By Stephen E. Alway, PhD
Pushups are one of the best exercises to target most of the major muscle groups in the upper body. Don’t believe us? Try to bang out 200 of them today and tell us where you’re sore tomorrow.
Still, as good as the traditional version is, there are ways to target specific areas with a few simple tweaks. One of those tweaks? Hand position. If you’re looking to target the triceps, try the Close-Hand Pushup. It’s an exercise with the potential to generate a massive pump in the triceps, with decent carry-over for the anterior deltoids, chest and even a bit of the scapular muscles of the back.
Close-hand push-ups activate the serratus anterior, upper trapezius and pectoralis muscles along with a number of shoulder and rotator cuff muscles, but it’s the triceps brachii muscles that really get torched in this exercise. Hand position on this exercise is important because if the hands are shoulder-width apart, the force at the elbow is up to 45 percent of bodyweight, but the force increases significantly (and involves more triceps work) with the hands closer together (up to 70 percent of bodyweight with a close-hand spacing).
The triceps brachii muscle— and especially the long head of the triceps— is strongly activated in close-hand push-ups. The lateral head of the triceps begins high on the humerus bone, but doesn’t cross the shoulder joint. The medial head of the triceps begins in the middle of the humerus bone and is mostly buried by the other two heads, but part of it can be seen above the elbow. The long head of the triceps runs from the scapula (shoulder blade) just below the shoulder joint and it joins the medial and lateral heads of the triceps brachii to cross the elbow and attach to the ulnar bone in the forearm. The long head of the triceps, or the “inner head,” gets the most activation because it both extends the arm at the shoulder joint (pulls the upper arm backward during the controlled descent) and extends the forearm at the elbow joint (straightens the elbow) during the upward movement. The medial and lateral heads also contribute strongly to elbow extension by helping the long head raise the body from the floor during each repetition.
The anterior fibers from the deltoid muscle are activated with each push upward. These muscle fibers begin along the lateral part of the clavicle bone. The fibers from this region of the deltoid insert on the proximal (closer to the head) and upper anterior (front) regions of the humerus bone. They cover the insertion of the pectoralis muscle as it also attaches to the humerus bone of the upper arm.
The subscapularis muscle is a deep, rotator cuff muscle of the shoulder. It’s a thick, triangular-shaped muscle that begins and lies on the anterior surface of the scapula (closest to the ribs). It forms part of the armpit (axilla) and crosses the anterior part of the shoulder joint where it attaches to the humerus near its head. This muscle is a strong medial rotator of the humerus. It also helps hold the humeral head in the glenoid cavity during all phases of the push-ups.
The large, fan-shaped sternocostal head of the pectoralis major muscle attaches along the lateral edge of the sternum and the upper-six ribs. Although all of the fibers are activated by close-hand push-ups, the fibers closest to the sternum are most directly and constantly activated. The pectoralis major adducts the humerus (moves the arm toward the midline of the body), so this muscle is active to position your arms into the close-hand spacing. The fibers of this muscle also flex the humerus (move the humerus bone of the upper arm anteriorly) as you push your upper body up from the floor.
The serratus anterior muscle is a very large muscle overlaying the lateral part of the rib cage. Its fibers look like ropes lying just above the attachments of the latissimus muscle fibers on the lateral side of the ribs. When the serratus muscles have been pumped by close-hand push-ups, these muscle bundles begin to live up to their name, which in Latin means “saw-toothed.” The fibers of the serratus anterior muscle attach to the first eight ribs and then run posteriorly along the lateral side of the thorax. The other end is attached along the medial border of the scapula (shoulder blade). This muscle pulls the scapula forward (protraction) and holds it against the thoracic wall. It stabilizes the scapula for pushing, and the serratus anterior acts as an anchor so other muscles can use the scapula as if it were a fixed bone (even though it’s a free-floating bone).
The superior (upper) portion of the trapezius is strongly activated by close-hand push-ups. The trapezius is diamond shaped with sides like a “trapezoid,” an irregular, four-sided figure. The superior part of the trapezius muscle (the top of the diamond) begins along the base of the skull and the seventh cervical (neck) vertebrae. The fibers angle downward and laterally to attach on the lateral part of the clavicle (collarbone) and along the scapula. The superior fibers of the trapezius lift the scapula and shoulder structures toward the ears and stabilize the shoulder during push-ups.
THE EXERCISE: CLOSE-HAND PUSHUPS
1. Get in a pushup position with your feet close together. If you really want to turn up the heat on your triceps, place your feet on an elevated (high) bench, chair or even the bed of your hotel room.
2. Place your hands together, with your forefinger and thumbs forming a heart shape. You can spread your fingers if you feel unstable, as this will increase the base and give you a little extra support.
3. Start with your elbows flexed (bent) and your chest on the floor. Rise up so your bodyweight is distributed between your toes and your two hands.
4. Keep your knees and body straight and push upward by straightening your elbows. Do this quickly (in about 1 second).
5. Don’t rest at the top with your elbows straight; slowly lower your chest toward the floor (in about 3 seconds). Your elbows should point backward as you lower your body.
6. When your chest touches your hands, start the upward thrust.
A wider hand placement will direct a greater activation and stretch to the lateral fibers of the sternoclavicular portion of the pectoralis muscle and away from the triceps. However, if your hands are closer together (especially if they’re touching), the triceps brachii will feel like they’re on fire and you’ll also activate the inner fibers of the pectoralis next to the sternum. If you’ve had a wrist injury, you might want to stay away from this exercise until your wrists heal completely.
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