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The Top 7 PUSHING Exercises To Increase Upper Body Strength & Power

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 22 November 2018
Hits: 16794

Earlier this year we gave you our Top 7 Pulling exercises and last year we gave you our Top 7 Squats. I had a few questions as to why we never followed up with the opposing movement of pulling, being pushing patterns, and what were our preferred exercises to use. The pushing action is very important for use in daily life and a weakness with pushing movement is linked to many of the shoulder and neck problems people suffer with. Most of the exercises people struggle to gain strength are with pushing, in particular females who have never completed strength training before. But true pushing movement patterns are not limited to the upper body, as the trunk and legs play pivotal roles in creating optimal positioning, stability and timing to execute this movement efficiently. This is the mistake so many people make who limit their training to body building exercises that eliminate the use of the legs. This article we are going to list our best pushing exercises in order of easiest to hardest. They are all great exercises in their own right, and make up a big part of our training programs for people of all ages and all abilities.

What Are The Muscles Used In Pushing Actions?

Key muscles used in these actions include the chest muscles of Pec Major and Pec Minor, the triceps, the deltoid muscles, the upper traps and very importantly the SERRATUS ANTERIOR. Anyone with shoulder or neck pain will have heard me talk about this endlessly as it is a big weakness to the shoulder complex. A bit like the glutes are a common weakness to the pelvis and hip region this muscle is the equivalent to the shoulder.

See picture below.

This muscle is used mainly in pushing actions, and easily develops weakness if not used at all, or if trained incorrectly. The first thing people think of when I mention the pushing pattern is usually the bench press. Have you ever been in a situation where someone strong walks in to a room and hear someone say "I wonder what he can bench?" As if this is the ultimate measurement of strength. But just like the leg press this is a very poor measurement of strength for I have seen many people bench over 100kg yet be completely useless in any position standing up! The bench press exercise was never intended to be a benchmark of a person’s total body strength and fitness. It is simply an exercise used for making you look good in a mirror, nothing else.

But what most people don’t realize is that this method of building muscle comes at a cost, especially for anyone playing sports, as it teaches your body how to become separate from the core and the legs when performing a pushing movement! It is almost as if you are telling your body, and your brain, we don't need stability. The star player on any sporting team is rarely the one with the biggest bench press! It is usually the player who has unbelievable balance, speed, stability, explosive power and strength resulting in awesome movement skills in a standing position. Nearly every sport that requires these attributes is played in a standing position.

Now I am not saying that this exercise is to always be avoided, I am making the point that why would you even want to use this as your go to exercise when there is so many better ways to improve pushing strength without the added dysfunction. You can read more about the bench press here - Better Alternatives To The Bench Press

Okay onto our top 7.

1: Single Arm Cable Push

This exercise is great for people of all ages and abilities. We use this with people in their 80's and kids as young as 9! Yet it is also a key part of our professional athletes programs too.

The reason is that this utilizes the anterior oblique system, which is the system that integrates the upper body and lower body via the obliques to  help provide stability and mobility in the action of walking or running. This is important in providing that initial stability during the stance phase of gait and then contribute to pulling the leg through during the swing phase. In this movement the obliques and the contra-lateral adductors work in perfect sync to create movement. Training this system is essential for the sporting player who use multi-directional movements as it enhances stability as speed increases in activities such as sprinting, and also when needing to brake or change direction. Any throwing sports like baseball, tennis and also the sport of boxing this movement pattern is essential. Deficits in the sling is often where you commonly see injury occur in most ball sports.

1. Standing with good posture feet a comfortable width apart.
2. Holding one cable handle drawing your belly button in towards your spine as the cable is held near your armpit
3. Push forward with the cable as if you are completing a punch making sure you slightly rotate with your hips and upper body.
4. Repeat

This is part of our assessment on the first day someone comes to train with us, for it reveals how well they can generate the ability to push resistance while maintaining stability through the rest of the body.

Progressions are seen below.

2: Yoga Push Ups

This is a regression of the basic push up and one we use a lot in the early stages of shoulder rehabilitation as it is the progression of the wall slides drill for serratus anterior that many people are familiar with. It is also a great way for a beginner to regain some lost strength. In Yoga the downward dog position can be a great way to encourage thoracic extension and more importantly upward rotation of the scapula without needing to move your arms. This is a great exercise if you have an extension problem. Do not do the push up if you have any pain or clicking in the shoulder.

1. Assume push up plank position with hands close the body maintaining optimal alignment
2. Push your hips to the sky and extend through your shoulders into the “downward dog” position
3. Lower back into a push up position (complete a push up if no pain)
4. Hold for a few seconds before repeating

To read more about upward rotation read this article - 3 Key Movements Needed For Healthy Shoulder Function

And if you are currently coming back from shoulder injury then make sure you get a copy of our Step by Step guide on how to get rid of shoulder pain. CLICK HERE to see more.

3: Push Up Variations

Obvious progression from the Yoga Push Up is the basic push up. For such an easy to do exercise Push-ups deliver a real punch to your body's health. They are without doubt one of the oldest and most common of all exercises to every person around the world. They are often used as a fitness test in Police, Military and various sporting clubs as well as being a cornerstone of programs for martial arts and gymnastics.

While a bulk of the workload is performed by the chest, shoulders and triceps, the exercise cannot be done correctly without almost every muscle in the body participating. The abdominal muscles must stabilize your torso to keep your hips from sagging or lifting up too high, and various other muscles such as Serratus Anterior play a role in assisting the stability of the head, shoulder and spine.

As with chin ups this exercise teaches you how to correctly sequence movements which is very important for developing great timing. Even your breathing must be right to be able to execute this correctly. This is one reason why exercises like these work so well with people suffering from nervous system injuries or disease. It helps to rewire the faulty program being communicated to the muscles via correct timing and sequence.

If you watch the video above we explain the correct technique and also provide 3 other progressions you can use.

Also make sure you read the article - Why Push Ups Are The Ultimate Exercise

4: Half Kneeling Single Arm Barbell Overhead Press

This is the first exercise where we look at pushing overhead which for many people is very hard to do. Anyone with a shoulder injury will tell that the most difficult movements to get back are always overhead pressing. In many cases the overhead stuff may have sped up the injury in the first place and really created a lot of serious damage to the muscles like supraspinatus. This is the next progression from the Yoga Push Ups for demanding upward rotation of the scapula, and is a great way for us to teach people who to lift resistance overhead without cranking up their neck and upper traps.

One of the best parts of this video is how you can progress from simple half kneeling stability, to challenging stability in a standing position, and lastly to integrated movement utilizing legs and arms in perfect synchronization.

5: Swissball Single Arm Dumbbell Chest Press

This is one exercise that is very similar to the bench press however it has several key components that make it unique, and still a much better choice than lying on a bench. While it looks like it is more of an arm and chest exercise, it really begins to become more of a glute and abdominal movement! The single arm being loaded up forces instability into the core and the only thing that can stop you from falling to the ground is your glutes, hamstrings and abdominals all working together as a team to keep you still while your upper body does the movement. An excellent exercise for improving glute and pelvic control.

For this reason this exercise is used a lot in our Knee Pain programs as it is a sneaky way of building in glute control without aggravating the knee. See more about this in the video - 2 ways to build glute strength if you have sore knees

1. Lying on a swiss ball so that your head and shoulders are supported by the ball.
2. Have the resistance band around each thumb and have someone else pull it above you, then hold a dumbbell on each hand.
3. With the hips up (squeezing your glutes), breathe in, lower the weights so the elbows are at about 90 degrees by your side.
4. Breathe out and press the dumbbells up until the elbows extend straight.

Below is two videos that show firstly a regression of this exercise on a foam roller. And the second video a great way to encourage activation of one of the small rotator cuff muscles subscapularis that is often inhibited and weakned in this movement.

6: Upside Down Kettlebell Overhead Press

This is another exercise that challenges overhead pressing with heavy loads. By holding the end of a kettlebell, the load won’t be as heavy, however, it increases the difficulty of challenging the shoulder’s stability, which is essential to build before improving strength. This exercise also challenges your posture and elbow and wrist stability. A great way to get confidence with overhead movement.

1. Standing upright with good posture (keep your hips tucked in), holding the handle balancing the kettlebell bottom up.
2. Drawing your belly button inwards and keep your hips tucked in, straighten your elbow to push the kettlebell over-head.
3. Lower the weight down under control and repeat.

Progression is to do this with a dumbbell and incorporate much greater load and utilize the legs to provide momentum. See video below.

7: Barbell Squat Press

Anyone who has lifted weights will know how great barbell exercises are and in particular the value of landmine exercises. These are a great way to improve functional strength and athletic power for sports performance. The days of just doing a bench press, bicep curls and maybe a squat and deadlift are over. There is just so many amazing exercises you can use a barbell with and in this video I show you 3 versions you could try.

This is where you begin to incorporate POWER into the pushing movement for the first time.

For even more ideas below is another video with 6 barbell exercises to try.


So there you have our Top 7 pushing exercises along with many progressions and regressions you can use in your training to not just enhance muscle but more importantly efficiency of movement. These exercises are all a big part of our rehab programs for back pain, knee pain as much as shoulder and neck pain. And they are also a big part of our sports programs for professional athletes in basketball, football, tennis and almost any sport demanding functional movement skill. And if you are none of those things and just want to be fit and healthy they are great for you too. The key is to always try to integrate the body and learn perfect positioning and timing. Strength is easy to obtain once you have these skills and once you have strength you can do many amazing things, regardless of your age.

And if you enjoyed this article and would like to know more about any of our programs for Personal Training or Rehabilitation for shoulder injuries please click the image below to request a free consultation.