What You Don’t Know About Upper-body Strength

Last time, we talked about wrists; for many of you, it opened up a whole new range of motion, eliminated the pain of bearing weight on the hands, and led to an all-new, badass push up. Sweet.

But internally rotating the wrists is just the beginning. The next stop for improving your mechanics and discovering just how much of a badass you really are is… your elbow.

Joints are not singular objects. A joint is the intersection of at least two bones that meet with other bones to make other joints. The elbow is the intersection of three bones: the radius, the ulna and the humerus. The radius and ulna intersect with the carpal bones to make the wrist . . . IMG_1326 . . . and the humerus connects to the shoulder blade to make the shoulder. IMG_1327The elbow, much like the knee, is what I like to call an “intermediary joint.” This means the joints surrounding the elbow—the wrist and shoulder—dictate how it will behave.

Follow me through this and you will know more about upper body strength than a lot of personal trainers.
Follow me through this and you will know more about upper body strength than a lot of personal trainers.

Consider our earlier wrist rotation exercise: The wrist internally rotates and generates torque on the radius. That torque is valuable; it would be a waste to just let it pass through the bones of the arm like water down a drain. What we need to do is resist that internal rotation so we can store it and put it to use.

In the context of a pushup, your body does this by partnering up two functions: external rotation of the humerus and upward rotation of the shoulder blade, or scapula. These actions are managed by an army of interconnected tissues that are bigger, stronger and more capable of supporting your body weight than your arms, acting by themselves, could ever possibly be.IMG_1333However, if either the wrist or the shoulder fail to hold up their end of the bargain, the muscle tissue around the elbow has to spend energy to maintain stability, rather than storing energy provided by the surrounding joints.

When it works, it’s a thing of beauty: The wrist drives internal rotation of the radius through gravity’s acceleration. The humerus resists that rotation, storing energy in the rotator cuff, serratus anterior and oblique abdominals. The elbow becomes tightly coiled, fully extended and rock solid.

And it doesn’t even remotely stop there: remember, this is happening in both arms at the same time. The oblique abdominals, behemoths that they are, carry the force from their respective scapulae all the way down to the hip, stabilizing the low back in the process. What starts humbly in the wrist and elbow eventually rules the spinal column.

In other contexts, too, like throwing, lifting and martial arts, that elbow coil acts like a force multiplier when it eventually uncoils, rapidly releasing its stored energy like a hammer drill. (If that sounds like an exaggeration, you’ve never seen the wing chun kung fu straight punch, nicknamed the “straight blast.”)

An elbow which doesn’t have to spend energy to be stable is a better force conductor; it moves faster, confers greater leverage and supports more weight.

Good luck! Snap a picture of your next plank and leave it in the comments!

4 thoughts on “What You Don’t Know About Upper-body Strength

  1. While some of this still mystifies me a little, it helps to understand when I do something wrong and now know what I need to do to correct the movement.

  2. The new trainer at my gym, a young BS in kinesiology, just told me I have to pull my scapula together and down to produce shoulder stability. This does not feel good or stabile to me. She gave me I, T, and Y exercises to do. Came home to google shoulder stability exercises. Whoa. Lots of opinions. What you describe here makes more sense to me. Since my arms are raised in the plank position, my scapula should be coming apart and up, right? Wrapping around my side body. Not coming together and down? Ugh! So confused.

    I asked the trainer for advise because I have shoulder impingement pain on my dominant side. I also have a thoracic spine that resists extension and rotation. Obviously I am not using my right shoulder perfectly but I am now at a complete loss as to how to fix.

    BTW, my wrists are now pain free, I am everting my right ankle to resolve foot pain during yoga. Lots of interesting discoveries up the chain, especially in my knee mechanics. Can’t wait for you to come back to Seattle. You are da bomb.

  3. Can I just say, Thank you! This information, and I can’t even stop reading your articles, have been such an eye-opener. I’m sitting here going, oh my God! I was brought up with karate but never was I taught the true mechanics of it or how better to utilize your body. I have been out of practice but am fitness rat who just happen to get a severe wrist pain everytime I do push-up’s and/ or yoga. I may need to rest my wrists for a while because the pain right now is ranging on unbearable. I tend to push my-self, thinking it is simply weakness but here I find out I have been misinformed!
    Thank you so much for sharing this information. God bless you!

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