In the quest to learn impressive skills in the gym, it is easy to forget the most basic exercises. And it cannot get more basic than reaching up for a pull-up bar, gripping it with both hands, and just hanging while the body completely gives up to gravity. This is not some unique way to train the grip—which it will—but it is called a ‘dead hang’. And for many fitness experts, this is the ultimate exercise for a healthy life irrespective of how much you run or lift.
In fact, the benefits of a dead hang can be so impressive that an article in the fitness magazine Spartan states that it can be life-saving: “Hanging from an overhead bar will not only help your spine and give your muscles a much-needed stretch, but it can actually lower your risk for deadly cardiovascular and respiratory diseases too. In other words, doing a daily dead hang might just save your life.” This is backed up by proper research. The title of this article? Why Doing a Daily Dead Hang Can Save Your Life.
It cites a paper published in the medical journal Lancet, which correlates the reduction in grip strength to cardiovascular health. That may be so, but it is important to focus on the dead hang’s overall health benefits rather than obsess over how strong one’s grip is.But before that, it is important to learn the nuances of how to do it.
Try not to jump onto the pull-up bar in the case of dead hang. This is an exercise which is supposed to be challenging but also relaxing in a nice, stretchy kind of way. If the bar is not high enough for you to dangle your feet completely, it is okay to bend the knees so that the shins and feet are behind the body. Once you are in position and ready to hang using the hands, make sure you relax the upper body while continuing to engage your glutes and core, so that you are not swinging. Doing 2-3 sets of hangs for 15-60 seconds each should be enough to reap the benefits.
The most telling element of the dead hang is how it helps the spine decompress. When the body is sitting or not doing strenuous work through the day, the stress on the back and neck muscles tighten. A tight compressed body when left unchecked can result in tight hips and the pain will keep travelling through the body. The dead hang is a fantastic way to decompress the spine. Most gym-goers suggest doing a few sets of the dead hang before a workout to make sure you lift with a supine spine rather than a restricted one.
But doing them first thing in the morning if you have access to a safe grip hanging bar can also make a huge difference to your spinal health. The other positives of doing the dead hang is better shoulder stability and improved range of motion in the upper body. “When the lat muscles, which are located below the shoulder blade on each side of your spine and run down to the pelvis, are tight, your ability to reach overhead may be limited. Hanging from the bar via dead hangs, however, can help give this muscle a much-needed stretch and may improve mobility,” states a Shape.com article titledHow to Perform a Dead Hang to Strengthen Your Upper Body.
And finally, another major benefit of this exercise is that it is the starting point for performing a pull-up. If you cannot hold your weight for a few seconds against gravity while hanging, then it will be difficult to pull your body up the bar. Doing dead hangs gives you an idea of your strength, grip, and how much more work you have to put in to achieve a pull-up. This move is quite simply the foundation to any hanging exercises, including leg-raises and knee tucks.
If you are a beginner then there is no shame in doing a dead hang in a way that your toes are touching the ground, just to offer the most minute but meaningful support. As you advance, you can move to an active hang. This involves activating the core, making sure your shoulders are slightly pulled away from the ears, and the legs slightly ahead of the body, creating the end position of a hanging leg-raise. There are other variations you can use: like the underhand grip (like in a chin-up), using rings instead of a pull-up bar, or using a small towel to wrap around the bar and hang on it using a neutral grip. Advanced athletes can move on to the single-hand dead hang.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.