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When I was a child, I had no problem with going across the monkey bars. Sure, my hands were usually sore afterwards (as much as anything because the outside bars had a tendency to oxidize and form deposits along their surface), but I could do it. I recently tried, just to show my nephews it could be done, and I made my way across, but my shoulders and upper arms were in a great deal of pain afterwards. I know that, to get better, I probably just need to keep doing it, but I'm also 35, so I'm well aware of how easy it can be to injure oneself, and shoulders are notoriously easy to damage. Eventually, in an ideal world, I'd like to work up to being able to do swings and laches, but that's in the future, of course.

So, is there any good progression or exercise for me to follow? Should I start with just hanging for longer periods of time or am I best off going right into going hand-over-hand?

As a further update, bolstered by the advice that I wouldn't sustain lasting damage most likely, I went ahead and hit the playground. Doing the monkey bars is difficult, but I can manage it. My shoulders and elbows ached a bit afterwards, but it was manageable. The worse part, at this point, is my hands start hurting quickly, but calluses will no doubt improve that.

  • What kind of pain? What are the inhibiting attributes—mobility, strength, and if so, where? What kind of overhead or pulling work can you do pain-free now? What's your current progress with things like pull-ups or overhead press? – Dave Liepmann May 5 '15 at 14:57
  • I can do about 4-5 underhand pull-ups in a row without too much trouble, only two or so overhand. Overhead press... last time I did it, probably about a month ago, I can readily enough lift 90 lbs in a military press for a set of 6. My problem is basically that, when I finish going across a set of bars, my shoulders and upper arms feel like I was just yanked across the room. – Sean Duggan May 5 '15 at 15:01
  • What kind of range of motion do you use for chin-ups and pull-ups? At the top: chin at the bar, over the bar, chest touching the bar? At the bottom: slight flex, straight elbows, or dead hang? – Dave Liepmann May 6 '15 at 18:55
  • @DaveLiepmann For underhanded, chin over the bar. For overhanded, at (I can't seem to get that last bit). In both cases, slight flex at the bottom. – Sean Duggan May 6 '15 at 19:17
  • You may also want to check out fitness.stackexchange.com/questions/12323/… for more shoulder info. – BackInShapeBuddy May 7 '15 at 6:17
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Ballistic forces (swinging) add a lot to the equation, but putting all of that aside it takes strength to hold onto a bar with all of your body weight.

  • Your shoulder muscles and connective tissues are preventing your arms from ripping out of the socket.
  • Your forearms are working against all of your body weight to keep your fingers wrapped around the bar.
  • If you desire any sort of form, your abs, back, and hips are engaged to keep you somewhat rigid.

I know that, to get better, I probably just need to keep doing it, but I'm also 35, so I'm well aware of how easy it can be to injure oneself, and shoulders are notoriously easy to damage.

Breaking this down a bit, I'd comment that shoulders are notoriously easy to damage because people don't strengthen them properly and use poor body mechanics. Endless bench pressing, obsession with the anterior and lateral (front/top) deltoids, and near complete neglecting of the posterior (rear).

There are quite a few male gymnasts (this guy is 82), and plenty of globally-competitive weight lifters that are older than you, so don't look at your age as a limiting factor, certainly not for having sufficient strength for something like monkey bars and pullups.

So, is there any good progression or exercise for me to follow? Should I start with just hanging for longer periods of time or am I best off going right into going hand-over-hand?

I would recommend practicing for pullups, since it has the most carry over to what you're trying to do and as an aside you can do pullups afterward which is terrific in its own right.

  1. Hold onto the bar at the top of a pullup position (climb up the side of the monkey bars using your feet, then get into the "top" pullup position), then let yourself down as slowly as you can. Do as many repetitions of that as you can, wait a few minutes, and repeat again. Try to do 3 sets.

  2. Try to do a "jump" pullup. Put your hands on the bar, and give yourself a big boost by jumping up through a pullup. You're basically "cheating" a full pullup, which is completely fine at this stage.

If you do those for a few weeks, I think you'll find that you'll be able to knock out a couple of pullups no problem, and then hanging around on monkey bars will be, pardon the pun, child's play.

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  • :) I can do pullups already. It's the "arms fully extended" part that I think is adding the stress to the upper arms and shoulders. But you're right. I probably just need to do this. Since the swinging is hurting my shoulders enough that I can't do it for long, I probably need to simply hang, and maybe swing back and forth a bit to strength up my shoulder muscles and get used to an optimal amount of tension. – Sean Duggan May 5 '15 at 17:38
  • @SeanDuggan you may also want to play with the bottom position a bit and see if there's a difference between "tight" and "loose" at the bottom. If "tight" is you're just about to start going back up, and "loose" is you're literally dangling with everything limp but your hands. I think I'm naturally tight at this point without thinking about it which loads up the muscles I think in a safer way (bad explanation). – Eric May 5 '15 at 17:49
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I have gone through the same thing and what helped me was to improve the time I could hold on to the bar with my full weight - think of the starting position of a pull up but without going anywhere.

I started with 30 second holds and eventually worked up to 2 minutes of just holding the position. This helped me to increase strength in my grip and my core as I kept everything tight and without motion.

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