When I say exercises I do not mean it in our modern sense of doing a workout that makes you sweat but in the traditional sense of practising something. Yes, it may make you sweat at first but should become easier with practice.
The man in the image above is seated in a very common position. It could be called a crouch, except you'll notice that his heels are not raised up but are instead firmly planted on the ground. You may think it's not common, and you'd be right, and wrong. It is not common in the Western world where we use chairs, but in a large part of the world where chairs and clean floors are less common, this way of sitting is very common. Sometimes this position is called the Asian Squat, or the deep squat.
The main things to note are that:
- the feet are about shoulder width apart
- the heels are flat on the floor
- the back is straight
The benefits of the primal squat are multiple. When developing your ability to squat you will quickly realise that a number of areas need improving. For me it was my ankle flexibility, for others it could be knee or hip flexibility. It could also be that the leg-strength needs improving, for example, when you can get into the position but you cannot hold it for any length of time.
By regularly getting into and out of the primal squat position you will be strengthening primarily your quadriceps, the large muscles at the front of your thigh. You will be increasing and maintaining flexibility at the ankles, hips and knees. You will be lengthening and stretching your spine, particularly the lumbar region.
Your heart will get a slight workout as it pushes a little harder to circulate the blood around the body in this position.
Your digestion and bowel function also improves as the large intestine is actually straightened out in this position as opposed to being bent over. This in turn can improve a number of related conditions including piles.
These benefits of course are lost when we stop practising the squat and go back to sitting on a chair or the sofa. The spine tends to develop an unnatural curvature, the shoulders and neck slump forwards, the spine becomes compressed and the lumbar region is often improperly aligned.
In order to practise this exercise, and indeed to make it a daily habit, it has been suggested to attempt thirty minutes per day. In the beginning, this may need to be broken down into as many as thirty 1-minute repetitions spread over the day.
If flexibility is the problem and you cannot get the heels onto the ground, then simply place a book or plank of wood under the heels to raise them and gradually lower them as your flexibility increases.
If muscle strength is the problem then simply getting into the position and out of the position multiple times throughout the day will increase the strength in your legs.
To improve both flexibility and strength then you can go as low as you can and then slowly bring yourself up and slowly lower yourself down again, but not straightening the legs, just going about halfway up and then back down again.
Within a week or two of doing this every day, you should have no problem spending longer amounts of time in this position. Keep doing it every day. Try maintaining this position whilst at your work desk, or whilst watching TV instead of using that expensive sofa or expensive orthopaedic office chair.
Now skip past the illustrative picture to read about the next beneficial exercise.
Hanging by your hands from a branch or a chin-up bar also has surprising benefits. It is the upper-body equivalent of the primal squat.
The main observations for hanging from a bar are:
- Hands are shoulder-width or slightly wider apart
- Hands are usually positioned with knuckles facing towards you (pronate position) as this increases the effect on the shoulders and reduces the stress on the biceps
- Bum assumes the natural 'j' position meaning curved out slightly rather than tucked under.
10 Benefits from Hanging
- Hanging undoes much of the compression of the spine and rib cage that occurs from standing and sitting all day. Not only will be spine benefit but many of the other joints will also loosen up as they are now being stretched by gravity rather than compressed by it.
- The range of motion from the shoulders will increase. The shoulder is an amazing joint capable of movement across a greater range of motion than any other joint in the body. If underused, however, the range of motion reduces and the muscles atrophy. By stretching the shoulders you are able to restore the strength and some of the range of motion. An even greater range of motion is possible but it would take more than hanging to achieve that.
- The most common problem with the shoulder accounting for ninety to ninety-five per cent of surgeries is an impingement. Shoulder surgery is often ineffective at releasing pain and brings with it additional expense and risks. If surgery can be avoided then this alone is a huge benefit. If it can completely remove the pain then it is actually better than surgery in many cases.
- Aside from resolving some shoulder injuries, hanging builds strength in the shoulders, back and forearms and even develops the mid-section and body core, this, in turn, improves our health and decreases the risk of injury.
- Lengthening the spine through hanging allows blood flow to increase across the whole length of the spine. Improved blood flow is associated with all sorts of health benefits such as cell growth and repair, strengthening of muscles and disease prevention.
I insert a short intermission here to recommend this book by Dr John M. Kirsch. He is an Orthopaedic surgeon and healed his own shoulder injury through hanging after deciding the risks of surgery succeeding were not good enough for him to want it for himself.
Eliminate Shoulder and Back Pain by Hanging
Maybe the only book written on this subject. It explains how Dr Kirsch healed his own shoulder pain and that of his clients through this one simple exercise.
- Improved grip strength can help in everyday life, such as when opening jam jars. Recently it has also been found to be an important biomarker for overall health in older adults. A stronger grip may therefore signal to your body the keep up the repair work because you're still young!
- Correcting pelvic and spinal posture. It can help correct hunchback and swayback by allowing the joints to take a natural position and strengthening the surrounding muscles.
- Fascia is the interconnecting tissue between skin, muscles and organs. It binds some structures together and others it keeps apart allowing them to smoothly glide past each other. The fascia can relax and benefit from increased blood flow.
- Hanging lengthens the mid-section allowing the organs to find a natural position.
- Finally, digestion can improve as the organs are more naturally positioned, the colon is straightened out and the organs are optimally aligned through improved fascia function.
With hanging, there are a few variations that would tend to not make a massive difference in the benefits seen. Let's assume you are using one of the cheap doorway pull-up bars and your feet still touch the ground whilst you're holding it. In this case, you can lift your legs up either in front of you or behind you. Lifting your legs in front of you will strengthen your core and exercise your abdominals, but it will be harder. Lifting your legs behind you will only raise your lower legs using your hamstrings so is much easier.
Keep your hands shoulder-width apart or just slightly wider.
A pronate grip is usually better, giving more focus to the back and shoulders.
Hold as long as you can and come back as often as you can. Aim for six to eight times a day if possible.
Just hold yourself from the bar in a relaxed position, called a passive hang; or engage your back muscles a little to make it an active hold.
There are occasions when this exercise may not be appropriate. Particularly if you are prone to shoulder dislocation or suffer from osteoporosis. Then there are easier versions that could be started with such as hanging at an incline, with your feet on the floor and knees bent, or with an elastic exercise band. Check out Dr. Kirsch's book for more details.
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