As a young lad in college, everything I had ever heard about strength training led me to believe that it was generally a good idea to balance your pushes and pulls in your training program. Basically this means for every exercise that involves pushing something away from you (bench press, shoulder press), you should perform an equal amount of pulling exercises (rows, chinups).
This keeps your body balanced and helps prevent injuries. And it makes sense for the most part.
But as I’ve grown and continued to learn about the human body and training in general, I’ve come to realize that almost every answer to any training question is: “it depends.”
Everybody has a different training age, injury background, bone structure, resting posture, mobility limitations, and strength imbalances. Cookie cutter programs that are ‘well designed might not end up being the best thing for everyone.
So I’ll steer things back to the original question of this post…
Do you need to balance pushes and pulls in your program?
Let’s take a look at your average American who spends 8 hours sitting down at a computer or desk. Unless they’ve got amazing posture and are diligent about getting up every 20 minutes to move around, there’s a chance that over time they’ll develop a kyphotic, or rounded upper back/shoulders posture.
This type of posture is usually accompanied with tight pecs, deep neck flexors that are always ‘on’, and upper back muscles that weaken over time.
Right off the bat there’s already an imbalance with this person. Would performing a balanced amount of presses and pulls benefit them? Perhaps, if not just for the fact that they’re doing something. But in order to really optimize results, they’ll probably need to pull more than they push to offset the hours of sitting they regularly do.
Ok great! Pull more than you push! ALL IS RIGHT WITH THE WORLD!
And quite frankly, this is good advice for a lot of folks nowadays. Desk workers, athletes, you name it. It’s always a great idea to have a very strong upper back as it has tremendous beneficial carryover to posture, performance, and shoulder health.
And if more pulling is beneficial, EVEN MORE must be better! Screw a 2-1 pull/push ratio, let’s go 3-1 or even 3-0 in favor of pulling exercises. YESSSSS THAT IS DEFINITELY THE WAY TO GO.
Hold your horses there, bucko.
Water is good for you too, but if you drink too much you can kill yourself, you feel me?
As awesome as pulling exercises are for you, too much can cause their own problems, especially if done incorrectly.
If you strength train, you’ve probably heard the cue ‘keep your shoulder blades down and back’ before. This refers to keeping your shoulder blades in a ‘packed’ and stable position in order to improve pulling technique and preserve your shoulder health. But it’s not uncommon for people to overdo this, causing their shoulder blades to become ‘stuck’, thus limiting the overall movement of their shoulder blade. Then what you’re left with is a military type posture which can lead to just as many issues as a flexed posture can.
Here’s the guidelines of what I usually program for most clients. Of course, exceptions exist, so take these with a grain of salt.
Desk jockeys/people who are just beginning a training program: 3:1 or 2:1 pull/push ratio with an emphasis on T-spine (thoracic spine, your upper back just below the base of the neck) mobility.
These folks typically sit all day and it’s usually reflected in mobility restrictions and strength imbalances. Their spines are likely immobile and their backs are usually weak.
Regular exercisers with no existing injuries or limitations: 2:1 or 1:1 pull/push ratio with an emphasis on maintaining good T-spine and shoulder mobility.
These folks (hopefully) don’t have too many issues so a balanced approach, or one slightly tilted towards pulling is generally a safe bet.
Athletes: can range anywhere from 3:0 to 1:1 pull/push ratio depending on their sport, injury history, training age, etc.
It’s usually a good rule of thumb that athletes will need pretty strong backs. Plus a lot of them overwork their shoulders anyway via the movements required by their sport, therefore making upper back work vital.
And yet it’s not uncommon for athletes to present with typical desk jockey issues and desk jockeys to present with typical athlete issues. Ultimately they’ll both need strong upper backs while maintaining quality movement of their shoulder blades. Everyone is different.
And if things weren’t murky enough, the type of pushes and pulls matter too, depending on the individual. Bench pressing is different than pushups and rows are different than chin-ups. It all boils down to an individuals needs and movement capabilities.
At the end of the day, a 1:1 ratio or 2:1 ratio in favor of more pulls is a safe bet for the general population. Keep in mind, HOW you perform your pushes and pulls matters just as much as HOW MUCH you perform of each.
So should you balance your pushes and pulls? It depends.
I know, what an unsatisfying way to end a post, with no definitive answer. If only I could think of something clever and funny to write so we leave on a high note…