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Why We Took a Break From Brachiating & Function of the Shoulder

When is the last time you recall swinging from monkey bars? Or hanging from a pull-up bar without gloves, tape, or assistance? Most modern people lose this skill as they do not use it regularly, but it can be vital to having healthy and functional shoulders. The shoulder joint is a ball and socket joint, similar to the hips, which allow for glide and rotation. If our arms generally hang to our sides, why are our shoulder girdles designed to rotate? Were we designed to hang overhead? The shoulder girdle: Think about this joint of the body. Unlike the spine, hips, knees, and ankles, the shoulders are not loaded while standing upright against gravity. With that said, why do so many modern-day humans suffer from pain caused by cervical spine disc bulges, herniations, stenosis and spondylothesis? If we aren’t routinely walking on our hands (I don’t know about you, but I’m not), how do issues like shoulder impingements, rotator cuff, AC joint injuries, frozen shoulders, and carpal tunnel syndromes come to be? And even further, why are humans physically deteriorating as we advance technologically? Perhaps the issue is not only the movement patterns we are overusing but also about the positions and postures we were built to do but no longer utilize.

What does brachiation mean? Brachium, derived from the Latin word arm, means arm swinging in the arboreal sense from branch to branch. Through evolutionary progression science shows us that primates use brachiation for most of their locomotion but also to keep themselves safe from predators and to gather their own food. As we evolved from a quadrupedal posture (moving and living on all fours) to a bipedal posture (living and moving upright on two limbs) our bodies had to change and adapt to allow for new ways of hunting, gathering, and traveling.

How long have primates been brachiating? Scientists show brachiation tracing back over 13 million years to Africa. Our quadrupedal ancestors most likely begun brachiating after adapting to climbing trees vertically. This seems to be the strongest biomechanical link between quadrupedal climbing and bipedal hanging/swinging.

Why can’t all animals brachiate and how do we know humans were built to hang? In order to successfully suspend and swing, one needs a short spine specifically in the lumbar column, long flexible fingers with a shorter thumb to grip, short fingernails opposed to long sharp claws, as well as wrists and shoulder joints that allow rotation. Observe how many of these anatomical characteristics you share with our ancestors.

If we were clearly cut out for hanging overhead, why did humans make the trade off?

As we evolved from our quadrupedal ancestors to a bipedal posture it is believed that we traded brachiation for walking or running on foot to hunt and gather. Our diets had likely changed from primarily plant/fruit/seed/insect-based to more carnivorous as we became more capable of hunting with tools and in packs. We must have found it much more nutritionally worth our time and energy to stalk our prey on foot, which resulted in the exaptation of brachiation. It is no surprise that modern humans, especially adults, find it quite difficult to hang, grip, and swing in this fashion as this skill is not utilized or relevant to survival. Despite our lack of reliance on brachiating, our bodies are still impressively designed to utilize this movement pattern. Think about your childhood self on a set of monkey bars at the playground and how natural it felt to climb, swing, and hang.

From a very young age we learn to grasp a pencil and begin developing fine motor skills such as writing our names. From here we develop a highly dominant hand that only becomes more dominant as we feed ourselves, brush our teeth, play throwing sports, learn to drive, type all day at a computer, text on our phones, etc. Overhead movement patterns such as hanging take a drastic decline for most humans as they reach adolescence and adulthood, which is usually when upper limb injuries rear their ugly heads.

What do I recommend to do now? You cannot become great at a skill you never practice. Find a local park with monkey bars and see where you are starting with your grip strength. How does it feel in the joints, muscles, and soft tissues of the hands and fingers to grip overhead with your feet on the ground? Is there more strength in the right or the left? Does it feel uncomfortable on the superficial surface of the palms? Can you do the same thing with your feet hovering off the ground while still maintaining your breath? Try incorporating hanging overhead as often as you can intermittently throughout your day, especially if you have a job that requires you to sit for hours on end. Set a timer and notice how much stronger you become as you implement your new skill!

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