One arm Pushup Progressions

StrongFirst Tucson Certification at Evolution Tucson

This guest blog comes in perfect timing as the StrongFirst Bodyweight Certification  just announced it will be at our facility in Tucson, Arizona May 11-12,2013. Pavel and many of the SFG leadershipwill be here! I am happy to have a friend of mine from Omaha Nebraska write on a subject he is pretty darn good at. Bodyweight training and One arm pushups!


From a young age I’m sure I knew that one-arm pushups existed, just like I was sure that Big Foot and the Loch Ness Monster existed.  Other people had claimed to have seen one, so there was probably something to the rumors.  However, the burden of proof was on them, because grainy photos and shaky videos leave a lot to be desired, and your crazy uncle Jim – who you swear used to be able to do a whole bunch of them once upon a time – doesn’t count anymore.

Fast forward to 2008.  I was about two years into “the fitness scene” as I had taken up Muay Thai two years before.  Along with that I took in probably 5 different types of curls, tricep kickbacks, 8 ½ different types of bench-press sort of exercises (for 3×10, of course) and an assload of crunches.  Oh, and nothing for the legs.  Because seriously, I kicked enough people in practice and jumped rope for conditioning, so I got plenty of “legwork” in.  I might have done a pullup once or twice, but don’t quote me on that.  And here it was, 2008, and my friend Drew invited me over to his oil-stained driveway to try out this thing called “kettlebells”  because this badass Russian defector and former Soviet Special Forces trainer told us we should – or else.  His name was Pavel, and you might have heard of him.

Drew was keen on me hearing about him too, and talked about him and his epic badassery non-stop before our Spanish classes three times a week.  Being an American with a Russian family history (I don’t speak Russian, but my middle name is Dmitri – true story), I figured I should make my heritage proud and try out this cannon ball with a handle.  The first thing I tried to do with it was curl it.  I had a lot to learn.

Drew showed me most of the essential kettlebell exercises and I was hooked.  He also showed me something else – a book called The Naked Warrior.  Apart from laughing at the title (I was 21 and a little less mature) I was intrigued.  You mean you could use your bodyweight for more than just running?  And what’s this I see…is that…a squat on one leg?  And a true one-arm pushup?!  The Loch Ness Monster and Big Foot were together in one awesome compendium of myth-breaking, icon-smashing cold, hard facts, along with a way to make both of these monsters your pets.  I tried the pistol.  I made it, but not before using more muscles than I thought I had.  I tried the one-arm pushup.  I failed.  And here’s the unfortunate part: I failed for years.

I gave up and took on “tamer” exercises, but the one-arm pushup always sat in the back of my mind – taunting me, daring me to come out to play.  Last June I had had enough.  I bought The Naked Warrior on DVD and sat down to watch it and see if I could glean some details from the DVD that I didn’t from the book.  Fortunately for me, I did.  Within the first 10 minutes, I picked up a tip that I hadn’t been able to put together before: the hollow position!  A light bulb went off.  I paused the DVD, walked over to the bare spot on my bedroom floor, applied this tip, and for the first time ever I knocked off a legit one-arm pushup. 


Like Neo becoming The One in The Matrix, like George Taylor discovering that the Planet of the Apes was Earth all along, like Moses being called by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, the veil had been lifted from my eyes and the world became clearer in an instant.  I saw raw, real bodyweight brute strength for the first time in my life.  Beyond just that, I saw the things that had been holding me back all this time.

The first thing I saw when the veil was lifted was that I had the strength to do it all along – I just didn’t have technique.

The second thing I saw was the intricacy interwoven in the movement’s simplicity.  Knowledge of universal strength-training principles and the ability to apply them will take you as far as you want to go in your physical development.

The third thing I saw was that one broken link in the chain would ruin the whole thing.  You’ll either fail at the movement, get hurt, or do some weenie-ish fake variation and call it a one-armer.  None of those are acceptable.


Before I get into details about building yourself up to one-armers, let me first say that the following movements and exercises are absolute prerequisites: the RKC Plank, legit standard pushups for reps, and one-arm planks, as well as the ability to maintain the hollow position (squeeze your glutes and brace your gut for a punch – this may sound familiar).  If you can’t do these, don’t bother trying one-arm pushups just yet.  You’ll only get hurt.

As far as actually building up to one-arm pushups is concerned, there are a variety of ways, methods, systems, etc. that purport to be able to help, but in my eyes none is better or simpler than the one found in The Naked Warrior.  It isn’t given much space in the book, so I’ll summarize: “In order to do one-arm pushups, you must do one-arm pushups (specifically on an elevation until you can do them on the floor).”  In my experience, things like archer pushups, some of the steps in Convict Conditioning, and a variety of other more difficult pushup variations are great for a challenge or building up some in-between strength, but if you want to do one-arm pushups, you’ll have to practice their exact groove.  Otherwise, don’t expect much.

Getting yourself into the proper position is as simple as following a few principles

  1. Keep your shoulder pushed down.
  2. Keep the crook of your elbow pointed forward (“screw your shoulder into its socket”).
  3. Get into the hollow position.
  4. Kick your hip over to your working side.  Much like a military press, having the hip under the working arm will support you in completing the movement.


One arm Pushup Skill

Example of Step 2.  Keep your hand planted and try to point the crook of your elbow forward.

Aleks Salking 1 arm pushup


Example of Step 4: Kick your hip over slightly, as you do in a heavy military press.  Please ignore my pasty, glow stick legs.

You’re ready!  Now here’s what you do…

Apply all of the above tips and find your optimal position on the ground.  This is crucial, because if your elevated one-arm pushups don’t mimic what your one-armers would feel like on the ground, when the time comes to try them out on the floor, you’ll likely miss it.  Stay in your one-arm plank position on the floor, practice going down just an inch or two, and adjust as needed.  Find this ideal top position.  Practice it.  Note the tension required to maintain this position.

Once you’ve grooved your top position, you’re ready to practice the full movement.  Find an elevation (retaining walls work perfectly) on which you can do between 8-10 reps.  Apply the newly-grooved feeling from your one-arm planks and start pushin’.  Pause at the bottom, and push back up.  As they get easier at this elevation, lower your hand position and do it again.  Over the course of the next few weeks and months, repeat.  When you’re feeling good, attempt one on the floor.

Elevated One arm Pushup

You’re ready to join the push league!

I wish I had more complicated instructions to give you so I’d feel more important, but really, this is it.  Grease the Groove, and practice when you’re feeling good.  Another option is to practice your one-armers in the context of Dan John’s 40-Day Program , which I’ve done to great effect.  Whatever you do, keep the reps low and stay fresh!   Here’s an excerpt from my practice of elevated one-arm/one-leg pushups during the 40-Day Program.

One-arm/one-leg pushups practice.

Day 1: 2×5/5 (mid-thigh level)

Day 6: 5/5 (mid thigh), 3/3 (knee level), 2/2 (below knee)

Day 16: 2×5/5 (just above knee)

Day 33: 2×5/5 (below knee)


As time goes on and you start to get the hang of the movement more and more, and you’ll build up unreal strength in this movement.  I even built up to a half-bodyweight one-arm press just by improving my one-arm pushups, so this is more than just a party trick – it’s a real strategy for getting as strong as you look – and then some.  Apply the above and you’ll get to watch your strength skyrocket.   It’ll take time and practice, but trust me – it’s worth it.

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