Over the past few weeks I have been thinking about the explosion in extreme races like the Tough Mudder and Spartan series. I wanted to see what some people were doing to train for them and what research there is for the best training practices for these races. I found that a lot of the programs call for push ups and lots of them. This lead me to ask what is the real purpose behind the push up and what is being trained with the push up? So, a million push ups latter and lots of thinking I realized that the push up is not a chest or shoulder exercise but a dynamic stability exercise.
The reason I say a push up is not a chest or shoulder exercise but a dynamic stability exercise - goes back to the fact that exercises cannot be looked at in a narrow single muscle or joint exercise but a whole system programing exercise. The prime movers in the push up may be the pecs, triceps, and lats but without the rest of the body the shoulders and arms doing the movement would have no purpose. If the arms did not have stable shoulder joints, core, and even legs to push through the force generated by the muscles would be wasted and not much movement would happen. Picture pushing against a string layed out on a desk. The string does not move in one piece but folds along the finger pushing it.
When doing a pushup we have to resist being the string pushed but be an oak tree resisting the wind. By doing this the whole body becomes one solid board resisting the bending forces of gravity that would cause the hips to spill forward, knees bend, back arch, shoulder blades wing, and the neck to bend down. By resisting the folding and arching of the body during a pushup we teach the body to stay strong and hold good posture when we perform other activities like pulling, lifting, or pushing. This allows us to generate maximal force while using minimal energy possible to perform the task and prevent injury.
So, If we think of the push up more as a tool to train the body to resist deforming under the increasing dynamic forces we will not only increase the upper body strength but also increase coordination. This will go a long way in increasing overall performance and help maximize every ounce of energy used during competition as well as decrease the risk of injuries.