Monday, July 25, 2011

Not Quite Ready for the Ball Push Up

As the newest techniques are marveled at helping you achieve faster results, what usually comes up in the exercise program is the stability ball. The stability ball (aka: physio ball, swiss ball, resist-a-ball) has gained popularity since its inception from the rehab world to the fitness world around 1998. Many magazines are now showcasing the versatility of the ball and making its mainstream acceptance much easier. Because the shape of the ball is unstable, it challenges the core muscles of the body to maintain a center of gravity and balance. Joint stability plays a huge factor when exercising on the ball and helps increase core strength by challenging the function of the joint (to stay stable), especially under loads.

Most personal trainers ask of their clients to perform exercises on the ball in an effort to “simply make it harder”. Numerous exercises can be performed on the ball that adds to its significance to any personal trainer’s tool kit. A workout on the ball can be just as challenging as 2 hours in the weight room—depending on the exercises chosen and fitness level of the participant. One of those exercises that are basically chosen is the push-up.

The push-up is a very basic upper body exercise that focuses on shoulder, arm and chest strength and endurance. The push-up is probably the most widely known exercise used in PE classes, military training, and gyms. So with the addition of the stability ball, the push up has added variety. 

There are two types of basic push-up variations that can be performed on the stability ball:

1.) Feet or thighs on the ball and hands pushing off the floor

2.) Feet or thighs on the floor and hands pushing off the ball.

There are other variations to the ball push-up, but I will examine variation number #2.

Many people I see in the gym perform the push-up on the ball with too-narrow of a grip (on the ball). Remember the ball is a sphere, so you must hold it off to the side of the top in the 3 and 9 position. Also, fingers will not be facing forwards all the time; they will be slightly facing the floor—depending on the size of the ball and amount of inflated air. Keeping your wrists neutral on the ball (keeping fingers pointing down) will ensure that the wrists will not suffer. 

When the untrained individual rests their weight into the ball, a chain reaction of signals is sent to the brain. Instantaneously, the body’s nervous system senses an emergency as proprioception is challenged and balance is altered. Muscles are called upon to return the body to a “comfort level”. These muscles that are called to assist interact with joints and prime movers. In most cases, superficial prime movers cannot protect the integrity of the joint effectively (making sure the joint moves or functions they way it was designed). So what we call the “core muscles” have to come in and do the work. Core muscles do not only involve the abdominal region—although that is what is always highlighted out by many popular fitness experts and videos. The core also consists of the thoracic spine and scapulae, along with numerous hip and back muscles.
If they are weak, a host of compensations are revealed during a ball push-up:

1.) jutting neck 

2.) scapulae “winging”

3.) inability to maintain braced abdominals

4.) inability to lower the body to ball in a controlled fashion

So this is what the trained eye sees. People are still able to perform the push-up off the ball, however, this set of compensations are evident by poor form and lack of reps. Most experts will contend, well “you have to start somewhere and we can’t stop an exercise program because of a few compensations”. My answer is “You can modify...” and we can start by perfecting the push up off the floor first.

An exercise program doesn’t have to be delayed because of compensations…only modified to include some necessary exercises.After an assessment, some auxiliary exercises should be administered to help address obvious weak points in a client's physique. Addressing the scapular muscles is important when planning to add push-ups to a program. One exercise I have found that is extremely helpful is the Scap Clock Wall Drill:

 Placing one's bodyweight into the stability ball will exploit the weakness in the scapular muscles and should warrant the program to tailor an emphasis on the thoracic spine, pelvic complex, and "core" muscles.

To short circuit the neuromuscular connection, try performing a set of the Scap Clock Wall Drill for 30 repetitions at varying focus points (on wall) and then follow with push-ups on the floor. You will note the "stiffness" in the scapular area that will allow more power production from the arms and chest.


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