Everyone’s watched the Rocky films and seen how bad-ass the one arm push ups look. Maybe you even wanted to try it while watching? Maybe you even did a one arm push up?
The point is the one arm push up has iconic status. 100 push ups in one set? Pffft, 5 one arm push ups will get the crowd going far wilder!
Anytime something athletic is done in a film it sets the fire in many men’s bellies to replicate and emulate what they’ve seen. Accordingly, the one arm push up has gained lots of popularity over the years both as a flashy move and as a genuine progression for the basic push up.
But despite the popularity of the one arm push up, it actually gets a bad rap in the serious corners of the fitness world.
But where does the ‘bad rap’ come from?
The bad rap is from the coaching world. There are many well known coaches and figures within the bodyweight and calisthenics world who have been hesitant to recommend the one arm push up as a viable option for progressing the push up.
Like many moves in the calisthenics world, the one arm push up has a MASSIVE variation in form and execution. It’s kind of like the muscle up……..2 guys could do 5 reps and the first guy’s 5 reps could be a 3/10 on true difficulty, while the second guy’s 5 reps could be a 10/10 on true difficulty.
Here are the key components to a truly clean one arm push up as far as I’m concerned:
- Minimal to no lateral flexion of the spine & hips
- Elbow stays close to the side
- Chest goes to the floor (full ROM)
- Shoulders level on the descent AND ascent
- Scapula DEPRESSED throughout the movement (quite possibly the hardest thing to do with this move)
90% of the one arm push ups you’ll find floating around on the internet will be the classic, bending at the hips, rotating on the way up, flaring the elbow out as much as possible and still having a 6 inch + gap between their chest and the floor.
And it stands to reason: the one arm push up has a high neurological demand and a lot to go wrong. This doesn’t render it a bad exercise per se, it just means the practitioner has to be very clued up on it and has to have a very high body awareness.
The other factor with one arm push ups is the width you straddle your legs. A wider straddle = less rotational force to overcome and a narrower straddle = more rotational force to overcome. Obviously there’s a sensible limit to how narrow you should have your legs/feet. There’s definitely a degree of fetishisisation over the legs perfectly together one arm push up, but at that stage you’re limited by your ability to counteract the rotation, rather than how much pure one arm pushing strength you posses.
In the Instagram video below you see the form I’m currently using. Still not entirely clean but we’re on the way. As I mentioned earlier, the scapula depression will take some doing.
The only reason I’m playing with these again is they’re in phase 2 & 3 of Calisthenic Movement’s Level 5 Mastery Program (Read the Phase 1 review HERE). Calisthenic Movement outline similar rules for form on these too. They also strictly encourage regression to an elevated surface if you can’t execute these as well as you should on the floor.
But it’s always nice to revisit old moves and see where your strength has rose, along with the inherent realisation that your form back then was far worse than you ever knew!
So, One arm push ups? Yay or nay?
For me they’re still a very viable choice for the intermediate-advanced athlete. At this stage you should have good body awareness and your form should always be of paramount importance.
I’ve noticed some incredible activation in the triceps and serratus anterior from one arm push ups with the form I’m using. I guess it makes sense, essentially you’re doing a punching motion but with your bodyweight?
The serratus isn’t called the ‘boxer’s muscle’ for nothing.
And lastly, I can hear the naysayers saying there are better ways to build your pecs, activate your serratus and develop your triceps than the one arm push up……..
There may be EASIER ways to isolate those muscles but the correctly performed one arm push up is a wonderful challenge to your nervous system, muscular system and is a display of great athleticism.
If you’re lost or stuck for equipment during these seemingly never ending lockdowns, the one arm push up could be just the substitute for the adored chest exercises like bench presses and flyes……….
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