Muscular imbalance: push versus pull
We recently received a question about whether muscular imbalance is potentially created through the yoga practice. This question points to a relatively common way of framing that conversation. That is, a perspective that muscles either either push or pull.
Laurent wrote in with this question and comment:
“One thing yoga asana is missing is the functional strength movement of pull. We push so much, but we don’t pull much at all. You wrote a great article that recommends cardiovascular exercise in addition to yoga, but would you also encourage yogis to practice some exercise that involves pulling? Since our shoulder girdle is out of balance between the muscles that push and those that pull, doesn’t that make our shoulders more safe to balance it out? And, could that balance bring more control and safety? Thank you!”
This is a question that comes up from time to time. So, in this article I’ll try to address the question of push versus pull. And, I’ll talk about whether there is a muscular imbalance created by the type of muscular action we do in yoga. Let’s start by taking apart Laurent’s comment a little bit and look at each part of it.
Assumptions about muscular action in yoga
Laurent did a good job of not being absolute in posing her question. But, the framing of this conversation about push versus pull in yoga, which is behind her question, is often absolute. That often comes out of a comparison between muscle training in the gym and yoga asana. And, that comparison doesn’t necessarily lend itself to yoga asana, much less the larger practices of Yoga. It also misses an understanding that the idea of push versus pull over-simplifies both what muscles do generally, and specifically how muscular action in yoga happens. The truth is, although we do both “pushing” and “pulling” actions in yoga, the way that we use our muscles in yoga most often is actually neither of those!
Let’s explore this further. First we’ll take a look at what we mean by pushing and pulling. Then, we’ll take a broader look at all the different ways we actually use our muscles in yoga.
Underlying Laurent’s comment, and the conversation around pushing versus pulling in general, are several assumptions:
- When we say “yoga” we mean asana
- Muscles only do push actions or pull actions
- We only do pushing actions in yoga
- We all come to yoga balanced and therefore if we do only yoga, we’ll have “ muscular imbalance”
What do we mean by pushing versus pulling?
So, anatomically, what do we mean when we say pushing actions and pulling actions? When we refer to pushing actions and pulling actions, what we mean are concentric contractions of a group of muscles around the upper body to create the action of pushing something away or pulling something towards us. Concentric contractions are what people are often thinking of when they imagine a muscle contracting. A concentric contraction occurs when the muscle shortens during the contraction.
It’s important to remember that in this type of contraction during movement, a resistance is required to get the muscle to contract. That resistance could be weight, as in a dumbbell, a rock, or even one’s own body weight. It’s also handy to remember that gravity is what gives these objects weight.
Understanding muscle contraction
It is a concentric type of contraction that happens when we pick up a rock and use our biceps brachii (and other muscles) to bring the rock toward us. The biceps brachii gets shorter as we do the action of flexing the elbow (pull). If we slowly lower the rock back down, one might assume that its opposite muscle, the triceps brachii, contracts to make that happen. The truth is, gravity is all that is required. If however, we want to control that descent, the biceps actually works in what we call an eccentric contraction. That’s a contraction where the muscle is getting longer during its contraction.
In order to get the triceps to concentrically contract, we need a resistance to straightening the elbow. For instance if we have that rock in our hand with our elbow bent and say, straighten our arm over and above our head, the weight of the rock would provide the resistance needed to activate the triceps into its concentric contraction (push).
Concentric contraction in a pushing action
Muscles that do a concentric contraction to contribute to a pushing action include:
- Pectoralis major
- Anterior deltoids
- Triceps brachii
Concentric contraction in a pulling action
Muscles that do a concentric contraction to contribute to a pulling action include:
- Posterior deltoids
- Latissimus dorsi
- Teres major
- Middle trapezius
- Biceps brachii
But remember, muscles don’t just do concentric contractions. And, that includes muscular action in yoga. Muscles can be active in other ways. We already mentioned that eccentric contractions are where muscles are lengthened and actively contracting at the same time. That can be hard to picture and the mind often fights the reality of that, so here’s another example. Think of your hamstrings as you fold forward from a standing position. Your hamstrings are resisting your body weight to lower you toward the floor as you fold AND they are getting longer to do that action. You already know that your hamstrings get longer in a forward fold, right?
Understanding isometric muscle contractions
We also have isometric contractions. If we take the example of holding a rock, and instead of moving it we just hold it steady in front of us, muscles are still contracting. In this case they’re neither pushing nor pulling, per se. Your muscles would be resisting the pull of gravity trying to bring the rock toward the ground. This is an isometric contraction. We do a lot of isometric contractions in yoga. This is because we are frequently holding our body in space in a posture and resisting the pull of gravity. This type of contraction is often used for stabilizing, and depending on your position, can require fairly intense contractions to maintain a position. Think of holding high plank for 60 seconds or navasana (boat pose) for just 30 seconds.
All of these different types of muscle contraction represent different ways in which we utilize our muscles. All of them have value in “exercising” muscles. A concentric contraction is not the only type of muscle activity that strengthens a muscle. All of them, when utilized, can create strength in different ways.
How are we using our muscles in yoga?
Is it true that in yoga asana practice we only do “pushing” actions? The short answer is no. In fact, although this varies somewhat between styles of yoga asana practice, we don’t actually do that much “pushing” in yoga. By pushing, we mean a concentric contraction of the muscle used to push something away from us. What we actually do more of than any other type of muscular action in yoga is an isometric contraction. Remember that’s the type of contraction we do to stabilize the body in space. Think about many of the standing postures that you’re familiar with in yoga. If we take the example of warrior one, warrior two, or a triangle pose, are we pushing or pulling in those poses? Neither, really. What we’re actually doing is isometrically contracting muscles to stabilize our body to maintain the shape of the pose.
When do we do “pulling” in yoga?
So, do we use the “pulling” muscles in yoga? Sure, we do use them. Binding is pulling. While binding in postures may be more prevalent and emphasized in the Ashtanga style of practice, it certainly exists within other styles. In either a standing or seated forward bend, for example, there is a gentle pulling action when we hold our toes or feet with our hands and “bind” in the posture. But, it’s true that even in binding, the pulling is gentle. I’d suggest that with practice, guidance, and the development of greater proprioception, we can activate the “pulling” muscles of the shoulder even in gentle pulling actions.
So, it’s true that we don’t use the “pulling” muscles in a concentric contraction to the same degree that we would use them to do a chin-up at the gym. But, they’re not completely absent either. Remember that muscular action in yoga is not so black and white. It’s not as if a muscle is either on or off. Muscular contraction is more subtle than that.
So, where do we use some of these “pulling muscles” in both concentric and isometric types of contractions in yoga postures?
Examples of the “pulling” muscles in yoga
Here are a few examples where we activate those “pulling” muscles in yoga:
- Rhomboids: We use the rhomboids in a concentric contraction in utthita hasta padangusthasana, and standing forward bend, when we resist letting those shoulder blades get pulled out in front of us too far. In upward dog, we use the rhomboids in a concentric contraction to squeeze shoulder blades toward one another. In plank, we use the rhomboids in an isometric contraction to stabilize the scapula.
- Posterior deltoids: We use the posterior deltoids in a concentric contraction when we lift and hold the arms for warrior two. Down dog and plank will cause them to contract in an isometric contraction as a stabilizer. Almost any time you put weight into your hands, your deltoids will contract.
- Latissimus dorsi: This muscle is possibly the most difficult to imagine contracting. However, it does contract. It can help through a concentric contraction to depress the scapula/lift the torso in postures such as upward facing dog and lolasana. It helps through an isometric contraction to stabilize the shoulder girdle in many arm balances as well as simple postures such as downward facing dog.
- Teres major: Teres major is often referred to as the “lat’s little helper”. Teres major assists and stabilizes in any action that also uses latissimus dorsi.
- Middle trapezius: The middle trapezius muscles work with the rhomboids. They’re also an upward rotator, so we use them in a concentric contraction to lift our arms over our head in poses like warrior one or to bring our arms up to begin a sun salutation. Don’t forget their ability to stabilize the scapula through an isometric contraction when we have weight in our hands and upper body.
- Biceps brachii: We are using the biceps brachii in a concentric contraction anytime we hold our toes or foot with our hand in a forward bend and then do a gentle pulling action. Parts of it are also used when we raise and hold our arms over our head.
Muscular imbalance in yoga
Now, let’s tackle that last assumption: we all come to yoga balanced and therefore if we do only yoga, we’ll create a “muscular imbalance”.
Yoga is neither balanced nor imbalanced. I don’t have the idea that it was intended as a one-size-fits-all cure for every physical issue. I think it’s important to remember that yoga asana isn’t only a wellness practice akin to some kind of physical therapy. It’s a tool that can be used in a number of ways. If I speak specifically of the Ashtanga yoga primary and intermediate series of postures, which have been my personal practice, then I’d suggest that the primary and intermediate series can be effective at opening the tissues around the pelvis and hips, which then frees the spine for more movement.
With a more supple and stable base in the pelvis, and a supple and stable spine, it becomes easier for someone to maintain a seated meditation posture without overwhelming distraction from the body. Simply establishing a relaxed and stable “seat” through asana practice, which you can then use for a more comfortable meditation posture, is one way to use the tool of yoga asana. That said, the effectiveness of those sequences of postures for even that specific goal, varies from person to person. It also depends on the context (fitness, age, injury history, genetics, etc.) that a student comes in with.
So, what about pushing and pulling in yoga?
So, what about those students who do a regular yoga practice? Do they really find that they are imbalanced between what we’re labeling the pushing and pulling muscles of the upper body? Do they have a large muscular imbalance?
Some are and some aren’t, just like most other areas of the body that come up in yoga. It all depends on the body history that the student comes with when they begin doing yoga. I can’t say that I regularly see students arriving at yoga class perfectly balanced to begin with. Instead, students arrive with varying kinds of imbalance depending on what I like to call their whole converging history. That might include their genetic history, the sports they’ve played, other activities they do regularly, the activities they do for work, injuries they’ve sustained, etc.
My approach is that there is no one-size-fits-all yoga and that we should adapt the practice to the situation of each student. Some might come to yoga with well-developed “pushing” muscles and need more focus on the antagonist muscles. I also certainly see students, often those who did a lot of weight-lifting at the gym before coming to a yoga practice, who have what we might consider over-developed “pulling muscles”, particularly latissimus dorsi.
Where do “pulling” muscles restrict us in yoga?
A history of lots of lat-pulls at the gym over years usually translates into reduced range of motion for the whole shoulder girdle. This shows up particularly when having to take the arms over the head. That action includes flexion of the shoulder and upward rotation of the scapula. This tension often shows up in backbending when trying to push up into a wheel pose or any other pose that puts the shoulders in a similar flexed position. This area being tight can also restrict simpler postures such as downward facing dog.
The idea of “pushing muscles” and “pulling muscles” is something that shows up in the gym. But, I’m more interested in considering the overall functionality for each practitioner in their particular body. Do they have a stable and mobile shoulder girdle? If so, then whatever their combination of activities is, they’ll probably do okay. If they are training for a specific sport or activity, even if that’s just leveling up in CrossFit, then of course, they might need to emphasize some muscles and/or actions over others.
Should we expect everything from yoga?
This brings us to a bigger question: Is yoga supposed to do everything? I’d say no. Yoga asana practice is very effective for many aspects of health and wellness. That includes benefits for the physical body and for the nervous system and mental/emotional body. Yoga generally does create an overall balance of strength and flexibility. It’s not normal for anyone to need treatment for muscular imbalance from practicing yoga. If something specific is needed, there are other tools out there that are more effective at dealing with other aspects of health and wellness. I’d suggest that the real magic of yoga is not in just the postures themselves, but also in the breathing and attention that we cultivate while in the postures.