Muscular Imbalances – Push Up Technique

I’m a big fan of push ups.  Almost all of my clients do them.  I can learn so much about my clients muscular imbalances by watching their push up technique.

Muscular Imbalance #1 – Weak Core/Saggy Back

By watching the push up from the side, I can see how well the core muscles are being recruited.  If there is a significant arch in the lower back, the core muscles are not working very effectively.  This can make the lower back hurt and/or make the shoulders work harder than necessary to make up for the weak link.

A cue I like to give my clients to activate the abs during a push up is “tuck your tailbone.”  When you tuck your tailbone, you contract both the abdominals and the glutes.  Your pelvis is in better alignment and usually this technique tweak will reduce the lower back arching.

While this hack for better push up form is great, it doesn’t address the root cause of the problem which is likely anterior pelvic tilt (APT.)  I’ve talked a lot about APT so will send you to this previous blog to read more about it.

Muscular Imbalance #2 – Shoulder Blade Instability

Looking at my client’s backs also tells me about the stability of their shoulder blades.  The upper back is an area we can’t watch ourselves and is often forgotten about since we think of the push up working the chest and triceps primarily.  Watch this video of one of my clients doing incline push ups.

Pushup Shoulder Blade Imbalance

Starting around rep #6, notice how his shoulder blades do not move in sync with each other.  The backstory here is that I had him do push ups during our first session together.  I quickly noticed his form was compromised so I instead switched his chest exercise to Chest Press.  We’ve been working on strengthen his chest with that exercise, but also incorporating exercises that strengthen the muscles surrounding his shoulder blades such as pull aparts.

When stability is an issue, you need to strengthen the little muscles that should provide stability.  In my client’s case, once we stabilize his shoulder blades, the chest muscles will work more effectively and get stronger.  Plus, his technique will be cleaned up!

Muscular Imbalance #3 – Injury in the Chain

Sometimes what may look like a muscular imbalance is actually a weak link in the chain elsewhere.  Let me tell you a story about observing one of my female clients doing the push up.

Once again, I noticed that the timing of the movement of her shoulder blades was off.  The muscles around her left shoulder blade were working overtime while her right shoulder blade seemed to be doing nothing.  This is a client who has really improved both her push up technique and strength over the course of our time training together.  So, it was a little surprising to see that happen.

I asked her to focus on pushing up equally from both hands.  That cleaned up her technique, but bothered her right wrist.  From time to time, she has a cyst in her wrist that can cause pain if she’s not foam rolling the area.  This is an example of how a weak link can affect quality of movement higher up in the chain.

Have a look at the superficial back arm line on the bottom right of the picture below.  Notice how the soft tissue runs from the fingertips to the wrist, up to the shoulder and across the shoulder blade to the spine.  These lines of muscles, tendons, and fascia explain how the body is connected and how discovering and addressing muscular imbalances can improve technique.

Summary

Getting technique right from the beginning takes some time.  You’re learning a new movement and you may have to unlearn the way you used to do it.  It takes your brain a few weeks to make that connection to the muscles and then it will start to feel right and neuromuscular strength is improved.

If you glance over these subtleties mentioned above, your push ups will always be hard and over time could cause injury.  Give your body time to adapt and resist the temptation to increase the difficulty of the exercise until you have the basics nailed down.

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