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Why you need to learn how to skin the cat

Don't be alarmed. It is just a fantastic calisthenics exercise that you need to master for greater strength and flexibility

Master the calisthenics exercise Skin the Cat.
Master the calisthenics exercise Skin the Cat. (Istockphoto)

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In the past decade, the popularity of functional fitness has led conventional gyms to add more skill-based equipment—equipment that goes beyond the usual sandbag-for-show. This is where parallel bars, rings, and TRX bands come into the picture. And when you have rings and bars at a gym, you should use them to develop skills and functionality that go beyond the usual weight training. These skills will slowly transfer to your ability to perform better.

Rings are primarily used to aid stabilisation, and the first exercise you will probably try on them are tricep dips. When you progress to intermediate to advanced levels, one exercise that you must try is “skin the cat”. Now, the origin of the name is dubious, but according to the classic A Hog on Ice: & Other Curious Expressions (1948) by Charles Earle Funk, the phrase “skin the cat” was first seen in around 1845: "In America, as any country boy knows, this means to hang by the hands from a branch or bar, draw the legs up through the arms and over the branch, and pull oneself up into a sitting position. As we must abide by the record, we cannot say positively that the name for this violent small-boy exercise is more than a century old, but it is highly likely that Ben Franklin or earlier American lads had the same name for it.”

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Almost as if to keep the spirit of dark humour alive, there is no explanation provided as to why someone would want to skin a cat.But now we know the exercise has been around for a while. Tree branches however, have mostly been replaced by rings in a gym, as you can check out in the video below.

You’re bound to wonder why one must do this exercise, apart from the fact that it is obviously a fun thing to do; but the move has multiple benefits if done with care and caution. The first benefit is the full range of motion that it demands from the shoulders. One can see the athlete’s shoulders in the video above and how they fully rotate internally and externally as he moves his body into position. This is not a forced rotation, but a natural muscular movement, adjusting to your body’s position while the rings move with it as well.

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However, the effort it takes to conduct the full rotation with stability, is what makes the exercise so good for mastering other skills like pullups, chin-ups, and even dips. Skin the Cat is the precursor to learning tougher isometric holds like the front and back lever, both of which are the foundations of advanced bodyweight training and callisthenics.

The exercise is one of the few that offers a full upper body stretch, and returning to the starting position will require you to pull your body up by using your toes and abs. The exercise requires a lot of coordination and control, two traits which will have a positive influence on your other, more conventional, lifts. The fact that the move requires you to go slow means every rep counts, and you don’t have to do too many to see the benefits.

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There are a few exercises and tricks that you can use to learn this move faster. Given that it needs a little bravery to perform the move, the best hack to start trusting your body is to lower the rings enough, so you can touch the floor with your feet and do the exercise with your knees tucked in or extended. This way, the fear of falling lowers dramatically. You also don’t need to fully lower yourself until your shoulders open up to the move. It is important that you don’t force this.

A titled Skin The Cat-Calisthenics Exercise Tutorial states that the nature of your grip depends on whether you’re using the rings (palms facing inwards) or the bar (use overhand grip). “You want to pull up with your shoulders behind the rings/bar and your weight leaning back, that way you’re rotating ‘around yourself’ as opposed to flinging your whole weight upwards in front of you. The top half of your body should essentially be doing a pull-up whilst the bottom half is doing a crunch. Keep your knees tucked into your stomach to help balance your weight backwards,” it adds.

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A video posted by CrossFit’s official YouTube page also shows how beginners can start off with the exercise, including how to use a spotter at the gym to help you stabilise. You can start off with the bent-arm skin the cat, which will bring your body closer to your pulling muscles. You can then move to add a jump or a hop to the move: This injects some momentum to your pass-through. Finally, perform half a rep (until you are in the inverted hang position) and return to your starting position.

Do not attempt the exercise cold, or without thoroughly warming up the shoulders. This includes basic rotations, some pull-ups, push-ups and even cat cows to open up the upper back. A lot of athletes make skin the cat part of their warm-up as well, because it such a brilliant stretch for the shoulders to get ready for dynamic movements. Which is why it also a proven cool down exercise.

Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.

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