by Al Kavadlo T-Nation
During my teens and early twenties, my workouts revolved around lifting heavy weights and trying to get swole. To me, the only thing that mattered more than how much I could bench was the size of my guns.
It was only after I became a personal trainer that I started to realize there was more to fitness than just being jacked. Oddly enough, most of my clientele didn't have any interest in gaining mass. Most of the time, it was just the opposite – they wanted to be thin. Go figure.
Despite starting my career with a stereotypical bodybuilding mindset, my experiences led me to explore other training modalities. There have been several major turning points in my fitness journey that caused me to reevaluate my workout regimen and, in fact, my very definition of fitness.
A major one was the first time I ever saw a legit one arm push-up.
The guy who did it? A 70 year-old U.S. Navy veteran who many gym regulars thought to be a bit, let's say, eccentric. While he didn't look too impressive in his street clothes, when you saw this dude in a tank-top, he was clearly not your average senior citizen.
At the time, I'd just turned 24, weighed around 180 pounds, and was benching 245 for reps. Surely if this little old geezer could do a one arm push-up, I should be able to bang out a few without much trouble, I thought. When I got down to test my theory, however, I quickly found out I'd vastly underestimated the difficulty of such a skill.
Let's Be Specific
One of the simplest (and most obvious) fitness principles is what's called the specificity principle. It basically means that you get good at what you practice. Bodyweight strength is a unique animal and while the brute strength of a heavy bench press can have some carryover, if you want to perform a one arm push-up, you'll need to work specifically towards that objective.
Progressing Toward a One Arm Push-up
Obviously you should first have the strength to perform many regular push-ups – at least 30 consecutively – before even thinking about trying a one arm push-up. It's also helpful to practice other push-up variations, like the close-grip (diamond) push-up. A man who can perform 30 straight diamonds can usually progress to a one arm push-up quickly.
What's Your Angle?
The best way to start is to practice an angled one arm push-up against a wall. The resistance will be easy, so just focus on keeping your body tight and stable. This will help you get a feel for the movement pattern.
Soon you'll be ready to lower yourself down onto a bench or rail. Find something around waist height; the lower it is, the harder it's going to be, so start fairly high and work your way down.
The next step is to practice a self-assisted one arm push-up on the ground with your free arm outstretched and resting on a nearby object. Keep the reps low at first, as you're just looking to get the skill down before you do higher reps – I recommend 5 sets of 5 reps as a reference point.
Practicing the negative phase of the one arm push-up (OAP) should be added once you can perform the self-assisted OAP for 5 sets of 5 reps.
The Progression looks something like this:
Weeks 1-2: Wall OAP 5x5
Weeks 3-4: Bench/Rail OAP 5x5
Weeks 5-6: Self-assisted ground OAP 5x5
Weeks 7-8: Negatives + Self-assisted OAP 5x5 each
Two weeks per phase is just a guideline – stay on any given level as long as needed until you can complete all sets with good form.
You can also create half-steps between phases two and three by using benches of different heights. When practicing towards this move, remember that a strong midsection helps to get the whole body to work together. Make sure you keep your abs tight throughout the range of motion.
You also need to think about your opposite leg – if you're doing a one arm push-up on your right arm, your left leg needs to be braced and vice versa. In short, keep your whole body tight!
Watch this video clip to see demonstrations of these exercises along with a couple of other interesting variations:
Points of Contact
It should be noted that the form of a one arm push-up is a bit different from the standard two arm version. Your legs will need to be wider than in a regular push-up and your hand should be directly under your body, rather than off to the side. The three points of contact with the ground (foot, foot, hand) will make a triangular formation.
Once you get the hang of full one arm push-ups with your feet wide, gradually work on bringing your feet closer to each other. You can even go back and repeat the procedure described earlier starting with your feet together.
Performing a one arm push-up with your feet touching each other is the hardest variation because you'll only have two contact points. It's the Ultimate One Arm Push-up:
Single limb movements can also help correct imbalances and improve coordination. While a certain amount of asymmetry might be unavoidable (a right handed person is almost always going to be right dominant), training movements like the one arm push-up can go a long way towards building a strong, balanced body.
Granted, you could just perform dumbbell bench presses if you wanted to hit each side independently, but the core aspect of a one arm push-up makes it a much more difficult exercise.
Also, keep in mind that when you do a bench press, your body has five contact points – each foot, the lower back, the upper back, and head. The more contact points, the more stability. In the one arm push-up there's only two or three contact points, which means you'll have to provide more stability from your muscles.
In any type of push-up, a full range of motion is mandatory. This requires a minimum of 90 degrees of flexion as measured along the outside of the elbow (ideally lower).
Sadly, out of ignorance or arrogance, I frequently see people trying to pass off half reps as the real deal. Stop it. If you aren't sure how low you're getting, have someone else watch you. Sometimes it's hard to know where your body is in space when you exercise. You might be surprised by what you see.
One Hand/Lots of Feats
Once you get the hang of standard one arm push-ups there's still new challenges ahead, like the one arm/one leg push-up, plyometric one arm push-ups, and the one-handed fingertip push-up. I've even recently learned to do a one arm push-up on the back of my hand! With so many ways to vary this amazing exercise you can always keep your workouts fresh and fun.
Any lifter who fancies himself strong should be able to master this move. After all, if a guy like me can do a one arm push-up on the back of his hand, surely you should be able to do one on the palm of yours?