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As an avid gymnast, boxer, weightlifter, and CrossFitter, I’m accustomed to the occasional ache or minor injury. But after years of overuse, I found the nagging pain in my shoulder muscles was getting to be a daily hassle. Endless prehab and rehab resistance and dumbbell drills targeting my rotator cuff muscles and labrum (the soft fibrous tissue that surrounds the shoulder socket, helping stabilize the joint) did little to no good. Then I discovered hanging.
Hanging from a bar—also known as brachiating—is a common practice among gymnasts; more recently, functional fitness enthusiasts say it’s something we should all be doing a lot more of. “By design, the shoulder is the most mobile joint in the entire body,” explains Johnny Cooke, an exercise physiologist and co-owner of Precision Human Performance in Chicago. “Through overuse and improper mechanics, we’ve reduced that mobility.”
Enter hanging. “When you hang, the humerus [the long bone of the arm] presses into the acromion [a bony extension of the shoulder blade]. This helps release any impingements in the shoulder and improve mobility while reducing pain,” says Cooke.
Hanging also helps preserve or extend the range of motion in the shoulders—something many of us lose with age—especially when lifting or pressing the arms overhead. “Our shoulders evolved to hang, and they may need this movement from time to time in order to continue to have optimum function,” notes Todd Hargrove, a functional fitness expert and the author of Guide to Better Movement. “It’s a much more natural position than something like a shoulder press, because gravity works for you, not against you. Plus, it stretches the lats and pecs while strengthening your grip,” he says.
Hanging felt natural to me, and I found that after a few months my shoulder pain had almost completely reversed itself. My range of motion was improved, my shoulder felt stable during yoga, lifting, and handstands. Best of all, hanging is incredibly simple and has become an enjoyable, daily addition to my routine. One caveat: If you have bursitis, bone spurs, rotator cuff tears, adhesive capsulitis, or a similar injury, talk to your doctor before adding hanging to your regimen.
It doesn’t take a lot of skill to hang, but here’s how to do it safely:
1. Grasp a bar or sturdy tree branch with palms forward, as if you were going to perform a pullup.
2. Start with a partial hang: With your feet on the floor or a bench, allow your body to hang down from the bar with shoulders completely relaxed. If your grip gets tired, come off the bar and repeat. Hang for about two minutes, working up to five.
3. Move into a full hang: Hang from the bar with your feet off the floor. Keep your body as still as possible and your shoulders completely relaxed. Work up to five minutes in the full hang.
4. Progress to a two-armed swing: Once you ace the full hang, add gentle two-armed swings for progression. Simply rock your body back and forth or side-to-side to become comfortable with this motion. Note that one-arm swings can significantly increase your risk of injury since they take a large amount of strength, so most experts don’t recommend them until you become advanced with natural movements.