Let me first say, push ups are a great body weight exercise that challenges your core!
But are they great for climbers?
You find yourself finishing a session at the gym, and you want to do some opposition exercises to balance out your overworked muscles. I often see people pounding out push ups to try to balance their bodies. I am a big fan of opposition training, possibly the biggest fan, ever. Training muscle groups we don’t use as frequently helps to keep your bodies more balanced and assists in injury prevention. After treating a significant amount of climbers and asking them about their opposition training, most of them do push ups.
Let’s look at the muscle required to do a push up. Sure you need to stabilize with some muscles in your mid-back and Serratus if you do them properly, and triceps help out the cause, but push ups are primarily using your Pec Major (Pec for short). Brett Contreras has done loads of research on what muscles are activated in various exercises. When he tested body weight push-ups, he found tricep activation low and pec activation high.
If you read further along in his article, you find the best Tricep activation is in an isolated Tricep extension. He lists Skull Crushers (crude name, but accurate if you mess up) and cable extensions as the best two exercises for Tricep activation.
Now the question: why don’t you want to strengthen your pecs more?
That random guy at the gym said climbers need to push more to balance out pulling muscles, and he climbs nails hard, so he must be right, right? Well, not exactly.
When you break down the actions of Pec Major, you find climbers use their Pecs all the time. Pecs are responsible for extending your arm from a flexed position (pulling down), internal rotation (side pulls or lay backs), adduction (bringing your arm closer to your body which we often do while pulling), Horizontal Adduction (compression moves), and arm flexion (lifting your arm up). And most climbers have the posture to prove it -you know, the classic hunched over climber look that resembles our evolutionary ancestors.
And now to really change your paradigm, most people think climbers have strong backs because they are pulling with their Lats all the time. While the Lats do cover the back and attach on the spine and ribs, they are primarily a shoulder muscle; their primary actions are internal rotation and adduction of your arm -see above if you forgot what that means. Most of the climbers I treat have weak middle and upper backs. This is evident in their posture and mechanics.
So now that I have hopefully dissuaded you from doing push ups until your shoulders turn blue, let’s look at what will actually help you balance out your body and help keep your shoulders healthy. For good scapular mechanics you need to work the Serratus Anterior, Upper Traps, and Lower traps for upward rotation. And don’t forget about those tiny muscles in your shoulder that make up your External Rotators in your rotator cuff (or as some people like to mistakenly call it “rotator cup”).
Getting back to the dude warming up on your projects, he was partially right about pushing. You can strengthen your Triceps and Upper Traps by doing overhead pushing IF and only IF, you have full range of motion in your shoulders-especially flexion.
Want to learn more about how to strengthen these muscles? Come check out my opposition sessions at Boulderhouse starting May 15th!