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Sep 9 / Jeremy

Mastering the One Arm Push-up

From time-to-time when I feel the need to provide myself with a new challenge I will identify a test of strength and begin working towards mastering that skill.  Lately, when I have needed inspiration I grab my copy of Convict Conditioning and pick one of the “6 Ultimate Measures of a True Man.” Right now I am working towards mastering the one arm push-up.  Below I will describe the process I am using to develop the necessary strength and I will discuss proper one arm push-up technique.  By following these steps you, too, will be able to master the one arm push-up.

[Yes, I know he is not doing a one arm push-up. Pretend he is just getting warmed up.]

One Arm Push-up Technique

Knowing the proper technique that should be used for a one arm push-up will help you understand the best way to develop the strength necessary to complete one arm push-ups.  I am going to start by describing one arm push-up technique.  Then I will provide a conditioning plan to help you gradually build the strength needed to master the exercise.

Strictly speaking, the proper technique for a one arm push-up is probably not what you have in mind.  The slightly sloppy technique that most people think of is usually inspired by a small indie film you may have seen.  The soundtrack and the training montage of this movie made it an instant classic.

[Rocky training montages are always great for motivation. Watch him crank out explosive one arm push-ups at the 50 second mark.]

The keys to mastering the one arm push-up quickly is to understand the points of tension in your body as you complete the movement and maintaining your balance throughout.

As you can see from this video, Rocky’s legs are set wider than shoulder length.  This makes it easier to maintain balance as you complete the exercise; however, purists might argue that to be true to form you would keep your legs a little closer and keep your shoulders and hips square with the floor.  The non-pressing head should be held close to your body with your hand behind your back or on your hamstring.  This will also help you maintain your center of gravity. The elbow of your pressing hand should be kept close to your body, not flared out to the side.  Watch the video below for an illustration of this.

With this technique the tension in your body runs from your pressing hand across your body to the opposite foot.  For example, if you are pressing with your right hand then the tension goes from your right hand across your body to your left foot.  You will notice as you work toward your first one arm push up that when pressing with your right hand, your right foot will have less weight on it than your left foot.

To get the full range of motion on this exercise you should lower your pressing shoulder until it almost touches the ground.  You will have to turn you head away from your pressing arm or look up to get your shoulder that close to the ground without smashing your nose.

As with all push-up variations, you must keep your body tight and your shoulders, hips, and feet should be on the same plane.  In other words, do not drop your hips or stick your butt in the air. Once you are able to complete 25 repetitions of this exercise on each hand, then you can try to do the explosive one arm push-ups demonstrated by Rocky in the video.

[For those who prefer to listen and watch, this video does a good job of explaining and illustrating proper one arm push-up technique.]

Building Strength for a One Arm Push-up

Building the strength necessary to achieve your first full range one arm push-up will take some time, but it is an attainable goal and by following this program you will see progress relatively quickly which will help you maintain the eye of the tiger (sorry, couldn’t help myself).

To give credit where it is due, I will tell you that much of this progression I am about to show you came from an excellent book called Convict Conditioning.  This book, written by Paul Wade, is a great book that describes how to build functional strength and tremendous power using nothing but your body weight.  As the title suggests, this book was written while Paul was serving time and it is based largely on his experience not only in developing his own strength but also while training other convicts.  This book is an interesting read and Wade provides a unique and refreshing perspective on what it means to truly be strong and powerful.  I highly recommend checking out this book.

The one arm push-up progression

Note that the book lays out 10 steps for achieving mastery of the one arm push-up.  I am only discussing the last six steps of the progression for one arm push-ups.

Goal 1: Full Push-ups – 2 sets of 20
This is the standard push-up.  If you are unable to do full pushups, start by doing half push-ups.  When completing a half push-up you only go down to the level where your elbows are at a 90 degree angle as opposed to taking your chest all the way to the floor.

Goal 2: Close Push-ups – 2 sets of 20
Close push-ups are also sometimes referred to as diamond push-ups because of the shape made with your hands.  Basically you put your hands down below your chest so that your index fingers and your thumbs are touching, thus making the diamond shape. Then complete the same full range of motion as with full push-ups.  These push-ups are the first step towards building the necessary strength to complete a one arm push-up because they force your elbows to bend out more than they do with full push-ups.  This imitates the angle that you will need to push from when doing one arm push-ups.

Goal 3: Uneven Push-ups – 2 set of 20 (each arm)
In this instance, uneven push-ups means one hand will be higher off the ground than the other.  Convict Conditioning recommends placing one hand on a basketball while the other hand is on the floor.  With your hands in place, assume the full push-up starting position.  Lower yourself until your chest reaches the basketball and then push up.

Goal 4: Half One Arm Push-ups – 2 sets of 20 (each arm)
In this phase you will complete half one arm push-ups where you only go down until your elbow is at a 90 degree angle, then push yourself back up.  Wade recommends coupling this with close or uneven push-ups during a workout so that you are still practicing the exercise with your elbows bent outwards.

Goal 5: Lever Pushups – 2 sets of 20 (each arm)
With these push-ups you will put one arm straight out to your side on top of the basketball or other supporting object.  You are effectively doing a one arm push-up but you have your non-pressing hand out to your side providing a minimal amount of support.  By the time you get to 2 sets of 20 reps on this exercise, a one arm push-up will not be nearly as intimidating.

Ultimate Goal: One Arm Pushups – 2 sets of 10 (each arm)
Congratulations!  You have now achieved a level of strength that many dream of but few achieve.

But before you get too cocky, watch Bruce Lee prove to you that one arm push-ups are mere child’s play.

Two-Finger One Arm Pushups

[This is Bruce Lee proving yet again that he is no mere mortal.]

Begin your training today and let us know how your progress goes in the comments below.

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  1. Raymond- ZenMyFitness / Sep 10 2011

    I think 1 arm pushups are awesome. I spent a everyday for a few months practicing them until I could do 25 decent ones on each side.
    I note on the two videos Nick is quite uneven where as Bruce shoulders are parallel, these are the types I prefer but not with the 2 fingers I need my whole hand! unreal.

  2. Great overview of the one arm push up. I love Convict Conditioning and include all the exercises as part of my workout routine.

  3. I’ve not really focused on this kind of thing for a long time, but I feel inspired. I think I’m gonna give it a go this winter to change things up. Plus it looks like a great party trick!


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