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Should You Be Pressing?

Should You Be Pressing?

Billy Pratt, BA, CPT, PAS, GIPS, CFMSP, Pn1

Who remembers the 1970s when health clubs and gyms starting popping up all over the place? The media had just begun to latch onto bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger & Rachel McLish and the idea of lifting weights for aesthetics & health was no longer considered a fringe practice, reserved for football players and eccentric people. By the '80s the general public looked at weight training not as a
curiosity but as an essential part to building a more attractive & fit body. Nautilus centers & figure salons were in every city and many towns, selling workout regimens designed to shape every muscle group. Workout plans then were based solely on "this exercise works this muscle". Fast forward to 2020 and the scene is very different - an increasingly sedentary & aging population has placed demands upon modern-day fitness professionals to design programs that not just take into account aesthetic preferences but also the deleterious effects of modern-day living with all of our excessive sitting & inactivity. Posture has become a growing concern - neck, back, shoulder and knee pain can result from habitually forward posture (rounding of the neck & shoulders) and this has led some fitness trainers to propose the elimination of pressing exercises from client programs altogether. But is this the right path to take?

When pressing a load, the pecs, anterior deltoids & triceps are considered the "prime movers" or agonists. If someone has a forward posture the pecs & front of the shoulders tend to be shortened & tight - hence the reasoning behind eliminating exercises that on the surface seem like it would just make them tighter. I believe this is faulty reasoning however because it does not take into account the fact that
even though you may be pressing a weight away from you (bench presses, overhead presses, flyes, etc.) the muscles on the opposite side of the agonists (the antagonists, in this case the rear deltoids, rhomboids, lats, middle/lower traps) do have to work when lowering the load (returning to start position).

The idea that when pressing you are ONLY using one set of muscles and when pulling you are ONLY using the other side is erroneous. Whether pressing or pulling, the agonist/antagonist relationship changes but never becomes one-sided. The issue here is more one of degree & form rather than inclusion/exclusion. How one performs a
pressing movement matters - setting the shoulder blades right and keeping a neutral spine while pressing trains the body to use those muscles in a way that it they are designed to be used. Whether pushing a shopping cart, lifting your grandkids overhead, learning how to shove in self-defense class or placing the suitcase in the airplane bin, we cannot and should not simply avoid strengthening the muscles that contract when doing those activities because of an overly-simplistic theory regarding
individualizing a program to take into account bad posture. A correctly-performed bench press, overhead press, or flye movement requires you to set the back & scapulae correctly so as to make sure the antagonists do their jobs when doing any pushing. Pressing has a functional purpose and our anatomy reflects that (consider the bench presser who actively engages the lats to push more weight or the overhead presser who finishes the lift with the load over the back of the head to make the rear delts contribute).

So should you be pressing? Yes, and altering the ratio of pushing/pulling movements is a much more functional & sound approach than the simple elimination of a whole group of exercises. If you have a rounded posture or excessively tight pecs consider doubling the amount of pulling you do in relation to pressing (e.g. 4 sets of bent-over rows to 2 sets of bench pressing). Not only will this help you with any aesthetic benefits you may be looking for (cue the Nautilus Double Chest Machine for "larger pecs" and a "firmer bustline"), but as you get stronger with lifting weights in more than just one direction you get stronger with lifting things in real life in more than one direction. Life for our bodies isn't unidirectional regardless of how we're formed and our programs shouldn't be either.

By all means, do press. Just learn how to press correctly and change the ratio of pushing/pulling based on your own unique needs. You won't die from it, your posture won't get worse, and whether or not it gets better you'll be stronger for it.

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