Each afternoon when I make myself a cup of tea, I hang in the kitchen. We have a pull-up bar attached to the frame of our doorway. I fill up my mug with water, place it in the microwave (which yes, I know, is inferior to the kettle), and after starting the timer for 90 seconds, I dart to the pull-up bar.
From there, I hang.
My feet are off the floor. Sometimes I swing my legs back and forth. Usually, I remain vertical. Always, I focus on maintaining a natural breath. And I try to hold the position until it’s time to steep a tea bag in the hot water.
When I first began hanging about six months ago, 90 seconds would have felt like a marathon. But I’ve worked my way up—through this regular midafternoon practice and through joining my older son on the playground and in trees.
Dead hanging can help build shoulder strength and mobility. It can improve grip strength and posture. And it is one of the basic, primal movements that is often missing from contemporary life.
I was first introduced to primal movement by my mother after she heard me complaining of a backache that just wouldn’t go away. This was about three years ago, shortly after giving birth the second time.
“Have you been crawling much with Charlie?” she asked, referring to my not-yet-walking son.
When I responded that, no, I had not been crawling on the ground with my 10-month-old, she encouraged me to consider it. She listed other primal movements I should incorporate into my routine, like hanging.
My mom had suffered from pain herself. In search of relief, she discovered the world of primal movement and has incorporated these exercises into her daily routine. Think Paleo—not in the kitchen, but in the way you move through each day. Children still move like our ancestors, and can be excellent inspiration.
Primal movements have shaped human anatomy. Only recently have many of them fallen away. As Katy Bowman, biomechanist and author of Rethink Your Position, recently explained to me, “Though many people no longer live in forests, even our grandparents were more agile and used more primal movements,” she says. “If we look at children a couple generations back, everyone was climbing trees and swinging and playing. That’s what play was. That was the movement that occurred naturally.”
But today, many of us live in less natural environments. Like me, for instance. Though I follow a regular exercise routine, the majority of my day happens in front of a computer. This shift away from the natural world has impacted the range of movement I practice each day.
So I’ve tried to become more mindful about incorporating primal movements, like crawling and hanging, into my daily routine. My mother raved about how much these movements had improved her quality of life, and so I began researching them myself by listening to podcasts and following various accounts on social media.
Crawling doesn’t have to look like the way a baby moves across the floor. According to Bowman, we can derive the same benefits anytime we support our weight on both hands and knees. This could include gardening, inspecting a house, cleaning the baseboards. I try to crawl at night whenever I’m tidying up my children’s toys in the playroom: Rather than walking to each basket to put away toy trains, I stay on all-fours instead. It’s just 10 minutes or so of moving on my hands and knees, but I can actually feel a difference.
And my afternoon hanging practice has helped with my back pain, too. Yes, right now, I am free of pain entirely. And it makes sense: Hanging contributes to spinal care. Not only is it a wonderful form of traction (decompression to relieve pressure on the spine), but it also helps strengthen the back. “One body part people often do not think about are the latissimus dorsi. These are big muscles of the upper back,” says Bowman. They attach between the upper arm bones, and go all the way down to your lower back. And hanging strengthens them from top to bottom.
A word of warning: If you’ve never had your hands hold up your full body weight before, you’ll want to go through a progression to build up to a full hang so you don’t end up straining the tissues. Start with a vertical bar, like a subway pole. Hold it and let your body fall away. This introduces traction along your arms but without much physical load. Then, you can move to a horizontal bar, keeping your feet on the ground, but bending the knees to introduce slightly more weight. Once these activities feel good, you can move to a full-on dead hang. (If you’ve got major bone density issues in your spine or deal with hypermobility, you’ll probably want to have professional guidance along the way.)
One of the first difficulties I encountered with hanging was how much it hurt the skin of my hands. Bowman affirms my experience: “The weakest part of your body is your skin.” But just like our muscles, skin tissue will adapt to our activities—in this case through callous formation. “The tiniest things can keep your other body parts from moving, but it will get stronger with time,” Bowman says. “Hang more frequently, but for shorter periods of time to allow that skin to adapt.”
Living without back pain is clearly nice. Perhaps one of the most exciting parts of practicing these primal movements, though, is seeing how capable I am. They make me feel strong and youthful. I was not a child who was adept on the monkey bars—but today as an adult, I have competitions with my oldest son to see who can cross them the fastest on the playground.