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The Fallacy of Push-Pull

Strategies of Body Part Grouping

As bodybuilders (or weight lifters) who workout every day, we know it’s not good to work the same body parts on consecutive days.  Thus, we break up the dozen or so total body parts, and separate them into two, three, four or even five different sub-groups, and assign them their own day.  For example, a person may choose to do upper body on “day one” and lower body on “day two”.  He would then either skip a day or two and then repeat the sequence – as just one example.

Other examples include working a third of the body on day one, another third of the body on day two, and the last third on day three.  That’s what I do.

Still others do only one or two body parts per day, which might therefore take them a week (or more) to work each of their primary muscle groups one time.  This assumes – of course – that they are not neglecting any muscle groups.

Over the years, numerous theories have popped up, in terms of the best way to group body parts.  One of the most common ways is known as “Push – Pull”, which requires a person to work the “pushing” muscles (chest and triceps) on one day, and the “pulling” muscles (back and biceps) on the next day.  On the third day (assuming there are other body parts that person wants to work) – one works whatever was not included in the first two days: shoulders, legs and abs.  The question is this: Is PUSH-PULL a good “formula”, and if so, why is it better than other methods of grouping body parts ?

The Rationale

The supposed rationale behind Push-Pull is this: “Since your triceps are activated while you’re working your pectorals, it’s a good opportunity to finish them off”.  Same with back and biceps: “Since your biceps are activated while you’re working your lats, it’s a good opportunity to finish off your biceps”.

The Logical Questions

This brings up at least five questions:

1.  Are your triceps “supposed” to be working, while you’re doing your chest exercises?

2.  Is there an advantage to working your triceps after they have been partially exhausted by doing chest exercises (… assuming they really were working while doing chest exercises)?

3.  Are your biceps “supposed” to be working, while you’re doing your back exercises?

4.  Is there an advantage to working biceps (or any muscle, for that matter), after they have been partially exhausted from other activity?

5.  Is there any special grouping of body parts that works better than another, and – if so – what is the basis for that “advantage”?

Mechanical Analysis of Chest Exercises

The function of the pectoral muscles is to move the upper arm bone (the humerus) horizontally, from a point where it is straight out to the side (mostly perpendicular to the torso), forward and inward, toward the mid-line of the body.  Technically, this is called “horizontal adduction of the humerus”.  This definition only involves one joint – the shoulder, and one action – that of the pectoral muscle, pulling the humerus horizontally around the shoulder.  If you had no forearm, and – instead – had a hand attached to the end of your humerus (where the elbow would be), you could work your pectoral muscles just fine, simply by moving the weight that is held in your hand, connected only to your humerus.

However, you probably have a forearm, and – thus – an elbow, and muscles that bend that elbow one way (flexion – by way of the biceps) or the other (extension – by way of the triceps).  And since your hand is attached to the end of your forearm, there is the potential for either the biceps or the triceps to participate in your chest work – depending on how you position your elbow during the exercises.  For example – if you were to do a flat dumbbell press, and you held the dumbbells wide (like a fly movement), your biceps would participate.  But if you held the dumbbells close, so that your forearm leaned inward from what might otherwise be a straight vertical position, it would be the triceps that participate.  (To learn more about how this works, you might want to read one of my previous blog articles, entitled “The Physics of Fitness”… particularly the part about how when resistance CROSSES a particular lever, from a particular direction, it activates the muscle responsible for that action.)

So, as you can see, the triceps muscle does NOT always participate in chest work.  In fact, not only does it not need to participate, I would suggest that it SHOULD NOT participate.  Ideally, when doing flat dumbbell presses (for example), the weight should be held directly over the elbow (the forearm 100% perpendicular to the ground), so that the triceps and the biceps are both neutral.  However, one could justify holding the dumbbells wider – outside the elbows a bit – because it lengthens the lever (the distance between the shoulder and the weight), and therefore magnifies the resistance that the pectoral experiences.  Doing so would activate your biceps – not your triceps – and there goes the theory that pressing movements are entirely “pushing” movements (… the biceps is a pulling muscle).  Holding the dumbbells closer – inside the perpendicular line of the elbows – is foolish.  Doing so decreases the resistance on the pectoral muscles because it shortens the lever length.  Yes – it activates the triceps, but at the expense of the pectorals.  It does not increase resistance to the pectorals, like biceps involvement would.

Bench Press certainly involves the triceps muscles.  And – for the most part – it is the only chest exercise (… okay Dips do too, if you want to delude yourself into thinking that Dips are a reasonably good chest exercise) that absolutely requires triceps participation.  But – as you might have read in a previous article of mine – the Bench Press is not one of the better chest exercises.  Personally, I never use it.  It over stretches the shoulder (when bringing the bar all the way down to the chest) and it misses the last 25% of the pectoral range of motion, including the contraction of the muscle.  You’re much better off – from the perspective of pectoral development and shoulder safety – using dumbbells, cables and well-designed machines that bring the hands together at the mid-line of the body (like butterfly machine, and certain pressing machines).

So – wham.  There goes part of the justification of doing triceps with chest.  As it turns out, a well-designed chest workout might have NO triceps involvement at all.

Mechanical Analysis of Back Exercises

The function of the Lat muscles (and of all of the upper back muscles, in fact) involve various directions of pulling the humerus from a position where it is in front of the body, backward – toward various positions where it is alongside or behind the body.  As you can see, that definition says nothing about the forearm.  Again – if your hand were attached directly to your elbow, and you could eliminate any involvement of your forearm, there would be no participation whatsoever, of the muscles that move the forearm (i.e., your biceps that bend the elbow, or your triceps which extends the elbow).  But the fact that your hand is attached to the end of your forearm, suggests the possibility that either your triceps or your biceps may participate in one of these pulling movements.  But – again – it depends entirely on the position in which you hold your elbow during your back exercises.

For example, say you were doing a one-arm dumbbell row.  As the weight rises, you will notice that the upper arm creates an arching movement, going from parallel with gravity (when it’s straight down), to perpendicular with gravity, and every range in between.  When it’s parallel with gravity, resistance to the lat muscle is zero.  When it’s perpendicular to gravity, it’s at 100%.  When it’s half way between, it’s at 50%.  But the forearm is mostly parallel to gravity the entire time – and parallel to resistance is always ZERO.  Your forearm is activated by either your biceps or your triceps.  So as long as your forearm stay completely perpendicular to the ground (parallel to gravity) – both your biceps and your triceps are NOT activated.  However, if you were to bend your elbow a little bit – angling your forearm forward, so that you were bringing the weight more toward the chest, than toward the waist, you would force the biceps to participate.  Similarly, if you were to extend the elbow a little bit, angling your forearm toward the rear, during the rowing movement, so that they weight was moving more toward the hip, than toward the waist, you would be forcing the triceps to participate.  But – ideally – the forearm should be nothing more than a connector – as if it were simply a rope, hanging from your elbow, 100% neutral – allowing all of the work to be done by the upper arm (lever) and the muscle that operates it (the lats, in this case).

Some exercises – like pull downs and chin ups, and also certain rowing machines (which determine the angle of our forearm for us, because of a fixed hand position, thereby not allowing us the option of choosing the angle ourselves) – force us to involve our biceps, although we might not want them to be involved, nor need them to be involved, in order to get a great lat workout.  Personally, I am not a huge fan of chin ups or pull downs, because I believe there is a much greater risk to the shoulder in pulling from a position above your shoulders, and not much of an advantage over rowing movements, which are much safer.  Therefore, I do a variety of rowing movements, during which I determine the position of my forearm (and therefore the involvement – or lack of involvement – of my biceps).  My goal – a reasonable one, I feel – is to isolate the lats as much as possible, and minimize the involvement of either biceps or triceps.  My goal is to have my forearm act as a neutral “connector” during my back exercises.

So, as you can see, the biceps might NOT play much of a role in a good lat workout.  And if it did play a role at all, it shouldn’t be a major role.  And this would theoretically shoot down part of the justification for making a biceps workout an automatic part of your lat workout – wouldn’t it?

But wait a minute.  An even better question is WHY would it be advantageous to work your biceps after lats, even IF your biceps played a major role in your lat workout?  The same goes for the triceps and chest combination.  Is there a logical reason, or a scientific justification, for working biceps or triceps, after you’ve “pre-exhausted” it (them) by doing other exercises that involved it (them)?  In a word – no.

What Builds Muscle ?

In one of my previous articles – the one entitled “To Burn or Not to Burn?” – I analyze the difference between athletes who experience fatigue, versus those who don’t.  Clearly, what builds muscle is resistance – specifically, “overload”.  As a bodybuilding community, we’ve known for years that lifting higher weight for lower reps builds a thicker muscle.  Lifting lighter weight for higher reps builds more endurance, for the obvious reason that a muscle adapts to the environment of fatigue, by increasing it’s ability to withstand fatigue (i.e., called endurance).  Endurance athletes (distance runners, bicyclists and swimmers) are the least muscular.  Power athletes (sprinters, gymnasts, etc.) are the most muscular.  By this definition, you would get a better triceps or biceps workout when those muscles are fresh, and you are able to use the most weight.  But instead, you are choosing to work them after they’ve been pre-exhausted, and are compromised in how much over-load (resistance) you can handle.  Is that smart?  No.

Of course, since a good chest or back workout really does NOT require much participation from your triceps or biceps, they would not be so pre-exhausted.  You could, therefore, use as heavy a weight as you wanted, without compromise.  But it would still completely derail any rationale for grouping triceps with chest, or biceps with back.

The truth is this: The way you group your body parts matters very little.  You could – theoretically – work the left side of your body today, and the right side tomorrow, and still get a good result.  Of course, it might make for a very strange workout.  But the point is that it doesn’t matter much – with one possible exception.

The Exception

There is a biomechanical term known as “reciprocal innervation”.  Essentially, what this means is that when a particular muscle is working (the biceps, for example), the opposite muscle (the triceps) is completely relaxed, so as to not inhibit or interfere with the action of the working muscle (in this case, the biceps).  Isn’t that nice?  If only people were so considerate.  What this means to us, in the bodybuilding community, is that when you work your pectorals, your lats are resting MORE than any other time.  And when your quads are working, your hamstrings are resting more than any other time.  And when your abs are working, your lower back in resting more than any other time.  Therefore, one of the most logical ways to group body parts is that of opposing muscles.

Chest and back – in superset fashion – is an extremely good grouping.  After doing a set of chest, you go and do a set of back.  And while your back is working, your chest is recovering BETTER than it would if you just sat there, chatting up the girl with the fake boobs.  And – as a bonus – your heart and lungs keep working, thereby providing you with additional calorie spending (i.e. fat burning).  And – as an additional bonus – you save time.  Who could argue with a savings of time, a cardio-system advantage that is simultaneous to your muscle building, and improved muscle recovery between sets ???  I’ll tell you who.  The guy who wants to keep his workout more social, than productive.  Or the guy who’s been working out the other way so long, he can’t bear the thought that there might have been a better way all these years.  By the way, a simultaneous chest and back pump feels awesome.  As does a simultaneous triceps and biceps pump.  Good Lord.  Better results, in less time, and more fun.

The Wrap Up

I’ve been doing opposing muscles (in super-set fashion) for years, and I’m convinced it’s the best way to train – assuming you want the best results in the least amount of time.  As I watch people in the gym, doing a set of chest, and then just sitting there (presumably recovering for their next set of chest) – wasting time, losing cardio benefit by cooling off, and perhaps getting distracted by the Laker game on TV, or being swept away in a conversation with a friend (that suddenly steals away 10 minutes) – it amazes me how long people take to workout and how little they accomplish.  If this describes you and your usual workout, consider the advantages of grouping opposing body parts as supersets.

In any case, you’ll see that doing only chest, followed by only triceps… or only back, followed by only biceps… not only takes longer, but does not have any logical or scientific justification.  There is no muscle-building advantage, it’s not as much fun, and you get no additional cardio benefit.  Try doing chest with back; biceps with triceps; quads with hamstrings; abs with lower back; shoulders (left side/right side – and then front deltoids with rear deltoids).  Split it up into 3 days or 4 days – then repeat.

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