Pushing and pulling are two things we do with our bodies day in and day out. Think of opening or closing a door, pushing a grocery cart, and pulling a curtain open or closed, just to name a few of the everyday examples. Those activities all require pushing or pulling maneuvers. Additionally, the muscles used in pushing and pulling activities are important for our overall posture and flexibility.
It's natural to have stronger pushing muscles than pulling ones. On average, we're about twice as strong for pushing movements as we are for pulling ones. Because of this imbalance, it's all the more important to make sure that our workouts are balanced and include both pushing and pulling work.
To help you get the strongest and most well-balanced body possible, we talked with trainers Bethany Stillwaggon and Steve Stonehouse. They helped us round up 10 different pushing and pulling exercises, ranging from rows to bridges to shoulder presses, along with the performance tips needed to move through them without injury.
The first five exercises are pushing moves, and the second five are pulling, though rowing does work both our push and pull muscles. Pushing exercises strengthen our anterior chain of muscles, which include our core, chest, shoulders, and triceps, and pulling exercises use our posterior chain, which is composed of our glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, posterior deltoids, and biceps.
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Safety and Precautions
Despite the fact that we push and pull often in regular life outside of exercise, there is still an opportunity for injury when doing pushing and pulling work. Stillwaggon warns that in life, "it’s the pulling movements that cause the most opportunity for injury," she says. "That is why finding exercises that support pulling movements can create less opportunity for injury and great opportunity for strength."
For all of these exercises, start slow and, if weights are involved, start with light ones. Because we are naturally stronger at pushing than pulling, take extra care during pulling moves to not strain or overexert yourself. If you have any injuries, especially a back injury, consult with your practitioner before trying anything new.
- Start on the floor, facing downward with your legs behind you. Your arms should be under your shoulders, palms flat on the floor. Stonehouse says to "be sure that your arms are at the same level as your chest, bent at a 45-degree angle."
- Push your body upward through your hands, lifting until your arms are softly straightened. Stonehouse suggests you keep your feet stable and squeeze your quads, glutes, and core as you move up. Exhale as you lift.
- Pause at the top, if possible for you, in the plank position for a moment or two.
- Lower yourself gently back down to your starting position, inhaling as you lower, and repeat.
- Lay down on your back. Your knees should be bent; Stillwaggon says to get in position as you would for a sit-up.
- Push upward through your heels, lifting your glutes off the floor. Stillwaggon says to lift up "until your hips are high enough to create a straight line from your shoulders to your knees."
- Hold for a moment, then lower back to your starting position to repeat. Stillwaggon recommends 15–20 reps.
- Lay down on your back, with your knees bent and your feet under your hips. Place a dumbbell in each of your hands. Stillwaggon says to "hold your arms over your chest with dumbbell, elbow, and shoulder stacked over each other."
- Without changing the positioning of your elbows, bend at the elbows so the weights are lowered to either side of your head. This is where the name originates from: From the side, it can appear as if you are crushing your skull with weights by lowering them down.
- Lift the weight back up, powering through your triceps. Stillwaggon notes that you should "keep your core tight and your lower back pressed into the floor." Once returned to your starting position, repeat.
Overhead Shoulder Press
- Begin in a standing position, with your hips squared. Place dumbbells or a barbell in front of your chest. Stonehouse warns us to "make sure the bar is not directly beneath your chin," because that could lead to your hitting your chin in the next part. He also says to "ensure that your wrists are in a comfortable position and your hands are at the shoulder-length grips."
- Raise your arms up, making a point not to move your core, hips, or back. They should stay stable in place.
- Once fully bent, lower your arms back down to your starting position to repeat. Keep your chest up throughout the move.
- Lay flat on a workout bench with a barbell or dumbbells in your hands. Your upper arms should be at a 45-degree angle to your body, with your elbows and palms pointing forward.
- Straighten your arms upward, until the bar or barbells is well above you and your arms are softly straightened. Exhale through this part. Stillwaggon says that you should "make sure that your butt remains on the bench and your arms remain vertical."
- Gently lower the barbell or dumbbells back to your starting position. If using a barbell with a weight rack, you can place the barbell back on in between reps if needed.
- Sit at a rowing machine. Stillwaggon says to "set your butt in the middle of the seat and place your feet in the foot stretchers, pulling the straps across the widest part of your foot."
- Grab the handlebar so you're in a "catch position." Stillwaggon tells us you should be "hinging at your hips to about an 11 o'clock hinge forward, arms extended long, flat back, shins at about vertical, and your seat is about 6–8 inches from your feet."
- Push back with your legs, and then pull the handlebar with your arms. The handlebar should be pulled all the way to you, landing above your belly button just below your chest.
- Bend your knees to return to your starting position, and repeat.
Rowing uses both our pushing and our pulling muscles. Stillwaggon says that "the efficiency of hitting 86% of the body’s musculature at the same time and the cardiovascular benefits" make it an incredible exercise, and that "if you row for about 10 minutes, you’ve probably done an arm row movement with a light handlebar almost 300 times."
- Grab onto a pull-up bar, with your palms facing you. Stonehouse refers to this as a "dead hang position," and Stillwaggon notes that you should have your "chest facing the bar and feet out in front of you."
- Pull your body upwards. Your elbows will move down and behind as your body lifts up. If possible to hold yourself for a moment while lifted, pause on top.
- Lower yourself back down and repeat.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. If using dumbbells or a barbell, the weight should be held in your hands.
- Hinge forward from your hips. Stonehouse suggests that you keep your knees slightly back and your back straight, with your shoulders engaged.
- Keeping your shoulder engaged, lower yourself until the weights, if using, are at ground level.
- Lift yourself back up by squeezing through your glutes and hamstrings, then repeat.
- Hold dumbbells at your side as you stand with your hips shoulder-width apart.
- Hinge your hips back toward the wall, keeping your knees softened. Stop when the dumbbells are at the level of your knees. For angle, Stillwaggon says that you should hinge forward "until the flat back is between 45 and 90 degrees from standing."
- From here, Stillwaggon says to "pull your shoulders down and back" before pulling the dumbbells up toward your chest. Your elbows should head back toward your body. Stillwaggon says to "lead with elbows up to the sky."
- Slowly return to your starting position of still being hinged forward toward the wall before repeating just the part of the move that involves pulling the dumbbells to your chest. When finished repeating the move, lift yourself back up completely.
- Stand with your hips shoulder-width apart, one dumbbell in each of your hands.
- Bending at your elbows, curl the weights toward your shoulders. For proper form, Stonehouse tells us to "keep the core engaged and back strong, and make sure that your elbows don't drift forward or out to the sides."
- Lower the weights back down until your arms are again extended in your starting position, then repeat.
Every day, we push and pull, even without exercising. But since our pushing muscles are twice as strong as our pulling muscles, we leave ourselves open to injury. By doing pushing and pulling exercises, you can create balance in your body, as well as improve your strength and posture. From rowing to pull-ups, there are plenty of push and pull exercises to choose from and add to your repertoire.
Tillaar RVD. Comparison of Kinematics and Muscle Activation between Push-up and Bench Press. Sports Med Int Open. 2019;3(3):E74-E81. doi:10.1055/a-1001-2526