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Analysis of Pushing Exercises: Muscle Activity and Spine Load While Contrasting Techniques on Stable Surfaces With a Labile Suspension Strap Training System

McGill, Stuart M.; Cannon, Jordan; Andersen, Jordan T.

The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research: January 2014 - Volume 28 - Issue 1 - p 105–116
doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a99459
Original Research

McGill, SM, Cannon, J, and Andersen, JT. Analysis of pushing exercises: Muscle activity and spine load while contrasting techniques on stable surfaces with a labile suspension strap training system. J Strength Cond Res 28(1): 105–116, 2014—Labile surfaces in the form of suspension straps are increasingly being used as a tool in resistance training programs. Pushing is a common functional activity of daily living and inherently part of a well-rounded training program. This study examined pushing exercises performed on stable surfaces and unstable suspension straps, specifically muscle activation levels and spine loads were quantified together with the influence of employing technique coaching. There were several main questions that this study sought to answer: Which exercises challenged particular muscles? What was the magnitude of the resulting spine load? How did stable and unstable surfaces differ? Did coaching influence the results? Fourteen men were recruited as part of a convenience sample (mean age, 21.1 ± 2.0 years; height, 1.77 ± 0.06 m; mean weight, 74.6 ± 7.8 kg). Data were processed and input to a sophisticated and anatomically detailed 3D model that used muscle activity and body segment kinematics to estimate muscle force—in this way, the model was sensitive to the individuals choice of motor control for each task; muscle forces and linked segment joint loads were used to calculate spine loads. Exercises were performed using stable surfaces for hand/feet contact and repeated where possible with labile suspension straps. Speed of movement was standardized across participants with the use of a metronome for each exercise. There were gradations of muscle activity and spine load characteristics to every task. In general, the instability associated with the labile exercises required greater torso muscle activity than when performed on stable surfaces. Throughout the duration of an exercise, there was a range of compression; the TRX push-up ranged from 1,653 to 2,128.14 N, whereas the standard push-up had a range from 1,233.75 to 1,530.06 N. There was no significant effect of exercise on spine compression (F (4,60) = 0.86, p = 0.495). Interestingly, a standard push-up showed significantly greater shear than TRX angle 1 (p = 0.02), angle 2 (p = 0.01), and angle 3 (p = 0.02). As with any training program for the elite or recreational athlete alike, specific exercises and programs should reflect one's injury history, capabilities, limitations, and training goals. Although none of the exercises examined here breached the NIOSH action limit for compression, those exercises that produced higher loads should be used relative to the individual. Thus, the atlas of muscle activation, compression, and shear forces provided can be used to create an appropriate program. Those individuals not able to tolerate certain loads may refer to the atlas and choose exercises that minimize load and still provide sufficient muscle activation. Conversely, an individual with a resilient back that requires an increased muscular challenge may choose exercises with higher muscle activation and spine load. This helps the individual, trainer, or coach in program design respecting individual differences and training goals.

Department of Kinesiology, Spine Biomechanics Laboratory, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Canada

Address correspondence to Stuart McGill,

Copyright © 2014 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association.