How Hula Hoops Work

Physics by Philo Hagen

While we all spend a lot of time inside our hoops spinning things up, have you ever given any thought to what is actually taking place scientifically? How do hula hoops actually work?

While we can hoop it up on various parts of our body, for this discussion let’s focus on traditional waist hooping. Hula hooping involves the steady, parallel oscillation (or periodic motion to and fro) of an unstable ring around a person’s waist. When you stand in the middle of your hoop, you become the axis point, the center of the ring’s rotation, and as the axis point, you then become the source of the hoop’s movement. You are the fuel in the hooping equation. When you move your body to propel your hoop around you, you are actually exerting a turning force known as torque, which is basically a twisting force that tends to cause rotation. Torque is necessary to maintain the centripetal force which keeps the hoop spinning around the axis, and yes we are talking about centripetal force, not centrifugal force which is a common misconception. Centripetal force is a force that makes a body, such as a hoop, follow a curved path. It is always directed orthogonal to the velocity of the body, toward the instantaneous center of curvature of the path. The amount of force that is needed depends upon a couple of things, one being the size and weight of the hoop itself and how it relates to the size of your waist. An adult-size or larger or heavier hoop will move more slowly requiring less torque, while a smaller or lighter hoop will require more.

Inertia then really helps us out too by enabling the hoop to continue its angular momentum after our initial application of force, but as we all know that won’t happen for long. As the hoop moves against your body and through the air, friction inevitably slows it down and this will cause it to fall. If you don’t want gravity to win the war, however, then you have to expend more effort to keep your hoop going using regular pulses, staying just a little ahead of your spinning circle in order to aid in the ongoing momentum.

While we don’t really need to understand the physics to actually do it, given that hooping comes naturally to so many of us if you simply have the right size hoop, from a biomechanical standpoint, however, hooping is a rather complex task. Scientists are still working out exactly how hooping comes together in the brain. Physical activities that involve the coordinated use of multiple body segments aren’t simple at all. In 2004, Biological Cybernetics published a 15 page study examining exactly how human beings hula hooped and came to the conclusion that a great deal of the action comes down to concurrent oscillatory motion of the hips, knees and ankles [source: Balasubramaniam and Turvey]. And yet, it’s a little more complicated than that as well.

In a 2008 edition of the journal Human Movement Science, which seems like something we’d all want to read, they added to the equation that while all hula hoopers employ 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, an individual’s personal style and inner rhythm factor heavily into successful hooping, but then we see that on a regular basis. What works for one person doesn’t always work exactly for another, which is one of the reasons hooping is so dynamically individual and exciting when we discover just what is required to become the axis point in the center of our own personal circular plastic universe.

Related story: The Hooper Versus Gravity


Philo Hagen Philo Hagen is the Founder and Managing Editor of He lives in Los Angeles, California.

12 thoughts on “How Hula Hoops Work

  1. Thanks for the physics! I remember cringing when hearing an explanation once: “Big hoops move slower, and smaller hoops move faster, no one knows why, thats just the way it is” lol. I also like your mention of centrifugal force hehe. I always say centripetal and am “corrected” I am so glad I chose physics over chemistry in High School. Everyone had warned me how awful the math in chemistry was, which prompted me to physics to side step the math horror. I sure fooled them huh!?! LMAO!

  2. Sigh. Science and I have never got along…but I think I actually understood this! It made sense (except orthogonal threw me) I totally perked up when you started talking about the brain, Philo…what goes on in the brain while we hoop totally fascinates me.

  3. Philo – you’re great! What a well written article. Just in time for me to refer the teachers who will attend my basic hooping/hoop making workshop next month in San Jose at RAFT, a great teacher resource center. Thanks!

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