Tree-Climbing 101: (Part 2: Branch out and Workout!)
A healthy tree is a living, growing playground and fitness center. It is a green workout(side) studio that is open 24/7, rarely crowded, and never plays Top 40 music.
If Part 1 of this series convinced you that climbing a tree might not be such a crazy idea, read on! The intent of this article is to turn whimsical concept into delightful reality.
Choosing a Tree
As with any fitness regimen, the intent of an arboreal workout is to strengthen and benefit the participant. Therefore, ‘primum non nocere’ is a salient principle. Injuring yourself by falling out of a tree will not conduce to better health; arbitrarily breaking healthy branches should likewise be avoided. Choosing an appropriate Tree-Gym is thus of paramount importance. “Appropriate” will be to some extent determined by individual preference as well as the species available where you live. However, the following guidelines are universal.
- Choose a strong, healthy tree with relatively smooth bark and branches with sufficient space between them. Hardwoods are generally better than coniferous trees. This is because the former usually have an open canopy more conducive to freedom of movement. This doesn’t mean that Ponderosa and White Pines, Giant Sequoias and Douglas Firs aren’t great trees to climb; they just may not be the best choices for aerial workouts.
- Always be aware of what is below your tree. Falling is never good, but falling onto pavement or boulders is even worse. A tree growing in a grassy field or soft forest duff is best. Also, since you are likely to hang inverted, be sure that your iPhone isn’t going to plummet out of your pocket and smash to bits on the skull of an unsuspecting passerby!
- Understand that there is an element of mitigable risk. Tree-climbing, along with driving a car (you could crash), eating an apple (you could choke), or myriad other activities, is a real-world pursuit that calls for good judgement and alertness.
When I imagined and began composing these articles, I initially thought of arboreal workouts as perhaps an adjunct to more conventional fitness and strength training. My Tree in a tree series has explored the buoyant high-spiritedness of dancing with our stalwart green cousins. However, what I discovered as I explored the physical, “feet on the bark” reality of working out in a tree is that doing so is far more effective and hard-core than I had realized. Many ground-based exercises become exponentially more challenging when performed in the unstable workout environment of a tree. Additionally, one of the difficulties with bodyweight exercise is making it progressive when your bodyweight remains fixed. Again, readily available arboreal variables elegantly tackle this conundrum.
The following calisthenic suggestions will aptly illustrate the above allegations!
Pullups are among the finest upper body pulling movements in existence. They can be performed on a bar, gymnastic rings, and, of course, tree branches! Pullups pummel par excellence the latisimuss dorsi, posterior deltoids and biceps, among other muscle groups.
Why is doing them in a tree particularly effective? In a word: Variation. Tree branches are not perfectly horizontal nor of consistent diameter. This can work to your advantage. For example, find a branch that is nearly parallel with the ground and of about 1.5 inches in diameter. As Image 1 illustrates, this is very similar to a standard bar pullup.
However, if the branch juts from the trunk of the tree at a 35 degree angle, the weight of your body is correspondingly shifted to the hand placed higher on the branch. The pullup becomes harder to do because one arm is pulling a disproportionate amount of your bodyweight. This principle allows for the incremental progression toward the pullup Holy Grail: doing them with one arm only! Be sure to switch sides so that each arm is individually treated to the more difficult distal end of the branch.
Another advantage to tree-based pullups is the potential to address grip strength. The above referenced 1.5 inch diameter branch is fairly easy to hold on to for a strong person. Changing to branches of a larger diameter will dramatically affect the grip strength required to pull your body up. Try it and see why thick bar work is so popular in powerlifting circles!
Finally, tree pullups can be done with a variety of grip positions. Hanging, not from one branch, but from two roughly parallel branches with palms facing each other is an excellent twist that simulates the dumbbell hammer curl. (see Image 2)
Inverted situps are a tremendously powerful exercise that will carve your midsection and train your core to work as a unit. Instead of just focusing on the rectus abdominus, or “sixpack”, inverted situps train the internal and external obliques as well as the transversus abdominus. The psoas, or hip flexors, on the top front of your thigh will also be huffing and puffing since they must flex to allow your body to curl upwards!
To do inverted situps, find a sturdy forked branch or two appropriately spaced parallel branches. Be sure they are strong enough to support your entire bodyweight. Hang from your knees, hooking your toes under the adjacent limb and, flexing your entire body, lift your forehead towards your knees. (Image 3)
Try to avoid bending your neck too far forwards. If clasping your hands behind your head causes this to happen, then make your hands into fists near your temples instead.
To perform Dips, find a forked branch as shown in Image 4 (parallel branches spaced slightly wider apart than your body will work also); gripping the limbs, lower your body until your upper arms are parallel with the ground. Press your body back upwards until your arms are straight. For variation, try dipping with your legs raised in front of you or with your torso tipped farther forwards or backwards. These changes will shift the bulk of the workload from triceps to pectorals. Pay close attention to how your body feels; if your elbows hurt, do not lower yourself as far.
Another challenging dip variation is the horizontal branch dip. Instead of suspending your body between two parallel branches, try dipping with both hands placed on a horizontal branch in front of you. This technique will not allow the powerful latissimus dorsi to help as much, thus forcing more work onto your poor little triceps!
Dips provide a fantastic workout for your pectoralis major, pectoralis minor and all three heads of the triceps.
Hanging Leg Raises
Hanging leg raises are another incredible exercise to turn your torso into steel! As shown in Image 5, they are performed by hanging and slowly raising your straight legs up to touch the branch between your hands. At the same time, you should be imagining that you are trying to press the branch down to touch your toes. This motion will powerfully “connect” your entire body, allowing you to experience how vital midsection strength is.
Hanging leg raises can be made easier by keeping your knees bent and slowly bringing them up to your chest. An easier version of the leg raise series (because it does not require you to support the full hanging weight of your body) involves bracing your back against the main trunk, clasping your hands around a branch overhead, and raising your knees or (extended legs) to your chest. (Image 6)
Squats are the best all-round leg strengthening exercise. Simply start with regular 2 legged squats. Stand on a branch with your heels firmly planted. Push your butt backwards as if trying to sit in a hammock hanging behind you. (There isn’t one, so be careful!) After your hips begin to bend, then bend your knees slowly, lowering yourself until your hamstrings touch your calves. Press your legs against the branch as if trying to break it off, and stand back up. The difficulty level of bodyweight squats is compounded by the balance challenge!
The Pistol (Images 7 and 8) is a one-legged variant that requires you to raise the non-squatting (notice that I didn’t say “non-working”) leg out in front of you while you slowly lower yourself on your other leg until your hamstring (the back of your thigh) touches your calf. Stand back up and repeat.
One advantage to squats in a tree is that you can grab hold of a branch to assist with balance and provide a bit of assistance to pull yourself back up out of the squat as needed.
Planks are a fundamental whole body strengthening exercise. They are fantastic for injury resistance and muscular endurance. The basic ground-based plank involves laying face down on the ground, then raising your body up into the air supported on your elbows with your toes on the ground. Maintaining a rigid, plank-like body position requires a fair amount of core strength and stability and becomes very difficult after the first minute or so.
Brace your feet firmly against a branch or the main trunk of your selected tree. Reach forward with your hands until your body is extended across a void and you are able to grab a branch with your hands. The difficulty of the plank will be determined by the distance spanned by your body. More distance equals greater difficulty. Start conservatively! Once you have attained the plank position, turn your body into a board by flexing every muscle in it. Hold this position as long as you safely can.
As already indicated, reaching out further or at a more declined angle (hands lower than feet) will increase the difficulty level of the exercise. (Image 10) Raising one leg as in Image 9 also increases the challenge.
The above described exercises are a veritable physical fitness panoply. Performed correctly, strictly, and carefully, they will strengthen and tone every muscle group. You will forge a functionally fit body that is strong, flexible, and injury resistant. Additionally, your proprioceptive capacity will be honed, your balance finessed, and your psyche caressed!
However, these 6 exercises are by no means the only treetop workout options in the quiver of a dedicated enthusiast. Pushups, flags, planches, and levers also feel at home in a tree!
Furthermore, as I always stress, imagination and creativity can take your arboreal workout adventures to even further heights!
Click on photos to enlarge
Please feel free to leave a comment below about your experiences trying the above ideas! Be careful and swing heil!