Hold On and Don’t Let Go: Hanging Mechanics

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by ASHLEY MAK|PT, DPT, FMSC

Hold On and Don't Let Go: Hanging Mechanics
When hanging on a pullup bar, what grip should you use? The purpose of this piece is to explain the mechanisms of the underhand grip and its difference in uses and muscles compared to the overhand grip.

The other day my client Alison asked me whether or not I thought the underhand grip made any difference in difficulty during core work, and this sparked an interest to investigate. So I did some research and then watched Alison do her workout with the underhand grip and noticed a few differences [Side note: In no way is this a debate on whether or not the pull-up or chin up is better; I am simply pointing out the differences for each grip while in the hang]:

  • In the underhand grip, the shoulders are positioned into a more externally rotated position, which is the ideal position for end range overhead movements.
  • In the underhand grip, the upper and lower back are placed onto more tension, creating a stable spine rather than causing a hyperextension moment in individuals who have trouble maintaining the hollow position [Watch: Hollow Body Video].
  • The underhand grip facilitates the maintenance of a neutral spine, especially in the hang and with core work.

Let’s talk about each point.

External Rotation of the Shoulder

While in the overhand position, you can still create an external rotation force by breaking the pullup bar in half to create that stable spine.
In Kelly Starrett’s Becoming a Supple Leopard, he discusses the laws of torque and stability. Torque is defined as a force along a rotational axis. The generation of this in the hip and shoulder joint creates a stable surface of movement. Proper production of torque will allow maximal force and power generation, as well as increase performance. Conversely, lack of appropriate rotational force will result in a loss of power, decreased performance, and an increase in injury risk.

K-Starr also states that both midline stabilization (bracing) and torque are two parts of a unifying system that work with each other. A deficiency in spinal stabilization will lead to a decrease in rotation force production and vice versa. The two laws of Torque as defined by K-Starr are simple and straightforward:

  1. To create stability with the hips or shoulders in flexion, you need to generate an external rotation force.
  2. To create stability with the hips or shoulders in extension, you need to create an internal rotation force.

Just Hanging Out

Just Hanging Out
This is what happens when hanging on the pullup bars:

  • Nearing end range shoulder flexion
  • Distraction force of body weight onto the glenohumeral joint
  • Medial rotation and horizontal abduction of the scapulae

With the overhand grip (in addition to the hang position), shoulders are internally rotated at the glenohumeral joint. With the underhand grip (in addition to the hang position), shoulders are externally rotated at the glenohumeral joint.

The hang position is very important because it is the start and end point of pull ups, leg raises, and many other body weight movements on bars, rings, ledges etc. While in the overhand position, you can still create an external rotation force by breaking the pullup bar in half to create that stable spine. However, there are limitations to this grip:

  • Not having enough strength to create the external rotation force on a fixed object will result in a loss of torque and stability in the shoulder.
  • Not having the ability to organize the spine in the braced or hollow position can lead to a reduction in the external rotation force of the shoulders, reducing the stability (i.e. the ribs flaring out at the bottom of the hang)

By assuming the underhand grip on the bars, the shoulders are already placed into the externally rotated position. This is a reiteration of K-Starr’s first law of torque, and thus a position of stability for the shoulder in flexion is external rotation. This allows you the opportunity to focus on organizing and creating a stable spine in the hang (i.e. pulling the ribs down).

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