Often think about what to “loosen up” before an upper body session? Or have trouble getting full extension with overhead movements without compensation? I may have a quick, simple, and effective solution for you...
The passive hang stretch. It’s simplicity and benefits make it a staple for many different training programs and is EXACTLY the upper body stretch you need to start doing, daily. In this article we will discuss what exactly the passive hang stretch is, why you should do it, and how you can start gaining grip strength, shoulder stability and flexibility, and even build better bodyweight movement (pull-ups, muscle ups, etc) right now.
What is the Passive Hang Stretch?
In order to perform the passive hang stretch, you are going to need a bar a something to support your bodyweight to hang from (pull-up bar, supportive beam, rings, stable tree branch, monkey bars, you get the idea...). The breakdown of this stretch is pretty simple:
Grab onto a bar or support system with a slightly-wider than shoulder width grip, palms facing away. Be sure to wrap your all fingers around the bar, with you thumb also wrapped (called the full grip).
Once you have secured yourself to the bar, allow yourself to hang without your feet touching the ground.
Be sure to keep your spine in alignment, limiting any upper back rounding and lower back extension. A good rule of thumb is to press your legs together, squeeze your glutes together (you buttocks), flex your abs (hard), and point the toes slightly out in front of you.
You should start to feel a stretch across the upper back, armpits, and maybe even biceps/triceps. Try to keep the head and neck relaxed so that the ears sit slightly in front of the biceps.
Allow the weight of the body to stretch the muscles deeper, being sure to always make mental checks to stay aware of spinal positioning and body tension (rather, try to relax instead of tense up).
The below video demonstrates how you can perform the passive hang stretch on your own.
Something to think about during this movement is letting the weight of your hips and body relax slowly drift toward the floor. If this sensation is accomplished, you might feel your lower back start to unlock, or elongate. This sensation is called traction, specifically for the lower back and more specifically for the vertebral discs within your spine. Another point of focus you want to think about is letting your lats or armpits start to lengthen (or feel like they are opening) as you let your weight of your hips drop toward the floor.
For added benefit, have a partner add a push to the upper back to address some thoracic mobility. If stretch is too intense, you can modify by supporting your weight on a small step or box.
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Benefits of the Passive Hang Stretch
Below are five (5) reasons why this stretch is one of the best upper body stretches; and hopefully one that you start doing on a regular basis.
1. Improve Grip Strength
Being able to hang and support your entire body will improve your grip strength. Most compound lifts that involve pulling movements or posterior chain exercises (Olympic lifts, deadlifts, RDLs, rows, pull-ups, etc) require you to have a strong grip, making this exercise vital. If you're also an athlete where your sport requires having a strong grip (such as strongman, powerlifting, combat sports, climbing, etc), this stretch will help you immensely.
2. Shoulder Stability and Health
We need strong and mobile shoulders, lats, and sub-scapular girdles to safely perform pressing and overhead movements (not to mention most movements that require shoulder stability as well). With the assistance of gravity, these muscle groups are taken through a predominately passive stretch, allowing for these specific areas to relax into a new end range of motion (or to help maintain the end ranges that you might already have).
3. Traction (Spinal Decompression) for a Healthy Spine
Through gravity we are able to accomplish another attribute with this exercise, which is traction or decompression of the vertebral discs. This is important for athletes who tend to have spinal compression or bulging discs, or generally for those of us who find ourselves under heavy barbells (or pulling them) on a regular basis. Hanging can keep your back in check and help you when things start to “stiffing up” in that specific area, which can in end can potentially save you from some unwanted lower back stiffness and pain.
4. Better Posture and Spinal Awareness
When hanging, we think of our body being pulled into a straight position or a symmetrical line. However, if things aren’t aligned in your body from top down due to lack of posture control and other mobility issues, then this potential symmetrical line turns into an awkward and out of place hanging position. Often, it will have an athlete have excessive upper back rounding (thoracic immobility, often due to limitations in shoulder flexibility and/or posture issues from daily life) which lead to then excessive lumbar extension (which has a whole slew of negative consequences on the lumbar spine and hips).
[Be sure to check out our corrective exercises and mobility guide to address your most common mobility and flexibility issues!]
With that being said, this simply hanging while keeping your lower back flat will increase your awareness of any postural imbalances one might have when having hands over the entire body. We find it best to hang with your legs together with toes pointed forwards a few feet in front of you. You can also pull the knees up to hip level to maintain a flatter lower back.
5. Gymnastic Progressions
Someone that wants to progress into pull-ups, chin-up, and even gymnastic movements like kipping, toes to bar, and muscle ups will want to consider add hanging into their warm-up and/or accessory program. Getting accustomed to hanging can help the process in pursuing progressive movements because you will be increasing grip strength, shoulder stability, back and scapular-stabilizing strength.
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Passive Hang Stretch Programming: Sets, Reps, and Variations
One of the easiest ways to blend the “world's greatest stretch” into your workout is within your warm up or activation block. Below are a some guidelines to keep in mind when considering the volume for this particular block
2-3 sets x 10-30 seconds for beginners
2-3 sets x 30-60 seconds for intermediate
2-3 sets x 60 seconds with weight vest, hanging variations, and transfers (see below)
Another way you to fit in this stretch would be during an active recovery period paired with a compound lift that involves a deadlift/hinging pattern or overhead movements. This makes the most sense given that the traction provided in this specific stretch opens up the lower back and upper body.
It’s Easy, So Do It!
Hanging around is something that is not only easy to do, but it's very accessible for most gym-goers. I hope you gained a deeper level of respect and understanding of how hanging (and the above variations) can make a huge impact on your upper body flexibility, shoulder health, and grip strength!
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