Are Pushing & Pulling Exercises Working Different Muscles?

During bench press, keep your spine in contact with the cushion.

During bench press, keep your spine in contact with the cushion.

Pushing and pulling exercises work different muscles. When you are pushing away, the primary muscles being engaged are called agonist muscles. The opposite set of muscles, called the antagonist muscles, are simultaneously lengthening to allow the push away. Pushing and pulling are opposite motions and use opposite muscles. Keep your opposing muscle groups equally strong for healthy body balance and healthy posture.


When you push something away from your chest, the muscles you use are pectoralis major, located across the front of your chest; triceps, located at the back of the upper arms; and anterior deltoids, located at the front of your shoulders. A free weight exercise that builds these muscles is the bench press. You perform it by lying supine on a weight bench. You hold a barbell above your chest, lower it down to your sternum and push it up again. Do not bounce the bar off your chest; use a spotter for safety. If you prefer weight machines, this exercise is called the chest press. Make sure the machine is adjusted so your hands are pushing away from your nipple line.

Upper/Middle Back

Rowing is opposite the chest press motion. The rowing muscles are rhomboids, located between the upper spine and edge of the shoulder blades; posterior deltoid, located at the back of your shoulder; latissimus dorsi, a large back muscle spanning from your sacrum, hip, low and mid vertebrae to the back of your upper arm; teres major, a small muscle attaching to the back of the upper arm and shoulder blade; and finally, middle trapezius, a back muscle that spans from the base of the skull across the top of the shoulder blades and attaches to all the neck and thoracic vertebrae. Use a seated rowing machine or a dumbbell bent row to build these muscles. Keep a straight spine for safety.


Pushing something away overhead uses muscles of your shoulder girdle. The names of the muscles used in this action are anterior deltoid, the front of the shoulder; middle deltoid, located at the side of your shoulder; triceps; and the upper trapezius, at the top of your shoulder blades beside your neck. Build these muscles by using a free weight exercise called the dumbbell overhead press or use a weight machine, in a seated position, called the shoulder press. Start with lighter weights for joint safety.

Lower Back

The opposite motion from pushing overhead is pulling down from overhead. The muscles used in a pulldown are different from the muscles used in an overhead push. Primary pull-down muscles are latissimus dorsi, posterior deltoid, teres minor and biceps brachii. Biceps are located at the front of the upper arm. Use a weight machine called a lat pulldown machine to build this muscle. Start with a light weight for shoulder safety and pull the bar all the way to your sternum. Another way to strengthen these muscles is by doing a chinup or pullup. The chinup grip is fingers pointing toward you, and the pullup grip is fingers pointing away from you.

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  • Fitness Theory and Practice; Aerobics and Fitness Association of America
  • YMCA Personal Training Manual; YMCA of the USA
  • Women's Strength Training Anatomy; Frederic Delavier
  • Anatomy of Strength Training; Pat Manocchia

About the Author

Lynne Shaw has been a professional writer for more than 15 years. She additionally enjoyed a long career in news/talk radio production and anchoring. Her articles have appeared in numerous national and regional publications. She is a contributor in "Chicken Soup for the African American Woman's Soul."

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