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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?
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.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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 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!
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).
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!
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!
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.