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The ‘2:1 Pull/Push Ratio’?

The ‘2:1 pull to push ratio’ is a popular and widespread recommendation for shoulder health and postural improvement/enhancement.

If you’ve not heard of such a ratio before, consider yourself lucky, you clearly have never had shoulder or posture issues, long may that continue!

But if you have heard of the ratio, chances are, like me, you discovered it when researching shoulder pain?

I first came across this 4 or 5 years ago, when I had a pretty severe impingement in my right shoulder. Simple google searches were coming up with the 2:1 recommendations over and over, so I began delving deeper into this ideology……

Basically, it involves evaluating your training plan and seeing how much total pushing vs pulling you’re doing.

And that’s where it sounds easy but is actually more complicated; because vertical pulling doesn’t (or shouldn’t) count towards the ratio tally. Vertical pulling creates and facilitates IN-ternal rotation of the shoulder, whereas horizontal pulling creates and facilitates EX-ternal rotation of the shoulder.

(Left: external rotation with the shoulders rolled BACK. Right: shoulders still in external rotation but with the shoulders rolled FORWARDS)

Pushing movements – particularly chest exercises – promote internal rotation by their very nature, so thinking you can offset a chest heavy routine with just pull ups is barking up the wrong tree; you’re actually making things WORSE.

Pull ups are very lat dominant and the lats are internal rotators of the shoulder. Of course the other back muscles are involved as well, but what do you think happens when you have naturally turned in shoulders and underactive upper back muscles (rhomboids, mid/lower traps, rear delts), and you do pull ups?

Your nervous system falls right back on what it knows too well; lat and pec dominance while the upper back muscles continue laying dormant.

How do I know? Because it was and is me. I’ve lived it and I’ve paid with both shoulders. I can remember the first time I tried a workout with inverted rows. I found 5 inverted rows harder than 5 pull ups! How ass-backwards is that?! The only row I’d seen until this point was the row of coke cans I’d left on my desk while playing Xbox every night……..

Forgive me, I was 21 and knew jack shit about fitness really. To any sensible soul that would have been an alarm bell but ignorance is bliss, as they say.

Fast forwarding to the present day, I had spent many years keeping the row volume reasonably equal to the pushing volume. Although at the back end of 2020 I began facing my arch nemesis again – shoulder impingement was starting to siege control of my left shoulder this time. How can it be? I’m rowing now so why is this shit happening AGAIN?

The numbers never lie

I thought I was rowing but when I went through my training journal, and actually added up how many reps per week I was doing that were outside of retraction/horizontal pulling, I was flabbergasted.

The average ratio was 150-200 reps in any plane outside of horizontal pulling and a mere 15-20 reps inside the horizontal pulling plane!

7 Examples of Unbalanced Force in Daily Life – StudiousGuy
A visual representation of my REAL WORLD pull:push ratio

No wonder I’d had issues. I was a sitting duck!

From that day on I promised myself I would add in ample amounts of horizontal pulling to equal however many reps I do of every other pattern……….

And the results have been remarkable. My shoulder pain has all but disappeared, my overhead flexibility is getting better and better, my pull power has gone up and even my internal shoulder rotation has improved with no direct work.

Did you notice I didn’t say I’d stretched? Yep, little to no actual stretching done and still improvements in range of motion and stability!

Every week that passes has my shoulders feeling better and better WITHOUT reducing my general training volume. I just make sure I balance these patterns out with what I’ve been owing for years now (dedicated upper back work for weak muscles).

What about you?

Now, does this strict rule apply to everyone? No. If you’re more mobile through the shoulders and don’t have the training mileage I have with imbalanced routines, you can get away with not hammering the horizontal pull ratio as hard as I’ve needed to.

It’s akin to the age old saying when someone is fat and wants to get lean: If it took you 10 years to become obese, it will take you more than 10 days to get anywhere near ‘in shape’.

I’d had all the cards against me in the shoulder health department. My parents and immediate family are all less than blessed with thoracic mobility and natural shoulder function. I’d also spent years sitting playing xbox and being sedentary since leaving school. Coupled with then getting into training and doing a ton of exercises that just unknowingly tighten up all the already restricted areas……..

Like most resources on this topic suggest, it’s those with ‘cranky’ shoulders that benefit most from these ratios – particularly if they’re spending time at the computer for their job, as well as trying to get buff for the mirror on the side aka mirror-muscle-syndrome.

For most, just having rowing moves and shoulder prehab work present in a routine is enough.

But won’t all this extra rowing add sh*t loads of extra volume to my routine? *headscratch*

Great question! And this is where it all makes better sense: you don’t have to row heavy or even do exercises that are taxing in nature. I’m not making the case for training the hell out of your barbell row until it’s as strong as your bench press; it will probably never be. The great Christian Thibaudeau has publicly said he endorses high volume band pull aparts too, instead of going ape with heavy rows to make up the deficit.

TNation author Christian Thibaudeau – world famous strength coach

The following exercises are the best choices I’ve found. They don’t tax the CNS all that much and are easy to recover from, as well as being easy to perform for reasonable volume. On top of this, they work a treat for balancing out the shoulders and making you feel pain free:

  • Band pull aparts
  • Trap 3 raises/Prone Y-raises
  • Face pulls (bands or rings)
  • Rows (rings, TRX, bands etc)
  • Cuban rotations
  • Scapula wall slides/prone Y-W raises
  • Behind the back stick/barbell lifts (hands externally rotated/palms forward)

I like to rotate through these each session and mildly add progressive overload to them. These aren’t moves you’re going to gain loads on, they’re feeling moves as opposed to force moves. Also, the muscles these moves target are mostly slow twitch in nature, so they respond well to volume aka higher reps.

Theoretically if you ‘owe’ 70 reps for example, you could do a tri-set of band rows, Y-raises and cuban rotations for 3 rounds of 12 reps each. This works lovely to put some extra blood in the shoulders and rotator cuffs while aiding the recovery process nicely.

Not just hype

There’s lots written about this topic online and most of it is strongly divided. One camp says you definitely need to hone in on the push:pull ratio and the other camp says it’s completely unnecessary.

As is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle and it was only really Christian Thibaudeau who seemed to approach the subject with a ‘context is important’ stance. He made the case for band pull aparts and lighter supporting exercises to balance the shoulders, while also pointing out the dose is person specific.

To sum it all up in a few sentences, I’d say the following: if you’re running a balanced program and have done throughout your training career, you should be fine. However, if you haven’t and find your shoulders feel a little banged up – or even a lot banged up – then a phase dedicated to more pulling than pushing will certainly do you no harm!

Do you do rows and upper back work in your routine or has this article now made you want to?

JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

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