Push-ups are one the most complete exercises you can do. And the one-arm push-up is one of the most powerful variations you could have in your training toolbox… provided you know how to do it!
The Basic One-Arm Push-Up
Assume a one-arm plank position with your feet spread several inches wider than your shoulders. Your weight-bearing arm should be positioned so that your wrist is directly under the same-side shoulder. Place your non-weight-bearing arm on the opposite hip or behind your back. Don’t let your head or hips sag toward the floor.
How to Do Your First One
Can’t do it? Don’t worry, these simple variations will get you there. Each one trains different, specific components that are involved in performing one-arm push-ups.
Improving your one-arm push-up isn’t solely about strength. The rollover push-up teaches you how to position yourself at the bottom while also improving your strength in this part of the range of motion.
- Place your hands on the floor just barely outside shoulder-width apart with your elbows straight. Turn your hands outward so that your fingers point at roughly 45 degrees.
- Perform a push-up by lowering your body to the floor. As you drop into the push-up, allow your torso to rotate a few degrees to the left (away from your right arm), placing more weight on your right arm while keeping your right elbow tight to your body.
- Drive into the floor with both hands and push your body back to the top of the push-up as you simultaneously bring your torso back to parallel with the floor. This completes a full rep.
- Continue to rotate towards the same side for half of the reps and to the other side for the other half of the reps, or alternate on each rep. Do 2-3 sets of 12-24 total reps.
- Allow your feet to rotate a bit as you turn your torso. Remember to rotate without twisting, which means your hips and shoulders rotate together at the same time and at the same rate.
- You can make this exercise more difficult by pausing at the bottom for 2-3 seconds while lifting the hand off of the ground on the side you’ve rotated towards. So, if you have your torso rotated towards the right, you’ll lift your right hand off of the floor keeping all of your weight on your left hand. If you can do this, you’re demonstrating that you understand the body positioning involved in the bottom position of the one-arm push-up and that you also posses the strength required to control it.
This trains the top part of the one-arm push-up, much like a three-board press does for the bench press. It also improves the specific core stiffness that’s needed to control your torso.
- Begin in a push-up position with your feet shoulder-width apart, one hand on top of a medicine ball or step platform (with no more than 2-3 risers), and your other hand on the floor.
- Perform a push-up with one hand on top of the platform or medicine ball. At the top of the push-up, lock off by fully straightening the elbow of the arm resting on the platform or ball.
- Place the other arm at your chest or opposite shoulder. Perform half of the reps with your right arm elevated and the other half with your left arm elevated. Do 3-4 sets of 6-15 reps per side.
- Don’t allow your shoulders or hips to rotate at any time. Keep your torso parallel to the ground throughout.
- Pause for two to three seconds at the top of each rep, then slowly lower yourself back down.
- Using a medicine ball is more challenging than placing your hand on a step platform due to the instability. If using a med ball, use a well-inflated rubber ball that’s around 6-12 pounds or 3-5 kg.
- You can also increase the anti-rotation challenge involved by extending your hand out to the side instead of placing it on your opposite shoulder.
Eccentric Overload Push-Up
This trains you to move between the top and bottom ends of the one-arm push-up. The reason why many people can perform the eccentric (lowering) portion of the one-arm arm push-up even if they’re unable to perform the concentric (lifting) portion is because we’re stronger eccentrically than concentrically.
Researchers in one study (1) found that subjects’ 1RM could be acutely increased by applying a supramaximal load (105 percent of 1RM) only on the eccentric phase of the lift. They found this increase in eccentric loading improved 1RM concentric performance by 5-15 pounds.
- With a step platform directly underneath your torso, assume a one-arm plank position with your feet spread several inches wider than your shoulders. Your weight-bearing arm should be positioned so that your wrist is directly under the same-side shoulder. Your non-weight-bearing arm should be on the opposite hip or behind your back.
- Drop very slowly into a one-arm push-up, allowing your torso to rotate a few degrees away from your weight-bearing arm while keeping your elbow on the working side tight to your body.
- Once your chest has contacted the step platform, place your knees on the floor along with your other hand and raise your torso back up to begin another rep. Perform all reps on one side before switching to the other arm. Do 4-5 sets of 3-6 reps per side.
- Each eccentric rep should last at least 7-8 seconds. You can’t move that slowly without demonstrating strength and control, which is the ultimate reason why you’re doing this exercise.
- Remember to turn your weight-bearing hand out slightly so that your fingers point at roughly a 45-degree angle away from your body. And don’t allow your lower back to sag toward the floor.
- You can increase the range of motion involved by removing the step platform and lowering your body all the way down to the floor. This is something you’ll work up to doing because it’s obviously more difficult to perform because of the increased range of motion involved.
Programming Your First One-Arm Push-Up
Do one or two of the above variations 3-4 times per week at the beginning of your workouts. Do them when you’re fresh or at a different point in the day than your normal workout. Use progressive overload to gradually add reps or sets or increase the range of motion with each one in order to progress.
The eccentric overload push-up (8 seconds lowering) is a great baseline to test how close you are to performing your first one-arm push-up. If you’re barely able to lower yourself down before flopping to the floor, you’re farther away from achieving your first one than someone who’s capable of lowering him or herself down in a fairly slow and controlled manner.
Also, since people come in different shapes and sizes, posses varying levels of strength and fitness, and have different levels of genetic trainability, some people are better built to perform one-arm push-ups than others, much like some people are much better built to squat, deadlift, or bench press than others.
Do plenty of horizontal pulling exercises and rotator cuff work to complement your one-arm push-up training. Powerlifters generally do this as well to complement their benching.
3 Common Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Once you can do a real one-arm push-up, watch out for these mistakes:
1 – Messed Up Arm and Hand Angle
The longer the lever arm the less of a mechanical advantage you have to use your strength. Letting your elbow flare out from your side at a 90-degree angle and having your hand pointed straight forward is typical and wrong, yet most people do it. So to improve your ability, you’ll need to maximize your mechanical advantage by creating a shorter level arm in order to get better leverage. You basically need to get your arm closer to your body.
At the top position of the one-arm push-up, turn your weight-bearing hand out slightly so that your fingers point at roughly a 45-degree angle away from your body. As you lower down toward the floor, keep your elbow on the working side tight to your body. Keeping your arm close shortens the lever arm which gives you an immediate mechanical advantage.
If your weight-bearing hand is pointed straight forward or slightly inward it can encourage you to flare your elbow out away from your side, which makes the exercise harder. Turning your hand and fingers outward slightly, away from the middle of your body, will help keep your elbow and arm in a better position for maximizing strength.
2 – Messed Up Elbow Position
People often allow their elbow to move past their wrist, either behind or out to the side of the wrist. This makes it more of a triceps-dominant movement, which decreases overall performance since it places more force across the elbow joint and reduces the chest and shoulder involvement.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with trying to target your triceps more in an exercise if your goal is to increase their strength and development. But that’s likely not your goal here. Improve and maximize your performance before you even think about trying to target the tricep with it.
Keep your elbow above your wrist through the entire push-up action. Your elbow should form approximately a 90-degree angle at the bottom position of the push-up. And if your weight-bearing hand is pointed straight or slightly inward, it also tends to force for your elbow to move out beyond your wrist. Better hand placement also encourages better elbow alignment.
3 – Messed Up Torso Position and Movement
This exercise should strengthen the abs and obliques, not just upper-body pushing muscles. Allowing your torso to twist means you aren’t creating enough stiffness in the abs to resist rotation. Maintaining a strong and stable body position will give you control over the forces you’re dealing with.
With the additional rotary forces present in the one-arm push-up, most people can’t keep their hips and shoulders from rotating in opposition to each other. This is almost on par with letting your lower back to sag toward the floor during regular push-ups.
As you drop down, allow your torso to rotate a few degrees away from your weight-bearing arm while keeping your elbow on the working side tight to your body. Reverse this action as your press up and away from the floor, finishing at the top with your pressing arm straight and torso parallel to the floor.
For torso stiffness, rotate your torso without twisting. This means that your torso (shoulders and hips) rotate together in the same direction and at the same rate. Think of your torso like a barrel, with the top of the barrel being your shoulders and the bottom being your hips. If you roll the barrel, both the top and the bottom roll together simultaneously. This is exactly how your torso should rotate as you raise and lower your body to complete each rep.
The Advanced Variations
Here are two ways to continue to challenge and improve your one-arm push-up strength.
Extend your free arm out to the side, which creates a bit more overload on the anti-rotation component.
Elevate your feet on a step platform or on top of a bench.
The Athletic Connection: Cross-Body Movements
Think of walking, running, punching, throwing, and batting. The body functions in a crisscross manner with the arm and shoulder on one side linking diagonally through the torso to the hip and leg on the opposite side. These are cross-body movements, and they’re foundational to human function along with athleticism.
One-arm push-ups add specificity to your training because you’re training these cross-body linkages. Although traditional compound exercises strengthen the entire body, they’re not ideally suited for improving coordination of these cross-body linkages.
Researchers have even compared the single-arm standing cable press, a cross-body exercise, to the traditional bench press, a compound exercise. (2) They found that performance in the single-arm standing cable press is limited not by maximal muscle activation of the chest and shoulder muscles, but by the activation and neuromuscular coordination of the torso muscles.
The limiting factor when pushing an offset load (like during the one-arm push-up) or with a single arm from a standing position – common in sports – is the stiffness of the torso muscles that maintain body position and enable coordination of the hips and shoulders.
Granted, cross-body exercises also rely on shoulder and chest strength. This is true, for instance, of the standing single-arm cable press, which more closely resembles the standing push actions of athletics than does the bench press. However, in such cross-body movements, force generation is still limited primarily by whole-body stability, as well as joint stability. (2)
It’s important to note that although the one-arm push-up isn’t performed from a standing position, it perfectly fits the above criteria because it’s a cross-body pushing action that heavily involves the core, hips, and lower body.
In short, different load placement and body position during an exercise changes the force generation and neuromuscular coordination demands of the exercise. Cross-body exercises like the one-arm push-up require a different type of load placement and body position than compound exercises.
The specific force generation and neuromuscular coordination demands of performing cross-body exercises more closely replicate those of athletic movements, so using cross-body exercises adds more specificity to your training.
- Doan, B.K., et al. 2002. Effects of increased eccentric loading on bench press 1RM. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 16 (1), 9-13.
- Santana, JC, Vera-Garcia, FJ, and McGill, SM. A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research 21(4): 1271- 1277, 2007.