How Hula Hoops Work

Hoop it up! See pictures of classic toys.
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When you hear the words "hula hoop," you probably don't think about bloodthirsty British barbarians, sexually charged creation myths or artistic statements full of barbed wire and nudity. But guess what? There's much more to the hula hoop than a mere 1950s toy craze.

As a cultural artifact, the hoop toy weaves in and out of human history. They rolled through the streets of ancient Asia and Africa. They appear in Pieter Bruegel the Elder's paintings of 16th-century peasant life and existed in North America long before the arrival of Europeans.


Today, you'll find hula hoops spinning around the waists of tribal shamans, video game assassins and fire dancers. They're at once items of nostalgic whimsy, childhood innocence, sexual magnetism and physical fitness. It only takes a modicum of physical ability to use one correctly, yet hula masters refine hooping to an athletic art form.

The hula hoop has existed in various forms for thousands of years, and people of all ages continue to lose themselves to the rhythm of circular motion.

That motion, of course, is the key.

For all the nostalgia hula hoops evoke, there's no getting past the basic physics involved in spinning the thing around your body.

So step inside the hoop, skip to the next page and prepare to get physical.


Hula Hooping: Physics and Biomechanics

Circus Oz performer Eli Green hoops it up during a 2009 dress rehearsal.
Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

Physically speaking, hula hooping entails the steady, parallel oscillation (or periodic motion to and fro) of an unstable ring around a person's waist. Other examples of oscillating objects might include a swinging pendulum or a vibrating object. When you stand in the middle of a hoop, you become the center of the ring's rotation -- or the axis. As the axis, you also represent the source of the hoop's movement.

When you move your body to sling the toy around you, you exert a turning force called torque. This outward, parallel force is necessary to maintain the centripetal force, which keeps an object spinning around an axis. The exact force required depends on the size and weight of the hoop, as well as the size of your waist.


Inertia contributes a helping hand and enables the hoop to continue its angular momentum after your initial application of force, but not for long. As the hoop moves against your body and through the air, friction inevitably slows it down and causes it to fall. If you don't want gravity to win this force fight, you have to expend more effort to keep it going in regular pulses, staying just a little ahead of the spinning circle to aid in the ongoing momentum.

Of course, you don't need to understand the physics to actually do it. Hooping comes naturally to most of us, but from a biomechanical standpoint, it's a rather complex task. You won't find any hula-hooping robots out there and for good reason.

As with many physical activities that involve the coordinated use of multiple body segments, scientists are still working out exactly how hooping comes together in the brain. In 2004, a 15-page study in the journal Biological Cybernetics took a long, hard look at humans hooping and surmised that a great deal of the action comes down to concurrent oscillatory motion of the hips, knees and ankles [source: Balasubramaniam and Turvey].

A 2008 study in the journal Human Movement Science added that while all participants employed the same basic movement to maintain the hoop's rotation, the contribution from the hips, knees and ankles varied from person to person [source: Cluff et al.]. In other words, individual style and rhythm factor heavily into this activity.

Where did this practice come from? Circle up with us on the next page for a historical angle on the hula hoop.


The Ancient History of the Hula Hoop

Navajo hoop dancer Lowery Begay performs at the 2010 Heard Museum World Champion Hoop Dance Contest in Phoenix, Ariz.
Image courtesy The Heard Museum/Debra Krol

When did humans first experience the joys of hula hooping? Although the actual term "hula hoop" didn't emerge until the 20th century, the toy itself is older than most world religions.

If you were to travel back in time to 1,000 B.C., you'd find Egyptian children playing with hoop toys of dried grapevine. No doubt they threw them, jumped them and slung them around their bodies like we do today. But for the most part, the ancient hooping pastime of choice involved striking the hoops with sticks to roll them down the road.


Hoop rolling remained a popular game in the cultures of ancient Greece and Rome. The Greeks decorated their large, metal hoop toys with bells -- and they didn't consider it a mere kid's game either. Even mythological characters got in on the fun. Fifth century B.C. paintings often depict the hero Ganymede with a hoop in one hand and a rooster (don't ask) in the other. Similar hoop games and dances were popular in early cultures throughout Asia, Africa and the Americas.

The ancient British enjoyed a battle game called "kill the hoop," in which participants hurled spears at a rolling wooden or metal hoop. By the 14th century, however, they were just as thrilled to spin the hoops around their waists. Which pastime was more dangerous? If historical records are any indication, the medieval British hoop craze resulted in dislocated backs and heart failure. Physicians of the day even issued a dire warning: "Hoops kill" [source: Panati].

Hoops also spun their way through the cultures of the precolonial Americas as well. As a representation of the circle of life, hoops featured prominently in the ritual dances of the Taos Pueblo people living in what is now New Mexico [source: Heard Museum]. Part performance art and part ceremony, members of native communities continue to engage in hoop dancing both for public enjoyment and for private healing ceremonies.

Native Americans also engaged in their own form of "kill the hoop." The Cahokian people thrived throughout the Mississippi River Valley from roughly A.D. 800 through A.D. 1500, building mounds and -- yes -- slinging hoops [source Pauketat]. According to anthropologist and archaeologist Timothy R. Pauketat, the Cahokians may have used the hoop and stick game of "chunkey" to win the hearts and minds of other Native American tribes, thus spreading both a fun game and a powerful summation of their religious views. Throwing a stick through a rolling hoop, Pauketat argues, was at once a symbol of human reproduction and cosmological origins.

The motif recurs throughout Native American folklore: Human life begins with the masculine penetration of the feminine, and the universe itself kicks off with light's penetration of the darkness. The rolling hoop may have also symbolized the sun moving across the horizon and the careful balance between light and darkness, masculinity and femininity.

But then again, sometimes a hoop is just a hoop. Let's fast-forward to the 1500s.


The Modern History of the Hula Hoop

Hula hoop fever grips a 1950s family.
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The word "hula" entered the English language in the 1700s, when British explorers brought back tales of Polynesian hula dance. These ritual dances didn't actually entail the use of hoops, but the oscillations of ankle, knee and hip were very much like the motions required to sling a hoop around the waist. As such, the term stuck.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw the introduction of hoop dancing into the world of physical fitness as Switzerland's Émile Jaques-Dalcroze incorporated the hoop into a special training system for musicians and dancers, which he called "eurhythmics" [source: McInturf]. French artist Jean-Léon Gérôme even incorporated hoop dancing into his paintings and sculptures to provide a "modern" flare for the late 19th-century audience.


But of course, the hula hoop as we know it today exploded on the scene in 1958. That was the year Wham-O toy company founders Richard Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin unleashed their product on an unsuspecting American public. Inspired by tales of Australian children and bamboo hoops, the two men decided to bring the concept into the plastics age. Colorful Wham-O Hula Hoops invaded stores across the country with $1.98 price tags [source: Stevenson].

Wham-O sold an estimated 25 million Hula Hoops in two months and nearly 100 million international orders quickly followed [source: MIT]. By their very nature, however, sales booms and summer crazes don't last forever. By the end of 1958, sales exceeded $45 million, but the hula craze had already run its course. The warehouses soon flooded with unsold hoops, and Wham-O moved on to its next big reboot of a timeless game: the Frisbee.

But the hula hoop didn't just spin off into the sunset. It had been popular for millennia before 1958, and it continued to roll down sidewalks and rotate around hips in the decades to follow.


Hula Hoop Games and Tricks

Those hoops won't get very far. Given the spin she put on them, they're about to come rolling back to her.
George Doyle/Stockbyte/Getty Images

The hula hoop just might be the original gaming system. Long before the age of Nintendo Game Boys, a simple wooden hoop allowed the user to enjoy a host of games and physical activities. Much like the ball, a hoop is an extremely versatile object. Here are just a few of the more widely practiced hoop games and tricks:

Hooping: You know how this one works. Move your body to spin a hula hoop around your waist, neck, arms or legs. While a fun physical activity in and of itself, you can also turn hooping into a competition of speed or endurance. Add a brisk step to your hip gyrations, and you can engage in a little hoop racing or sprinting.


Hoop dancing: Standard hooping engages multiple body segments and is actually more movement-intensive than much of what passes for dancing. Still, feel free to crank some music. Incorporate some fluid transitions, a few fancy moves and maybe an extra hoop or two to engage in full-on hoop dancing.

Hoop rolling: Do you have a hula hoop? Good. Do you have a stick? Excellent, then you have everything you need to engage in hoop rolling. Also known as hoop trundling, this is a game that children and adults have enjoyed since ancient times. Just set the hoop rolling across a parallel surface and then use the stick to roll it along. Multiple hoop rollers may also engage in hoop races, stunt challenges and head-on collisions.

Hoop jumping: While not as versatile as good old jump rope, a hula hoop can provide a similar experience. All you have to do is grip the top portion of the hoop and swing it down toward your feet. Jump over the hoop and then continue to arc it over the back of your head and then back down to your feet again to hop through it repeatedly.

Return of the hoop: First, grip the hula hoop in one hand and hold it out in front of you vertically. Using an underhanded throw, heave the still-vertical hoop forward and apply a downward spin at the last second as you release the hoop. When the hoop hits the ground, it will already be rotating in your direction. It'll touch down, skid in place for a second and then come right back to you.

Kill the hoop: A rolling hoop is a rolling target, so why not throw a spear through it? Or if you want to update the ancient British hoop game for modern times, try throwing or kicking a ball at it.

Hoop your environment: Children often use hula hoops to turn a simple backyard into a giant game board. You might place a few hoops on the ground and jump from one to the other as if they were islands. Crawl through them to mimic the mouths of caves and tunnels.

But maybe hoops are more than mere fun and games for you. Skip to the next page to learn how a little hula hooping can get you into shape.


Hula Hoop Workouts

Betty Hoops leads a hoop dance class at a yoga health festival in 2004.
Amanda Edwards/Getty Images

There's more to hula hoops than fun, games and the birth of the universe. Fitness hoops featured prominently in 19th-century eurhythmics classes of Europe, and although the term "hula hoop" didn't enter the public vernacular until the 1950s, hoop exercises were a part of British and Australian fitness programs in the '30s and '40s [source: Martin].

Just a few years into the 21st century, a new hula hoop epidemic began to sweep the United States. This time, however, its carriers were fitness-savvy adults instead of 10-year-old children. Film actor Marisa Tomei attended hoop fitness classes to get in shape for her role in the 2008 film "The Wrestler." In 2009, U.S. first lady Michelle Obama hooped on the South Lawn of the White House to promote exercise and healthy eating for children [source: Hamill]. Obama busted out her hoop again at the 2011 U.S. Open, too.


So does slinging a hula hoop around your waist provide a decent workout? You bet your abs it does. A 2011 study sponsored by the American Council on Exercise put 16 women between the ages of 16 and 59 to the test. The participants averaged 151 heart beats per minute, burning 7 calories a minute, or about 210 calories during a half hour of hooping [source: Goodman]. To put that in perspective, the average 154-pound (70-kilogram) person burns approximately 220 calories during a half hour of heavy yard work or vigorous weight lifting [source: CDC].

Participants in the 2011 study used weighted hula hoops to achieve their level of workout. Not only do weighted hoops increase the effectiveness of hoop-based exercise, the added weight also makes it easier to keep up the hoop's momentum around your body. Bear in mind, however, that weights make some hula hoop tricks easier to perform and some more difficult. Filling hoops with sand or water to increase the weight may also make the hoop unbalanced.

Hula hoop workouts vary, but many incorporate a mix of hoop-dancing maneuvers and hoop-assisted yoga or aerobic moves. However you choose to play it, just be sure to keep up the motion. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends a weekly regimen of at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise.

Still, don't be surprised to see the hula hoop fitness craze die down. In 2010, exercise physiologist Neal Pire told The New York Times that he expected the hoop to eventually go the way of the medicine ball, becoming a mere occasional tool in the exercise classroom as opposed to the headlining star.


Modern Hula Hoop Culture

Edmonton, Alberta-based fire dancer SaFire brandishes a fire hoop.
Image courtesy Samantha Scharf Photography

Modern hula hooping exceeds the meager limits of the nearest backyard, beach or fitness class. Like any popular pastime, hooping has splintered into a number of colorful subgenres and styles that range from playfully sensual to politically volatile.

Burlesque hoops: Hula hoops can convey both feelings of childhood innocence and grown-up sexiness, but they also resonate with '50s and '60s nostalgia -- which makes them a perfect fit for the world of neo-burlesque. A modern revival of Victorian and 1960s American burlesque traditions, this performance art combines elements of vaudevillian comedy, modern dance, striptease and cabaret. The hula hoop has become such a staple of neo-burlesque that The New York School of Burlesque devotes entire classes to its use.


Circus hoops: Cirque du Soleil's numerous touring shows display highly stylized circus acrobatics, dance and clowning. Oh yeah, and you might just spy a little hula hooping as well, especially if you catch Cirque's "Wintuk" or "Alegría." Key performers in these shows take hoop dancing to the extreme by combining elements of acrobatics and contortionism.

Hoops of flame and light: Venture out to a concert festival like Coachella or Bonnaroo and you'll definitely see some hula hoops on your fellow music fans. Some of the circles will boast handcrafted, colorful wraps. Others will blaze with glow sticks or LEDs (light-emitting diodes). Venture out to the annual Burning Man art event in Nevada's Black Rock Desert and you might even get to see some flaming hula hoops. Fire dancers incorporate open flames into the dance, typically with the aid of torch-tipped fire staffs or a flaming wick on a chain called a fire poi. Some fire dancers have also incorporated the hoop, but fear not! The actual hoop isn't aflame. A fire hoop features four to six wick-tipped arms that extend out from the hoop.

Provocative art hoops: A fire hoop may sound potentially dangerous, but it's nothing compared to the work of Israeli sculptor and video artist Sigalit Landau. Her 2003 video piece "Barbed Hula" depicts the artist's nude torso as she twirls a barbed wire hula hoop around her waist, visually raising bloody whelps on her skin. Far from a mere act of masochism, Landau had a very specific political and artistic message in mind. In the video, she spins the barbed hula hoop on an Israeli beach that she defines as, "the only calm and natural border Israel has" [source: Landau].

Hoop swords: Barbed wire hula hoops are one thing, but has anyone ever made a weapon out of one? Maybe not in real life, but the idea emerges in the fictional world of video game fantasy. The 2005 fighting game Soulcalibur III featured a female fighter named Tira who, in addition to dressing like a Cirque du Soleil performer, brandishes a hoop-shaped weapon called the Eiserne Drossel, which is German for "iron thrush." The weapon resembles a large, steel hula hoop with serrated blades on the outside. Her fighting style incorporates various aspects of modern hoop dancing that spin the blade like a buzz saw. The 2010 Hong Kong martial arts film "True Legend" also features a hooplike weapon.

Whether they're slicing into bad guys, explaining cosmology or just spinning around our waists rhythmically, hula hoops continue to fascinate us. Individual fads may come and go, but the hoop is here to stay.

Explore the links on the next page to learn even more about hula hoops.


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More Great Links

  • Balasubramaniam, Ramesh and Michael T. Turvey. "Coordination modes in the multisegmental dynamics of hula hooping." Biological Cybernetics. 2004. (Aug. 26, 2011)
  • Blanchard, Kendall. "The Anthropology of Sport." Greenwood Publishing Group. 1995.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). "Physical Activity for a Healthy Weight." Aug. 17, 2011. (Sept. 7, 2011)
  • Cluff, Tyler, D.G.E. Robertson and R. Balasubramaniam. "Kinetics of hula hooping: An inverse dynamics analysis." Human Movement Science. 2008. (Aug. 26, 2011)
  • Goodman, Brenda. "Hula Hoop Workouts Burn Calories." WebMD. Feb. 11, 2011. (Sept. 7, 2011)
  • Groos, Karl and James Mark Baldwin. "The Play of Man." Appleton. 1919.
  • Hamill, Sean D. "Hooping Already Has Its Own Jane Fonda." The New York Times. March 9, 2010. (Sept. 8, 2011)
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  • Laskowski,Edward R. M.D. "Do weighted hula hoops provide a good workout, or are they just a gimmick?" Mayo Clinic. July 9, 2011. (Sept. 7, 2011)
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). "Inventor of the Week: Richard Knerr & 'Spud' Melin." (Aug. 26, 2011)
  • McInturf, Rayna. "The Hoop Dancer Uncovers Hula Hoop History." Dec. 14, 2010. (Sept. 8, 2011)
  • New York School of Burlesque. (Sept. 7, 2011)
  • Panati, Charles. "Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things." Harper Paperbacks. 1990.
  • Pauketat, Timothy R. "Cahokia: Ancient America's Great City on the Mississippi." Viking Adult. July 30, 2009.
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