Wednesday, June 4, 2014

hanging, swinging, and brachiating

"All babies are born with a branch-holding reflex; in fact, infants are pound-for-pound incredibly strong, and are capable of holding themselves suspended by grasping a finger or bar." -Emma Pennock

We are primates, and our skeletal structure maintains remnants of times past when we were tree-dwellers, specifically the shoulder and wrist structure with it's fantastic mobility, and the latissimus dorsi muscle that spans from the shoulder down to the pelvis, among other structures our upper bodies are built for brachiation - hanging, swinging, and brachiation are skill sets to be played with in the overall development of the human body.

"Primates that are best at brachiation possess certain anatomical characteristics similar to those of humans and the great apes, such as a dorsoventrally flattened thorax, upright posture, and wrist specializations. Brachiators have a unique ability to move below their support as opposed to over it (as we do in bipedalism or gorillas do in knucle-walking)." -Emma Pennock "From Gibbons to Gymnasts: A Look at the Biomechanics and Neurophysiology of Brachiation in Gibbons and its Human Rediscovery"

As the importance of this 'monkey business' is evident in our structure, genetic history, and the grasping reflexes that infants present, young children will often exercise this birthright when given the right opportunity and environment. But unfortunately that's decreasing as we opt for more sterile playgrounds and frown upon kids partaking in even the slightest of risky behavior such as climbing trees. And as we get older we usually resort to machines that walk us or other less monkey-like business (or quit moving all together). When's the last time you saw a grown adult brachiating at the park?

In sport, many athletic development programs resort to the more rigid and quantifiable forms of movement... but I am going to advocate for a bit of 'monkey business'.

The most common 'distraction' exercise that we often find trainers and coaches using is the pull-up or some variation of such. We (myself included) are quick to prescribe pull-up variations (which are great movements) and have a number of creative ways to regress them for those who can't complete one on their own, yet most of these regressions are a scaled down version of the pull-up itself; utilizing bands, eccentric lowerings, isometric holds and so on...

Is there a prerequisite to the pull-up? How often do we check to see how well one simply hangs from a bar? I see very few exercises done hanging, swinging, and then brachiating... prior to trying to achieving an actual pull-up. My belief is that an individual should be able to support their own bodyweight hanging from a bar for a good amount of time, and then brachiate with ease before really worrying about pull-ups. I know my daughter can not complete a dead-hang pull-up but she can 'gibbon' the monkey bars with ease. (gibbons are arguably the best brachiators in the world)

Unfortunately, in our modern times, this might be a necessary regression as further evidenced by the recent news of a top hockey prospect who could not complete one pull-up at an NHL scouting combine. (I know, I am cherry-picking this one, but c'mon man.)

Nearly gone are the days when most playgrounds looked like this (the near bar set, of course):

or this
photo courtesy of the New York Times
There's the obvious health and fitness component to this, but more specifically the strength in the grip and forearms is improved, along the improving stability at the full ranges of motion needed in the shoulder to swing from bar to bar/ tree limb to limb. The torso is challenged in an open-chained sense (feet not in contact with the ground) to provide stability for the shoulders and arms to do the work. The diaphragm may actually have to work more singularly (which is good) as the upper extremity muscles that can get caught up in dysfunctional breathing patterns (upper chest breathing) are now occupied in an overhead stretch grasping and locomotion. There's also hand-eye coordination, shoulder stability, torso and pelvic stability with extension mobility needed in the so often locked-up thoracic spine... and it's good fun... and it forces one to pay attention - engaged, mindful movement! (Not to mention the possible brain connections and the reason brachiation ladders are also used in therapy for neurological disorders)

Additional, since we are bipedal animals with a vertical spine (whereas nearly all other animals are quadrupedal and with horizontal spines), hanging, swinging, and brachiating gives our spine a much needed decompression that we rarely get, if ever (some while sleeping, I suppose).

There's tremendous possibilities for variations of movements with hanging, swinging, and brachiating - basic hanging for time (2 or 1 arm), knee-ups for reps or holds, different torso flexion and rotations with knees bent or straight (it's ok, the spine is decompressed!), two arms or one arm, swinging front to back, side to side, diagonal, to brachiating forwards, backwards, sideways, arms straight, arms bent; or lache as they call it in parkour, to swing and let go, leaping from bar to bar. Many possibilities and ways to progressively overload the movements. Gymnastics is a good sport to look for ideas.

Of course all this would be much simpler if kids participated in more free play (and had *gasp* DANGEROUS playgrounds and places to do it) -  To Protect Against Injuries, Young Athletes May Need to Play More Just for Fun.

If you have kids, get them started young. As Katy Bowman puts it:

"Hanging and the much more challenging action of swinging from object to object, use upper body strength in a general sense. Swinging requires the full participation of every bit of tissue from the fingers to the lower body. The largest contributing muscle force-wise, is the latissimus, which connects the arm bone to the pelvis. When we work our lats as adults, we’re used to fixing the pelvis and pulling the arms toward the ground. This way of training creates an entirely different load (and motor program) than when you pull the pelvis toward the arm as you do during brachiation. The resulting tone of a muscle regularly used in this whole-body fashion can aid in shoulder and sacral stabilization, which in turn are essential for the mechanics of breathing and pelvic floor function. We don’t typically associate 'monkeying around' with lung inflation and bladder support, but mechanically speaking they are directly linked."

And, as Katy states in the article with regards to fostering infant reflexes:

"For the last hundred years, infant reflexes have been presented as vestigial; artifacts of our ancestral past. Many a scholar has written a paper on how these relics disappeared after a few months because they are unnecessary. Real development comes later, according to these papers, after the modern brain (implied as superior to our ancestral counterpart) was ready to be developed." Which begs the question: Are infantile reflexes simply the leftover residue from our inferior ancestors, or are they something to be cultivated?"


"Early cultivation of these reflexes is essential to the health, strength and survival of children - even today. With skyrocketing bouts of children’s asthma and allergies, low muscular tone, abdominal herniations, diastasis recti, and just general malaise, a child’s development requires much greater attention than we are currently giving it."

... and her comments about hunter-gatherers...

"Data shows that modern H-G tribes like the !X un and Ju/‘hoan work specific exercises, multiple times a day, with their children in the first few months of their life. These children walk much more quickly (seven to nine months) and  can hold their entire body early on. A deeper literature review reveals earlier research into the gripping reflex (1930s) and their conclusions that it was indeed a lack of practice early on that reduced the appearance of the reflex. They raised the question 'What result would the practice of this function have on its retention?' They found with cultivation, four-day old babies could hold their weight for a periods of time ranging from seconds to a full minute."

Check out the full article here, The Necessity of Monkey Business.

Here's some ideas of how we do it at our house:

Our backyard brachiation ladder, aka monkey bars
Chyles, who's now 16 months, has been playing this game for a long time now. She grasps my thumbs and holds as long as she wants. By her initiating and maintaining the grasp (as opposed to me holding her hands), she's able to play within her abilities. When she gets tired, she lets go.
Pulling her legs up, trying to be like big brother.
Reggie still likes to play this game (only because he's a bit of a runt and I can still lift him), but I am a bit more challenging on him as I will swing him around and side to side. Again, the grasp is on him so there are no excessive forces/stresses placed on his arms and shoulders.

And now Chyles is on to the 'big kid' stuff:

That full diaper is really working her strength.

We also just like to hang around any which possible way.
There's many ways to do it, and many different options for equipment. Gymnastics rings are great. The kids are able to find the TRX suspension trainers to be of good use for something. Trees are awesome, too. Ropes can work. Whatever... just hang, swing, and brachiate.