The push up is one of the oldest exercises in the book, and for good reason. It works. People have used it throughout time to build strength, get a better physique and prove their manliness! The thing is, this exercise is simply one of the best you can do for your shoulder health. You are too advanced for push-ups? Take a step back, read this post and rethink your stance on the old push-up.
Why Push Ups?
Push-ups are one of my favourite exercises, here are push ups benefits:
- Good compound exercise that targets the chest, shoulders and triceps.
- There are many variations and progressions.
- Can help you break through your bench press plateau.
- Gets your abs and core going, think prone holds.
- Uses lots of muscles in the upper body and trunk and consequently you will burn a fair few calories when performing sets of push-ups
- It is an ultimate exercise for shoulder stability.
- Looks pretty good if you can smash out 100!
These are all great reasons to get the push-up back into your training program, but the ultimate and most important reason, is shoulder stability. Shoulders are naturally very mobile joints. To keep your shoulder healthy, impingement and pain free you need to keep them stable. One bone has a lot of control over the stability of your shoulder, and push-ups do a great job at working the muscles that control this bone. The magic bone is your scapula. For those not familiar with anatomy, it’s otherwise known as your shoulder blade.
The Importance Of Scapula Stability
The joint between your humerus (upper arm bone) and your scapula is called the glenohumeral joint. It is what is commonly known as the shoulder joint. As the scapula is half of your shoulder joint, it is pretty important to the health and functionality of this ultra mobile joint. If your scapula control is crap, your shoulder health will be a concern. It directly affects the shoulders ability to stabilise, and you are putting yourself at risk of many injuries if it is not functioning the way it should. Common injuries resulting from poor scapula function and therefore shoulder joint instability can include
- Impingement- something gets stuck in your joint, muscles get inflamed and the joint doesn’t move smoothly, it’s a pretty small space in there and things can get impinged easily. Also known as and can include a pinched nerve in shoulder.
- Rotator Cuff Injuries- Another major stabiliser of the shoulder that could be forced to overwork and you predispose yourself to overuse injuries or acute ones.
- Labrum Tears- This is the cartilage lining your shoulder joint.
Serratus Anterior Is A Major Unknown Player
Hands up who has actually heard of this muscle? I can assure you that before taking anatomy I had no idea about it whatsoever.
If you think about the scapula for a second and where it sits on the body, very few ligaments or structures join it to the rest of your skeleton. Therefore the muscle function around the bone is extremely important to the ability of the scapula to stabilise your shoulder.
Why Is This Muscle So Important?
Bench Press and rowing exercises both provide downward rotation (when you raise your arm it is upward rotation of the scapula, when you lower it, downward) of the scapula. Without training the serratus anterior, we can become ineffective at opposing this movement, which is upward rotation. This is one of the most important push ups muscles. There is a big imbalance, which often can go unnoticed. This is only one part of the beauty of this muscle. What the serratus anterior also does is keep the scapula correctly against the ribcage, basically stabilising it.
Unfortunately the serratus anterior muscle, kind of like the VMO in the knee, is one of the first things to turn off when there are shoulder problems present. We need to keep it active because a healthy serratus will:
- Prevent Impingement- Provides upward rotation, when bench press and rowing exercises both promote downward rotation. We all know that a balanced program is a good program. More downward rotation tendencies and imbalances will mean less mobility and range when trying to put your arm overhead and hence lead to impingement in your shoulder.
- Promote Stability- Keeps the scapula against the ribcage, and stops it from flying out in all directions. A stable scapula means a much more stable shoulder joint. You want this.
Wasn’t This Post About Push-ups?
Yes, yes it was. Although on the surface the bench press and the push-up seem to work the same muscles…chest, shoulder triceps, when you bench press, you don’t activate the serratus anterior. In fact, if you are performing the bench press properly, locking your shoulders, you are actually performing one of the opposing movements, scapula downward rotation. This is the same movement you get during most rowing exercises.
So, not only do push-ups give you great strength benefits, they also activate this highly important, unknown and very underrated muscle. The push-up also involves a variety of other shoulder stabilising muscles that will help your shoulder and body get injury free and strong.
Want More or Less Weight?
We like to bench because we are lifting big weights. The strong guys out there may find they can do way too many reps. If you are starting out with strength training or are new to push-ups, you may find that they are simply too hard. The great news is that there are many progressions and variations to suit all levels.
Need Less Weight?
- Do them on a bench or an elevated surface. Put your hands up on a bench (whatever height you need, it can be very high to start), and as you get stronger, slowly come down to the floor.
- Get on your knees and do some push-ups. It is important that you try to keep the correct posture during these; they tend to make you want to slouch. Do these until you can progress to on your feet.
Need More Weight?
- Elevated Feet is one of the first and most simple progressions you can make. Put your feet up on a bench and away you go.
- Resistance Bands are another great progression. Place the ends of the bands underneath your hand, and run them over the top of your upper back. Check out the pic below. Shorten or lengthen the band for more or less resistance.
- One Armed push-ups are a killer. They are great for shoulder stability and if you can do them you are doing all right!
- Add weight to your back
- Chains- Chuck them over your back.
- Plate- Get someone to place a plate on your upper back and away you go.
- Backpack- Put a backpack with some weights in it if you aren’t comfortable with the plate on your back
- Vest- Get a weighted vest and wear it during push-ups
- Stability Ball push-ups have been shown to increase the activation of your triceps as a shoulder stabiliser and your abs. But not the serratus anterior. This is another way to perform the push-up and is a good variation for shoulder rehab.
- Explode out of your push-ups. Speed is a great way to chance up an exercise. If you are pretty efficient with your push-ups, try some explosive ones where you are basically jumping off the ground with your hands.
- After Bench Press add a set of push-ups. It’s a good overload and a way to help get your bench press better.
Are You Missing Out?
Push-ups are great for strength and shoulder health. If you have a few shoulder problems, sub the push-up in occasionally and feel the benefits of a stable shoulder. If you are simply conscious about injury prevention, doing the odd set of push-ups will do wonders. There is no need to cut out your bench press and totally rely on them. Keep in mind that shoulder stability is one of the keys to safe and effective lifting, and the good old push-up will really help to improve it.