that you get a proper assessment and strengthening plan first before using hangs. A recent meta-analysis of over 42 studies found that there was a link between grip strength and all-cause mortality + cardiovascular disease in community-dwelling population (Wu Y, et al 2017). This doesn’t mean that weak grip strength is necessarily causing physiological problems, but we can deduce that the actions which improve grip strength such as hanging and other lifting exercises etc. can improve the overall health of our body and reduce factors that lead to pathology.
Traction on the joints:
In the hanging position the effects of gravity are significant and reduce the effects of those typically compressive type forces that we deal with throughout our daily routines. Compression comes from gravity when sitting, standing and then we add to that by applying weight when we do squats, deadlifts, overhead lifts etc. This may allow some decompression of the intervertebral discs and desensitise some of the tissues that are constantly being stressed under compressive forces. Studies have shown that people experiencing back pain can greatly benefit from general traction for the reasons above (Jioun Choi et al 2017).
***It is important to note that if you have a history of joint hypermobility, history of dislocation or other medical conditions that can affect your joint stability, you should use caution when approaching a hang position. For those with conditions like the ones mentioned above, it is wise to begin with an ‘active hang’ which means the muscles are engaged so as to support the joints. As always, a full assessment by a skilled health professional or personal trainer should be undertaken before starting new programs or exercises.
Wu Y, Wang W, Liu T, Zhang D Association of Grip Strength With Risk of All-Cause Mortality, Cardiovascular Diseases, and Cancer in Community-Dwelling Populations: A Meta-analysis of Prospective Cohort Studies. 2017 Jun 1;18(6):551.e17-551.e35. doi: 10.1016/j.jamda.2017.03.011.
Jioun Choi, Sangyong Lee, and Gak Hwangbo Influences of spinal decompression therapy and general traction therapy on the pain, disability, and straight leg raising of patients with intervertebral disc herniation. J Phys Ther Sci. 2015 Feb; 27(2): 481–483.