Improve your upper body position in the gym and on the trail with this simple tip…

The push up is a funny exercise because it seems so simple on the surface yet few people can really do it right. There are a lot of subtleties to this great exercise that get missed in the rush to do 50 reps and as a result the most important part of this exercise gets overlooked – the lats.

Yes, that’s right…those big muscles on your back play a very important role with your push ups because they are responsible for keep the shoulders stable, making them stronger and more injury resistant. It is the ability of the lats to keep the shoulders locked down that is the weak link in a lot of people’s push ups, not the pecs and shoulders.

What’s more, this same principle of using the lats to secure the shoulders and improve upper body stability can be applied to your body position on the bike. In this video I show you a simple tip with your elbow placement that will help you engage your lats better, letting you instantly tap into the power of the this technique. Plus, I show you how this tip shows why the popular advice to “push your elbows out” to achieve good body position on the bike isn’t the full story.

-James Wilson-

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  1. Tony says:

    Coach Wilson…In my youth I managed to pretty well destroy my shoulders with heavy lifting in the gym. Push ups normally cause me enough pain that I can only perform a few reps. Same with the bench press. I applied your elbow placement modification for push ups and it helped a great deal. I suspect I will now be able to increase my reps for push ups over time and add some additional shoulder stabilization as well as back and chest strength. This should equate to improved performance in my mountain biking. Thanks for a great tip.

    Reply • March 22 at 8:40 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Glad to hear that it helped you out already, a lot of “shoulder problems” are really a lat engagements issue and once you get them engaged the shoulders feel a lot stronger.

      Reply • March 22 at 10:55 am
    • GillianG says:

      Ha! I have the same problem…rock climbing, weight lifting in my 20’s, and I developed shoulder impingement syndrome in BOTH shoulders. I have to be SO careful at the gym not to aggravate it. If I take time off because of it, I have to start with low weight and high reps, as well as a lot of rehab type exercises if I want to avoid being in pain. When my shoulders are aggravated, I can not do push-ups, pull-ups, bench press, or anything basically with my arms out front or above. However, I’ve been working really hard at strengthening my lats, and that seems to have helped. I’m back to the bench press without pain. James, I’ll check out this video pronto.

      Reply • May 14 at 10:20 am
  2. JohnnyK says:

    I was introduced to the “keep elbows close to the body” tip for pushups, but was never clear how it related to position on the bike. You’ve cleared it up nicely James – thanks!

    You have a very clear way of explaining things.

    Reply • March 22 at 2:44 pm
  3. Ric says:

    I have never seen “floppy” elbows on a mountain bike. The reason we teach elbows out in mtb is it promote mobility. If I ride with elbows in, I am restricted and limiting my ability to manipulate the bike. While your advice may be excellent for doing a push up, I see no application on the mountain bike. Not sure what you are trying to communicate here, but this seems like a great place to keep fitness training and mtb skills very separate. Looking at JohnnyK’s comment, it is clear your information is misleading for mtb skills.

    Reply • May 14 at 6:22 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Did you watch the video? It is pretty apparent that you didn’t or else you would be able to see how the two things are connected. Make sure you understand “why” you teach something before teaching it – just having someone push their elbows out without having them engage the lats doesn’t fix the real problem.

      Where your elbows are at is a symptom of your posture and upper back engagement and that is what you want to improve. If you improve that the elbows go where they should.

      It is the coaching the cause of good body position rather than a symptom of it. Most technical skill advice tends to focus on the symptoms and miss the cause sometimes.

      Reply • May 14 at 7:30 am
  4. Gareth says:

    I can’t access your videos because I’m in China and I think you’re using YouTube, which is blocked. Is there a summary of the advice you could provide? I am intrigued. Thanks.

    Reply • May 14 at 6:34 am
  5. sb66er says:

    James, This is a good tip because it is so easy to “disengage” the lats! When my technique coach first started telling me about “elbows out” I immediately questioned the lat “disengage” as a negative side effect. His point and also how I do all push ups and similar exercises is to focus on engaging the lats as well as holding a good mobility and handlebar width position.

    Your tip also works for regular elbow out pushups, mimicking the handlebar mobility position, so since you encourage sport specificity in much of your training, why not in handlebar width and positioning on as many exercises as possible.


    Reply • May 14 at 8:44 am
    • bikejames bikejames says:

      Good points, strong lats are the secret to a strong, stable upper body both in the gym and on the bike.

      I personally think that your normal push up hand width is also a good handlebar width for you as well. If hands are spread much wider than that you can start to make it harder to apply pressure and force into the handlebars to help with standing pedaling and cornering. So I guess I kind of look at training your naturally strongest and most stable positions as the same thing since those are the same positions you want to apply to the bike. I think that handlebars can get too wide and if a rider had to move their hands much beyond their normal push up position to mimic where they would be on their handlebars I’d suggest that they change their hand position on the bike.

      Reply • May 14 at 11:05 am
      • Here here on bar width not being wider than your push up position. Some of these bars are getting ridiculously wide. I will definitely keep this tip in mind!

        Reply • May 15 at 10:13 pm
  6. RennyG says:

    My wimpy girl upper body has never allowed me to do well on “boys” pushups – but now I understand better why that may be so. When I use my lats I am much “stronger” through the push “up” part. I have yet to try it but I think this will also improve with my out of saddle pedaling because I can use my lats to stabilize my upper body. James you so smart! And oh so helpful too!

    Reply • May 14 at 10:02 am

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