Exercises claiming to be the "king" are as common in the gym as wannabe rulers in Westeros. Deadlifts, squats, pull-ups, overhead presses—they all have their claim to make, and their clan to support it. But when it comes to pushes, I bend the knee before the mighty one-arm push-up.
If you're ready to throw me in the dungeons until I switch allegiance to House Bench Press, I understand. But hear me out.
The one-arm push-up doesn't just test your pressing muscles. A smooth, clean rep demonstrates complete control of the anterior (front-side) musculature of the body, gives your core an incredible anti-rotation challenge, and absolutely roasts the triceps. The chest, lats, glutes, quads—they'll all light up and learn to play together.
In short, this is a press that demands strength and stability across the body and will help build strength and muscle across the body. Get good at it, and it might make everything better: your bench, your pull-ups—heck, even your deadlift.
But there's a catch: This is also a move that has been known to make big, strong people cry. It's one of those moves that isn't just for big-bodied strong folk, but for true badasses of all sizes. Bruce Lee, for example, was reputed to be able to do hundreds of them—and also do them for reps on just two fingers.
One heck of a movement, right?
So go ahead, try one. Can you do it? If so, good for you. But I bet you'd do it a lot better with a little more training.
And if you can't do one, well, you've got plenty of company. Give yourself six weeks and follow the program below, and you will be banging them out for reps—and have bigger triceps and better-looking abs to go along with your new feat of strength.
Use the Iron to Train a Classic Bodyweight Strength Goal
Look around, and you'll find a number of minimalist programs that have you simply build up to a one-arm push-up by practicing the movement itself over and over, or maybe from different heights. This will work for some people, sure. But for plenty of others, it won't.
Personally, I like to treat the one-arm push-up like the big lift it is. That means training multiple different variations of it, and building up volume with a few key accessories—including a few that aren't body weight.
You'll even see barbell moves like the close-grip bench press and front squats on the program below. You'll also do some dumbbell presses and lunges to fortify your arms, shoulders, and legs, all of which get worked during one-armers—yes, even your legs!
If you're a hardcore bodyweight purist, this approach may not be for you. But if you're looking to get really good at one-arm push-ups and willing to keep an open mind, then let's get to work.
Prerequisites for Following this Program
Basic Strength: Are you able to do 30 straight regular push-ups? If not, first build up that capacity. How about close-grip push-ups? Work up to 25-30. Once you've got that, you're ready.
Mobility: Can you hold a barbell in the "rack" position? If not, then you probably don't have the shoulder or wrist mobility to handle one-armers for now.
If the problem is your wrist, then spend some time before your workouts doing this wrist mobility flow, which gives the joint gentle stress from different force angles to build better overall mobility, strength, and positional tolerance.
Once you can check off those two bullets, it's time to start your six-week one-arm journey.
Unique Exercises in this Program
Single-Arm Plank: This movement develops stability and anti-rotation strength with three points of ground contact and provides a great wrist durability and tolerance base. During weeks 1-3, you'll do them on the ground. After that, you'll increases intensity and stability demand by doing them with feet elevated or in suspension straps.
Roll-Over Push-Up: This is a move straight from the playbook of Nick Tumminello, a smart coach who also considers the one-arm push-up to be the king of upper-body exercises. This variation will greatly improve technique without over-taxing the pushing arm, allowing for more frequent practice of the ideal shoulder placement and pushing path.
Val Slide Push-Up/Fly Combo: This movement dynamically teaches body/arm path and strong eccentric control while giving a challenging anti-rotation stimulus.
One-Arm Push-Up Slow Negative: This movement emphasizes movement path, deceleration strength, and control. Shoot for a 5-8-second decent for each rep, then push yourself up with two arms.
Band-Assisted One-Arm Push-Up: This variation allows for great technique practice and increased training volume, by taking a little of the intensity out of the bottom position of the rep.
Weeks 1-3: Before each workout
- Wrist Flow: 1 round
- Single-Arm Plank: 20-40 sec. per side. Start with 2 sets of 20 sec. per side and slowly progress volume (up to 4-5 sets of 30-40 sec.) by Week 6.
- Side Plank: 1-2 sets of 25-40 seconds per side
Weeks 4-6: Before each workout
- Wrist Flow: 1 round
- Single-Arm Plank: 4-5 sets of 20-40 sec. per side.
- Side Plank with Rotation: 2-3 sets of 10-15 reps per side.
And Then, the Test
After six weeks, take 3-4 days off, do the wrist flow and a little warm-up of your choice, and test your reps. Remember to do both arms, not just your stronger one!
If you met the prerequisites (particularly that push-up one) and followed the program more or less as written, I'm confident you'll have a few clean reps to show for all your hard work. I say "more or less" because I know that many people will make exercise substitutions large and small—and honestly, that's OK.
My only request is keep the basics intact, because this is a goal-driven program that is meant to peak at a climactic battle, er, test. Do the hard work, do it right, and the glory will be yours!
If you like to upgrade your workouts with unique movements and deep coaching insight, check out True Muscle: 9 Weeks to Elite Fitness with Nick Tumminello and former NFL star Steve Weatherford. Over nine weeks, you'll get a master class in lifting technique, programming, and all the little things that make a huge difference in your results!