What’s your ratio of “push” to “pull” exercises? If you’re doing a higher ratio of push exercises to ones that involve pulling, you’re setting yourself up for muscle imbalances and problems with posture and alignment. The strength you develop should be balanced and you don’t want one muscle group to be stronger than its opposing one.
Despite the importance of muscle balance, most people have more muscle strength in the muscles in the front of their body as opposed to the back. For example, it’s common for women to have stronger and more powerful quadriceps, the muscles in the anterior thighs, than hamstrings, the muscles in the back of the thigh. Such muscle imbalance increases the risk of injury.
Why You Need Balanced Strength Training
By balancing strength between the front and back of your body, you also get more symmetrical development and balanced strength. One way to ensure your workout is balanced is to train your anterior and posterior muscles in the right ratio rather than focus too much on the muscles in the front of their body. You stimulate the muscles in the front with “push” exercises, those where the muscle contracts when you push. A prime example is a push-up and its many variations. Squats and overhead presses are other push exercises.
In contrast, pull exercises are those where the muscles contract as you pull the weight towards your body. These exercises are effective for working the muscles in the posterior chain or the back of the body. You might think that a one-to-one ratio of push to pull exercises is ideal for balanced muscle development. However, some experts believe we need a two-to-one ratio of pull to push exercises.
Why is pulling so important? Most people start out with some degree of postural imbalance from sitting too much. One of the most common manifestations of a strength imbalance is an anterior pelvic tilt, a condition where the pelvis juts too far forward when a person stands, leading to a protruding tummy and an exaggerated curve in the lower back. An anterior pelvic tilt comes from tight hip flexors and weak hip extensors.
At the very least, you need as many pull exercises as you do ones where the muscles contract when you push. However, if you’re doing the typical workout that emphasizes exercises like push-ups and squats, you may not be targeting your pull muscles enough. Let’s look at some of the best pull exercises and why you should be doing them.
Deadlifts are one of the best pulling exercises since they work so many muscle groups, including your glutes, trapezius muscles in your upper back, rhomboids, and hamstrings. These are all muscles that need to be strong to prevent back pain, neck pain, good posture, and to lower the risk of sports injuries. They call deadlifts the “king of exercises” for a reason! If you have back issues, the sumo deadlift and deadlifts using a trap bar is a more back-friendly version of the exercise.
It’s not easy for a female to do a pull-up since you’re lifting your entire body using only the muscles of your upper body. However, you can do modified pull-ups until you’re strong enough to do a standard one. One way to start is to pull yourself up as far on the bar as you can. Over time, you’ll find you’re able to pull higher and higher until you’re completed your first full pull-up.
Another approach is to do a negative pull-up. To perform a negative pull-up, start in a hanging position with your arms flexed and chin over the bar and slowly lower yourself down to a full hanging position. Doing this eliminates the pulling up phase but strengthens and conditions the muscles you need to do a full pull-up.
Why do pull-ups? It’s one of the best exercises for strengthening the muscles in the upper back to counter the effects of too much bench pressing, an exercise that strengthens the pectorals. It’s easier to neglect the back muscles since you don’t see them when you look in the mirror, but you need these muscles to be strong for balance.
Reverse flys target the muscles in your upper back that pull your shoulder blades together and they’re one of the best exercises for working the posterior deltoid muscles, a portion of the deltoids that don’t get as much attention as they deserve. Strengthening these muscles improves posture too. Go light on the weights to avoid a neck or shoulder strain with this exercise. You should be able to comfortably do the exercise through its full range-of-motion before increasing the resistance. You don’t need heavy resistance to get benefits from this exercise.
Barbell Bent-Over Rows
The barbell bent-over row is a classic pulling exercise and one of the most effective movements for strengthening the muscles in your posterior chain, including your lats. You can make the exercise more effective by holding the barbell at the top of the movement for a few seconds before bringing the barbell back down.
Use a light barbell at first since form is critical to prevent injury. The most common way people get injured with bent-over rows is they round their back when they row. Unless you hold your spine neutral, you’ll place added stress on your spine. You can also use a pair of dumbbells for this exercise. The advantage of using dumbbells is your body is in a less rigid position. Using dumbbells also works your core harder.
The Bottom Line
Now you know why you need pull exercises and how not including enough of them in your strength-training routine can cause muscle imbalances. Keep your form strong when you do these exercises, as the risk of injury is higher with movements like barbell bent-over rows and deadlifts. Pull-ups are also a challenging exercise to master but challenge every muscle in your upper body. Make sure you’re including these exercises in your routine.
- Medical News Today. “Anterior Pelvic Tilt”
- Dickie J, Faulkner J, Barnes M, Lark S (2017) Electromyographic analysis of muscle activation during pull-up variations. Journal of Electromyography and Kinesiology 32: 30-36.
- com. “This Common Workout Mistake is Ruining Your Posture And Stifling Your Performance”
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