Push Ups

What If…? Part 3

US Navy 030830-N-9693M-006 U.S. Naval Academy ...

 In this post I will venture to explain some upper body mechanics…

Why too many downward dogs or push ups can give you a headache among other things.

Quick Review

In the previous two posts I touched upon:

  • How complex our body is
  • What a healthy muscle is
  • What fascia is
  • The relationship between muscle and fascia
  • How dysfunctional movement patterning can negatively affect our skeletal structure
  • A personal example of how repetitive overuse of imbalanced muscular patterning caused my legs to bow
  • Examples of similar types of bodywork: Rolfing/ Structural Integration, Kinesis Myofascial Integration (KMI), Wharton Performance Musculoskeletal Therapy (AIS), Active Release Therapy (ART)
  • Self-help methods: Feldenkrais, Alexander Technique, Pilates, Yoga, Body Rolling…
  • Listen to The Fuzz Speech by Gil Hedley or read the transcript
  • If you haven’t read the two previous posts view Part 1 here and Part 2 here before reading on.

When I was taking my Pilates Instructor Training Course, so many years ago, I was amazed at how much I didn’t know – boy that sounds arrogant! But it’s true – I was young and of course, thought I knew everything (much like my kids do now). My Pilates teacher, taught me to see with x-ray vision; which means, we were taught to analyze the way overused or underused muscles affected skeletal alignment – just by looking at someone. On the first day of this type of analysis, I remember feeling completely out of sorts: “You see what?” and “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” In time it all became so obvious, how was it that I couldn’t see all this before?

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

– Zen proverb

A quick side note: “The teacher” from my interpretation is not always a physical being. The teacher can be a spoken word or a situation, which contributes to an A-Ha! moment. The former scenario could have happened many times before, but it is at the precise moment when the student is really willing to see or is present, as if the planets have aligned like at the eleventh hour in a cinematic climax, the A-Ha! moment occurs. The teacher (or lesson) was always there, I believe all of our lessons are always circling around us, just waiting for that opportune moment. This idea conjures images of Glinda, the good witch from the Wizard of Oz, and those ruby slippers; Dorothy could have gone home at any time. The Lion, Tin-Man and Scarecrow all tell her that they should have thought of it for her…but Glinda reassures them that it was Dorothy, who had to think of it.

We are simultaneously teacher and student.

What does any of this have to do with doing too many push-ups or downward dogs? Bear with me…First:

1.We need to discuss neck and shoulder alignment.

2.What happens when we do too much of one exercise

3.Why being consistent with less, is more effective

1.We need to discuss neck and shoulder alignment.

The shoulder and neck regions are very complex, being made up of an intricate configuration of bones, cartilage, muscles, fascia, nerves, veins and arteries, which support our every move.

Just look at an example of how complex our internal wiring is (below):

The shoulder blades (scapula, singular and scapulae, plural) need to be well balanced upon the back of our ribcage. There are many muscles, which participate in all our daily movements, which we don’t often think about unless we feel pain in our effort to function.

The rotaor cuff muscles, below (there are four: Supraspinatus, Infraspinatus, Teres Minor and Subscapularis),

originate on our scapulae and insert onto our humerus (the upper arm bone). These muscles can work independently from one another and their main function, which is hugely important, is to stabilize the shoulder joint and provide movement of the arm bone, such as lifting and rotation.

But wait there’s more.

The Serratus Anterior, (above centre, seen here in red) also, happens to be one of my favourite muscles – I may quiz you on that later.

The Serratus Anterior (above and seen below left) combined with the Pectoralis Minor (below left)…

Pectoralis Minor originates on ribs 3, 4 and 5. They insert upward onto the Coracoid Process, which is a bony protuberance at the top of the scapula.

If the other muscle groups are not able to do their job or the Pectoralis Minor is over-compensating, the Pectoralis Minor can contribute in pulling the shoulder blade downward and forward.

…And on the back: Rhomboids, Levator Scapula, Teres Major (below left) and Trapezius (below right) all play a very important role in stabilizing the scapulae.

So all these muscles have to work in concert; like a symphony. Some muscles performing a fantastic crescendo when other sections are easing off into the whispers of pianissimo – this performance is happening ALL the time. This is what we mean when we talk about balance, which is why it is imperative to memorize movements in order to analyze them. As we become more proficient we focus less on how to do an exercise and more on how we feel doing the exercise, taking it to the next level of awareness; transformation comes as our awareness evolves. Exercising in this mind-full way is just not possible while watching TV, listening to music or having a conversation (hearing and having awareness of background noise and sound is very different from active listening). We actually must focus on the task at hand. To be mindful is to be focused.

Balance is something that is alive and is always fluctuating, it cannot be cast in bronze and held in place.

For example: if our Rhomboids are over-compensating for a weakness in our Serratus, the effect when attempting to do a push will then cause the shoulder blades to ‘wing’ (poke upward) causing more of an imbalance.

I have used the following quote before, it is so great that it stands repeating:

“Anatomy studies a projection of the static body, but function in the living requires more than static recognition.”

– Ida P. Rolf


2. What happens when we do too much of one exercise?

What happens when we do too much of one exercise, i.e., everyday, but in particular when we strain to squeeze out the last few repetitions beyond muscle failure.

The skeleton becomes compromised, the muscles and fascia can lose their functional slide and glide relationship – they can become stuck – nerves, arteries and veins can become impinged causing the next wave of who knows what…

…[Possibly,] “Thoracic Outlet Syndrome,” [which] can occur after trauma, such as with falls or accidents, which injure the neck/shoulder area, but more commonly the cause is a combination of muscle imbalances, and altered posture. These changes are common in those who spend long hours doing deskwork, or with certain sleeping positions, or improper workout routines.”

Dr John-David Kato DC, MSc, ACSM-RCEP, CSEP-CEP

Read more about Thoracic Outlet Syndrome here.

When this happens the end goal (a healthy, fit, functioning and balanced body) is sabotaged.

When we struggle with push-ups: the head drops forward, the neck muscles and shoulders are straining, this repeated practice is only reinforcing poor alignment. However, some will argue that they feel great. By pushing in the extreme they feel as though they ‘got a real workout’ and they can see the definition in their muscles, so in their mind ‘everything is coming along’.  It takes practice to fine tune pushing hard to our limit versus pushing hard beyond it.

The damage from pushing beyond our limit can have lasting effects, which don’t always surface until much later. Luckily, from what I’ve noticed, the body really does want to be healthy and happy. It has this amazing ability to regenerate. It seems to me that it is often the mind, which is more stubborn. To me, the body is like ‘man’s best friend’, it goes with you wherever, whenever, no questions asked. It will push for you beyond its limits, much like the dogs I see running the trails with their owners. Most dog breeds have no business running long distances, however, they carry-on for their owner, happy to do so, but sadly develop hip dysplasia (or something of the sort) requiring surgery. Most dogs are not meant for long runs, but are rather sprinters, who for themselves determine how much and for how long. Notice how those breeds naturally run in a game of tag only to stop and lay down to recover, then to bound up again to repeat the fun?  These breeds are the original Tabata athletes!

Where was I…

Also, there is a group of neck muscles called the Scalenes – Anterior, Medial and Posterior. (Below) You can see how the Scalenes are very deep within our neck.

The image (below) shows the nerves, known here as the Brachial Plexus (yellow), which pass through the Scalenes, including the subclavian artery, meaning it passes below the clavicle (under the collar bone), which pass again below the pectoralis minor muscle.

This image is intended to demonstrate how delicate our neck and shoulder structure is. And how easy it is to compress our nerves, arteries and veins when our skeleton is intentionally (through exercise) or accidentally (from trauma) pulled out of its optimal and balanced alignment.

Over-tightening of the Scalenes can pull on the Cervical Spine (neck vertebrae) pulling the neck bones forward which causes the head (chin) to tilt upward, Pectoralis Minor pulls the shoulder blades forward causing the shoulders to round, which compress the Brachial Plexus – the group of nerves exiting the neck area which can lead to tingling or numbness down the arms, among other possibilities. This is not good.

If your push up form resembles these two pictures (below), please practice modified push ups from your knees until you have developed a better balance within all the supporting groups of muscles that I have been talking about.

Regardless of my urging, if you insist on doing full push ups please analyze your form and before your body starts to go in this direction (see below), consider making a modification by dropping to your knees. From your knees if your form starts to fail, then stop – accept defeat with good form, that’s what we should be going for – or continue to work your way backwards to each modified version all the way back to the Wall Press. Once fatigued like this, it will surprise you how difficult even a wall push up becomes. It’s not how many you do, it’s how you do them.

Under my 4 Minute Morning heading I have the progressions for learning the correct form for push ups, starting with Wall Press then gradually working towards the full push up. When we skip ahead, assuming we are already strong enough for push ups or other exercises, we miss out on the necessary progressions. By spending time with each progression we develop better awareness of the simplicity and complexity within each exercise.

Help Yourself:

The daily Micro Breaks Stretches that you have been practicing (ah-hem), will support your efforts, by encouraging mobility in the muscles that are getting tightened possibly just from existing, doing some or too many push ups. Also here is another link to view at Wharton Performance: an AIS (Active Isolated Stretch) for Pectoralis Major and Minor. If you click on the Wharton Performance link, you will be taken to their main page, click on the second video on this page, the title is: “Active Isolated Flexibility with Phil Wharton” and skip ahead to 7:05 in the video to view the chest stretch. I do this stretch daily and occasionally many times throughout the day when I find myself waiting on the kids to brush their teeth or something of the sort.

3.Why being consistent with less, is more effective.

When was this idea conceived anyway? The idea that we have to beat ourselves up for hours on end to prove our endurance and therefore our worth? Was it Chariot’s of Fire? When did it happen that we were convinced that we all had to train as if we were professional athletes? By the way, most professional athletes are riddled with overuse injuries…more on that another time.

Hopefully, you’ve already listened to Gil Hedley’s, The Fuzz Speech; Well this is my: Less Is More Effective – Speech. By being consistent with shorter workouts, done every day for the rest of our life, we won’t need to go beyond muscle failure – we just need to go TO muscle failure – I repeat, not beyond. With this in mind we can better focus on our technique and devote more useful time to our stretching routine which will support our structure.

This is another shout out for the short duration High Intensity Workouts. Only 4 – 12 minutes, maybe up to 20 minutes from time to time and sure, keep doing your long cardio workouts if you like them – from time to time – balance it out. But generally speaking, when we are consistent – read: daily – I have found that our body responds better with a short High Intensity Workout combined with regular periods of stretching throughout the day. All of it is important, but in particular, finding the balance with:
  • exercise intensity
  • type of exercise/ variety
  • stretching/Yoga
  • being focused/ mindful
  • ability to access the meditative state
  • eating/nutrition/hydration
  • 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night
  • rest and recovery from exercise
  • relationships/family
  • creativity
  • duty
  • chores
  • work
  • play…

Being the natural chatterbox that I am, I have got a lot more to share on this topic (the downward dog part, etc…) and will post it over the next week; A little at a time so you can digest the information before I add on.