No such thing as a push up

I know. Sounds crazy, right?

Of course there is such a thing. We’ve all done them. Some of us better than others, but we all know what they are.

I’m here to tell you that they don’t exist.

This revelation came to me while watching Crash Course videos on YouTube. For those who haven’t found them yet, Crash Course is a series of introduction courses to various topics. For each topic you get 40 or so ten-minute videos which give an overview of the whole thing.

I’ve been working my way through a selection of wide-ranging topics, from World History to Linguistics via World Mythology and Astronomy. I highly recommend them if you’re interested in expanding your mind a little bit in lots of directions.

But I digress. Today’s topic was inspired by the Anatomy and Physiology course.

Understanding how the body works is important for many things, but particularly in martial arts. If you know how it’s put together you can better predict how people will react to different stimuli, and you can figure out how to make them do what you want.

While watching one of the episodes about muscles, the presenter commented that there is no such thing as a push up, and it got me thinking.

Muscles help you to move. Each skeletal muscle is attached in (at least) two places. One of these is the origin and the other is the insertion point. When they contract, these two places get closer together. This is the muscle pulling.

Muscles don’t push.

If you want to reverse the movement, you need either some gravity or an opposing muscle. Think for example of your biceps. You tense your biceps and your hand gets closer to your shoulder. If you want to push your hand further away, you need to either relax and let gravity do its thing or use your triceps to pull your arm straight.

Niwadare, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

So what about those push ups? What is actually going on when you do one?

Well, lots of things.

First, the obvious one: pectoralis major. The pectoral muscles are the big fan-shaped muscles in your chest. This muscle connects your sternum to your humerus in the upper arm. When you’re dropping down during your push up, it’s relaxing slowly so that you don’t face-plant. When you “push” up, it’s pulling your arm closer to your chest.

The pectoralis major is assisted by the pectoralis minor, which as the name might suggest is smaller. This one helps stabilise your shoulder blades while you move.

At this point you’re probably thinking “but what about my arms? My arms hurt when I do too many push ups!”. And you’d be right. Next on my list is the triceps brachii, the muscle on the back of your arm. It connects your upper arm and scapula to your lower arm. It helps you lower yourself slowly as it relaxes, and straightens your arm when you push up.

The deltoids, on top of your shoulders, are also getting a workout. They connect the clavicle to the humerus, and help to bring your arm closer to your chest when you are going up.

The last, but by no means least, of the muscles on my list are the core muscles. These are the ones all along the length of your body which keep everything stable. If you’re not doing your push-ups correctly won’t be getting the attention they deserve. You should have muscles engaged all the way down to your toes

Bad (core not engaged) vs Good (core muscles tight)

So, having started out by telling you there is no such thing as a push up, I’ve now explained the muscle groups that you use when you do one.

Should you do them? Are they useful?

If done correctly, yes.

While most of the effect from punches in Shorinji Kempo comes from the speed, technique, and accuracy rather than muscle power, you can still get benefit from training your muscles. Training (at anything) with resistance makes you faster when you remove the resistance.

If you can extend your arms out in front of you with all your body weight on top, then imagine what you could do by extending your arm in front of you while standing up.

Just don’t forget to involve the rest of your body too!

Published by Nicola Higgins

Nicola Higgins is a 30-something* martial artist, Girlguiding Brownie and Ranger Leader, and actuary. She somehow also finds time to read, fuss her cat, and occasionally spends time with her husband. * please note that "ten or more" is still something.

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