Pushup/Chaturanga

Don’t do this!!

I don’t mean to rip on anybody and I wouldn’t post this blogger’s name, but this is the perfect example of a poor pushup.

In my many years of life, I was once an Army Drill Instructor. I’ve seen hundreds if not thousands of troops come into basic training who didn’t have a clue about a proper pushup. Now, mind you, my pushup has changed slightly over the years with yoga. But the principles are the same.

And yes, chaturanga dandasana (four limbed staff pose) is not a pushup. But for me, it is. When I do a CrossFit workout, it looks exactly like my chaturanga. Why develop a movement pattern and then change it for something else? Its just like my squat is the same across modalities. My Olympic weightlifting squats look very similar to a chair pose or goddess pose in yoga. Your movements and body alignment should be the same all through life. You don’t exercise or do yoga with an intention to be different.

So back to a pushup. In yoga, we talk a lot about external rotation of the shoulders. But its true for all of lifting as well. Mark Bell is an accomplished powerlifter who I’ve seen do a 900 pound bench press. He sells a stiff, flexible band that you wear around your arms just above the elbows. It draws your elbows together so they don’t flare out. Its exactly how I do chaturanga.

One of the oddest bones in the body is the scapula, the shoulder blade. It kind of floats out there on its own without many attachments to another bone. But if you’ve studied how many muscles connect to it, you’d be amazed. Most of our shoulder problems start with the scapula.

So what’s wrong with this pictured pushup? Almost everything. But if we start with the scapula, we call the problem "winging". If we had a 3D animation to pan around, we’d see her scapulae totally winged up. This means she isn’t engaging any of the muscles around the scapulae. The primary considerations are the serratus anterior (and other serratus muscles), rhomboids, middle and low trapezius, and the numerous rotator cuff muscles that protect the joint capsule. This leads to impingements, grinding of bone on bone around the shoulder, and too much pressure on the prime muscles involved. This can eventually lead to ruptures of any of these muscles, but especially tears of the labrum, rotator cuff muscles, and pectoral muscles.

What you also notice tangentially is her elbows flared out. I see often with new CrossFit athletes and yogis is tendencies to find more stability when they are weak. In bridge pose or upward bow, yogis will turn their feet way out and knees collapse to find strength. But I see this picture over and over when it comes to chaturanga. Another indication is how her palms turn outward. This is key in all yoga. Again, its a weakness issue. We encourage yogis to press into their hand, especially the palm of the forefinger and thumb. Its just like our cue to press into the ball of the foot. It encourages a midline strength.

Another major problem is head looking down. Actually, head looking down on its own isn’t inherently bad. When your head is in line with your spine, you are usually OK. But here, you can see it as a sign of weakness. In yoga, drishti matters for everything. Drishti is where you look in yoga. In Ashtanga Yoga, every pose has a drishti. Where you look matters. It tells where your spine should go and, in higher levels of yoga, where your energy is directed. For instance, when we squat, we don’t look down. Looking down encourages rounding of the spine. Instead we look up to counter the force of the bar on our shoulders encouraging a well-aligned spine. I find that when you do a pushup, its better to look forward or at least a few feet in front of your hands. When you look down, it can cause everything else to collapse.

This picture of me is of Phalankasana, or plank pose. Its an example how looking forward affects your alignment. Also, pointing biceps forward, elbows back, fingers straight forward, palms pressed into the ground, and engaging through the midline (uddiyana bandha). As you lower down, elbows hug toward the body. I read an article where someone said that’s not a good cue for yoga. But I strongly disagree. It follows every principle I know about good alignment.

I would encourage you to take a few pictures of yourself at different angles of plank and pushup. Ask yourself if you are broadening your chest, pulling shoulders back, and depressing your scapulae. It will save your body in the long run and you’ll find more strength. When you learn proper body mechanics, it transfers into all aspects of your life. And this quality of life carries you well into a ripe old age.

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