Why Do We Put Our Hands On Our Hips, Knees, or Head When Tired? (Answered)

Whether you’re in the middle of a competitive game or a tough workout, you may not even realize you’re doing it.

But, like many others, when you’re tired you might unknowingly put your hands on your hips as a means of showing fatigue and trying to catch your breath.

If you’re really exhausted, your hands may find their way to your knees, and you’ll be doubled over, gasping for air.

Why do we do this? Does putting your hands on your hips, head, or knees when tired actually help you catch your breath better or faster?

For years, coaches, trainers, and the media have told us that standing upright, putting our hands on top of our head was the best way to open up our lungs, allowing for more oxygen. The truth is that a bent over posture, with hands on knees or hips, better opens up the diaphragm and creates more space for oxygen in your lungs — and better yet, it’s the position our bodies naturally seek when we’re struggling to breathe.

Let’s take a closer look at these different hand positions and what the data and science say about the fastest way to catch your breath.

Hands on Hips (Tripoding) Explained

Known as “tripoding”, individuals who are struggling to catch their breath often stand (or sit) with a slight forward lean with their hands on their hips to support their upper body.

By leaning forward, this stance removes some of the pressure to breathe from your lungs and engages more of the diaphragm, as gravity will assist it to move down, thereby creating more space in your thoracic cavity that houses your lungs.

By placing your hands on your hips, you are also assuming a fairly common posture that subconsciously many of us do as humans.

Even if we haven’t finished a grueling workout or hard-fought game, any time we are tired, our hands tend to wander to our hips and if you take notice, your finger placement may give away the fact that you are tired if they are pointed backward or in support of your lower back.

Hands On Head

By placing your hands behind or on top of your head when fatigued, you stand straight up, placing your back into full extension.

This causes your lungs to be placed in a hyper-inflated position, flaring your ribcage upward and essentially closing it off from effectively expanding as you inhale.

As the diaphragm is unable to function properly, neck and back muscles will be put into work to try and take over for the diaphragm’s inability during inhalation.

Some coaches and trainers advise this position, or you may naturally do this during your workouts — but it’s not the optimal choice.

Hands On Knees

In 2019, the American College of Sports Medicine released a study debunking the theory that placing your hands on your knees when trying to catch your breath is a no-no.

With the study using twenty Division II female soccer players examining two forms of recovery, hands on knees vs hands on the head following a high-intensity interval training session.

  • 20 NCAA Division II female soccer players ages 18-22 years old
  • Over the course of two separate test days within a week period. Four intervals of four minutes of treadmill running at a pace of 90-95% of their maximum heart rate.
  • Three minutes of passive rest between each interval. Subjects would be randomly assigned to a recovery position of hands on head or hands on knees (alternating on the next test day).
  • One minute into their rest period, their heart rate would be recorded.
  • Breathing masks to measure CO2 volume (carbon dioxide) and tidal volume (volume of air moved in and out of the lungs during each ventilation cycle) were used.

The results came back that those tested who placed their hands on their knees, recovered faster than when on their head.

Similar to tripoding (or leaning over and putting your hands on your hips), this position creates more space in your diaphragm and aids breathing.

How To Catch Your Breath & Recuperate Faster

Being that placing your hands on your hips or on your knees is a more natural position when tired, rather than trying to find extra energy to not only lift but hold your arms on your head, it comes as little surprise that this is the best form for recovery.

Considering that this movement comes naturally, it goes without saying that our body is telling us what is best, without having to be told.

But what else can you do to catch your breath besides leaning over to open up your diaphragm?

One of the best ways to recuperate faster following an intense workout is to regulate your breathing pattern rather than by gulping for air.

That means deep inhales followed by powerful, full exhales.

Heart rate recovery and calm breathing will come quicker when our body is in a relaxed and stable state, either by sitting upright or lying in a supine position.

As a means of checking to see if you are breathing properly, filling your lungs from the bottom up, place one hand on your stomach and the other on your chest to make sure you are getting as deep a breath as possible and then releasing as much air as possible without your chest doing all the work.

(Want to know why you aren’t sweating during your workouts? Read here.)

Wrapping Up

So why is it that all of those sports coaches and trainers insist that we get our hands off of our knees when in actual fact, it is better for us?

When you look at someone bent over huffin’ and puffin’, they appear to be more tired and out of shape than someone with their hands on their hips or head.

In 2017, the Miami Heat allegedly banned players from placing their hands on their knees during a game or practice, and those who did were fined $100 for each infraction.

If you are in a competition and you see your opponent looking gassed, psychological factors kick in, as if to say they are in a weakened state.

However, if you don’t care about intimidating your opponent and you just want to catch your breath — hands on hips or knees while slightly bent over, plus deep and measured breathing, is the fastest way to recover.

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Hope this helps!