Pilates and the One-Arm Hang

January 29, 2018

Have you ever tried a one-arm hang? It’s a tough skill, even for those who are strong!


This skill used to baffle me.  I assumed it was a matter of hand strength, but having strong hands from aerial training and rock climbing didn’t seem to do the trick.  Then came a season when I had very little time to train on aerial equipment for myself---I started training on Pilates reformer to fill in the gaps.


When I took the video below, I hadn’t touched a rope in months.  I was teaching aerial classes 3 days a week on trapeze and lyra, but I was not training at my peak.  I did, however, add Pilates into my regimen 3 days per week.  One day, I was curious if the one-arm hang would be available:


I know, the right hand is significantly stronger than the left.  But besides this obvious imbalance, here are some other questions that came up for me:


1.  How is it possible to do a one-arm hang without ever training that skill?  The rule of specificity says that you have to train the skill in order to get better at it.


2. Is the movement pattern underpinning a one-arm hang also trained in classical Pilates?  In both Pilates and Bartenieff Fundamentals (a form of somatics), the belief is that nearly everything can be traced back to the core.


I began dissecting Pilates exercises to find an answer.  Obvious correlations are the cadillac exercises that require full weight-bearing in the hands, but I didn’t have access to a cadillac and wasn't training on one at the time.  I had to focus on what I was doing, which was reformer.


The question is:  which reformer exercises help integrate the core-distal pattern (core to hands and feet)?  Arguably, all of the exercises do this to some extent.  But, the very first exercise that popped into my head was teaser.


Teaser is appropriately named because one day the exercise clicks, and the next day it doesn’t.  Like handstands, it’s an elusive muse that some people spend years mastering (okay, so it’s not as hard as handstands, but you get the idea).  This exercise demands deep core activation to connect all the way through the palms of the hands.


(Please excuse the mess in the background!)


You can see in the video how reaching through the palms into the handles (and through the feet into space) helps pick the body up.  The deep core stabilizers are further challenged by the moving carriage and trying to balance on the box.


If you’re thinking, “But teaser is a push pattern and the one-arm hang is a pull pattern!” you would be correct. It’s definitely not an exact match.  BUT….it relates.  The whole Pilates system integrates the limbs into the core, whether in pushing or pulling.  


For those who want to see a pulling movement, and for those who would argue that targeting shoulder strength would help more with hanging, you might enjoy this one:


This exercise is called chest expansion.  I love it because it’s hard!  You can’t just move the arm by itself and not face-plant.  The arm/shoulder coordinates with the entire body to stabilize against the moving carriage.  The key here?  Integrating limbs into core.


Many reformer exercises involve hand-to-core integration.  As stated earlier, one could argue that EVERY Pilates exercise does this. There is no magic bullet exercise for one-arm hangs (or any other skill for that matter) Pilates is meant to be practiced as a whole system. Teaser and chest expansion serve as great examples of the power of the whole.


So, if you’ve never tried Pilates and you are looking to up your aerial game, try it out.*  Let me know how it goes.  And if you teach aerial arts, consider learning to teach Pilates, too.  They certainly go hand-in-hand—or rather, hand-in-core. :)


*Both Pilates and aerial arts have inherent dangers.  These videos are for entertainment only, and are not intended to teach.  Please consult with your health care provider before beginning an exercise program, and train with a qualified instructor.


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