Category Archives: 1-arm pushup

Get a 6-pack without ‘ab workouts’

Ab workouts not required

A year from now I’ll be in the 50th year of my life. For my age and lifestyle (minimum exercise, mostly sedentary days, and daily consumption of large amounts of fat and sugar in many forms) it seems unusual that I ought to have a noticeable set of abdominal muscles. They happen to be visible to the public because, when I run, unless it is too cold, it is almost always without a top on. (The reasons for that, some other day, soon.)

I receive a quizzical look in response when asked “Sir, how do I get a 6-pack too?” because my reply typically starts with…

I never do ab crunches or set aside any time to do an ab workout”.

Wait a minute! What did I just say? Yeah, just that – I never set time aside for an ab workout. The last time I did ab crunches with any seriousness was almost 35 years ago in Karate class! (And now you’re probably thinking that this sounds like my earlier conversation about why you need not run.) So, clearly any vaguely visible or distinctly discernible 6-pack needs some questioning! That is what today’s chat is about.

[see Why I am not a Fitness Freak]
[see The Accidental Wisdom of Pain Seekers]

These days even some women want a 6-pack (I’ve been approached by more than a handful with that request, and a couple of the ladies I mentor are a fair way there) but whether you’re a guy or a gal, it’s worth considering what it involves. So, let’s go through the following questions together:

What is a 6-pack?
What’s the use of it?
Did you know you have a 6-pack?
Why can’t you see yours?
Will you ever be able to see yours?
Why is doing ab crunches wrongly directed action?
What should you focus on instead?
What kind of effort do you need?
Who will have easier success with it?
…and…
OK, so you have a 6-pack, what next?

What is a 6-pack?

What’s happening underneath

Your muscles work when they contract. In your front abdominal region, there are many muscle groups performing different functions (e.g. twisting, bending side to side). The 6-pack that has captured the public’s attention is simply one of those many muscles, technical name, rectus abdominis. The reason it catches your attention is simply because it is the outermost muscle in that region. The other muscles that lie below it and perform different but equally important functions (e.g. internal oblique muscles) do not get the same media attention!

Bands of connective tissue traverse your rectus abdominis. These separate your rectus abdominis into distinct muscle bellies – the ‘packs’. In your abdomen if you are someone with low body fat, these masses of muscle can be viewed externally and are commonly referred to as “four”, “six”, “eight”, or even “ten packs”, depending on how many distinct muscle bellies were created in the first place by the connective tissue traversing across.

Not a 6-pack!

The lower your body fat, the more likely that the lower muscle masses will be seen. Six is the most common – and having more than six does not mean you are fitter or stronger – it is just about how many bands traverse your rectus abdominis. If you see just one pack – that’s a family pack – and it’s fat, not muscle. However, the good news is that you can convert it into a 6-pack.

Of what use is a 6-pack?

When your rectus abdominis contracts, its pulling action is at either end, between your chest and groin. So, the use of your 6-pack is primarily postural – for bringing your pelvic area towards your chest or, equivalently, for preventing your torso from tipping back. It also assists in your breathing and for forceful respiration when you exercise.

Did you know you have a 6-pack?

Yes, if you lead a reasonably active life then you probably have a rectus abdominis that is of decent size and strength.

Why can’t you see your 6-pack?

Family pack still gets you love!

If your 6-pack is not visible, the reason will be obvious to you by now. There is a layer of fat between the outermost layer of your skin and those muscles. Doing 1,000 crunches a day will not make them more visible! You will need to chisel the fat away. You don’t burn much fat at all doing 1,000 crunches!

Will you ever be able to see your 6-pack?

Yes, of course you will. It all depends on what you do for it. And what you stop doing. The details matter!

Why is doing ab-crunches not effective?

Although the classic ab crunch works your rectus abdominis, it is not the most effective in terms of stimulating those muscles. In fact, far from it.

6, 8, 10 – does not matter!

Have a look at this research report by San Diego State University. Specifically, the classic crunch is rated 11th out of 13 exercises examined. The ab crunch is also not a functionally useful movement – it does not appear in your activities of daily life. Also, in the same way that you would not put your spinal cord at risk by bending over repeatedly and rapidly when standing [remember all those tips to “bend your knees” when lifting objects off the ground?] – the classic crunch is not very different a movement for your spine housing your spinal cord (you are simply lying on the ground instead of standing on your feet).

What should you focus on instead?

When I say “I don’t do ab workouts” what I mean is that I never specifically target that region. Instead, acknowledging that your abdominal muscles are ideally engaged and working when doing most of your activities of daily life, including various sporting activities is a great way to get started. And, to keep going! I do not do any of the 13 exercises listed in that research report by San Diego State University. But, I am definitely stimulating my rectus abdominis to grow in size with all the other activities I perform. That is what I encourage you to do too.

Who will have your back?

Having a strong core is important for various reasons. To prevent injury from normal daily activities. To prevent aches and pains as you age. To ensure your body can cope with anything vigorous you do for recreation at various stages of your life. Since the rectus abdominis is only one of many muscles of your core, giving it undue attention can lead to imbalances that will not serve you well in the long run. And as I tell those I mentor, “symmetry is a subset of balance”, so ensure that you have equivalent development in your back musculature too. Balance between your ‘front’ and ‘back’ muscles.

A strong body with good flexibility and high levels of endurance will automatically lead you to a state where your body composition changes and your 6-pack emerges, almost as if by magic. No specific attention required!

Having a 6-pack ‘for show’ is not of much use unless you need it for your job. The vanity that might come with specifically targeting only that will be short-lived. Instead of focusing on appearance goals, focus on the processes for performance goals – being stronger, fitter, faster, leaner.

[see what I said earlier about Health Based Measures of Fitness]
[see the widely followed article on Pushups for the Ladies]
[see the 1-arm pushups article if you want to take things up a notch without leaving home]
[see my approach to nutrition]

Will distance running get you a 6-pack?

Not the final solution

In my mostly widely read article on why you need not run, I described how you will not see most of the men and women crossing the finish line at recreational distance running races looking ripped and toned. The observation does not change when you move from half to full marathons, to ultramarathons. Conversely, if you go to a gym where the big strong guys look muscular with well-defined 6-packs, you might find that they cannot do endurance activities particularly well. Like, I’ve said before –  Balance is True Mastery!

What kind of effort do you need?

The effort needs to go only towards systematic execution of daily processes. Nothing big, nothing extreme. Just the many small features of daily life that will lead to a body that is a fine-tuned machine. The physical 6-pack is just ornamental. If you are appropriately focused on living each day of your life well, then besides the physical 6-pack, your mental state will also have developed its own (invisible) 6-pack. The same holds true for your emotional and spiritual planes. Perhaps you have a 24-pack and most people can see only 6!

[for a mind map of the areas that might work for your current stage in life see the Wellness Tree]

Who will have easier success with it?

Would have been easier 15 years ago

Men, younger men. Women typically have to work much harder for the same visual results because of their naturally higher body fat percentage and lower muscle mass. And because from the age of 30, even men lose about 1% of their muscle mass each year (assuming they did not make any changes to their lifestyle to get fitter or otherwise), younger men will find it much easier than older men. But, remember, difficult does not mean impossible. If you are an older woman and work at it, you can get there too, if you want it. And if you do get there, I’ll admire you like no one’s business!

So, you have a 6-pack, what next?

The great thing about having a 6-pack is that you will appreciate that it is your own effort to live as close to your natural state as possible. And, when I talk about effort, I am not even referring to any unusual effort. Just the simple effort of living as naturally as possible.

It’s always work-in-progress

Having got there, it is worth then asking yourself how you got there. To what extent did you stray away from what is natural? (pharmaceutical aids, poor sleep, free of chronic injuries or illness). Think about what you can do to fix those. Then ask yourself how you are placed vis-à-vis where you would like to be for the health and skills based measures of fitness I wrote about earlier. Then take steps to get there too. And going beyond the physical dimension, looking at the Wellness Tree, ask yourself how you can get a 6-pack in the dimensions of mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

A 6-pack is not a panacea for happiness – but working to have one will, perhaps, help get many other rooms of your house in order. Ab workouts not required!

Puru

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.

The 1-arm Pushup

Watch the video!

A few months ago, I spoke about Pushups for the Ladies and was serious when I said that it wasn’t only for the ladies. Now, I bring you 1-arm pushups, something that is definitely for the men! And again, this time, if you are a lady, please don’t go away – there’s useful learning in what I have to say that will translate into other activities of daily life that you might do. And, if you were disciplined in following the process I outlined and can do good pushups on the floor, you might enjoy the challenge of doing at least one good quality 1-arm pushup after a few weeks.

Chat flow – I will first tell you what the 1-arm pushup is, the benefits of doing it, how to get around to doing (first) a single repetition of the 1-arm pushup and (then) many repetitions successfully, as well as the potential risks to watch out for. As usual, I will keep unnecessary biology and physics out of this chat and focus on getting practical results safely.

 

What is a 1-arm pushup?
A 1-arm pushup is a pushup with just one arm at a time – the other arm provides no assistance!

 

Why is it good to be able to do a 1-arm pushup?

Strength
As with the pushup, the primary muscles worked are the chest muscles and the triceps. The reason that most of us do not want to try a 1-arm pushup is very simple – it feels very difficult. Indeed, it is difficult, because we typically do not need or require that level of strength for 99% of our daily activities. So, the muscle fibres that would typically be called into action to do that work are lying asleep most of our lives. Whether or not you do strength training at the gym, it is likely that you will enjoy the process and the final outcome of attempting the 1-arm pushup. And, of course, the relevant muscles will become stronger and larger.

Stability
Because of having no support from the ‘missing arm’, your entire body has to work to hold your posture. You will feel the maximum effort in those muscles that provide rotational stabilizing torque around your hips and torso.

Hero with Pushups – Zero with 1-arm Pushups
Here you can watch me doing 66 good quality standard pushups in a split set. But even if you can drop down and give me 50 good quality standard pushups with both arms, it is highly likely that you will not be able to do a single good quality 1-arm pushup. (Test my theory by trying one right now, and respond to this poll. Keep reading, of course…)


And if you can do only 30 (or 40 or 50) regular pushups, my bet is that in progressing to 1-arm pushups you will soon be able to do more than 50 of the regular kind!

Pointless Planks
You’ve probably heard me say that I don’t think much of doing standard or modified planks as part of a regular workout for the reasonably fit. As an isometric and static exercise, its functional usefulness is low. In Pushups for the Ladies I set planks as a prerequisite if you’ve been a couch potato or were doing what I called ‘sissy knee pushups’. The return on time invested in exercise is low with a plank – graduate to pushups if you haven’t already done so and make sure of success with regular pushups by reading my guidance on it.

For me, the beauty of the pushup is that it uses so much of your entire body while requiring no equipment. The 1-arm pushup just takes that beauty 5 notches higher!

 

What does it take to do a 1-arm pushup?

Complete FULL range of motion for the 1-arm Pushup

Complete FULL range of motion for the 1-arm Pushup

Pre-Requisites
I would say that you should be able to do at least 30 good quality pushups on the ground before you progress to attempting the 1-arm pushup. Remember, the 1-arm pushup will make you stronger for the regular pushup so you could merge the progression of both. So, in sessions when you are not doing the 1-arm pushup, you might find that you are now able to do more regular pushups than you could.

Range of Motion
As with the standard pushup, it is important that you go all the way down, to ensure that your nose touches the ground.

Form & Technique
Excellent form and technique are important with any movement or static posture. The tendency to make errors when being pushed to the limits is higher so be extra careful with spine safety when doing the 1-arm pushup! I have highlighted these earlier.

Progression
Similar to my advice for the regular pushups, I can guarantee you success with the 1-arm pushup if you start with the ‘imaginary ground’ at a considerable height and then progressively lower it over many sessions.

Careful progress in load intensity over time

Careful progress in load intensity over many weeks

Remember, you should keep at least 48 hours between sessions and, whenever needed, an even longer gap. In the early days, most of the changes in your body are neuro-muscular as you ‘learn the movement pattern’. The smooth firing of neurons and muscle fibre units will take a few sessions to consolidate as the requirements are different from those of a standard pushup. Remember, there’s no rush – take it easy with progression, focus on the process not the outcome, and you will succeed. And remember, just as you expect to go lower as the weeks go by, within any given session, it’s OK to go higher for a second or third or fourth set.

Feet positions and Centre of Gravity
When doing a standard (symmetrical) pushup your COG (centre of gravity) was in the midline of your body. The base of support there was (roughly) the rectangle formed by your hands and feet. Now, with one arm withdrawn and not providing support, the symmetry has been broken and your COG is now shifted away. Fortunately, the shift of your COG is likely to be towards the opposite arm and leg. The vertical line of gravity is now not necessarily going to pass through the triangular base of support. There will be natural tendency to widen your feet position and that is fine – it’s still a 1-arm pushup!

Feet Positions, Base of Support and Centre/Line of Gravity

Feet Positions, Base of Support and Centre/Line of Gravity

Feet positions and Slipping
You will notice that if the soles of your shoes are even slightly slippery your feet will tend to skid when doing the 1-arm pushup. This can be unnerving but you can also use it to your advantage to find out the most stable body position thanks to that slack variable.

The Working Arm
The further your working hand is away from your head the greater will be the effort by your chest muscles. The closer it is to your head, elbow closer to the side of your body, the greater will be the effort required by your triceps. This was the case with the regular pushup too. Note that a narrow hand (relative to head) position and a narrow feet position will mean a smaller triangular base of support within which your line of gravity must be.

The Other Arm
I typically keep the free arm behind my back, but you have a choice of keeping it in the air in ‘alert position’ if you are nervous. The lowest ‘load contribution’ of that arm is when your hand is around your belly button (or lower back) and will be greatest when the arm is stretched out ahead of your head. You must, of course, develop the ability to do a 1-arm pushup with each of your arms, equally, not only your stronger arm. Whatever you do with the right arm, you must do with the left!

 

Risks of a 1-arm pushup

Joint Risk – Shoulder, Elbow, Wrist
Because the resistance you are pushing is both very high and very concentrated in terms of location you need to keep a careful watch out for your shoulder – a ball-and-socket joint that is highly susceptible to sports injuries. However, that should not stop you from venturing into 1-arm pushups as careful progression towards the ability to do a 1-arm pushup will mean increased strength and stability for that otherwise vulnerable joint. So, the trick is to shock your body safely! The wrist and elbow joints will have to deal with similar shocks so be sensible with progression – be conservative – in this case, it is better to take many weeks to reach your goal than not at all.

Face Smash Risk
The thought of sudden failure with a 1-arm pushup can seem scary because of your fear of smashing your face in the ground. However, what is more likely is that you will roll into the ‘missing arm’ and fall on its upper arm and shoulder – your face is likely to remain beautiful and unhurt! Fear not!

Anatomical Deformities
The ape-like imbalanced appearance of many gym rats can be easily avoided by maintaining symmetry along all dimensions (upper/lower body, left/right limbs, front/back). To balance the 1-arm pushup with its mirror movement, you could do the 1-arm row, either seated or standing (straight on a pulley system, or bent over with a dumbbell when hinging at your hip).

Seated Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Seated Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Standing Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

Standing Row to mirror the 1-arm Pushup

How long will it take to do a 1-arm pushup?

Progression is always a function of many things. But, my rough guess is that in as little as 12 sessions, spread over say 8 weeks, you can be doing at least one good form 1-arm pushup with very low injury risk. If you are one-third my age and naturally strong, you could probably achieve the goal in a couple of weeks. However, overriding your eagerness and ambition should be feelings of self-protection, so be conservative in your progression from zero to hero!

1-arm Pushup, then what?

Once you can do a 1-arm pushup with each arm, the obvious natural progression is to do more of them. The functional benefit of doing too many is limited especially compared to the risk to the shoulder joint. Unless you sense that you are genetically gifted I would say that doing up to 10 repetitions on each side is sufficient for developing excellent strength in a safe manner. Once you can do 10 with each arm, there is no shame in pulling back and just sticking to doing 5 with each arm perhaps once a week. For the next 40 years 😉 …heh heh!

Path ahead

I guarantee that if you internalize what I have said, and go through the process until you can do even a single 1-arm pushup, it will definitely change your perspective on life positively, even if just slightly. Go on, do it!

Just push it!

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Dr Purnendu Nath spends his waking hours focusing on helping individuals and organizations reach their goals, to make the world a better place. He speaks, writes and advises on topics such as finance, investment management, discipline, education, self-improvement, exercise, nutrition, health and fitness, leadership and parenting.