It's true that when you hang off the ground, the force of gravity provides some decompression for your spine, but is decompression the same as stretching — and how substantial is the effect? We speak to an expert to find out.
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First, What Is a Dead Hang?
When you perform a dead hang, you grab onto a pull-up bar and let gravity pull your body down toward the floor. This stretches tight lat, shoulder and pec muscles, and it can even improve your overhead shoulder mobility when performed consistently over time.
What Is Spinal Decompression?
Your spine is made up of 33 small bones, called vertebrae. In between most of these vertebrae are jelly-like discs that both connect and protect the vertebrae. The health of these discs plays a crucial role in your ability to move well and live without pain.
Josh Henkin, CSCS, explains that gravity is constantly acting upon humans because we are upright animals. Gravity places compressive forces upon our spines, which over time causes the space between the vertebrae to get smaller and squeeze the discs. For this reason, some degree of disc degeneration is normal as you get older.
Physical activity also contributes to compression. Certain types of exercise, such as hiking with a heavy pack or performing barbell back squats, can place high compressive forces on your spine.
Spinal decompression is the act of relieving some of this pressure on your intervertebral discs. Is this the same as stretching? "Kind of," Henkin says.
He compares decompression to traction therapy, in which gentle pulling is used to open up more space for the vertebral discs. In the therapeutic setting, decompression and traction are typically performed under the guidance of trained professionals using technology that can make small, incremental adjustments to your spine.
Is the Dead Hang Decompressing Your Spine?
When you hang from the bar during dead hangs, the force of gravity pulls your body toward the ground. This certainly feels good after lots of heavy lifting or sitting. And it does provide some gentle decompression for your spine, because the force of gravity is essentially acting on your body in reverse.
However, Henkin says it's tough to know exactly how much spinal decompression is occurring during dead hangs because so many other tissues are involved. There's no way to know for sure that all the lengthening you see or feel is coming from the spine and not from a stretch to the shoulders, lats or another part of the body. Differences in individual body positions while hanging will also affect the degree to which the spine is directly targeted.
Furthermore, Henkin says some of any potential spinal decompression benefits you receive from the dead hang will be temporary. As soon as you step back on the ground, gravity will once again exert compressive forces on your spine.
You recruit gravity to pull your body downward each time you dead hang, which does provide some gentle spinal decompression. But any benefit is temporary and likely not enough to offset any spinal issues.
What to Do if Your Back Feels Tight or Stiff
Dead hangs are a helpful addition to your workouts: They provide a great stretch and help work your forearm flexors. And although they can feel great on your back, they may not be targeting your spine as much as you think. "Hangs may help tightness, but it's a big leap to say they might help spinal issues," Henkin says.
If you're interested in more targeted spinal decompression or traction to help your back, it's important to seek out the guidance of a trained professional. When in doubt, start conservatively and make sure you don't push it too far.
"You want to work incrementally to see what your tolerance is," Henkin says. "Too much traction or the wrong type of traction could inflame your spine if it's not done correctly, or if you have preexisting issues."
He also suggests cupping as an alternative form of decompression that can be done to tight muscles in the back or elsewhere in the body.
If you find yourself struggling with frequent low back pain, Henkin suggests you worry less about stretching your spine and instead focus on building more core stability and improving your hip and ankle mobility.
He also recommends taking advantage of recovery strategies to help your back, such as:
- Breath work to kick-start the recovery process after training
- Mindfulness exercises to calm the nervous system
- Static stretching after workouts for tight muscles
- Practicing movement skills through yoga, qigong or other similar activities
- Staying active and trying not to be sedentary between workouts