As I get older, I gain a greater appreciation for mobility. In my teens and 20s, it was all about putting weight on the bar, setting personal records, getting big and strong. And while I still chase after those goals to a certain degree, these days, my main focus is on moving well.
This is why I’m such a big promoter of calisthenics – along with developing strength and endurance, body-weight training has a built-in mobility element that’s missing from many barbell lifts. It’s an efficient and, dare I say, fun way of getting in shape, although beginners are often intimidated at the idea, thanks in large part to a pair of upper-body exercises: the pull-up and the push-up.
If this sounds like you, fear not! Breaking down these exercises and isolating their beginning and end phases helps to build both strength and confidence. Add in some carefully selected dumbbell lifts and you’ll soon be pushing and pulling like a pro.
Pulling exercises are the toughest part of body-weight training. Some outdoor parks will have bars set low enough for inverted rows (also known as horizontal pull-ups); this is a fine option for building grip strength as well as the primary back muscles that are called into play during pulling movements. Not everyone needs to perform overhead exercises! If, however, nailing a perfectly executed pull-up is on your to-do list for 2019, listen up.
Grip strength is a major limiting factor on all pulling exercises. With pull-ups – where the entire weight of your body is hanging beneath your hands – that limitation is even more pronounced. You also need a high level of strength and endurance in both the arms, the upper back and the core.
The active hang is the bottom portion of a pull-up, and it’s great for strengthening the hands as well as developing a sense for the mechanics of pulling exercises. Grab an overhanging bar with your palms facing away, arms extended. From there, pull your shoulder blades down flat and squeeze them tight to your spine, then extend your legs forward, flattening the arch in your low back. Maintain tension throughout your body, working up to a 60-second hang.
The flex hang is the top portion of a pull-up. This variation places more emphasis on the arms and the upper back. It’s similar to the active hang, only your palms face in and your arms are flexed rather than extended so your chin is over the bar. Don’t worry if you can’t pull yourself up that high – you’re allowed to jump or get a boost from a box or a friend. Aim for a 30-second flex hang.
People don’t realize that the brachialis – the muscle that sits under the bicep – is the prime mover of arm flexion. When your palms are facing each other in the neutral position, the bicep’s role is reduced, giving the brachialis an opportunity to shine. Hammer curls are performed this very way. Mix a few sets of six to 10 reps into your routine and marvel as your pulling power begins to increase.
Forget about the bench press – for a well-built chest and powerful shoulders, push-ups deliver the goods. New clients don’t typically share my affinity for this age-old exercise, but that’s because, as many readers are well aware, push-ups are not for beginners. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before getting to your first nose-to-the-floor repetition!
You may not think of push-ups as being a core exercise, but if you think about it, the whole movement is basically an up-and-down plank. A stable core, mobile shoulder blades and healthy wrists are a must, not to mention strong triceps and shoulders.
First things first: You’ve got to be able to hold a finely executed plank in both the high (arms extended long) and low (resting on your forearms) positions for at least 30 seconds before acing the push-up. One of the most helpful exercises for building endurance in the arms and core is the commando plank, in which you alternate between the high and low plank for a set period of time.
Your shoulder blades, or scapula, play a big role in proper push-up technique. As you lower your body to the floor, your shoulder blades need to glide along your rib cage toward your spine; as you extend your arms and push your way back to the top, those shoulder blades need to spread wide. Straight-arm push-ups help to fine-tune this rhythm.
Anyone struggling with pushing exercises needs to spend time developing the anterior deltoids. Dumbbell front raises are a simple and effective shoulder exercise: Hold a fairly light weight in each hand, squeeze your glute and brace your abs, then lift your arms in front of you until they’re parallel to the floor. Reverse slowly, taking care not to rest your hands on your thighs at the bottom of the movement. Try time-based sets, setting the clock for 30-60 seconds.
Paul Landini is a personal trainer and health educator at the Toronto West End College Street YMCA.
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