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Functional Movement: Pushing your way to a strong and healthy upper body


Pushing movements, especially the Bench Press, are often associated with bodybuilding and extreme-strength sports such as powerlifting. And you might find yourself thinking that you don’t need them because you don’t want to become bulky.

However, pushing movements (and there are many more than just the Bench Press) can have a very positive impact on the health and performance of your shoulders, arms, and upper back! A well-developed upper body is less prone to shoulder and upper back problems and can be very useful in your daily life. And on top of that, it looks good!

What are some benefits of pushing movements?

Training your upper body through pushing movements can be very beneficial for the musculature of your whole upper body. And while you might first think about the muscles of your chest, there are lots of different muscles involved that can help keep you healthy and in good posture.

Including pushing movements in your training will

  • Increase your strength and potentially your muscle mass
  • Increase the durability of your upper body’s tissues
  • Improve your arm, elbow, and shoulder health
  • Reduce the risk of injury

Additionally, many forms of athletics such as throwing sports or even contact sports such as football or boxing will benefit from a well-trained upper body.

Later in life, the upper body often detrains, since it is not used as often as the legs. For example, most upper body tasks are made easy for us through ergonomic designs and machines so it’s important to target these muscles with resistance training.

What muscles are used in pushing movements?

Let’s take a closer look at the muscles that are trained in pushing movements. Independent of which exercise variation you train, a lot of different muscles in your chest, arms, shoulders, and upper back will benefit:

  • The muscles of your chest, or pectorals (pecs). These play a major role in arm movements, such as lifting and reaching for an object, throwing a ball, or opening a door.
  • The muscles of your upper arms, specifically the triceps. The triceps are responsible for extending your elbow and straightening your arm, like when you push on the armrests of your chair as you stand up.
  • The deltoids (delts) are the largest muscles of the shoulder and are responsible for lifting your arm away from your body, like when you raise your arm to wave to someone. Pushing movements and exercises will mostly activate the anterior (front) delts and overhead movements will additionally activate the lateral (side) delt.
  • The muscles of your upper back, the rhomboids, traps, and lats. These are used to stabilize your upper body while you push and are also important for your shoulder and back health as well as your posture.
  • The muscles of your forearms, allowing you to grip the weight and stabilize your wrist during the pushing motion.

As you can see, there is a lot going on when you perform pushing movements. All of these muscles work together in unison every day of your life to provide stability and movement to your upper body. Train them to make sure your arms, shoulders, and upper back stay strong and healthy.

What are pushing exercises?

Pushing movements can be performed in different directions, horizontal or vertical. Some common examples are the Bench Press and Pushups for horizontal pushes, and the Shoulder Press, Handstand Pushups, and Straight Bar Dips for vertical pushes.

When you press horizontally, like in the Bench Press, you will train the pectorals and triceps along with the front of the shoulders. The more you press in an overhead direction, the more you will target the muscles of your shoulder and upper back.

Additionally, the closer your hands are together on horizontal presses, the more your triceps are targeted. Having a grip slightly wider than your shoulders will recruit the pectorals even more.

There are many variations of these movements and all these muscles will be involved in every direction, just with a different bias towards one group or the other.

There are lots of tools to choose from when doing push exercises, each with its own benefits. Dumbbells, which allow you to train your arms individually, helping you to address any muscular imbalances. Barbells work your arms in unison and allow you to continuously add weight as you get stronger. And let’s not forget resistance bands: they’re designed to increase resistance across the movement to provide a different stimulus to the muscles.

Pushing movements can also easily be done with just your body weight. For example, pushup variations like Decline Pushups, Archer Pushups, or Sphinx Pushups.

How to perform pushing exercises properly

When you perform pushing exercises you’ll be recruiting the muscles of your chest, upper back, shoulders, and arms simultaneously. This is why correct technique is crucial to avoid placing unwanted stress on smaller muscle groups or joints!

Keep these technique guidelines in mind to make sure your muscles are working in unison:

  1. Keep your wrists, elbows, and shoulders straight when you finish each repetition. Ensure your joints form a straight line from your shoulders toward the weight (or floor during Pushups), irrespective of the direction of your push.
  2. Create tension in your core and legs. This will help stabilize your body during pushing movements and keep the focus on the muscles you are working.
  3. Be aware of your shoulder blades. Depending on the exercise, it might make more sense to pin them into place or to let them move freely.
  4. Be mindful of not overextending your joints during pushing movements. There are many benefits for hypermobile people to train pushing movements, as long as they keep within a range of motion they can control.

How can pushing exercises fit into your training plan?

Now that you know the importance and benefits of pushing exercises, you might ask yourself how you can best fit them into your training regime. They can be classified as either:

  • Compound exercises - where more than two joints are involved like in the Bench Press, Pushups, or Dumbbell Shoulder Presses
  • Isolation exercises - where your muscles are moving the weight using one joint like in Tricep Extensions or Dumbbell Flies.

Compound pushing exercises should be done earlier in your workout before your muscles fatigue. This can be either before (if they are most important to you) or just after your lower body movements. This way you’ll still be fresh enough to stay locked in on your technique and get the most out of the movements.

Isolation exercise on the other hand should be done later in a workout since the demand on your coordination is lower.

Give yourself at least one full day between workouts with pushing movements so you’re well rested before you go at it again.

To get the most out of training in regards to muscular development, you should aim to train each muscle group that is important to you with 10-20 total sets per week (including all exercises that train these muscle groups). Keep in mind, you will probably cover quite a few of them with the compound upper body movements.

As a form of resistance training, pushing movements can have a huge impact on your upper body's health by improving posture and general overall fitness. So don’t sweat them, go get them – and go push something!

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