Add More Power to your Push Ups!
Most of us are now quarantined, and adapting to different ways of training… and from social media challenges, to the home workouts we’ve sent our members, I think it’s safe to say the push up is making a big come back! Push ups are a fantastic upper body exercise that actually works much more than just your shoulders and chest. And with so many variations, there is a push up option for pretty much everyone. Because they are so great and are accessible to just about anyone, it’s worth spending some time on understanding how to keep your shoulders safe and happy, as well as how to add even more strength and stability to your push up!
Being married for many years to a comic book nerd, I can say with the utmost confidence that your superheroes like Batman, Superman and Spiderman are all amazing at push ups! How do I know? One look at those well developed muscles under their pecs coming out from the arm pit that look like fish gills – the serratus anterior muscles!
I don’t know about you, but if there’s a way to develop the pushing power of a superhero, I’m all for it! First, let’s talk about the key requirements for strong and healthy shoulders in a push up:
External rotation at the glenohumeral joint (in a straight arm plank you would feel the triceps wrapping around behind you and the creases of your elbows facing forward) throughout the entire exercise
Depression of the scapulae aka shoulder blades (anti-shrug or “pack” the shoulders away from the ears) throughout the entire exercise
Retraction of the scapulae (shoulder blades drawing together) as the elbows bend and the body lowers toward the floor
Protraction of the scapulae (shoulder blades moving away from each other) at the start and finish of the push up
Here’s a quick video of Push Ups, where you can see these directions of movement in action.
The scapulae and glenohumeral joint need to work together, otherwise one area has to pick up the slack of the other, often resulting in weakness, injury or impingement. The tricky part for me, and for most people I’ve coached tends to be the depression and protraction of the shoulder blades. This is where the superhero muscle, the serratus anterior comes into play, as it is the main muscle responsible for these two actions.
The serratus anterior lies along the posterior and lateral rib cage, originating on the surface of the 1st through 8th or 9th ribs, and inserting underneath the scapula on the medial border. Most of this muscle lies underneath the shoulder blade, the latissimus dorsi, and pec major, but there is a portion that is easily identifiable just below the armpit. Very developed in your comic book superheroes, but not too hard to find on those of us who are still superheroes in training 🙂 You can see mine in the photo below where my skin is a little red after moving my top to show the muscle, but if you want to see the full muscle, a quick google search will do the trick.
To add some power to your push ups, and develop your awareness of the serratus anterior, try these exercises:
Plank with Active Serratus – This is a great way to identify the serratus in a static, isometric hold. Start by practicing elbow planks, placing the elbows directly beneath the shoulders. Maintain all the actions of a good plank (braced core, tight glutes, contracted quads) and then activate the serratus by depressing the scapulae as if you were pulling a window shut with your forearms, and protracting your scapulae as if you were pushing the floor away from you with the forearms. Once you feel strong in the elbow plank, try a straight arm plank. Stack the wrists under the shoulders and find the actions of pulling the window shut and pushing the floor away with your hands instead of your forearms.
Both elbow and straight arm versions could be made easier if need be, by keeping the knees on the ground behind the hips, or by coming up to standing and using the wall.
Scapular Stability Push Ups – Unfortunately it’s pretty easy to do these poorly, but if you focus on the details, you can get a lot out of this exercise. Start in quadruped with the wrists under the shoulders, knees under the hips. Engage the abs to keep the spine in neutral, externally rotate the shoulders and depress the shoulder blades away from the ears. Then retract (bring together) and protract (slide apart) your shoulder blades. You MUST keep your shoulders externally rotated, the scapulae depressed, the elbows straight and the spine in neutral (no arching or rounding) AT ALL TIMES… otherwise this exercise won’t be doing what it’s supposed to do. If it’s too hard on your knees, come up to standing and practice scap stability push ups at the wall. Once you master the quadruped version, try it in tall plank for more of a challenge. Check out this video to learn how to do Scap Stability Push Ups!
Asymmetrical Single Arm Scapular Stability Push Ups – WARNING – these are REALLY CHALLENGING! Don’t try these unless you are 100% confident with scapular stability push ups on two hands, as you will need be very proficient at maintaining neutral spine, external rotation of the shoulder, and depression in the scapula. Start with the knees down and place your right hand on a firm yoga block, wrist under the shoulder. Engage the serratus and strongly protract the right shoulder blade. The shoulders should be level, the left fingertips will be brushing the ground. Now retract your right shoulder blade without allowing the scapula to elevate or the elbow to bend. Your left palm should now be on the floor. Now reverse the action by taking your left hand off the floor (so that you cannot use it to help you up) and protract the right shoulder blade by pushing the block away from you. Perform a few reps on each side, but don’t go to failure. When you are performing these with perfect technique, take it up a notch by doing this in tall plank, with a slightly wider than shoulder width stance in the feet… As a side note, I first learned single arm scap push ups many years ago, but my brain and body never quite made the connection to get much out of them. I decided to mess around with this asymmetrical version just to see what would happen, and I found it very informative. I’ve never seen this before (not that that means someone hasn’t done it) so if you give it a try, please let me know what you think! Check out this video!
Take some time to supercharge your serratus, and you’ll be pleased to find stronger shoulders and more power in your push… just make sure to use your super powers for good, because we could all use more more good stuff right now!
Superhero strength & love,