Hands on Head?

November 08, 2019

By Aaron Brown, SPT, ATC, CSCS

“Put your hands on your head!” This jingle still echos in my head from 20 years of competitive athletics, even through to the end of my college basketball career. Not only myself, but many remember and are still being coached the same way. The question I pose is: “why is there a consistent fight to resist the temptation of bending over and put my hands on my knees?” My body’s initial instinct is to bend forward during my rest periods. Oh, but you better not get caught bending forward trying to catch your breath; the result may be punishment sprints. This idea of hands on head posture has been so ingrained in the athletic and training community that if you do not assume the position, you were viewed as weak! What in the world! Why has this never been challenged? If my body wants to bend forward to catch my breath, and it feels good, then why not do it? “Placing your hands on your head opens up your chest, and therefore you can breathe better.” We’ve all heard this justification. I don’t know about you, but it sure does not feel like I can breathe better when my hands are up there.

In Feburary of 2019, the ACSM released an article presenting the work of Houplin et al. at Western Washington University in 2014 which compared the effect of hands on head (HH) and hands on knee (HK) positions following recovery from HIIT (high intensity interval training). Finally, something to justify hands on head posture during recovery between exercise sets, right? Wrong. The results of the study demonstrated a significant difference in heart rate recovery (HRR), volume of carbon dioxide elimination (VCO2), and tidal volume (VT). That’s right; hands on knees had better recovery outcomes! So, not only does my body want to assume hands on knee position during recovery, it knows that it is optimal!

“The ability to recover faster from multiple bouts of exercise is a crucial part of optimizing performance for athletes in a variety of sports, such as soccer, rugby, basketball, and American football. Thus, using the best recovery modality, in this case posture during HIIT, is crucial to minimize fatigue and potential injuries due to altered biomechanics from the taxing exercise. On the basis of the findings in this study, HK posture significantly improved HRR, VT, and VCO2 in comparison with HH posture. The positive effects of HK posture on HRR, VT, and VCO2 may suggest improved parasympathetic influences and cardiorespiratory mechanics when adopting this posture during a recovery period from a fatiguing exercise” (Houplin et al). This posture also places the diaphragm in an optimal position for inspiration.

If I am better able to recover between bouts of exercise, or in between sets in the gym, doesn’t this mean that I can ultimately perform more volume of exercise within a workout? Increased volume equals better outcomes (with proper programming). This article is an example of the beauty of research; critically analyzing something that we commonly do to see if it is actually the best method.

So, I present again with the question: can something as seemingly insignificant as changing your recovery position in between exercises impact performance?

For more information on the mechanisms and physiology of the recovery posture, or if you are interested in looking at the design of the study:

Houplin, Joana V. M. (Joana Vaya Malinao), "The effects of two different recovery postures during high intensity interval training" (2014). WWU Graduate School Collection. 330.