Hanging for shoulder health and mobility


If asked what kind of physical activity is very beneficial for human health and is rarely practiced, I would answer that it is hovering. The shoulders are designed for hanging and swinging, but these activities are rarely included in training programs. Pull-ups give similar results, but they are not so natural, simple and easily tolerated by the body.

Our distant ancestors lived on trees for millions of years, so they constantly grabbed onto branches. The best way to move among the trees is brachiation, i.e. moving from branch to branch, swinging on long arms. Gibbons can brachiate at 35 miles per hour, faster than Usain Bolt. Human ancestors descended from trees long ago, but we have retained many of the anatomical characteristics that evolved for brachiation: very flexible shoulder joints, long arms, rotating wrists and tenacious fingers.

The naturalness of hanging and swinging is clearly seen in the example of young children who begin to do these movements on their own initiative.

If there is a horizontal bar nearby, they begin to hang from it, usually raising the  knees to a position that levels and stabilizes the body. This is followed by rocking by rolling the foot back and forth. If there is a horizontal ladder on the playground, most children, without any training, will eventually learn to navigate it, holding the body with each hand in turn. You will not see how the child pulls up, unless he goes to the section where he is taught to do so. Hanging and swinging is as natural as running.

Many trainers and even surgeons believe that hanging bars are very beneficial for the shoulder joint and even treat shoulder pain. The mechanism of this movement creates space in the joint that prevents sensitive tissue from being squeezed or piched.

I have not found quality evidence to support these claims, but I know from personal experience that hanging on a horizontal bar is very pleasant. I hang for at least a minute every day and almost always when there is a horizontal bar within reach. It gives me a sense of freedom and strength, I want to move, and I know many people who experience the same. I have never heard anyone say that after hanging it feels bad. Therefore, visas are on my short list of “life hacks” to get rid of discomfort in the shoulder joints and improve their mobility.

Here are some ideas on how to play around with hanging and swinging. For best results, practice simple movements well first before moving on to more complex ones. Don’t exercise through pain or discomfort!

Lighten your weight

If your grip strength and overall fitness are less than ideal, most of the movements described below will be easier and more productive if you find ways to reduce your actual body weight. This means that part of the load should be taken by the feet (if the horizontal bar is too high, use a chair or chair).

Try different palm positions

Experiment with different hand positions to find the most comfortable one. For most people, it is convenient when palms are shoulder-width apart and look forward. You can experiment with the position of the thumb – try the “monkey grip”.

Play with the movement of your scapula

Now that you are hanging, pay attention to the muscles that control the scapula. Are they passive, so the shoulders go to the ears? Or more active if you drop your shoulders lower? Move slowly back and forth between these two positions, without bending your elbows, so that you can feel the difference between the active and passive shoulders while hanging. Don’t think that one of these positions is correct and the other is not, they are just different ways to hang, and in both you should be comfortable. Which option will allow you to hang longer? Probably with relaxed shoulders, because it requires less effort.

Remove stress

Now let your shoulders be passive, try to release muscle tension so that the body is stretched as much as possible. Let the spine and tailbone move downward, increasing the space between the ribs and vertebrae. Feel where the tension persists and see if you can release it.

If you wanted to know what slings, or myofascia “trains” that connect distant bones, are, this is an easy way to get a feel for where they are and what they are doing. Feel the chains of tension that connect the palm and shoulder, shoulder and pelvis, especially where they move through the armpit. Are the tension lines felt stronger in the front (belly and abs)? Or behind (lats and other muscles of the back)? Take a break from hanging, take a walk and evaluate how the exercise affected shoulder mobility, posture, and breathing.

Play with subtle movements

To add more stretch, slightly reposition your legs, knees, pelvis, or head. For example, while hanging, slowly lift your knees up so that your hips and knees are in a “sitting on a chair” position. As a result, the pelvis will tilt forward and the spine will bend slightly. To get the most out of the position, lower your head down, looking at the pubic bone. Have the sensations in the body changed? Which muscle chains now provide more support?

Now reverse the motion – with your feet and knees slightly behind your vertical, stretching your spine. Raise your head and look up to get the most out of the position. Notice again how the feeling of connection between the shoulders and the pelvis has changed. Now slowly move back and forth between these two positions to feel the difference. You can also move your knees and feet slightly to the left and right to feel the influence of light rotations or lateral bends. Which hand feels more tension when the legs move to the left? Which armpit is more stretched?

You can use these movements to explore the mobility and degree of engagement of each core muscle. Take a short walk and notice how your body feels after this exercise.


For a more dynamic version of the above movements, move your feet and knees back and forth quickly and rhythmically, swinging slightly. Try to do this with bent and straightened knees and compare. If the movement is easy, you can swing forward to perform a dismount. Or jump forward to the horizontal bar to initiate the first swing. You can also swing from side to side.

Reaching out with feet

Hanging on the horizontal bar, select the object and reach it with your foot. Imagine yourself hanging from a branch and need to find your next fulcrum. Use the rocking momentum if you like.

Hang for a while

Playing with all of the above moves builds strength surprisingly well. For a few months I stopped doing pull-ups, just playing with hanging and swinging, and then did a pull-up test and my result was 17 (better than usual).

Here’s a way to test your endurance. Check how long you can just hang with full weight. Or hang for 30 seconds, do one pull-up, then another 30 seconds of hanging, and another pull-up.

One-handed variations

All of the above movements can be performed with one hand. And further. When one hand is free, you can reach with it to objects or imaginary branches. Pay attention to the rotation that occurs in the shoulder of the hand holding the horizontal bar. Reach for objects in front and behind as if you were moving along a horizontal ladder. Make sure your feet provide enough support to move safely. If all of the above movements are easy and you are confident in your strength, mobility and coordination, then you are ready for the final test: find some horizontal ladders on the playground and try to pass them as quickly as a third grader.

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About the Author: Mildred White