How to Perform a Dead Hang to Strengthen Your Upper Body
It's easy to assume that exercises have to be complex in order to be effective — looking at you pistol squats, Turkish get-ups, and burpees. But one move, in particular, runs completely counter to that notion. Enter: the dead hang.
A dead hang involves hanging from a pull-up bar with both hands, says Rena Eleázar, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., a board-certified specialist in sports physical therapy and the co-founder of Match Fit Performance in New York City. "You're not necessarily engaging anything — you're just letting your body hang while gripping onto the bar," she explains. Yes, it's that simple.
And when practiced regularly, the dead hang can have a major payoff. Here, Eleázar gives the low-down on all the benefits the dead hang has to offer. Plus, she shares exactly how to perform and modify the move regardless of your fitness level.
How to Do a Dead Hang
The dead hang is a pretty straightforward exercise, but there are a few pointers you should keep in mind when first incorporating the move into your routine. For one, avoid jumping up and grabbing the bar mid-air to kick off your dead hang, as doing so will cause you to swing, which can be difficult to control and potentially put you at risk of injury, says Eleázar. Instead, step onto a small box or weight plate so you're able to reach the bar while on your tiptoes and comfortably position your hands, she suggests.
While you're hanging, make sure to keep your slightly core engaged, which will prevent you from swinging, says Eleázar. And if you're brand-new to the exercise — or any hanging move, for that matter — don't expect to hang for a minute straight. Instead, try holding your position for three reps of five to 10 seconds each, giving yourself 30 seconds to a minute to rest between them, she suggests. "If it's your first time doing it…then start super small, do a couple of rounds of 10-second holds, and try to find a progression for you that feels challenging but you're still able to do it," she adds.
A. Stand on a plate or box underneath a pull-up bar so hands can almost reach bar.
B. Shift weight into tiptoes and place hands on bar slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, palms facing away from body. Feet should be flat and lifted off the floor, legs hanging straight down, and core engaged.
C. Hold for 10 seconds, avoiding swinging, then release hands to return to the starting position.
The Key Dead Hang Benefits
The dead hang exercise primarily puts your forearm muscles to work and, in turn, helps strengthen your grip, says Eleázar. And having a strong grip isn't just useful when you're trying to impress someone with a firm handshake. "If you're doing any type of strength training, specifically training your grip will help you be able to hold heavier amounts of weight," she explains. That means keeping your forearm muscles in tip-top shape could help you hit a new PR for bicep curls or deadlifts.
What's more, "there is some research [suggesting] that weaker grip strength is actually linked to potentially earlier mortality," says Eleázar. In fact, studies suggest increased grip strength is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease, while poor grip strength is a strong predictor of increased risk of future disability, according to research published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. "Having a strong grip is something that people should work toward regularly in their fitness routine," she adds.
Improves Shoulder Stability
By regularly incorporating dead hangs into your workout routine, you'll strengthen your scapular muscles — the muscles that surround your shoulder blade and attach to the shoulder and upper arm, says Eleázar. Keeping these muscles strong can help keep your shoulder joint stable, which is necessary to carry out everyday movements, she adds. "Any movement where you're reaching overhead — putting something away or pulling something out of a cupboard — that overhead stability is going to be super important," says Eleázar. "If your body doesn't feel like it can handle the amount of load you're trying to hold over your head, then there's a potential risk for injury."
Think about placing a heavy carry-on bag in the overhead compartment of an airplane, she says. If your shoulders can't support your luggage as you hold it over your head and place it into the bin, you may risk straining a muscle or sustaining an injury by simply dropping your suitcase on yourself, she adds.
Improves Flexibility and Mobility
The dead hang exercise also strengthens and improves the flexibility of your latissimus dorsi muscles, says Eleázar. 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, she explains. Hanging from the bar via dead hangs, however, can help give this muscle a much-needed stretch and may improve mobility, allowing you to achieve the full range of motion your body should have, she explains. "Functionally, being able to control the shoulder as you're reaching overhead is really great to work on," she adds.
Decompresses Your Spine
Thanks to gravity, simply hanging from the bar can help create some traction — aka tiny openings — between the joints between the vertebrae in your spine, says Eleázar. "This can feel great for people who sit in front of their computers all day or people who feel overall stiffness or tightness in their back," she explains. "At the very least, if [it's] not affecting the joints themselves, hanging will provide a light stretch for the muscles of the back."
Helps You Progress to a Pull-Up
If your current fitness goal is to perform a full-fledged pull-up, mastering dead hangs is the first step to achieving it. "The dead hang is your starting point of a pull-up, so if you're not able to even hold your weight on the bar, it's unlikely that you will be able to perform the entire pull-up motion without any assistance," says Eleázar.
Dead Hang Variations
Modify with Equipment or Your Toes
If a regular dead hang feels a bit too challenging, try counterbalancing some of your body weight by performing the move on an assisted pull-up machine or with a large loop resistance band wrapped around the pull-up bar or squat rack hooks, suggests Eleázar. "That just helps offset your body weight until you can build the strength to hold your own weight," she explains.
To lighten the load of a dead hang without any extra equipment, Eleázar suggests keeping one or two toes lightly touching the floor (or a plyo box or a plate) throughout each hold. (Related: How to Do Pull-Ups at Home Without a Pull-Up Bar)
Advance the Move with an Active Hang
Once you've mastered the traditional dead hang, you can take things to the next level by performing an "active hang." During this variation, your body is fully engaged, your shoulders are pulled slightly away from your ears, your legs are positioned slightly in front of your body (creating a "hollow hold" position), and your core is fully engaged, says Eleázar. "A dead hang you're a little bit more relaxed," she says. "You're coordinating your entire body in an active hang. It can be a little bit more challenging, but as you start to gain that body awareness, you'll be able to progress a bit more toward an active hang. And that active hang…can make pull-ups a bit easier."
Who Shouldn't Perform the Dead Hang
Despite the move's simplicity, there are a few populations who generally should chat with their doctor or a fitness expert before trying dead hangs. This includes people who have a longstanding history of shoulder pain, have suffered a shoulder dislocation, are diagnosed with a hypermobility disorder or consider themselves to be hypermobile, or are experiencing numbness or tingling in their upper body, says Eleázar.
Even if you're completely free of shoulder issues, don't be afraid to speak with a pro before trying your hand at dead hangs, she adds. "I would always say if you're ever tentative about something and just scared to try something new, then you should always ask a fitness professional first."