I have two questions for you:
1. How many pull-ups can you do?
2. Are you planning on competing in an obstacle race this season?
If the answer to the latter was ‘yes’ and the former a shrug of the shoulders then you need to read this post. Why? Because the ability to safely hang with only your bodyweight is not only fundamental for countless other movements, but for many of the popular obstacle races throughout the country, it is a prerequisite.
Here’s a relevant anecdote – It was about a year ago when a colleague told me a story about his neighbor. You see, both he and his neighbor had competed in an obstacle race over the weekend. My friend from the office happened to be in great shape for being 50 years old. In fact, he was (and still is) in better shape than many 20-somethings. His neighbor, well, not so much. Instead of coming home that Sunday evening with a few scratches and sore quads from the demanding trial running, he was suffering from a torn bicep.
Apparently, the poor guy was swinging from one monkey bar to another when his arm felt – hmmm, funny. I trust this fellow managed to get himself fixed up with the appropriate surgery, but the simple fact that he had torn one of the heads of his bicep with only his bodyweight caught my attention.
In the United States we are often reminded of just how out of shape we collectively are. Personal training certification programs caution against the ‘deconditioned individual’ and emphasize the need to program with safety and progression in mind. And even yoga instructors are beginning to understand that the average person should not be compressing their cervical spines in some of the neck bends.
And with the prevalence and popularity of obstacle racing people are putting their bodies through some oftentimes demanding movements. Some savvy trainers have responded to this with obstacle specific training. How to climb a cargo net, getting over a wall, crawling, etc.
This is all great stuff. Anyone who has ever competed in an obstacle race knows that training like you race can pay huge dividends, but I would suggest even scaling back one more step – to the absolute basics – for some folks.
Why being able to hang from something is important
Climbing over walls and crawling on the ground may give you some scrapes and bruises, but dynamically hanging from a bar with one arm gets the shoulder joint involved. And as many of you surely know, you need to keep your shoulders happy.
Happy shoulders mean that you can do lots of other activities too. Therefore, if we are looking at monkey bars and pull-ups and climbing ropes and all that good stuff, it all begins with something called the dead hang.
The ‘Dead hang’ and understanding tension
As I mentioned at the very beginning, if you don’t know how many pull-ups you can do, then this post is for you. I say that because seasoned lifters won’t have any problem with monkey bars, pull-ups, or any devious such synergy at a race because their shoulders and arms will have seen this type of loading before.
However, for the rest of you, and please don’t be offended, but I’m going to put you in the novice category for the time being.
If you don’t perform pull-ups regularly and yet have a busy summer packed full of obstacle racing, a lesson on tension and bodyweight will be useful (see one of my earlier posts for another discussion).
Firstly, ensure that your shoulders are nice and healthy to begin. The shoulder joint is a complex one and if you have any underlying issues then you need to make sure that the exercises below are the right ones for you. If you’re good to go, then warm-up with your usual progression and whatever shoulder pre-hab work you like.
Now, approach a pull-up bar and with a box or bench beneath it, reach up and take a shoulder width grip. With a nice solid grip, begin to bend in the knees and put more of your weight on the bar. Keep your muscles activated! Your shoulders, your lats, your upper back – these should all be working. Think about keeping your shoulder blades down and your chest up. In other words, keep your shoulders ‘packed,’ meaning that it doesn’t feel as though your arm is being pulled out of its socket (2).
Eventually, get to the point where all your weight is hanging from the bar and you can lift your knees off whatever you had been standing on. You are now in a dead hang. And yes, it’s a little bit of a misnomer, isn’t it? Because your body is very much alive and active.
So how does it feel? If you’re new to the wonderful world of pull-ups then this simple exercise may feel uncomfortable and downright intimidating. You may feel as though you haven’t formally met gravity until this moment! But that’s why you’re training now, before the race.
So, in summary, your shoulders should not be pressed up against your ears and it shouldn’t feel as though it is difficult to breath. You aren’t shrugging. Instead, your shoulders are right where they normally would be.
It may not feel very comfortable (yet), but trust me, with practice the dead hang can become almost like a resting position. Sort of like downward facing dog for strength training :).
Once you feel comfortable in this bilateral position, let’s start playing with your movement.
Try the dead hang with one arm. But go into it slowly. Start by using the bench to support yourself and little by little, load your bodyweight onto the bar. Again, your muscles supporting that arm should be well activated. Get your lats involved. Your core, your serratus anterior. This is a perfect example of using tension in your body.
And as you hang from one arm, here’s a fun question to ponder – where don’t you need tension?
Does your contralateral leg need to be contracted? Nope. How about your other arm? Not at all. Wiggle those limbs around just a little to prove that they aren’t tight. If they are then you are just wasting energy. And energy wasted in an obstacle race is never a good thing.
When you can comfortably dead hang from either arm for 15 – 30 seconds, try switching between arms without ever touching the ground. Now you are becoming truly comfortably with your own bodyweight.
However, the best part is that you’re educating your favorite show muscles (your biceps) how to move freely under load. When we stretch our muscles beyond a typical range of motion it sends a signal to our brains to contract and shorten the muscle. This is a normal, protective inhibition. But as we all know, when we spend time stretching or lifting weights with increased range of motion, our brain eventually learns to back off and allow the muscle to lengthen more.
In the case of swinging from one monkey bar to another, instead of the bicep shortening when you want it to lengthen, it can be trained sufficiently to allow the arm to extend and the body to hang downward.
Get a grip already!
So, back to our dead hang. What was the limiting factor? Your grip, right? I’m willing to guess that your forearms and fingers started to cry for mercy. These are two parts of your body that are rarely trained for endurance, even for seasoned lifters. With long sequences of monkey bars common in obstacle and adventure races, you may be suspended for upwards of 45 seconds so your grip will need to be strong enough to get you to the other end.
There are lots of ways to train for grip, but my favorite is the farmer’s carry.
Carrying something in your hands as you walk is a fundamental human movement. And if you follow this blog then you already know that I am a firm believer in these fundamental movements. But the carry is very applicable to our discussion on the dead hang. I look at the farmer’s carry as the inverse to the dead hang. It’s also very applicable to everyday life (carrying groceries, suitcases, etc).
And it’s not just your grip that will benefit. Your whole body will be called upon to contribute. The biceps and triceps must work to stabilize your elbow and protect the shoulder joint. Additionally, your traps and the muscles in your shoulders must work together to keep your shoulder blades together and down (3).
The exercise is as simple as it gets. Grab two heavy dumbbells or pinch a weight plate and start walking. But don’t cheat yourself with a light weight. Grab something at least as heavy as your biggest piece of luggage.
And brace your core! Don’t lean forward like you’re typing on the computer (as the load gets really, really heavy this will be difficult – see the ambitious guy in the image below). So walk with a tall spine and good posture. Carries will work your core evenly as your abs and back work in unison to keep you upright and accommodate the added weight.
Carries are a great finisher to a normal workout because they don’t require a high degree of skill. But one mistake many guys make is to see just how long they can carry a ridiculously heavy load. Not only is this a sure way to drop the weights on your little toes, but your muscles will recover better when they are nicely fatigued and not all the way to the point of exhaustion. Instead of letting the clock drive your workout, try taking 20 paces and then stopping. If that’s too easy, then increase the weight or walk a little farther. Do a few sets a couple times a week and your grip will begin to improve.
For whatever reason, you’ll rarely see these performed in the gym. I think most people categorize carries in the ‘that’s too simple to work for me’ genre or associate it with strongman training. And that’s unfortunate. This exercise is effective, practical and fun. No really, it is fun. Even if you don’t use pigs.
And for you advanced lifters reading this that may be saying, “oh, that’s fine and all, but I’m strong enough that I don’t need to work farmer’s carries.”
Try this next time you’re in the gym: Put half your bodyweight in each hand and walk across the gym. Believe me, your whole body will feel it.
There are plenty of variations once you get comfortable with the carry. Try using heavy kettlebells. Or a loaded barbell. Particularly ambitious lifters may consider overhead work. Start with a dumbbell and extend it overhead like you would in an overhead press. Then start walking. But be careful, dropping a weight on your head will ruin your day.
Becoming comfortable with the dead hang and pairing it with a solid grip will set you up nicely for building healthy and strong shoulders.
You’ll be able to move on to the pull-up with confidence and then, the real fun stuff, brachiating – a form of locomotion by swinging the arms. Dewey Nielsen put together a great overview of the possibilities in the video below.
If that’s not inspiring to go out and play then I don’t know what is!
In summary, the dead hang and the farmer’s carry are two fundamental exercises that will help you to tackle any suspended obstacle you may encounter. Also, I hope this post inspired you to start thinking about how you use your body’s tension. Sometimes you need tension, other times, it’s problematic.
So, have fun out there this summer.
Train safe and play smart.
By Ryan Wagner
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Quantifying the farmer’s walk, by Shon Grosse
Flexed arm hang, by FitStream
Featured image: http://www.savagerace.com/Did you sign up for an obstacle race this summer? by Ryan Wagner