Traveling rings offer not only great physical benefits but some of the happiest-looking workouts around! Here's what they are and how to add them to your fitness regimen.
Traveling rings are a fitness apparatus that usually has five to ten aluminum or wooden rings suspended from chains or rope. The ropes are then spaced a few feet apart and attached to a strong steel support beam that looks a lot like a large children’s swing set. All of this is set up in a way that allows users to travel from one ring to the next using a combination of arm pulls, leg swings, twirls, swoops and any number of Spiderman-esque or dance-like movements.
When I say dance-like, I really mean it. If you haven’t seen this in action, check out some videos. People, both young and old alike, can be seen gracefully soaring through the air on these rings. Some look like trapeze artists while others look like Olympic athletes, but all of them look like they are having the time of their life.
As I will get into later, the traveling rings have been around since approximately 1860, but Muscle Beach (in Santa Monica, California) is credited with making them popular in the 1970s. Since then, this sport has grown and blossomed in cities all around the world.
Due to the lack of rules in this sport (or more accurately, this art), the styles used on the rings are as individual and creative as the person performing them. Which makes it as fun to do as it is to watch.
Fitness and fun
One of the first things I noticed when I started researching this traveling rings was how much fun everyone was having. In the videos I watched of people swinging, twirling, and dangling, the default setting for this activity seems to involve a lot of laughing and grinning. Even the name this community has given itself, Ringers, is fun and playful. And to me, that is one of the most important, and all too often overlooked, aspects of fitness—it should be fun!
Sure, there are times when you might struggle to find the fun in your fitness routine, especially if you're training hard. But overall, your regimen should be fun instead of feeling like some gross medicine you take only in the hopes of getting healthier. To be truly healthful, not to mention sustainable, your fitness program should bring you joy. If yours feels like something you have to force yourself to endure, look for a different program.
If you don’t enjoy running, go for a walk. If you don’t like lifting weights, try resistance bands. If you don’t like going to the gym, join a hockey beer league. My point is that there are so many ways to move your body more often, in more varied ways, that you don’t need to do something you don’t enjoy. Look for a plan or program the suits you. And that program may include traveling rings!
History of Traveling Rings
As I mentioned, traveling rings have been around for a long time but have seen a resurgence in the recent past. The rings date back to as early as the 1860s and were also quite popular in the early 1900s as a form of exercise and physical therapy.
According to the traveling rings organization website, Scotland has one of the longest histories involving the traveling rings. Many of the original locations are still in existence.
The Arlington Baths Club, for example, opened its doors in August 1871. It still features a series of seven rings hung from the ceiling beams over the swimming pool so club members can “travel” from one end of the pool to the other.
A little later across the pond in America, a catalog of gymnastic equipment published in 1905 from the Narragansett Machine Company of Rhode Island featured traveling rings. They sold the rings for six dollars each. When adjusted for inflation, that would equate to about 175 US dollars in 2020. Luckily, that's a lot more than they're sold for on Amazon today.
We can’t talk about traveling rings without also talking about gymnastic rings, which are the root and basis of the traveling version. The thing that's so cool and challenging about gymnastic rings is that they're inherently instable. That means they provide benefits beyond what any exercise machines can offer. Let me explain.
Because rings hang independently and swing from a long rope, they can (and will) move in any direction at the slightest touch. This instability encourages our neuromuscular system to develop new pathways that create joint stability, overall balance, and body coordination like gangbusters. When you think about it, it's tricky enough for most of us to simply pull our body weight on a fixed and stable bar. But when we are attempting to do the same thing using two rings that constantly move, after some amount of practice, you end up creating benefits that go beyond just having stronger muscles.
Swinging your body from ring to ring in as many different positions and patterns as you can imagine requires a significant amount of upper body strength and control. Although you can build strength with bodyweight exercises or lifting weights, it is the instability of the traveling or gymnastic rings that makes this an entirely different challenge.
Using rings this way requires an integration of coordination, balance, and strength that is almost impossible to achieve on other workout equipment. I have seen the strongest gym-goer completely humbled by the gymnastic rings purely due to lack of coordination and a lack of neuromuscular understanding. For this reason, if you decide to try traveling rings for the first time, take it easy and go slowly. Even if you are an avid exerciser and consider yourself fit and strong, you may be put to shame by a small child who has been using the rings for a while. Remember, it’s not all about strength.
Getting started with traveling rings
If you have access to traveling rings or gymnastic rings, you can use these exercises to build the strength and skills necessary to really enjoy yourself. If you aren’t ready to purchase your own gymnastic rings, look for a gym in your area that offers a system called TRX.
TRX is another type of suspension training that was very popular a few years ago. Similar to the rings, it uses handles on the end of long straps to develop strength, balance, flexibility and core stability.
Here are some basic exercises that will help get you ready to enjoy the traveling rings next time you find yourself at Muscle Beach.
This is one of the more basic exercises that will help you develop some powerful pushing strength and stability.
To do this exercise, get into a push-up position but with your hands in the rings instead of on the floor. Then place your feet against the bottom of a wall or place just your toes on the floor. To perform the exercise, simply do a push-up by bending your arms and pivoting your shoulders until the hands are lined up with your chest. Then extend your arms again by pushing into the rings until your arms are straight out in front of your shoulders.
At its core, this is a basic pull-up. But when you use rings instead of a bar, you can change the movement by adjusting your hand position. For example, if you start the pull-up with palms facing outward and then rotate them in as you pull your body up, you can increase and change the muscle activation in ways that are impossible using a standard pull-up bar.
If you find this movement so challenging that you can only do one or two (or none), feel free to put your feet on the floor (or a chair) to assist in lifting your bodyweight. I described how to do this in my article called Do You Have a Pull-up Bar at Home?
Similar to the ring push-ups, ring rows are a great exercise to develop upper body power and strength.
To begin, get into the same position in which you started the ring push-up, but this time you're hanging below the rings instead of hovering above them. Then pull on the rings to raise your chest up to your hands, using the strength of your back and arms. Then lower yourself back down, slowly and with control, to the original hanging position.
To start a ring dip, your torso should be above the rings, arms straight, supporting your body weight with your hands in the rings near each of your hips. Then lower your body down by bending at the elbows and keeping the rings close to your body. Keep going down until your armpits almost touch your hands then press your body back to the starting position.
Just like the pull-up, if you can't do a dip, place your feet on a bench or a platform to support a portion of your bodyweight. Not too much though, just enough to allow you to complete a few reps successfully before moving on.
Ring-hanging knee (or leg) raise
So far, we've looked at movements that focus on the upper body, but this one this works the core.
I created a video showing how to do a basic hanging knee raise, and this exercise is similar except that you hang from rings rather than a bar. Start in a hanging position, with the hands facing forward and away. Raise your knees to your chest and slightly rotate your pelvis forward to engage the deep core muscles. Hold for a second and lower back down, nice and slow. Try to keep your body from swinging too much while you do this.
Because the rings allow for greater mobility, this exercise is one of the most popular movements used for the gymnastic rings. You will see this one in CrossFit boxes and competitions regularly.
Start in a hanging position using an overhand grip. Then do what I'd describe as an "explosive pull-up" that immediately transitions into a dip. Make sure to lower yourself down slowly. Don’t be afraid to practice this one with your feet on a chair or bench to make sure you're doing it correctly and safely.
You won't see this one very often outside of the gymnastics world. Partially because it is a challenging movement to do.
Start in a hanging position, with the hands facing away from the body. Then, using only your arms, raise your body until your arms are straight out to the side, and your body is basically in the shape of a cross. Hold this position for as long as possible and then slowly return to the original hanging position.
A motor skills boost
To wrap things up, let’s take a quick look at motor skills. A motor skill is a function that involves the precise movement of muscles with the intent to perform a specific act. Motor skills are usually acquired in childhood, but we continue to build on this as we age. Then, if we don’t use them and work hard to maintain them, we lose them later in life.
There are two types of motor skills:
Gross motor skills. Movements related to large muscles such as legs, arms, etc.
Fine motor skills. Movements involving smaller muscle groups such as those in the hand and wrist.
Back in 2016, a study published in PLoS One revealed that a group of child participants who practiced gross motor activities in a specific playground in Treviso, Italy— which included a climbing rope, hanging bar, gymnastic rings, a climbing net, and monkey bars—“improved significantly in four out of six gross motor tasks compared to the control group.”
So while their bambino brethren were developing other aspects of fitness, the kids who played on unstable ropes, bars, and rings got the added benefit of building the precise coordination of muscles that lead to better performance in specific tasks. I don’t know about you, but I could use some of that.
I became especially aware of how much I need that after I read a paper called The aging neuromuscular system and motor performance. The authors of that study found that age-related changes in the motor unit lead to reduced maximal strength, the slower velocity of contraction and movement, marked reductions in muscle power, and increased fatigability when the muscle is required to contract rapidly. The decline in motor function started to appear around age 60 and seemed to accelerate markedly from 75 to 80 years of age. So, if you put these two papers together, I think we have at least part of the answer. Regardless of your age, traveling rings are a fun way to keep fit.