The ability to push a load is widely regarded as a functional metric with which to measure upper body strength. From the military, to professional sports and even rescue services, push-style movements are often utilised as part of their fitness assessments. As rudimentary as it may appear, there are some who struggle with building proficiency in this area.
When it comes to upper-body pushing, the focus falls on three sets of joints: the shoulders, elbows and wrists. Proper alignment of these joints is necessary for push-training to be both safe and effective. Of course, other factors such as trunk stability and thoracic spine extension should also be considered. As such, the aim of these drills is to breed awareness of these aspects of movement and create harmony between them.
Location and equipment courtesy of TripleFit
1. Pronated scapula pull-in
A strong back forms the foundation of which the body presses off from. For this to take shape, the muscles of the back must form one cohesive unit. The scapula in particular, is one area that deserves extra attention due to underutilisation in sedentary individuals. If the glutes are common trouble spots in the lower body, then the same can be said for the scapula in the upper body. This “muscular amnesia” can be overcome by simply familiarising oneself with the sensation of drawing the scapula downwards. Think “shoulders in the back pocket” and give them a hard squeeze with each contraction.
2. Incline push-up
Bent-knee push-ups are largely ineffective as a proper regression of the full push-up due to the fact that it fails to adequately train the component of stability in the movement. In a closed-chain movement like the push-up, trunk stability is crucial for performance. Proper bracing of the midsection not only prevents the lower back from hyperextending, but also allows for better force transfer from the ground up. The incline push-up is a better training movement in this regard, and is also an easier movement to perform for individuals who are still lacking in strength. The incline can be gradually lowered (use of weight plates allows this) as a means of progression. For the incline push-up, breathe deep into your diaphragm, creating and maintaining the tension around your entire midsection. Keep your scapula drawn down as you lower yourself to the surface and as you press away from it.
The full push-up is the litmus test for pressing technique. Suboptimal joint alignment, muscular strength and trunk stability is easily exposed with the push-up, so it makes sense to utilise it as a means of training these exact qualities. The full push-up will take the lesson of its inclined sibling two steps further: proper alignment between the shoulders and the wrists, and the appropriate amount of shoulder abduction. The first can be easily achieved by being conscious of setting up with the arms resting completely vertical. The second one will require some practice. Ideally, you'd want the elbows to be approximately 45° from the midline of the body, but the exact angle will vary between individuals. As long as your shoulders are “squared away” and your elbows are neither flared out nor stuck to your sides, you should be fine.
4. High incline dumbbell press
Once proficiency in closed-chain movements is built, open-chain exercises can be utilised to build strength more effectively. The high incline dumbbell press is a great movement for training vertical pressing strength while allowing the lifter to work around whatever issues they might have with the shoulder joint, which is structurally quite sensitive. Barring the presence of bony spurs and impingement syndrome, a significant deal of pressing-related joint pain the shoulder is actually the result of poor technique that has allowed inflammation to manifest. A common mistake is an excessively wide elbow flare, which places a lot of stress on the acromion process of the shoulder joint. Like the push-up, train the high incline dumbbell press with an elbow flare of roughly 45°. This will also allow you to utilise more of your triceps in the movement.
5. Overhead press
The standing barbell overhead press is the ultimate test of upper-body pressing proficiency. It beats out the bench press due to two reasons: the absence of an eccentric component at the beginning, and that it requires a greater amount of core strength to perform correctly. The first step in setting up for the overhead press is finding your grip width; a good starting point is around a hand's width outside of shoulder width but feel free to experiment. From here, you'd want to brace the midsection and tighten your upper back before taking the barbell out of the rack. Once ready, create tension by pushing your feet into the ground while flexing your legs and glutes, and drive the barbell straight up with the shoulders. Finish by locking out the elbows at the top and squeezing your shoulders together. To avoid clocking yourself in the chin as you press, pull your head back slightly and tilt your chin upwards. For those with a more prolific chin protrusion, it may be necessary to move your head back further as the barbell approaches the area. Remember: move your head around the barbell and not the other way around!
As you progress through these drills, remember to actively apply the lessons you learn from the ones before. These physical cues are meant to flow into and complement one another, and are crucial when it comes to optimising pressing performance. There is nothing wrong with spending extra time on a particular drill if you find yourself having trouble with certain bad habits. Better to address them now then to have them re-surface at a later date!