Movement of the Week: Monkey Bars

I hung some gymnastic rings over a rafter in my garage. I wish they were in the living room because I really like them. Whenever I walk by I like to swing a little back and forth, left and right, in circles, with one or two arms. I think part of the reason I like swinging on the rings so much is that my ancestors probably engaged in lots of similar activity when they lived in trees.

Brachiation is a very interesting form of locomotion that is used by primates to swing from one tree branch to the next. This may seem like an awkward way to get around, but it can be incredibly efficient and powerful. Gibbons are the master brachiators, and can reach speeds up to 35 miles per hour. That’s faster than Usain Bolt can run.

Humans have many characteristics which suggest a brachiator ancestor, including flexible shoulders, long arms, rotating wrists, and clasping hands. But they are nothing compared to the gibbons. Here’s a video of a gibbon showing some humans what they missed out on by leaving the trees for the savannah:



Wow, look at that power. Gibbons are bad asses. These guys have some incredible agility as well. Here’s a video of a gibbon taunting some tiger cubs. What could be cuter!



Aww, it’s like a real life Walt Disney video, complete with sound effects! The only thing missing is a song from the Jungle Book.

In all seriousness, I was amazed by this gibbon’s skills. He outmaneuvered the tigers like ten times in two minutes, in each instance putting his life on the line. If he had grabbed for a branch and missed, he would have been lunch. Fortunately for him, evolution in the trees has given him a mind with awesome visual processing and hand eye coordination. These talents are very expensive in terms of brain tissue, and Steven Pinker has speculated that the mental demands of arboreal life and locomotion were a key factor in how humans grew such big brains.

So what does brachiation look like in humans after a few million years of neglect? A little rusty, but not too bad actually. Here’s a video of what your average healthy six year old girl can do:



Look at that. Easy peasy lemon squeezey. Most girls seem capable of mastering the monkey bars in a short amount of time with no instruction at all, just by playing around. But why don’t boys like the monkey bars? A question for another day.


18 Responses to “Movement of the Week: Monkey Bars”

  1. Nice one Todd.
    Question. Why do you say boys dont like monkey bars? When I was a kid I used to do that all the time in a construction site nearby. I guess it was easier for me than for most of the boys my age. I have always attributed that to the fact that I was extremely skinny therefore very light and it wasn’t hard work holding on to the bars and swing around.

    • Alfredo,

      You did the monkey bars? Interesting. Maybe it’s a cultural thing and in Spain its different. American boys don’t seem to do them. I almost never see it. Also, when I did a youtube search for monkey bars, all the results were for girls, not even one for boys. Thanks for maintaining male pride in this era – it will help you in your quest for a muscle up.

  2. I was surprised when I heard the girl was French: in France finding this type of apparel isn’t frequent at all; and people using these apparel are even less common to see. This is actually the first French kid I see doing these…

    This movement is definitely interesting, the need for core work is obvious when you do it (not like pullups or chinups) or the each upper/lower part of the body is living its own life and you’re not efficient. I had a friend who was amazing at these without any training; it was something to be seen… impossible not to think of a monkey!

  3. Francois,

    Yes the key is to use the swinging of the legs to move the torso. There is a wave from the bottom to the top. Once the kids get the timing and the rhythm of how the wave moves, the rest is easy.

    Maybe the kid was French Canadian?

  4. For the past couple weeks I’ve been telling a colleague about missing the monkey bars and longing for a park with the bars as I remember having when I was a kid. I loved them.

    After reading your your blog last week I decided to search for a park with a set. I didn’t find a park near me; instead I got side tracked and found a gym with the words ‘monkey’ & ‘bar’ in its name near my place.

    I attended their free intro class during which we did a lot of body exercises; couple suspended exercises and a couple yoga exercises. After the 1 hr. class, the instructor allowed me to climb the rope — which I proceeded to do using only hands (no feet/legs), though I was only allowed to climb half way up (~10 feet).

    The following day after an outing with my nephews I discovered their school playground had monkey bars: 4 different types/shapes (ladders, parallel, rings, triangles). I did them all once, just once because my hands began to feel “callousy”…. my nephews had warned me about that.

    I’m setting up my own monkey bar gym in my garage:
    My father came across a couple scaffolding planks (they look like ladders) which he will be suspending in my garage so I can swing across them. I am also looking for a gym rope to put in there; the original nylon rope I asked my father to setup is too slippery — it obviously was not made for climbing. I’ll get a good one soon enough.

    I loved swinging and climbing when I was a kid at the playground and later in high school. I’m glad I can still do it at 39.

  5. for the ultimate in human brachiation have a look at this ……….

  6. I don’t think it is an american thing for boys to not like monkey bars, I certainly played on them allot as a kid and have observed many boys playing on them of course as grown up traceur I do lots of monkey bar type stuff.

    • Rafe,

      Thanks for stopping by. I have been to your blog and website a few times and understand you have a gym in Seattle. I have at least a few clients who’ve been there and they had some good things to say. I have been meaning to stop by and check it out.

      As to your claims about boys on the monkey bars, I must disagree. And here is my scientific rebuttal. Do a youtube search for monkey bars. It’s all almost all girls. And the last word goes to my five year old daughter, who offers a more balanced view. I asked her: “Do boys do the monkey bars.” She said “Yes!”. And then I asked: “Who does them more, boys or girls?” She said: “Girls!” Case closed.

  7. Thanks for the welcome Todd, I just realized your in seattle and would definitely be interested in meeting and talking shop as well.

    I did a youtube search for monkey bars and indeed almost all girls, I added the modifer kids though and there the ratio is about equal but allot of it is bloopers. Tried monkey bar swinging there the ratio is definitely in favor of of girls but significantly less so.

    I think the pattern is inconclusive, and there are possible confounds as far as selection bias perhaps parents of daughters are more surprised and pleased by seeing their child monkey bar swinging then parents of sons for instance.

    The pattern seen on youtube doesn’t accord with my own memories of childhood or what I see from the kids who come into our program and want to swing around on the bars here. Of course that is poorly weighted sample as we have substantial more boys then girls and my memory is certainly imperfect.

    Interesting pattern I wouldn’t be willing to jump to a conclusion as the the reason just yet.

  8. Rafe,

    I think we can agree that “more research is needed” on the monkey bar gender issue.:)

    I will definitely get in contact sometime in the near future to check out the gym and talk shop.

  9. Hi Todd, I enjoy reading your posts and look forward to reading each of your new posts.

    I remember reading this post a while ago and it reminding me of how much I loved the monkey bars when i was a child. My mum says I used to scare the hell out of her with some of the stuff I would do. To this day I take whatever chance I can to climb or swing off things… usualy when I look after my younger brothers.

    I remembered this post earlier and Youtubed some videos of people brachiating and I found a couple of interesting ones I thought I would share.

    PS. Maybe you could put this towards your “Anthropological research” In the UK I very rarely see girls on monkey bars and when growing up it was only boys on the monkey bars!

    Here is the CRAZY Russian monkey man …

  10. Hi again Todd. got a question for you this time about pull ups and just hanging from the arms in general.

    I’ve seen all different “ways” to do it. some people say that if you dont pack your shoulder girdle by depressing your shoulders into their sockets and keeping your elbows slightly bent your asking for an injury

    but on the other hand

    I hear from other sources to fully relaxed at the bottom position. Shoulders shrugged up into ears and elbows fully extended. This method feel best for me but what is your take on this?


    • Tom,

      Great question. I think that during brachiation the shoulder is not “packed”, in other words, the shoulder comes up. Given that our shoulders evolved to brachiate, I would guess that it is safe to hang and swing from them this way. But our shoulders were not made for repeated pullups though, so I’m not sure that we should go to a full hang in a pullup. Personally it doesn’t feel that good to me, so I keep the shoulder packed in a pullup. Bill Desimone made some interesting arguments about that issue here:

      I’m sure the real answer is that it depends on the individual.

      • Thanks Todd.

        Interesting video, im gonna put that into practice at the gym tomorrow morning.

        I agree with you saying that our shoulders are not made for repeated pullups, and I find that if I go climbing or bouldering I never really pack my shoulder at all as im not realy doing pull-ups, just partials and the odd full pull up. So my shoulders are up by my ears if I’m hanging off a hold.

        The thing that gets me when i exercise is not the diffculty of the exerceises but the conflicting information and the “guides” to corect technique. This always leads me to overthink, and everytime I’ve been hurt exercising is through overthinking and not moving naturaly

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s