Hercules Hold: Benefits, Muscles Used, More

published by: Debbie Luna
Last Updated:
November 22, 2022

The search for the world’s strongest man is done through strongman competitions held every year. One of the tests used in these competitions is the Hercules hold, a test which seemingly involves superhuman strength much like that possessed by the Greek demi-god, Hercules.

The Hercules hold is an event that involves grasping handles attached to pillars and pulling on these handles to prevent the pillars from falling to the ground. To incorporate the Hercules hold in classical fitness, gym equipment such as the cable crossover machine and dumbbells are used to modify the activity.

Multiple muscle groups are involved in the performance of a Hercules hold, including the latissimus dorsi, rhomboids, biceps, core, and finger flexors, among others. These muscles work together to hold the pillars up.

What is the Hercules Hold?

Strongman competitions are growing more and more renowned to the point that strength and conditioning trainers now employ strongman workouts with a variety of sports groups. One of the events in these competitions is the Hercules hold, also known as the pillars of Hercules.

During competitions, the Hercules hold is performed by positioning between two heavy objects, more often two pillars.

hercules hold

The athlete then takes hold of the handles attached to the pillars and pulls on the weight of the pillars as their support is released after the go signal is given. Thus, the contender becomes the only resistance preventing the pillars from falling and touching the ground. The athlete who is able to hold onto the handles the longest is declared the winner.

In classical fitness, the Hercules hold can be incorporated with the use of fitness machines such as a cable crossover machine. While the weights may not be as heavy as those used for competitions, lesser weights used in the gym may still target the same muscle groups that work in the Hercules hold.

History of the Hercules Hold

In the mythical account of the Pillars of Hercules, Hercules himself is said to have used his superhuman strength to shatter a mountain in two rather than climb over it when he had to traverse one on his journeys to the garden of the Hesperides.

We now know Gibraltar and Monte Hacho as a result of these two chunks of the mountain that broke off and plummeted into the sea. These two halves of a mountain peak have been referred to as the Pillars of Hercules ever since the story of what occurred in the Strait of Gibraltar was narrated.

When we witness strong men doing the extreme hold, it looks as though they may possess supernatural strength. For this reason, the event is called the Hercules hold.

Muscles Worked by the Hercules Hold

Latissimus Dorsi

The lowest two-thirds of the trunk is covered by a flat, wing-like muscle called the latissimus dorsi. This muscle, along with the pectoralis major and teres major, can adduct, medially rotate, and extend the arm at the glenohumeral joint when it is contracted because of its attachments.

lat muscles

The latissimus dorsi works during the execution of the Hercules hold to maintain the position and bolster the shoulder from the pulling force. It prevents the weights from stretching the arms too far apart which may cause injuries. 

Rhomboid Major and Rhomboid Minor

Under the trapezius, the rhomboid group aids in stabilizing the scapula and assisting with shoulder mobility. In addition to elevating and rotating the scapula upward, its primary function is to retract the scapula.

rhomboid muscles

This is crucial when doing the Hercules hold because it is one of the muscles responsible for keeping the scapula in place. Strong scapular retractors are needed when performing the maneuver to avoid forceful abduction of the scapula and to keep the scapula in position on the posterior thoracic wall.

Rotator Cuff and Deltoids

The deltoid muscle, which has anterior, middle, and posterior fibers, shapes the rounded shoulder profile. To assist in executing a range of activities, the deltoid muscle collaborates with other shoulder muscles including the rotator cuff muscles.

deltoid heads

The rotator cuff is a collection of muscles and tendons that stabilizes the shoulder joint and permits movement of the arm and shoulder, thus it is known as the dynamic stabilizer of the shoulder. It is comprised of four muscles, namely the supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and subscapularis.

In the Hercules hold, in order to stabilize the humeral head during shoulder abduction, the rotator cuff delivers compression to the humeral head.

Biceps Brachii

In front of the brachialis muscle is the biceps brachii muscle. Its two heads come from distinct regions of the upper extremity: the short head comes from the coracoid process of the scapula, and the long head comes from the supraglenoid tubercle.

The two heads divide into a single muscle belly and share an insertion into the forearm's radial tuberosity and fascia. It is the strongest elbow flexor in supination as well as the strongest forearm supinator.

In the Hercules hold, the biceps work to fortify or stabilize the joint as the weight exerts traction force on the elbow joint during the move.

Core

The core is an umbrella term for the central portion of the body that is composed of multiple muscles such as the abdominals, iliopsoas, erector spinae, pelvic floor muscles, deep gluteal muscles, and others not mentioned. Some of the functions of this group of muscles are to stabilize the entire body to prevent falls and to gain proper control of one’s center of gravity.

The core muscles work during the Hercules hold by bracing the trunk as the activity is performed. Although most of the work happens in the limbs, studies show that bilateral and unilateral upper extremity exercises significantly influence trunk muscles’ activation patterns.

Wrist Flexors 

The muscles that move the wrist in flexion include extrinsic finger flexors and other muscles dedicated to wrist movement. Most of the wrist flexors originate from the anterior surfaces of the ulna and radius or the medial surface of the distal humerus. They go distally over the anterior forearm before inserting on the carpals, metacarpals, and phalanges' anterior surfaces. When performing a Hercules hold, the wrist flexors work to reinforce the wrist. 

Finger Flexors

Finger flexion is produced by two long muscles that originate from the forearm. These are the flexor digitorum profundus and flexor digitorum superficialis.

The flexor digitorum superficialis works to flex the middle phalanges of the medial four digits of the proximal interphalangeal joints while the flexor digitorum profundus works to flex the metacarpophalangeal and distal interphalangeal joints of the index, middle, ring, and little fingers. 

This muscle is most vital for the execution of the Hercules hold as the handles are contained by the hands and held in place in a fist. An adequate amount of grip strength is needed to avoid letting the handles loose.

Adding the Hercules Hold into a Workout Routine

In the gym setting, it is quite impossible to perform or practice the Hercules hold as it is done in competitions.

Gym equipment may be utilized to perform the maneuver with lesser weights, or modified to target other muscle groups that assist in the movement.

Using a Cable Crossover Machine

The closest thing to performing a Hercules hold in the gym setting would be to perform it using a cable crossover machine. Choose an appropriate weight and set the pulleys so that the weights are lifted from just below shoulder level. Grab one handle before going for the other, and stand in the middle of the machine.

Lift the handles straight out from the sides and hold for 30-60 seconds. Assistance may be warranted when letting go of the weights especially if the weights are too heavy to let go of one by one. Progress by adding weight or extending the duration of the exercise. Complete two or three sets.

Dumbbell Hercules Hold

The dumbbell Hercules hold is a modification of the traditional Hercules hold that is done in competitions. This type of exercise is usually performed to train for strongman competitions but can also be used to increase upper body strength. This is done with the use of two dumbbells held in both hands.

To perform this, grab a dumbbell with each hand by wrapping the fingers around the handles. Stand with the feet shoulder-width apart. Raise the dumbbells sideways until it is just a little higher than shoulder height. Hold that position for as long as possible or as tolerated, then lower the dumbbells down again. 

Benefits of the Hercules Hold

Increase Muscle Size

The Hercules hold may seem like an exaggerated workout however, there are still benefits to be gained from this exercise. One of these benefits is an increase in muscle size. Because this workout is very effective in engaging multiple muscle groups, it is able to produce hypertrophy, especially in the anterior arms.

Improve Strength and Stability

Strength and stability are two characteristics improved by the Hercules hold. This is because the Hercules hold also works the core muscles whose main purpose is to stabilize the spine and the pelvis.

In relation to this, there is a possibility that this workout may aid in reducing low back pain because according to some studies, core stabilization exercises are effective in reducing pain in patients with non-specific low back pain. However, it is important to note that the Hercules hold should not be done as a primary exercise to address lower back pain and that a consultation with a physical therapist or a doctor is of utmost importance for such a condition.

Improve Muscle Endurance

The most important benefit of the Hercules hold is to improve muscle endurance, which is also the goal of performing the exercise. During competitions, the Hercules hold event depends mostly on the endurance of the muscles to hold onto the pillars and prevent them from falling onto the ground. Strength alone will not be enough to allow the athlete to hold the pillars for an extended period of time.

Final Thoughts

The main benefits to doing the Hercules hold are also mostly those characteristics that are needed in performing well in strongman competitions such as those mentioned above. While there are a lot of other exercises that target the muscles mentioned above, the Hercules hold is a workout that may be done to add variety to the routine or to ultimately challenge one’s muscular endurance.

References

1. Tarnanen SP, Ylinen JJ, Siekkinen KM, Mälkiä EA, Kautiainen HJ, Häkkinen AH. Effect of isometric upper-extremity exercises on the activation of core stabilizing muscles. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2008;89(3):513-521. doi:10.1016/j.apmr.2007.08.160

2. Akhtar MW, Karimi H, Gilani SA. Effectiveness of core stabilization exercises and routine exercise therapy in management of pain in chronic non-specific low back pain: A randomized controlled clinical trial. Pak J Med Sci. 2017;33(4):1002-1006. doi:10.12669/pjms.334.12664

Debbie (Deb) started powerlifting and Olympic lifting in High School as part of her track team's programming; She continues to train in order to remain athletic. Inspire US allows Deb to share information related to training, lifting, biomechanics, and more.
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