Are You Cutting Your Push-ups Short?

Push-ups are an essential exercise for proper movement and health. At some point in your life you are going to need to push yourself up off the ground. Are you gonna be strong enough to press your weight up off the ground and stand up? In life you don’t have to be strong enough to push a car or squat 900 pounds, you just need to be strong enough to protect yourself and get up off the ground if you have been knocked down.

Many people include the push-up in their workout programs, but most of them are coming up short. By cutting your push-ups short you could be leaving your serratus anterior in the dust.

Before we get into this muscle that probably many of you have never heard of, lets go through a quick tutorial and explain why push-ups should be in your program.

Push-ups: Why

Push-ups are one of the most overlooked exercises for building upper body strength and maintaining shoulder health. Due to the closed-chained(where the hands are fixed) nature of the exercise, the push-up requires the entire kinetic chain.

Let’s take a look at the scapulae(or shoulder blades) as an example of the difference between the push-up and the bench press. In the push-up, the scapulae are able to move freely about the rib cage as you move through the range of motion. As you lower down into the exercise the scapulae retract or move closer together. As you push away from the floor, the scapulae protract or move away from each other. There is also some upward rotation of the scapulae as you move towards the top end of the range of motion.

The bench press, the open-chained counter part of the push-up, on the other hand limits the scapulae from moving naturally. While completing the bench press, the scapulae are actually pinned down due to laying on your back with the weight of a barbell or dumbbells pinning you down.

With the push-up you get a two for one deal! The push-up requires anterior core control as well as upper body strength. Far too often I see push-ups that look more like a bedroom move than a gym move. If the anterior core(think abs) is not doing it’s job correctly, the hips will sag to the ground. When the trunk is not stable, then the extremities can not work as efficiently.

The Push-up: How

To correctly do a push-up, the set-up is of utmost importance. Like most exercises, if you start in a bad position things will get ugly quick. Here are a few checkpoints to remember when setting up for the push-up

  • Feet together or slightly apart
  • Glutes squeezed and core tight-limit extension
  • Hands slightly outside or at shoulder width
  • Shoulders engaged and pushing floor away
  • Head and neck in neutral position-tuck chin

For many people, the set-up or the high plank should be the only push-up work they do. Once a person has learned to own this position then you can bring in the more dynamic push-up to progress. Here are a few keys to remember while doing a push-up

  • Maintaining neutral spine lower body until nose and chest hit the ground at same time
  • Feel yourself pull your body down to the ground, then press the ground away.

Serratus Anterior: Anatomy

Serratus Anterior

The serratus anterior muscle is one most people have never heard of. It is much less heralded than say the pectorals or biceps, primarily because they don’t fill out a tight shirt. The serratus anterior may not be one of the “pretty muscles” but its function is extremely important in the health of your shoulders.

If you have ever seen an extremely shredded bodybuilder you have seen the serratus anterior as they are very prominent when your body fat is low. They are often described as looking like fingers reaching around to the front of the ribs.

The serratus anterior attaches to the upper 8 ribs and sweeps to the back and attaches on the medial border of the scapula. The muscle travels underneath the scapula as it approaches the medial border.

The serratus anterior protracts, or abducts, the scapulae. It gives the appearance of a reaching arm or “throwing a punch”. The shoulder blades actually move around the rib cage as they retract and protract.

When you evaluate someone who has a weak serratus anterior, it will be apparent. A winging scapula is a tell-tale sign of a weak serratus anterior. The weak serratus anterior is not able to keep the scapula “pinned” to the rib cage for stabilization during gross shoulder movement.

Scapular Winging

Protraction and Shoulder Health

As stated before the serratus anterior when flexed creates stability of the scapula. Scapular stability allows the prime movers to do their job more efficiently. Proper protraction is also need to get into adequate overhead position.

The neck can also take a beating when the serratus anterior is weak. When the serratus anterior is unable to stabilize the scapula, something else must take over to help in creating stability. The victim is often the upper trapezius, and common area of neck pain in people. By strengthening your serratus anterior you may also help take stress off of your neck.

Getting the Full Push-up Effect

So how does one strengthen the serratus anterior??? It may be as simples a quick fix in your push-up form.

People often short change their push-ups, often because they are trying to get as many reps done as quickly as possible. A “push-up plus” for most people will be enough to elicit a training response in the serratus anterior.

What is a “push-up plus” you ask? I’m glad you asked. The push-up plus is the last inch or two of range of motion that many people do not achieve in their push-ups. At the top of your push-up you should be pushing the floor as far away as you can. Another cue you can use is to open the upper back at the top of the push-up range of motion.

If done correctly you may feel a burn beginning near the shoulder blades and wrapping around under the armpit. Many people have never felt this before and may be confused by it initially because push-ups are supposed to work just your chest right? Well it does but like I said earlier, the push-up requires the whole kinetic chain.

Here is a visual comparison of a proper push-up at the end range of motion versus a push-up that comes up short.

Notice how this push-up is missing the last bit of range of motion
Notice how this push-up is missing the last bit of range of motion
Notice the protraction of the scapula to push the ground even further away
Notice the protraction of the scapula to push the ground even further away

Regressions/variations

High Plank Push-up Plus Holds

Some people may not be able to complete a proper push-up, and that is fine but may be a goal you need to work towards. One regression that most people can complete is to get into the initial push-up position or the high plank. In this position focus on again pushing the floor away and opening up your back. You can do these for timed reps or for a set of eight to ten reps.

Quadped One-Arm Shoulder Protraction

This is a great variation to help learn and focus on achieving that push-up plus. This will also help people groove protraction and retraction of the scapula.

Band Resisted Shoulder Protraction

This is a favorite beginning shoulder rehab and corrective exercise that I like to use. It is pretty simple to set-up and for those with shoulder pain, does not elicit much if any pain at all.