Upper Body Strength – Part 1: Strength-to-Body Weight Ratio

Natalie Snyder, PT, DPT, OCS, CSCS
Board-Certified Orthopaedic Clinician Specialist
Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist
Shoulders Specialist & Female Athlete Specialist

August 10, 2021

Hey lovely people!

Did you read in the previous blog post about the common weakest links of the climbers’ shoulders?  Are you not a climber but was always able to do a pull-up but fell out of doing it and want to try again?  Do you look back and realize the last time you did a pull-up was so long ago and you’re afraid of doing it again because of the fear of overdoing it, hurting yourself, or feeling embarrassed that you’re weaker today compared to before?

Is it worth the hype of being able to do a pull-up?  Is it a true measure of body strength?

What about push-ups?  Is that better to do?  Is it more important than a pull-up?

Studies regarding the muscles of prime movers vs. the muscles of supportive movers are associated with injury risk and performance.  When you compare your ability to do a pull-up or a push-up, they’re using almost completely different muscle groups! It’s like comparing apples to oranges.  It is very common to see that your push-ups are much stronger than doing pull-ups.  There are a few reasons for that.

1. Push-ups: you’re already on the ground, your center-of-mass is lower, you’re pushing a smaller percentage of your bodyweight, depending on how high you position your feet below or above your center-of-mass.

2. Pull-ups: you’re hanging against gravity, your center of mass is higher, you’re holding your entire body weight upon your two hands from above, and you’re pulling up 100% of your bodyweight above ground against gravity.

How does injuries happen and why are push-ups usually easier to do than pull-ups?

  • If you modify it by positioning your hands higher on a table in push-ups, have your feet supported while you do the pull-ups, or using pull-up assist bands?  What is different?  The muscles involved, the strength imbalance, and the mechanics of the shoulder joint moves through the range.

What is muscle imbalance?  

  • A failure of the agonist to antagonist relationship and affecting the joints they cross.  These muscular imbalances influence the arthrokinematics (joint movement) and the muscle firing patterns which can ultimately cause structural damage.  Starting with any muscular strength or flexibility deficits of the prime muscle mover, it will be compensated by other muscles and patterns, leading to dysfunction, postural deterioration, and shoulder pathology… for life… unless we do something about it.

Let me tell you a very familiar example, we do everything in front of us.  In front of our body.  Many sports and daily activities require us to use our hands in front of us or above our head.  How do we position our arm? Using our 18 muscles around the shoulder we need to create and train the neuromuscular system to be automatic with the muscular contractions and activation controls.  Each arm movement require DIFFERENT muscle groups and firing patterns

It makes sense for all the muscles in the front to get stronger and pull the shoulders forward, and create problems such as shoulder pain, upper-back pain, or poor posture

  • We need to train the opposite muscle group which is oftentimes weak – and that is the lower trapezius, serratus anterior, and posterior rotator cuff. 

Do you want to start progressing forward to be able support your own body weight and perform a push-up or a pull-up?  Let’s get on it.

1. Start with non-weight-bearing position and light free-weight or machine to train the muscular activation and firing pattern through the movement.  Progress the weight.

2. Start with modified and inclined weight-bearing push-up position or the supported pull-up position and hold for time.  Progress the hold longer.

3. Move through the range with weight support and high-quality movement patterns to train the muscular contraction and firing correctly, fewer repetitions with high quality trumps many repetitions but with deteriorating quality. 

4. Increase strength by increasing repetitions, reduce amount of support, or increase the weight/load to maximize the strength but maintaining the quality movements.

I absolutely love training the Serratus Anterior muscle FIRST to increase the stability of the scapula (shoulder blade) to remain in contact and strong against the rib-cage to optimize the movement of the gleno-humeral joint (shoulder) without risking any derangement or injuries.


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