Push-Pull Combos: The Push Up and Low Row
The last few posts focused on getting you to buy into the idea that exercise is medicine and that the best way to administer that is through strength training+HIIT with the support of a community. However, there are many ways to design such a program and this post describes one: the push-pull combo.
A push-pull workout is one where you choose a single muscle or muscle group and perform a set of exercises that use those muscles in a pushing direction. Then—either immediately or during your next workout session—you focus on that same muscle or muscle group, but you move in a pulling direction.
Muscles in the torso, arms, and legs are arranged in opposing pairs. The main muscle that’s moving is called the agonist. For example, if you pick up a coffee mug from the table, the agonist muscle is your bicep. The opposing muscle is the tricep, which is referred to as the antagonist. Both agonist and antagonist muscles work together to produce a controlled motion. As you contract the biceps, you’re simultaneously stretching the triceps muscle. Alternating between agonist and antagonist muscles during a workout can help you plan an effective strength training program. This contrasts with the classic muscle-building technique, where you exercise a single muscle group each day. For example, you’ll dedicate one day to your back, followed by leg, chest, arm, shoulder, and core days. It’s effective, but it can be tedious, and it requires a lot more time at the gym.
Whether the board is programmed body part split (upper/lower/singles) or full body movements, the push-pull is great way to efficiently add muscle mass. Push-pull combos are time effective workouts that allow you to perform a lot of work in a short period of time. By training agnostic and antagonistic muscles, you allow your pushing muscles to rest while you work your pulling muscles. Push-pull combos also work more muscle at one time, causing a nice growth hormone (GH) spike form the increased blood flow for fat loss and protein synthesis to increase muscle growth.
So, push-pull combos are awesome. How to design such a program is my job and beyond the scope of this post, so I’m not going to get into that here. What I am going to get into is two super easy, basic push-pull exercises: the push up and the low row, also known as the inverted row.
In fitness settings, push-ups are widely used to develop upper-body strength, power, and muscular endurance. They are staple exercises in fitness and gym classes; they are used by strength and conditioning professionals to train athletes in sports, and they play a prominent role in the basic training programs of the U.S. Military. Plyometric push-ups are considered essential for optimizing stretch-shortening cycle–induced adaptations for the upper body. Although the load during a push-up is limited by an individual’s bodyweight and anthropometry, many biomechanical variations of the exercise can be performed to alter muscle activity by providing either a lesser or greater challenge to the target musculature. These variations most often involve altering hand and foot positions, which impacts muscle recruitment patterns and joint stresses. Other variations include using various implements such as unstable surfaces, suspension training devices (TRX), and specially designed push-up equipment.
The muscles activated in a standard push up include: chest muscles (pectorals), shoulders (deltoids), back of your arms (triceps), abdominals and the muscles directly under your armpit, called the serratus anterior.
The standard push-up requires a general stiffening of the knee joints, hip joints, pelvis, and spine to keep the body in a straight line from head to feet while the shoulders and elbows flex and extend to raise and lower the body and the scapulae retract and protract to facilitate glenohumeral range of motion.
Push-ups can be performed with a multitude of variations to activate different muscle groups. The most popular variations are achieved by altering hand position. The most common are wide base (150% shoulder width), normal base (shoulder width), and narrow base (50% shoulder width). It is commonly believed that the wide base activates the pectoralis major to a greater degree than the other positions, whereas the narrow base optimizes the activation of the triceps brachii. This is consistent with the basic principles of applied anatomy. Specifically, the pectoralis major is a primary horizontal flexor, and flaring the elbows would seemingly improve the muscle’s length-tension relationship, thereby facilitating its ability to generate greater force. On the other hand, a narrow base with the elbows held close to the body would place the pectorals in a biomechanically disadvantageous position, thus requiring greater force output from the triceps brachii. However, electromyographic (EMG) studies evaluating muscle recruitment patterns during push-up performance suggest that narrow base push-ups not only elicit greater activation of the triceps brachii compared with the wide base position but also promote superior activation of the sternal head of the pectoralis major as well. The conclusion: push-up with shoulder-width or narrower recruit the most muscle groups and elicit the greatest work.
Foot position also is often altered to vary muscle recruitment. We all know decline push-ups, whether on a box, bag, or bench are awful – and the data supports it! In 2011 Ebben et al. assessed the peak vertical ground reaction forces of push-up variations including the standard push-up and those performed from the knees, a decline push-up (with feet elevated on a 30.5-cm box and a 61.0-cm box), and with hands elevated on these boxes (like a wall push up). Of course, push-ups with the feet elevated produced a higher ground reaction force than all other pushup variations. When expressed as a percentage of total body mass, the order from least to greatest load progressed from the hands elevated on a 61.0-cm box (41% of bodyweight), to the knee push-up (49%), to the hands elevated on a 30.5-cm box (55%), to the regular push-up (64%), to the feet elevated on a 30.5-cm box (70%), and finally to the feet elevated on a 61.0-cm box (74%). This just confirms what we already know: decline push-ups are tough!
Push-ups can also be performed with suspension devices and implements specially designed to facilitate changes in hand positions. Beach et al. showed that suspended push-ups activated more abdominal muscles than standard push-ups. One such device, the BOSU Perfect Push-up, is purported to be biomechanically engineered to achieve better results from push-up workouts. The efficacy of this claim was investigated by Youdas et al. who used EMG to evaluate the muscle activity in the Perfect Push-up versus standard push-ups. Muscle activation was evaluated during the performance of push-ups using 3 different hand positions: normal base, wide base, and narrow base. The muscles studied included the triceps brachii, pectoralis major, serratus anterior, and posterior deltoids. Analysis of EMG failed to show any significant differences between the groups, leading researchers to conclude that Perfect Push-up handgrips do not seem to increase the muscular recruitment when compared with the standard push-ups.
Push-ups on the TRX have been studied extensively. A study by Gulmez of 28 men evaluated the push-up at 0, 15, 30, 45° angles:
Force data were recorded by a force platform and load cells integrated into the TRX straps. The results show that as the TRX angle was reduced, the load applied to the TRX straps increased and simultaneously the load measured by the force platform decreased. This was true for both the elbow joint changing from flexion to extension and vice versa. When the TRX angle was set at 0° and subjects’ elbows were at extension during TRX push-up, 50.4% of the subjects’ body weight, and when the elbows were at flexion, 75.3% of the body weight was registered by the sensors on the TRX straps. The results of this study show that as the angle of the straps can make the push-up easier or harder – which we already knew. However, an additional study by Kohiruimaki et al. of suspended TRX push-ups showed an increase in the activation of abdominal muscles – so you’re not only activating your upper body but also your core.
Finally, speed of movement can be altered to change push-up biomechanics. Explosive push-ups have been compared in terms of peak force, rate of force development, and peak impact force. Garcia-Masso et al. examined the fall push-up (an explosive push-up starting from a tall-kneeling position, falling to a knee push-up position, and returning to the tall-kneeling position), jump push-up (an explosive push-up starting from standard position, where the upper body leaves the ground and becomes airborne before returning to standard position), and countermovement push-up (a rapid push-up characterized by fast eccentric, reversal, and concentric phases but does not involve leaving the ground) and found that the countermovement push-up, which was performed with maximal speed, exhibited the highest peak force and rate of force development. Given that this is the only variation that does not encounter impact forces, it appears that the countermovement push-up is a safe and effective choice for explosive variations if one wishes to maximize the aspects of upper-body power. Clapping push-ups have been shown to outperform standard, slow eccentric, 1 hand on medicine ball, staggered hands, hands on 2 balls, 2 hands on 1 ball, rapid countermovement, 1 arm, and alternating plyometric push-up variations in pectoralis major and triceps brachii activity. Advanced forms of plyometric push-ups could be problematic for individuals with back issues, given that an alternating plyometric push-up using a medicine ball has been shown to induce 6,224 N of compressive forces on the lumbar spine.
Additional alterations can be employed to decrease or increase the challenging nature of the exercise. For example, wall push-ups (leaning forward with hands against the wall) and knee push-ups (knees on the floor) are appropriate for those with limited upper-body strength. Push-ups on your knees shortens the lever, which reduces bodyweight loading to 54% in the top position and 62% in the bottom position and substantially reduces prime mover and core musculature requirements. For stronger individuals, push-ups using 1 arm or 1 leg can make the movement sufficiently challenging. Furthermore, a weighted vest, elastic bands, chains, and/or various unstable implements can be employed to further challenge the upper-body.
Low Row (Or Inverted Row)
Pullups are a challenging upper body exercise that requires an exceptional amount of muscle strength and proper strength to weight ratio. This can make them intimidating for a lot of people. The good news is the low/inverted row works the back muscles from a different angle and improves scapular retraction, which is a critical skill in the vertical pullup. You can add low/inverted rows to your workout routine as a preparatory exercise for a traditional pullup or as a stand-alone.
The muscles activated in a standard low/inverted row are primarily the back and shoulder muscles, such as the latissimus dorsi, trapezius, and rear deltoids. However, the biceps and core also play a significant role in pulling your body toward the bar, especially when done on a suspension device such as the TRX.
To do the low/inverted row, you can either use a TRX or standard bar. Using aTRX, hold a handle in each hand with your palms facing in. Walk your feet forward so that your body is at an incline. The closer to parallel to the ground you get, the harder the move will be. Hang from the straps with your body in a nice straight line and your chest pressed out. Engage your core and glutes and keep your legs straight. You want a nice straight line from your head to your heels. Do not let your low back arch or your hips sag toward the ground. Then drive your elbows down and back to row your chest up to the handles. Keep your body in a nice straight line as you row up and do not bounce off the bottom. Keep your wrists straight as you row up. Also, do not shrug your shoulders. Then lower back down. Do not lose tension at the bottom. Make sure to keep the chest pressed out and your body in a nice straight line. Do not swing to row back up. Make sure to feel your back and arms working to row and not just your arms. Focus on feeling your back pull.
Lots of studies have been done quantifying the ideal force ratios of the knee and lower extremities. However only a few have been done assessing power in the upper body. Our anterior chain and posterior chain work as agonists or in support of each other through movements. For example, your back muscles contract on the downward motion of a push-up, while your chest and ab and thigh muscles work on the upward motion of the push-up. In all exercises, our push and pull muscles share this type of reciprocal relationship. So while getting stronger in push exercises will help you execute a push-up, doing pull moves will support that motion too.
So what does this all mean? Well… what we already know – that the push-pull combination is effective in training the upper body.
Contreras, Bret et al. (2012). The Biomechanics of the Push-up. Strength and Conditioning Journal. 34. 41-46.
Nichols, Isaac A.; Szivak, Tunde K. Effects of Different Hand Widths on Plyometric Push-up Performance, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 2021 – Volume 35 – Issue – p S80-S83
Ebben WP, Wurm B, VanderZanden TL, Spadavecchia ML, Durocher JJ, Bickham CT, and Petushek EJ. Kinetic analysis of several variations of push-ups. J Strength Cond Res 25: 2891–2894, 2011.
Freeman S, Karpowicz A, Gray J, and McGill S. Quantifying muscle patterns and spine load during various forms of the push-up. Med Sci Sports Exerc 38: 570–577, 2006.
Garcia-Masso X, Colado JC, Gonzalez LM, Salva P, Alves J, Tella V, and Triplett NT. Myoelectric activation and kinetics of different plyometric push-up exercises. J Strength Cond Res 25: 2040–2047, 2011.
Youdas JW, Budach BD, Ellerbusch JV, Stucky CM, Wait KR, and Hollman JH. Comparison of muscle-activation patterns during the conventional push-up and perfect pushup exercises. J Strength Cond Res 24: 3352–3362, 2010
Cogley R, Archambault T, Fibeger J,Koverman M, Youdas J, and Hollman J. Comparison of muscle activation using various hand positions during the push-up exercise. J Strength Cond Res 19: 628–633, 2005
Gulmex, I. Effects Of Angle Variations In Suspension Push-Up Exercise. J Strength Cond Res 31: 1017-1033, 2017.
Kohiruimaki, R. et al., Suspended Push-up Training Augments size of not only upper limb but also abdominal muscles. Int J Sports Med 12: 789-795, 2019