April 12, 2021 10 min read
We’ll be the first people to admit that the dead hang is not the most exciting bodyweight exercise you can do. After all, it involves nothing more than hanging from a pull-up bar for a minute or so.
But, despite this lack of movement, the dead hang is still a useful exercise.
It’s not going to add slabs of muscle to your frame as deadlifts can, and it probably won’t make your biceps grow, but it’s worth including in your workout plan. In this detailed guide, we’re going to explain why and how to do the dead hang.
Despite their simplicity, dead hangs are a surprisingly beneficial exercise. The benefits of dead hangs include:
First and foremost, dead hangs are a forearm and grip exercise. There are more than 20 muscles in your forearms, and these muscles can broadly be divided into two groups - flexors and extensors.
The flexor group closes your hands and curls your wrists downward, while the extensor groups open your hands and extend your wrists backward. Because dead hangs test and develop your grip, doing this exercise will improve your grip strength and may increase the size of your forearms.
Heavy squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses put a lot of stress on your spine. They can even make you shorter - albeit temporarily - as they compress your intervertebral disks. Thankfully, your disks return to their original shape and thickness an hour or two after your workout, and any lost height is regained.
That said, doing dead hangs can help speed up this process. Hanging from your arms means the weight of your lower body gently pulls your vertebrae apart, providing your disks with the space they need to expand. In medical terminology, this is called distracting a joint.
If your squat or deadlift workout has left you feeling compressed, doing dead hangs between sets or after your workout should help alleviate the problem.
Contrary to appearances, dead hangs don’t just work your grip. To do dead hangs properly and safely, you must pull your shoulders down and back so that you aren’t just hanging from your shoulder ligaments.
While there is very little resistance to retracting or pulling your shoulders back, depressing or pulling your shoulder down is a much more active movement. Shoulder depression is the job of your lower traps.
Weak lower traps are a common cause of shoulder pain. Strengthening this often-underdeveloped muscle can help reduce your risk of shoulder injury by increasing shoulder joint and shoulder girdle stability.
Like any muscle, the latissimus dorsi or lats can become short and tight. Exercises like Kroc rows, pull-ups, and even deadlifts are great for developing bigger stronger lats, but all that strength training can shorten this crucial back muscle.
Overly tight lats can affect your posture and your shoulder joint mobility. They can be a source of injury too. The lats can be a tricky muscle to stretch.
Dead hangs put your lats into an extended position and provide a deep but comfortable stretch. More flexible lats will make exercises like overhead presses, chin-ups, and any overhead movement easier.
Posture refers to the alignment of your joints, which can be good or bad. Good posture places very little stress on your muscles or your joints. In contrast, poor posture can lead to increased muscle tension and can even cause aches and pains. Poor posture also affects how you look.
A lot of postural issues are caused by prolonged sitting and the effect of gravity on your joints and muscles. You’re literally being pulled forward and downward all day long.
Dead hangs put your body into an extended position, reversing the effects of gravity and poor posture. After a set of dead hangs, you should feel much more upright. Done regularly, dead hangs should improve your posture.
To enjoy all the dead hang benefits listed in the previous section, you must perform this exercise correctly with an active hang. Not only will the correct form increase the effectiveness of this exercise, but it will also make it safer too. Study and follow these instructions to ensure that you do dead hangs properly.
Your grip strength is the main determinant in the hang time. Hold on for as long as you can and stop before your grip fails in the hanging position. Rest a minute or two and repeat if required. Try to increase the duration of your hang as your grip gets stronger.
Here are a few dead hang variations and alternatives to try that will ensure your workouts are always fresh and interesting.
One of the most obvious ways to add some variety to dead hangs is to use a different grip. While this one won’t affect things like spinal decompression or posture, using an alternative grip will work your hands and forearms differently.
Dead hang grip options include:
This is a great variation if you’re doing dead hangs for a firmer grip. Using a towel makes maintaining your grip much more challenging. In fact, don’t be surprised if you can only do this exercise for a few seconds at a time.
To do it, loop two towels over your pull-up bar. Grip the ends together with one towel in each hand. Do your dead hang as usual. And yes, that wicked forearm pump is entirely normal!
The thicker the bar, the harder it is to grip. That’s because you won’t be able to overlap your fingers as much (if at all), which reduces friction. If you have a thick barbell, put it at the top of your power rack and try doing dead hangs there. Alternatively, you can fix something like Fat Gripz to a standard pull-up bar.
Have you mastered regular dead hangs? Are you feeling strong? Give single-arm dead hangs a try. Set up as usual but only use one arm. This unilateral version gives your lats an even deeper stretch and will also stretch the muscles in the side of your waist and lower back.
Using gymnastic rings instead of a straight bar means your arms and shoulders are free to rotate into the most natural and comfortable position. If you find that regular dead hangs cause shoulder or elbow pain, this may be the best variation for you as a hanging exercise.
A fingerboard is a type of pull-up bar for climbers. Also called a crimp board, most have a variety of different shaped and sized holds to replicate the demands of rock climbing. If you are a climber or specifically want to work on your hand and finger strength, doing dead hangs with a fingerboard is sure to help.
Be warned, fingerboard dead hangs can be hard on your joints, so increase workout duration and frequency gradually. Also, start off using the larger holds and only progress to the small holds after a few months of consistent training.
The main disadvantage of dead hangs is that, to do them properly, you need to be strong enough to support your weight with just your hands. This is not always possible or practical without core strength.
You can achieve a similar effect by doing dead hangs with a lat pulldown machine and weightlifting. Hold the bar with your preferred grip, and then sit down. Remain with your arms extended and shoulders active for as long as required.
Stand up at the end of your set; do not just release the bar and drop the weight. Increase the weight as you get stronger, progressing to bodyweight dead hangs when you are ready.
With dead hangs, the length of your set is usually limited by your grip strength. That’s not an issue if you are training your grip, but what if you are more interested in the decompression benefits of dead hangs?
Using lifting straps is one solution, but full inversion may be a better option. Inversion involves using so-called anti-gravity boots or an inversion table. Both options suspend you from your ankles, so your grip strength becomes a non-issue.
If you are serious about spinal decompression, this is arguably the best solution. As an added benefit, you can also do inverted crunches and sit-ups as you hang upside down, both of which are very challenging core exercises.
Don’t overdo it: Dead hangs don’t look or feel especially hard, but that doesn’t mean you have to do them daily. In fact, doing this exercise too often could lead to hand, elbow, or shoulder problems. Do dead hangs 2-3 times per week, allowing plenty of time between workouts for rest and recovery.
Don’t always train to failure: Taking every set of dead hangs to failure is a good way to end up sore, injured, and overtrained. The occasional maximum duration test set is fine, but most of your workouts should be submaximal. See how long you can dead hang for in a range of motion, and then do 3-4 sets for 50-70% of that time. Increase gradually as you get stronger and increase your fitness goals.
Vary your grip: One of the best ways to avoid overuse injuries from dead hangs is to vary your grip in a passive hang. If you are planning to do three sets, you could do each one using a different grip. This will not just make your workouts safer; they’ll also be more challenging and interesting.
End your pull-up workout with dead hangs: An easy way to implement dead hangs into your workouts is to add them to a set of chin-ups or pull-ups. Rep out as usual but then, on reaching failure, hang from the bar until your arms start to fatigue. Don’t do this on your first set of pull-ups, or you may find your hands are too tired to do another set. Instead, save this strategy for your last 1-2 sets.
Try dead hang decompression supersets:One of the best times to do dead hangs is between sets of exercises that involve a lot of spinal compressions, such as squats and overhead presses. This is called supersetting. You can do them between sets of deadlifts but take care not to fatigue your grip too much. Just a short hang should suffice.
Dead hangs are a surprisingly beneficial exercise. A few seconds between squats and overhead presses can help decompress your spine, reducing back tension and pain. Longer hangs are good for your posture and can increase your grip strength.
However, despite their apparent simplicity, there is more to dead hangs than just swinging from a pull-up bar using an overhand grip. If you do this exercise incorrectly, you could end up hurting your shoulders, elbows, or hands, negating all the benefits of doing them.
Use but don’t abuse dead hangs. It’s a useful addition to your workout toolbox but, if you do them too often or take all your sets to failure, they could cause more problems than they cure.
The dead hang is a simple exercise that involves hanging from an overhead bar and is a great way to introduce you to bodyweight training and develop the fundamental grip strength. In fact, it is the first recommended progression exercise for the pull-up and will get you accustomed to hanging under the bar.
If you’re interested in calisthenics, bar training, or climbing then this is an essential beginner’s exercise. It’s also good for stretching out the torso, decompressing the spine, and can be inserted into more advanced exercises at the beginning of the routine as a warm-up or at the end of the workout when fatigued.
It’s important that you learn to dead hang with good form as described above. You’ll probably hear the term hanging with ‘shoulder packed’ which means that the shoulders are pulled down and back so that it doesn’t feel like your arms are being pulled from the sockets.
Resistance bands can be useful bodyweight assistance tools if you’re struggling to build up the required strength for a ten-second dead hang hold with your upper body. Choke a band to the bar and step or kneel into it to support some weight to make the hold easier.
Work on timing how many seconds you can hold the bar before your grip or shoulder give out and keep trying to beat that time each time you train. The dead hang is one of the first recommended exercises when learning the pull-up exercise.
If you can’t comfortably hang from the bar you have no basis to start training for the pull-up so you’ve got to go right back to basics. Once you can hold your dead hang from 10+ seconds with good form you should start training for the flex hang to continue your progress towards the full bodyweight pull-up.
“Do dead hangs build muscle?” This is the most important one, right?
Yes. The primary muscles used in pull-ups are your shoulders, biceps, and muscles in your back. Specifically your lats, or latissimus dorsi, their official name. This is the one that when properly developed looks like wings.
Your lats are the biggest muscle across your back and look like a large V. They connect your arms to your vertebral column and help to stabilize your spine. It also provides strength to your shoulders and arms and so is a great muscle group to develop.
The muscles used for pull-ups specifically target your biceps, your back muscles, and your forearms. Pull your legs up and straighten them as you do the pull-up and you’re exercising your core muscles as well as your abdominals.
If you are just beginning, focus on the pull-up muscles working and from there you can start strengthening other areas of your body as you progress.