Short answer: Yes. The dead hang exercise is a small but mighty one – often overlooked in favor of more exciting moves (triple-lunge-backflip-cartwheels, anyone?). If you want to increase your grip and core strength, shoulder mobility, and enjoy some spinal decompression, they are a great addition to your workout routine. If you want to increase your pull ups, or get your first pull up, an active hang with a scapula retraction is the basis of performing this move correctly.
The benefits of the dead hang extend beyond strength and mobility; studies show that good grip strength is correlated to longevity1. Grip strength was found to be a better predictor of mortality than blood pressure, with research suggesting that an 11lb decrease in grip strength results in a 16% higher mortality risk for men and 20% for women.
As we age, muscle mass and bone mineral density decrease. Resistance training counters this and helps with injury and disease prevention, health, and mobility, and as grip strength is estimated to be around 50% genetics and 50% training, regularly doing dead hangs and other grip exercises is important.
Unfortunately, learning how challenging dead hangs are (you are holding your entire body weight up after all) does somewhat ruin movies where someone hangs single-handed from a cliff.
Muscles used in the dead hang
The dead hang primarily works the forearm muscles – some 20 muscles responsible for flexing and extending your fingers and wrists, and you’ll be feeling the pump!
The lats are stretched during a dead hang – more so if you are doing a passive hang; where you hold on to a pull up bar with your arms straight and get a good upper body stretch. This will also stretch the supraspinatus shoulder tendon – important for shoulder health. A passive dead hang with legs straight will decompress your spine and stretch surrounding back muscles, also allowing full shoulder joint range of motion.
Active dead hangs use the same upper body muscles as a passive dead hang, and then some. Not only should your forearms be on fire, but your shoulder blades should also be back and down in a scapula retraction, firing up your delts and upper back muscles – traps, rhomboids and lats. The biceps and triceps work too, core should be working to keep you still and to keep your pelvis slightly posteriorly tilted, glutes and quads will also be joining the party as you hold your feet slightly in front of you.
Do dead hangs build upper body strength and muscle?
While they won’t pack on the pounds of muscle like compound lifts, and you’ll never win World’s Strongest Man if all you do is hang, dead hangs will absolutely build strength and some muscle in the upper body, and you can particularly gain some forearm muscle size. Not only that, they are a gateway to more advanced upper body muscle-building exercises such as pull ups, chin ups, toes to bar, leg raises. Plus if you get good at them you can win some bets against your mates.
Good grip strength from training the dead hang will also aid performance in other strength training exercises where being able to hold the weight becomes a limiting factor. Wouldn’t it be great if you didn’t have to worry about dropping your deadlift bar, or accidentally launching a kettlebell into space? Farmers carries, dumbbell work such as lunges, step-ups, and the dreaded devils press will all become slightly easier too if your grip strength is good.
Dead hangs and shoulder pain
Dead hangs are great for shoulder issues and rotator cuff injuries due to their decompressive nature and the fact they allow the shoulder to experience full range of motion. They have even been used to fix conditions where surgery was previously thought to be the only option, and in research2 have been shown to be as good as surgery for treating shoulder impingement. Before you go running off swinging from a pull up bar, you must get clearance from a medical professional before doing dead hangs if you do have any sort of shoulder pain or injury.
Ok, all that’s great, but how do I actually perform a dead hang? Do I need a pull up bar?
One of the benefits of the dead hang is that it’s a versatile upper body exercise, and with some creativity, you can hang just about anywhere. A pull up bar is a great option as it’s usually designed to be fairly hand-sized, so easy to grip. However you can use whatever’s around you – monkey bars in the park, tree branches, scaffolding, a smith machine or a bar set high on a squat rack, or even a very sturdy door frame (please check with the homeowner first!).
Ideally, set a box underneath your overhead bar so you can slowly step into your dead hang, rather than having to launch yourself at the bar which will usually result in a lot of swinging and not a lot of good hanging.
To passive hang: Stand on your box, hold the bar around shoulder width with an overhand grip (palms facing the pull up bar), step gently off the box and dangle with your arms fully extended (but don’t hyper-extend), legs hanging straight, shoulder muscles ever so slightly engaged, and relax. You should feel a nice stretch in your upper body and maybe even your hip flexors. You can rotate your legs and torso gently to get further stretch.
To active hang: Begin as above in a passive dead hang. Retract your shoulder blades, bringing them down from around your ears. Your entire body should lift slightly and you should feel your back and shoulder muscles working as well as your forearms. Engage your core, glutes, and quads by bringing your feet slightly forwards and squeezing everything ya got.
How long should I be able to dead hang for?
Probably not as long as you think! Not only does time move irritatingly slowly when you’re doing a dead hang, but because you are holding your whole body weight, you will get burnt out pretty quickly. As a beginner, expect to hang for 5-30s, if you’re intermediate, you should be able to get over 2 minutes with some effort, and if you’re an advanced athlete you might be able to squeeze 3-5 minutes. The world record for a dead hang is a whopping 16 min 3 sec!
Progressions and regressions
If you struggle with upper body work, and holding yourself in a dead hang is too hard, try these alternatives:
- Dead hang with your feet elevated on a plyo box.
- Dead hang on an assisted pull up machine.
- Dead hang standing in a resistance band looped over your pull up bar.
If you’re hangin’ around like a monkey and want more of a challenge, try some progressions…
- Dead hang with weight added (use a weight belt, weight vest, or a backpack).
- Dead hang with one hand!
- Change up the grip – dead hang using a neutral grip, or a supinated grip with palms facing you.
- Dead hang at the top of a pull up.
- Dead hang with your legs raised.
Ismana is a true clichéd ‘gym bunny’ and loves crossfit and powerlifting, which enable her to enjoy an active and adventurous lifestyle – the body will never be an obstacle before the mind is! Ismana loves to share her skills and knowledge with others, and is an experienced strength and performance coach, with a strong belief in keeping things simple when it comes to training.