Pectoralis muscles as push muscles vs pull muscles

Pectoralis muscles as push muscles vs pull muscles

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Pectoralis muscles are the adductors, flexors of arm in addition to medial rotators of arm. How does this action translate in to acting as helping in push ups or in bench press? I am having trouble visualizing the primary actions helping in these compound movements.

I also have trouble understanding why this muscle being a powerful adductor does not work in pull up exercise?

The pectoralis major is not just an adductor and medial rotator of the arm. Its clavicular fibres also flex the arm at the glenohumeral joint. This is the action useful in performing push-ups and bench presses.

And yes, its adductor action also plays a role in pull-ups and climbing (along with that of the latissimus dorsi, another adductor).

References and further reading:



  3. Romanes GJ. Cunningham's manual of practical anatomy. 15th ed. Vol 1, Upper and lower limbs. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 1986. (ELBS edition, 1989 reprint). 263 p.

Shoulder muscle activity during pushing, pulling, elevation and overhead throw

Purpose: The aim of this study was to compare the muscle activity of recreational athletes and professional javelin throwers during pull, push, and elevation of upper extremities and during overhead throw.

Scope: Nine professional javelin throwers and 16 recreational athletes without shoulder problems were studied. Signals were recorded by surface EMG from eight different muscles. The results obtained from the muscles of upper extremities of throwers were compared with those of recreational athletes.

Conclusion: The different neuromuscular control of professional throwers caused a more profitable muscle activity. Differences during the overhead throw were more significant. The deltoid muscle and rotator cuff of recreational athletes showed stronger activity than those of throwers during pull, push and elevation. The deltoid muscle and the rotator cuff of professional throwers showed stronger activity during overhead throw. Studying the detailed characteristics of muscle activity pattern (differences in length of activity periods, MVC% of muscles and time broadness among peak muscle activities in percent of total time of a movement cycle) may provide a basis for better understanding improved performance and help in planning proper rehabilitation protocol.

What are opposing muscle groups?

Roughly speaking, the body is arranged into opposing muscle groups. They’re also often referred to as antagonistic muscle groups or antagonist pairs.

Because most movements have two phases to them, opposing muscle groups work together to perform both phases.

When it comes to exercise, it’s vital to develop well-rounded and balanced strength in both groups to progress with fitness and remain injury-free.

What are the main opposing muscles?

The main groups that we commonly hear about are:

Biceps and Triceps

(either side of the upper arm)

Quadriceps and Hamstrings

(either side of the upper leg)

Deltoids and Latissimus Dorsi

Pectoralis Major and Trapezius/Rhomboids

(upper chest and upper back)

Abdominals and Erector Spinae

Iliopsoas and Gluteus Maximus

(front and back of the hip)

Hip Adductor and Gluteus Medius

(inside and outside of the hip)

How do opposing muscles work?

In the majority of gym exercise, there’s a primary mover. It’s also called the agonist. That’s the muscle you’re trying to target by doing the exercise. It contracts to successfully perform the movement. To allow it to do so, the antagonist, its opposing muscle, must relax.

It’s important to note that this isn’t always the case. Both muscles in an antagonist pair can contract simultaneously to perform an exercise in a few instances.

Should you train opposing muscle groups together?

If you’re well into your fitness journey and are looking to give a particular area some real focus, you might have started to do more focused exercises. And you might want to make your training more efficient.

Many fitness routines acknowledge that the body can be split into opposing muscle groups.

The push/pull workout structure is a popular example of this. It allows you split your workouts by antagonist pairs, giving you the ability to plan your rest days more effectively and achieve a balanced workout.

Agonist supersets attempt to target the same primary mover with two different exercises back to back. Antagonist supersets aim to target opposing muscles with two different exercises back to back.

It’s not necessary to train your opposing groups on the same day or on different days. It depends on what you prefer and what works for your workout routine.

It is important not to train just one muscle group and neglect its antagonist. By strengthening just one of a pair of opposing muscles in isolation repeatedly, the other tends to lengthen and weaken. You should also work muscle groups from across the body and keep them all strong. Any type of imbalance can cause injury, so keeping strength balanced is important for the body.

How do you know if you’re developing muscle imbalances?

Don’t panic. Unless you’re a professional bodybuilder or live in the gym, you don’t need to keep a detailed log of how many reps you’ve done of each exercise and which exact muscles you’ve been training.

Most of the major compound lifts you find yourself doing in the gym will see you work a mixture of muscles. Squats, deadlifts, and lunges all target the quads, glutes and hamstrings.

The upper body is where it’s worth thinking about this a little more. The chest press or bench press is a popular lift lots of people try to progress with. Just make sure to balance it out with some back work as well.

If you do lots of isolated exercises, which means exercises that move just one joint at a time, you might need to think a little more about opposing pairs. Chest flys, bicep curls, hamstring curls and calf raises can be labelled as isolation exercises. They aim to target a single muscle more. That means, if you do them too often, without paying attention to other muscles, you could end up with an imbalance.

But you don’t need to overthink it too much. Just being aware of the opposing muscle groups and having a varied range of compound exercises up our sleeve can be enough to make sure we’re giving ourselves a balanced workout.

What are some opposing muscle group exercises you can do?

Having a go at some opposing muscle group exercises helps with your understanding of which exercises do what.

So, here’s a rundown of a workout that targets each opposing pair to offer a full-body, balanced workout.

Biceps and Triceps:

Triceps: Tricep extensions

Quadriceps and Hamstrings:

Quadriceps: Leg extensions

Hamstrings: Lying leg curls

Deltoids and Latissimus Dorsi:

Latissimus Dorsi: Dumbbell pullover

Pectoralis Major and Trapezius/Rhomboids:

Abdominals and Erector Spinae:

Erector Spinae: Back extensions

So, what’s the verdict? Should you be working opposing muscle groups?

Isolating muscles can be a helpful way to address pre-existing muscle imbalances. But they can also cause them in the first place if we spend too much time strengthening one muscle without considering its counterpart.

Working opposing muscle groups is only simple for a handful of groups, and after that, it can get pretty complex.

The more efficient way to work out and make sure all your muscle groups are strong and balanced is by keeping key compound exercises at the core of your regular routine.

A little knowledge of opposing muscle groups can help you top up and guide your efforts safely and equally. But don’t let it keep you up at night.

Keep your focus on frequency, variety, and flexibility. Oh, and use Hussle to make all that easier. Unlimited, multi-gym access all across the UK. And digital fitness classes. All with one flexible fitness pass.

Symptoms of Pectoralis Major Strain

Grade I Symptoms

  • Discomfort or pain in the chest area or upper arm/armpit area.
  • Discomfort when you bring your arm towards your body, or when you try and rotate your arm inwards.
  • Discomfort or weakness when pressing the arms out in front of the body.
  • Mild swelling over the front of the shoulder or arm, or above the armpit.

Grade II Symptoms

  • Pain in the chest area or upper arm/armpit area.
  • Pain when you bring your arm towards your body, or when you try and rotate your arm inwards.
  • Noticeable weakness when pressing the arms out in front of the body.
  • Swelling over the front of the shoulder or arm, or above the armpit area.

Grade III Symptoms

  • A sudden sharp pain at the front of the arm or shoulder.
  • Acute pain and swelling in the front of the shoulder and upper arm.
  • A sound or sensation of tearing or popping when the injury takes place.
  • Bruising that shows up days after the injury.
  • A visible lump and gap in the pectoral muscle.
  • Pronounced weakness when trying to press the arms out in front of the body.

Causes of Pulled Muscles in Chest

Although injury is the most common cause of pulling your chest muscles, there are other factors that can contribute to pulled chest muscles. First of all, let’s look in more detail at the types of injuries that can tear your pecs.


According to Dr. Russell Warren from the Hospital for Special Surgery, pectoralis muscle injuries happen when there is too much force or weight on the muscle. Injury to the chest muscles often occurs when the arm is extended. The most common reason for injury is performing bench presses.

However, Dr. Warren says that engaging in sports like football, hockey, rugby, wrestling, and skiing can result in mild to traumatic injuries to your upper chest. 6

So, any kind of strenuous physical activity that involves an outstretched arm that gets pulled, wrenched, or jerked suddenly could pull a muscle in your chest.

Repetitive injury strain

Some repetitive strain injuries are less traumatic to the chest muscles but can still result in mild pain and discomfort.

According to the website, putting strain on your chest muscles over a long period of time could gradually weaken them. This could cause symptoms of a muscle pull in the chest. However, the repetitive strain on your pecs could weaken them to such a degree that you are at more risk of a pectoral muscle injury. 7

Age can have an indirect effect on pulling a muscle in your chest. As we age, our muscles, tendons, and ligaments lose some of their elasticity and strength. This can increase the risk of pulling a chest muscle if you fall with an outstretched arm.


In accordance with the hypothesis, the greatest core muscle activation was achieved with the suspension device with a pulley system (i.e., AirFit Trainer Pro), which was considered the most unstable device. However, partly in accordance with the hypothesis, the stable condition only provided the highest muscle activation for the DELT. Suspended push-ups induced greatest activation than standard push-up on the floor, which presented the lowest TRICEP activation, while individually, the suspended device with a pulley system induced the greatest TRICEP activation. In this line, Lehman et al. (2006) and Anderson et al. (2013) found that TRICEP activation during unstable push-ups was superior to the stable condition. On the other hand, Freeman et al. (2006) showed that performing the push-up with two hands on two balls provoked the same activation levels as a stable push-up. However, it is possible that extent of instability in that study was insufficient to elicit significant differences.

Similar activation patterns were apparent for TRAPS where it seems that unstable conditions may provide a greater challenge than stable conditions. The suspended device with a pulley system elicited over triple TRAPS activation compared with the two parallel band system with independent anchors and the standard push-up on the floor, probably due to the greater unilateral movement allowed and the scapular synergist stabilizer role of this muscle (Lear and Gross, 1998). In accordance, unilateral maintained push-up on a medicine ball showed greater activation of the TRAPS compared to a stable surface (de Oliveira et al., 2008).

Despite there being no significant DELT activation differences between the standard push-up on the floor and the two-anchor suspended push-up, the condition provided by the stable push-up was the only one that caused greater activation than the condition induced by the one-anchor devices (i.e., Flying, TRX Suspension Trainer and the Airfit Trainer Pro). Thus, results suggest that for DELT, a more stable condition may provide a greater or similar extent of activation as more unstable conditions. Consistent with this affirmation, Freeman et al. (2006) found that push-ups on the ground provide similar DELT activation as the same exercise performed with hands on two balls.

The PEC muscle showed significantly increased activation with the two-anchor suspended push-up in comparison with the other conditions. A 20% of MVIC higher activation has been reported for a two ball push-up versus a standard version (Freeman et al., 2006). In contrast, no significant differences were found in favour of pectoralis major activation during push-up exercises on a Swiss ball compared with a stable condition (Lehman et al., 2006). Authors stated that absence of changes in muscle activation of the pectoralis major may be due to its role as prime mover and to a less extent as stabilizer (Lehman et al., 2006), and suggested that moderate, rather than excessive levels of instability, are required to increase activation in pectoralis major muscle (Behm and Colado, 2012 Behm et al., 2010). Other reasons that may lead to different muscle activity is the height of the feet during the exercise and the use of shoulder width or wider hand positions, although recent research does not show any difference in pectoralis major activation during a push-up with these hand positions (Youdas et al., 2010). In addition, it is noteworthy that participants’ characteristics such as training experience may play an important role in muscle activation levels (Wahl and Behm, 2008).

If we take into consideration the DiGiovine’s scheme (DiGiovine et al., 1992), LUMB and FEM activation levels are classified as low (i.e., 㰠% of MVIC). Previous studies reported low LUMB activation rates during push-ups on unstable conditions (Freeman et al., 2006 Beach et al., 2008 Anderson et al., 2013) and during similar exercise positions such as a press-up (Marshall and Murphy, 2005) or prone bridge (Lehman et al., 2005, Kang et al., 2012). These findings suggest that suspended devices provoke a safe amount of muscle activation for the lumbar spine (Escamilla et al., 2010) since excessive muscle activity in the lumbar paraspinals has been related to high compressive and shear forces in this zone (Juker et al., 1998). Low activation levels may be appropriate for LUMB muscle (Behm and Colado, 2012) due to their high type I fiber proportion (Behm et al., 2010) and the prevalent role of muscular endurance for daily functional tasks (McGill, 2001). Higher FEM activation has been suggested to cause greater lumbar lordosis (Sundstrup et al., 2012) and may increase the risk of low back pain (Youdas et al., 2008). In our study, the suspended device with the pulley system achieved the greater FEM activation, perhaps due to greater strength requirements to avoid falling and maintain adequate posture and exercise technique. Although it is unknown how much FEM muscle activity is related to greater anterior tilt and an increased lumbar lordosis, caution should be used with some individuals because of the increased low-back injury risk with suspended push-ups (Beach et al., 2008 McGill et al., 2014).

The greatest muscle activity of all muscles was achieved for the ABS muscle. The suspended device with the pulley system showed greater activation levels than all conditions but did not differ from Flying. Nevertheless, ABS activation levels were very high during all suspended conditions according to DiGiovine’s (1992) classification. Similarly, Beach et al. (2008) reported greater ABS activation during the suspended push-ups compared with regular push-ups. Likewise, results showing instability-induced higher activation were demonstrated when performing push-ups (Freeman et al., 2006 Anderson et al., 2013), push-up variations such as a press up on top (Marshall and Murphy, 2005) or a push-up plus (Lehman et al., 2006), and a different exercise with similar position to a prone bridge (Lehman et al., 2005, Kang et al., 2012).

These exercises get a good overall activation for both heads of the Pectoralis major.

Bench Press with Barbell or Dumbbell Chest Press

The bench press is one of the big three exercises most athletes perform and for good reason. The bench press is an exercise that allows you to lift substantial amounts of weight, strengthening all the pushing muscles at once. Research also indicates those with a strong bench press also tend to have bigger pecs. Consequently not only is the bench press great at strengthening the pectoralis major it’s also a great chest grower.

Floor Press (Dumbbell Floor Press) or Pin Press

If shoulder mobility or stability is an issue Floor presses and Pin presses are your best friend. These exercises reduce the range of motion to where your shoulders are relatively safe and sturdy. While providing support to the joint when the strength curve is at its heaviest. There isn’t a need for a spotter either. If you fail a floor press you can just drop the weight on the floor or onto your hips where you’ll then roll it off your body. If you fail the pin press the pins will catch the weight. You get all the benefits of bench press training without the compromise that stems from weak shoulders.

Push Ups

Push-ups at this point are synonymous with the pectoralis major. Fact is push-ups are a great chest builder and have been prescribed for decades. It’s also a bodyweight exercise, making it easy to modify for your training level. If you’re a beginner it’s a great primary exercise and if you’re experienced you can use them as a finisher. Push-ups should be a staple in anyone’s training routine.

Cable Crossover


As has been long recognized, muscle–tendon architecture contributes importantly to the functional role that muscles play in animal locomotion. Understanding muscle–tendon architecture in terms of locomotor movement requires that the contractile dynamics of muscle force and length change be assessed in the context of the time-varying demand for the forces and work that muscles must produce to propel and control the movements of an animal. In this sense, locomotion represents the emergent unifying functional context in which muscle contractile dynamics can be studied and better understood.

In vivo patterns of muscle strain and force generation critically depend on the timing of neuromuscular activation in relation to the cyclical movements of an animal's limbs and the loads against which muscles contract (Marsh, 1999). Stretch–shorten contraction cycles and isometric force development are common features of muscle dynamics that power both terrestrial locomotion and flight, favoring increased shortening work and reduced cost of force generation. When linked to muscle–tendon architecture, these patterns help to reveal how the design of different limb muscles favors work modulation and the control of movement versus MTUs that reduce the cost of force generation and can provide elastic energy return.

Although an understanding of proximal limb muscles is challenged by obtaining direct in vivo measures of muscle force, by combining in vivo techniques to quantify fascicle strain in relation to neuromuscular activation with inverse dynamics analysis of joint torque patterns, the roles of proximal muscles can be elucidated in relation to those of distal MTUs, for which direct measures of muscle–tendon force can be quantified for varying in vivo conditions. It is clear that proximal muscles play diverse roles. Whereas distal biarticular muscles may primarily function to transfer energy, generating force economically with little net work performed, proximal biarticular muscles can contribute to work performed at one or both adjacent joints. Finally, classical F–L and F–V properties along with history-dependent properties, such as stretch–activation and shortening–deactivation, can play important roles in providing rapid, intrinsic adjustments to muscle force and work output that reinforce subsequent neuromotor feedback in the control of movement when steady movement patterns are perturbed. Future studies will benefit by integrating the functional significance of single-fiber properties to features of whole-muscle and connective tissue function, studied in the context of the time-varying dynamics of locomotion across a range of conditions. Use of modeling simulations will also play an increasingly important role for providing an overarching understanding of limb muscle design and use at the whole-animal level.

Difference Between Pulled Muscle and Torn Muscle

Pulled and torn muscles are typically misused and interchanged by people. Thus, these two types of muscles are different in their own way. They differ in various things, but they have similarities with each other as well. A pulled muscle is usually termed as a sprain while torn muscles are classically called a strain. Pulled muscles are caused by injury to the ligaments. A ligament is a tough form of fibrous tissue that connects cartilage and bone at a joint or sustains a muscle, organ, and other parts of the body. Torn muscles are caused by an injury to tendon tissues or muscles.

The function of muscles is to tolerate movement of the body. They are made up of small bundles of fascicles or muscle fibers. Fascicles, in turn, are made up of single muscle fibers that are connected to each other in a special way that gives them the capacity to slide simultaneously. The reason why is that muscles can be slid apart, shortened, and permit the muscles to increase in length. Muscles move in harmony with bones with the help of tendons which enable the muscles to attach with the bones. The shifting of the muscles to the tendons happens slowly as tendon fibers give way to muscle fibers prior to the bone attachment. Tendons may vary from short to long depending on their location in the body. The muscles can shorten and pull the tendons as the muscles contract.

A torn muscle is an injury triggered by an overstretched tendon or muscle. The bundle of fiber is torn apart and loses its ability to contract. The amount of tissue damage is the basis for the severity of the injury. The most frequent cause of this condition is overuse of muscles that eventually weaken them. If the joints and muscles perform an activity which they are not designed or prepared to do, an injury can come about from one stressful event, or it may progress slowly after many habitual motions. The damage can be graded on its severity in three areas, such as: the intersection of muscle and tendon, the muscle itself, and the tendon itself.

Pulled muscles are injuries that are caused by damaged ligaments. Ligaments are the thick group of tissues that stabilize and surround joints. This ligament allows the joints to be in motion only on limited directions. A number of joints move about in various planes which, therefore, require more than a group of ligaments to grasp the joint in its proper location and alignment. On each side of the joint, the ligaments are connected to the bone. If a ligament is stretched, then the damage is called a sprain.

The most common location for pulled muscles is the ankles. The mechanism of damage is abruptly twisting or rolling the ankle and rotating it internally so that the foot’s sole starts to point up. This causes damage and stretches the ligaments on the outer part of the ankle. Muscle strains or tears may include any body part that is used to execute work. Back pain in the lower region and spasm is an outcome of frequent lifting injuries.


1.A pulled muscle is usually termed as a sprain while torn muscles are classically called a strain.

2.Pulled muscles are caused by injury to the ligaments. Torn muscles are caused by an injury to tendon tissues or muscles

3.A torn muscle is an injury triggered by an overstretched tendon or muscle. If a ligament is stretched, then the damage is called a sprain

4.The most common location for pulled muscles is the ankles. The mechanism of damage is abruptly twisting or rolling the ankle and rotating it internally. Muscle strains or tears may include any body part that is used to execute work. 5.Back pain in the lower region and spasm is an outcome of frequent lifting injuries.

6.Pulled muscles involve a ligament that is a tough form of fibrous tissue that connects cartilage and bone at a joint or sustains a muscle, organ, and other parts of the body. Torn muscles involve tendons which give the muscles the ability to move in harmony with bones which enable the muscles to attach with the bones.

What Muscles Do Pushups Work – Final Thoughts

I think you would agree that an exercise you can do anywhere there is a floor has a lot going for it, and that is only one of the powerful benefits of push-ups for an athlete or wannabe athlete at any age.

Push-ups are used as a standard fitness assessment test and for building muscle all over the world.

For example, see the IFA Pushup Test:

International Fitness Association’s (IFA) Classic Push Up Test:¹

  • Starting position – lie on the floor in a prone position
  • Bending your elbows with your hands pointed forward and directly under your shoulders
  • Your hands should be shoulder-width apart
  • Start with the chin touching the floor, then
  • Perform push-ups by pressing against the floor to lift your body weight and straightening the arms
  • Maintain a straight body plank position throughout your push-ups
    • For men, your legs should be extended out and positioned together with only your feet touching the ground.
    • For women, the upper leg should be straight out, and your knees are touching the floor.

    What’s Next

    Push-ups are one of only three exercises I consistently did to lose 75 pounds in 6 months and change my body and life dramatically.

    In the beginning, I could not do even one push up.

    The simple push-up, along with squats, deadlifts, walking, and real food, will help you transform your body in only six months, even if you are obese today.

    If you want to lose weight and transform your body, here are the next articles to read and take action:

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    The present study provides a practical calculation for the number of bench press repetitions that can be performed from push-up repetition performance. This can help with the formulation of training programs especially with more novice individuals of both sexes. Since there is greater stability, no chance of injury from erratic movements of dumbbells or barbells and very little motor learning involved with push-ups, push-ups are an excellent exercise to use to gauge and predict the initial loads to be implemented when progressing to a bench press exercise. The sex disparity in repetitions and muscle activation during these exercises indicates that push-ups may provide a greater training stress to women than men and may be a good starting point when initiating a resistance training program.