Hanging for Shoulder Health

Jennifer Pilotti

Coach

Yoga, Personal Training, Mobility & Recovery

Do you press weights overhead frequently? Or stand on your hands regularly? Or maybe you spend a lot of time with your elbows bent, and your hands in front of you? If any of these situations sound familiar, do your shoulders or upper back feel tight?

 

While pressing and handstanding may seem to have little in common other than the straight arm position at the top, they both require load to be dispersed across the shoulder girdle. When you press a weight overhead, the load from the weight comes down, into the arm, and into the scapulae, where, depending on the position you are in, the muscles of the back and torso work to resist the overhead load and not buckle. The legs and hips provide additional support to the movement, keeping the low back and pelvis from moving.

 

 

The Anatomy of Pressing

When you handstand, you press into the floor. The load from the floor moves up through the arm, into the upper extremity, and the muscles of the torso work to stabilize. If the legs are engaged, the line will be straighter because their contraction acts to counterbalance the downward force by reaching towards the ceiling.

 

For both of the skills, total body strength is beneficial. It allows the load to be dealt with using more of the body. While this makes things feel a little more challenging in the moment, it enables you to generate more force and do more work over the long run.

 

However, there is a tipping point. If you only press weights (or your body) overhead, you are more than likely going to develop a sense of tightness through the shoulders. It could be general fatigue, as though your upper back is tired and your neck is tight (whatever that means), or it could be you feel your arms are restricted and no longer have the range of motion they once did.

 

What does the person who spends hours typing have to do with any of this? Your grow into the position you spend the most time in. If you spend many hours a day with your hands in front of you on a keyboard, your upper arm not moving, your shoulders are going to become very comfortable in that position. If you never move the arms into the opposite direction, you no longer have access to a full range of motion through the joint.

 

Create a Plan of Action

What can you do? If you are a weight room enthusiast, you probably already balance out your pressing work with pulling, and more than likely you do farmer carries to load the arms in a downward position. However, you probably still feel like an element of your workout program is missing.

 

If you are a desk worker, toying with becoming a weight room enthusiast but feel foiled by your lack of range of motion, moving the arms around through the day will help immensely. I always encourage my professional clients to change their position, including their arms, once an hour. Whether that’s taking a moment to reach the arms forward, overhead, or back, or making some arm/shoulder circles, encouraging the joints to move in different positions promotes good joint health.

 

Hanging for Shoulder Health

After about a year of working consistently on handstands, I noticed my shoulder mobility wasn’t getting any better. My hands stubbornly stayed a little wider than I wanted, and I struggled to maintain an evenly balanced position in my hands. My upper arms moved slightly inwards to elevate my shoulders in the top position. The worst part about it was that I could feel myself doing it and couldn’t quite figure out how to stop it.

 

Like all good fitness professionals, I went on a mission to deal with my shoulder mobility. I tried a variety of things, to no avail, and it wasn’t until hanging started showing up regularly in my life that things began to change.

 

Hanging differs from pull ups. It’s kind of like the difference between holding a plank and moving through a plank to do a push up—both are good, but planks offer an opportunity to focus on set up and experience.

 

When you hang, load is no longer being moved down into the shoulder girdle. Instead, gravity is pulling the body down, away from the bar. Another way to think of it is like this: overhead work compresses the upper extremity while hanging work decompresses the upper extremity.

 

If you follow fascia research at all (because that’s what everyone does in their spare time, right?), the fascia researchers might suggest hanging is a good way to elicit a stretch response in the myofascial system. Fascia is the plastic wrap like coating that surrounds your muscles and tissues. It links muscles together and is believed to be partially responsible for the transmittal of force throughout the musculoskeletal system.1 The involuntary stretching of soft tissue that occurs while hanging is similar to the stretch-yawn-syndrome (aka pandiculation) that researchers speculate may help with intramuscular coordination necessary for integrated movement.

 

In addition, hanging feels good. Almost everyone I have ever met with low back pain enjoys hanging as an immediate way to feel better. Maybe it’s the involuntary stretch noted above, or maybe it’s the fact that you are literally taking a load off the area that feels kind of crummy. The thoracolumbar fascia is thick connective tissue that essentially connects the head to the tail.2 Think of it as one of the ways force moves from the upper extremity to the lower extremity or vice versa—it’s like a trail map moving the force across channels. When you hang, this area is stretched as force pulls the feet down and your hands counterbalance the movement overhead.

 

What Is It About Hanging?

What makes hanging different from many of the mobility techniques out there is the stretch is involuntary. If your arms don’t go overhead, you can’t hang on and you will fall. In addition, if your grip strength is lacking, you won’t have the ability to hold on for very long. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it can be helpful for shoulder mobility to increase your hanging endurance progressively and slowly, giving your tissues time to adapt to the new position and your hands a chance to build the necessary strength needed to grasp the bar.

 

One other aspect to hanging, and all mobility training, really, is I have found that when you spend time in positions doing other things, you get stronger and more flexible without thinking about “stretching.” What I mean by this is that if you hang and you do something with your legs, or you hang and you work on shifting your weight, you spend more time than you normally would in that position and your mind is focused on whatever movement you are making, rather than fixating on the discomfort of the stretch.

 

Research consistently suggests we are physically capable of more than we think we are. Our brains register discomfort in the form of muscular fatigue quickly.3 Overriding the sensation of discomfort, once we are fixated on it, is extremely difficult. Instead, thinking about something else takes our minds off the uncomfortable, fatiguing position and instead takes the focal point to the task at hand. (As an aside, it is important to be able to discern between muscular discomfort and pain. They are different, and I am not suggesting you ignore a position that feels painful.)

 

Hanging: Practical Application

It’s helpful to have a baseline before you implement mobility training into your routine. Set a timer. Hang from a bar. Just hang, no movement. How quickly do you fatigue?

 

If you don’t even feel comfortable hanging from a bar, here is a quick tutorial covering how to move from feet on the ground to feet off of the ground. If you work on this twice a week for a month, you will be much closer to hanging from a bar unassisted.

 

 

Now that you have a baseline, pick one or two days a week where hanging makes sense. I like hanging on days I do handstands. Hanging deloads my wrists and makes me feel effortlessly long. I find it harder to hang on days when I am doing farmer’s carries or deadlifts. My grip strength is usually the first to go when I hang, and lifting heavy things first impacts my ability to hold on to the bar for very long.

 

Below are four ideas of different hanging drills. Pick one or two to work on during days you hang. You can vary them, doing different combinations each time or you can work on two for a little while, and then choose a different combination for a little while. The goal is to build up stamina in the position, not work so hard you can’t lift your arms the next day.

 

 

And these are just ideas. You can swing, go side to side, practice swinging from one arm, or find a set of monkey bars and swing across them. Whatever you choose to do, develop a sense of control by building up the strength and endurance to hang from both arms without feeling unsettled when your feet leave the ground. Remember, mastering the basics are the foundation for success.

 

How to Program Hangs

Start with one set of low reps (4-6 reps) for the first week, or choose a specific amount of time to hang that you can tolerate. Starting with 10 seconds and working progressively towards a full minute can be a good goal. The second week, add a second set, gradually working up to four sets. Once you can do four sets easily, begin slowly increasing the reps, working towards 10 reps. Remember, you are working on increasing your mobility. While strength is a by-product, don’t view hanging as a traditional strength exercise.

 

If you have access to a pull up bar (or well placed tree branch), hanging periodically throughout the day is another way to improve your tolerance to this position. Plus, if you have a desk job, it feels good.

 

Add Hanging to Your Routine

Hanging falls into the nebulous category of not exactly being a strength exercise (though it will strengthen your grip and shoulders), and, while it’s a mobility exercise, it’s not a position everyone can get into right away. There is a bit of prep work required before many people can think about hanging comfortably. Most of us don’t spend a lot of time with our arms straight in the overhead position, which means the endurance takes a little while to build. However, if you like to lift heavy things over your head, balance on your hands, or you sit for any length of time, hanging can benefit your upper body in ways traditional stretching can’t quite achieve. So embrace your neighborhood park and channel your inner simian to reclaim freedom of movement in your shoulders.

 

References:

1. Bertolucci, L.F., (2011). Pandiculation: Nature’s way of maintaining the functional integrity of the myofascial system? Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 15(3), 268-280.

2. Willard, F.H., Vleeming, A., Schuenke, M.D., Danneels, L., and Schleip, R., (2012). Thoracolumbar fascia: anatomy, function, and clinical considerations. Journal of Anatomy, 221(6), 507-536.

3. Noakes, T.D., (2012). Fatigue is a brain-derived emotion that regulates the exercise behavior to ensure the protection of whole body homeostasis. Frontiers in Physiology. 3(82).

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