How to Do One Arm Push Ups for 20 Reps

January 3, 2010

I typically don’t make new year’s resolutions, but one thing I would love to be able to do is the one arm push up. When I first started lifting the big goal was to bench press 225 pounds for reps (because I thought it looked cool to have two 45 pound plates on each side of the bar). I reached that goal in a short period of time and it felt good, but it is not even close to impressive as doing full-range one arm push ups. In fact, I would guess there are more guys who can bench press 315 pounds (three 45’s per side) than men or women who can do 5 full-range one arm push ups. I want to become one of those people.

One Arm Pushups

[We will talk about steps to progressively build up strength to be able to do one arm push ups. One of the steps is close grip push ups. The guy in this picture is demonstrating decent hand positioning for close grip push ups.]

The Lost Art of “Progressive Calisthenics”

These past two years I have used various body weight circuits as a way to burn fat while maintaining muscle. This is a great way to condition the body and keep the body fat low, but it is not a way to greatly improve muscle strength using only your body weight as resistance. Before weight training became mainstream, men and women used their own body weight to get incredibly strong. In fact, it is believed the Spartans used extensive calisthenics to create extremely powerful bodies and crush their enemies in battle.

These Days When Someone Uses the Term “Calisthenics”…

Up until recently, when I heard the term calisthenics…I thought of Junior High or Elementary School P.E. classes. What came to mind was push ups, jumping jacks, burpees, situps, etc. I had images of awkward skinny kids with no muscle strength learning how to develop a tiny bit of base muscle (for some reason I think of white “tube socks” with two red stripes when I think of P.E…part of being a 70’s and 80’s kid). Once these kids became 16-17, they could then move on to something “real” like lifting weights for strength and conditioning. Well, my thinking has changed a bit.

A New Controversial Book That Has Changed My Thinking

Last month, I ordered a book called Convict Conditioning because it peaked my curiosity. I was hesitant to talk about it in detail on my blog…I just don’t want people to think I am glamorizing crime or think it is cool to “do time” (so I left this part out of the post until now). That being said, this is by far (by a mile) the best book for gaining strength and muscle with body weight exercises. In fact this post is a summary of Coach Paul Wade’s approach to doing one-arm push ups. He uses 10 steps, to get to the one-arm push up but the idea is the same. Again…if you can get over the name of the book, you will pleased with Convict Conditioning. It is right up there with Pavel’s Power to the People…which is probably my all-time favorite fitness book.

Why the Military Focuses Heavily on Calisthenics

As I mentioned before the Spartan warriors used calisthenics to create powerful bodies made for combat. So as far back as ancient times men and women were using calisthenics to create amazingly powerful and functional bodies. Calisthenics create a “combat ready” body that is much more mobile and functionally powerful than a body that is created with nothing but weights. This is a big reason that it is such a big part of military training. I am all for lifting weights, but to become truly physically impressive…I believe that some body weight work needs to be included in your routine along with weights.


Ancient Statue Shows Muscularity

[Ancient statues demonstrate that impressive musculature was around thousands of years before weight training was introduced.]

Using “Progressive Calisthenics” to Do One Arm Push Ups

The mistake most people make when attempting to learn one arm push ups is that they hop right to the actual movement. Many people will start by attempting one-inch one arm push ups and then gradually increase range of motion and then attempt two, etc. This is not what progressive calisthenics is all about! Progressive Calisthenics is starting with a super easy related movement, mastering that movement…then moving on to a slightly “progressively” harder version of the movement.

Here’s a Sample Exercise Progression to One Arm Push Ups

1) Push Ups Against a Wall: Stand 2-3 feet away from the wall and slowly push your body away from the wall. Once you can do this for 3 sets of 20 reps, you are ready to master the next progressively harder movement.

2) Push Ups on Your Knees: Get on your knees and do push ups at a slow pace. One second down, slight pause at bottom…then one second up. Master this movement for 3 sets of 20 reps before moving on to the next level of difficulty.

3) Push Ups With Feet on Floor and Hands on Bench: The higher the bench, the easier this is. A standard bench in the gym works well, or a chair at home. Master this movement for 3 sets of 20 reps before moving on to the next movement.

4) Full Regular Push Ups: This one is self explanatory. Just focus on good quality push ups, all the way down in a controlled manner. Same deal, move on to next exercise once you can get 3 sets of 20 reps.

5) Close Grip Push Ups (Hands Touching): I like to make my hands form a diamond shape, like the guy in the first picture. Some people for a triangle. Just make sure your fingers are touching and you will be good. Once you can get 3 sets of 20 reps in perfect form, then move on.

6) One Arm Assisted Push Ups With Basketball: You can use a medicine ball if you have that available as well. What you are going to do here is put as much weight as possible on the hand that is on the ground and another hand on a basketball. Use the had on the basketball to assist you on the way up and the way down. As you get stronger, place that basketball further out to the side of your body away from the center. The further out the ball gets from your body, the less you can assist that working arm. Once you can do 2 sets of 15 reps per arm with very little assistance, it is time to move on to one arm push ups unassisted.

7) One Arm Push Ups: Your goal here is to eventually have the ability to do 20 full strict one arm push ups on each arm. If you can do that, you will have triceps as hard as a rock. If you mastered the previous movement correctly, you should be able to do 3-5 reps on each arm. Over a period of months you will work your way up to 20 reps per arm.

Here is what a good rep looks like…

[This guy is using decent technique, but could improve a bit by getting his feet closer together and tucking his elbow into the side of his body. This increases the range of motion and makes the movement more difficult to perform.]

A Weighted Exercise That Will Help

I have been doing an exercise called Renegade Rows that have increased the muscle density on my obliques without increasing the size of that muscle. This is great for “framing” your six pack and creating not just great abs, but all the detail muscles of the mid-section. This exercise also tends to make any pushing exercise much easier over time, due to having to support so much weight with one-arm. The great thing is that it strengthens the core tremendously for push ups. When doing one arm push ups you don’t want your body to twist and turn due to weak obliques. This is the exercise you will want to do to insure this doesn’t happen. Click here to read my post on that exercise —> Tighten Your Obliques Without Adding Size With These Isometric Exercises.

Some Other Tips on One Arm Push Up Progression

The best way to insure that you reach the point where you can do one arm push ups unassisted, is to make sure and really master the previous movements before moving on. The more time you spend mastering the previous movement, the easier time you will have with the next movement.

“One Step Backward to Take Two Steps Forward”

I would suggest you start with an exercise that you can easily do…and spend a week or two on that movement before moving on the the next movement. As an example, I plan on spending 2 weeks doing the “feet on floor hands on bench” push up before moving on to full push ups. This will be easy, in fact the next level won’t be hard either. This approach works well, because you are teaching your body to progress successfully to the next high-demanding movement…you are training the habit of success. If you jump to quickly to the harder movements you will get stuck at some point.

Note: I plan on talking more about “Progressive Calisthenics” in my newsletter at some point. To subscribe to my newsletter, simply download my free report…Vacation Body Blueprint. The newsletter goes more into depth with slightly different info than my blog (I don’t have to hold back as much since it isn’t a public place like my blog).

Important Message: Although this site has received 25+ million visitors, I am starting from scratch and abandoning it. This site is dated and old school looking, terrible to read on mobile, etc.

It's like a Ford Pinto compared to my new site...which is like a Ferrari. Click the link to head over to my new site.

Starting Over...R.I.P. Fitness Black Book!


Thanks for reading all these years!



 

----> (New) Facebook Comments..."Cause all the cool kids are doin' it!"

{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

geoff January 26, 2010 at 10:32 am

Hi. I got into this a while ago, and found that starting off with a weedy press up (knees on the ground) was the way to build up to it. On a masochistic note, try the finger end press-up, and gradually reduce the number of fingers you use. I had it down to index finger press-ups for ten reps at one point. There’s always that slight worry at the back of your mind; ‘Is it going to snap this time?’

jason February 6, 2010 at 2:40 pm

I think your point about the one arm rows is key to the success of the one arm push up. The 1 arm push up requires lots of core strength as do the renegade rows. I think many people have the strength to do a 1 arm push up, like you said lots of people can bench 315 plus, so if you are an average size person that is plenty of upper body strength.

Vegasboi February 6, 2010 at 10:21 pm

John-

Don’t let other people ever tell you what you should weigh or look like. I’m 5”11 and 135 lbs (shooting for 130-I had more tone at that weight) and I can do pushups on my fingers and lift and move heavy objects better than many of my 200 lb friends (who, I might add, get winded after about 30 regular pushups).

Skinny=weak?
No, sitting on your ass all weekend drinking=weak

fitbritz March 16, 2010 at 7:00 am

Hi their great article we have a video from a personal trainer who is doing different styles of push up here is his video
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqQicZ06AP0

are website http://www.fitbritz.co.uk
facebook http://www.facebook.com/home.php?#!/pages/Fitbritz/330465358586?ref=nf

Alden April 8, 2010 at 10:55 pm

how often should i do this a week?

alex. May 19, 2010 at 12:02 pm

hey, rusty, i am on step 6 right now, and not having to much trouble so far, but the diamond push-ups are one hell of a good workout.

bossy June 21, 2010 at 4:08 am

geoff got it bang on re. tha one arms.. start with knees on floor in some pansy female pressup position and gradually put less weight thru knees and more through toes.. before startin to gradually lift knees tho would suggest working up to doing 5 with arm tucked close to body (similar to mentioned somewhere in article).. as for the one finger pressups however wtf why lol

Michael Lindsay July 2, 2010 at 2:03 pm

Another way to do the one arm assisted is with a push up board. We regularly do these during our body weight workouts at Fear Systems. It takes a while to get to the point of being able to do them, that is for sure! Interesting post! I have several posts on push up board workouts on my blog if anyone is interested. Don’t think any of them feature the one arm assisted though. I’ll have to work on that!

Alex Allmert - Hardcore Natural Bodybuilding Tips August 30, 2010 at 4:54 am

Rusty, I will check out the book you mentioned.

Also there is a book called Never Gymless by Ross Enemaim.

Ross is a former boxer who now trains athletes, he answers all the emails sent to him, I had the pleasure of discussing kickboxing with him over an email conversation, he’s very knowledgeable.

His site is rosstraining.com he has some interesting insights.

-Alex Allmert

Most Comfortable Shoes September 15, 2010 at 11:16 pm

Rusty, this is a little off topic. Is there another option rather than the push up? I do yoga, but I need to fast track my strength building routine. I believe yoga to be fantastic for teaching the fundamentals of body movement and your limits, however I need to build up my muscle, particularly my legs and arms. Any suggestions would be welcomed.

Ronald September 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm

I don’t know anything about professional fighting but I am so glad I have searched this site on Google. I think I learn something today which I can use for self defense. It is a very dangerous world out there and some techniques are very useful in case of danger.

Snow October 24, 2010 at 2:27 pm

20 reps?

5 or 10 would be a better number lad 😉

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fU3KTlth84

Graig shows perfect form for this exercise and I would love to see someone do 10 of those on each side.
I push 3 on each side but with feet spaced closer, also performed very slowly to watch form. With feet spaced out, twisting shoulders or legs or lifting one leg it becomes a lot easier.
Try this to built up strength, halfway down the one arm pushup hold contraction for 10 secs then explode back up. Same with Pistol Squats, halfway down (thigh parallel to floor) hold for 10 sec then explode back up.

Love the site Rusty, keep up the good work bro

ps. the yoga guy should perform his routine holding each exercise for 30 secs. That’s how I always do my yoga workout.

Terry Harris - New Zealand December 1, 2010 at 12:01 am

this is a great post lots of comments and good information Convict conditioning is a great book working on all 6 movements up to close grip push ups now also starting hand stand push ups .have trained with weights etc for 34 years really enjoying the body weight work can feel the strength growing in my muscles and joints
wish you all well on your way to the big six

Keep up the great work Rusty

Interactive December 21, 2010 at 5:13 pm

Oy this is a good workout… I’ve tried it, and I’m not in great shape, so I couldn’t even quite do it the first time, but I’m getting there!

Steve - Jogging Tips January 4, 2011 at 7:18 am

Bruce Lee used to do one-armed push-ups and he was in great physical condition.

buying shares February 17, 2011 at 12:47 pm

I find one-armed press-ups virtually impossible to do at the moment. I think I’ll really need to build up to accomplish them.

Georgiann Schmitke February 24, 2011 at 6:13 pm

I love this post

Botox Miami March 11, 2011 at 12:47 am

Really interesting choice of goals! I have to say I admire your plan to be one of the few people in the gym who can do one-arm push-ups. Those are exactly the kind of unique goals that I think make a real difference in your attitude toward your workout.

Maddog Workouts May 19, 2011 at 3:13 pm

I am currently working on the convict conditioning progressions. It’s a fantastic book and reall inspires me to do similar exercises. I cannot wait ntil I am pumping out 1 arm press ups.

JohnSep May 20, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Rusty, can’t thank you enough for this site. I’ve been passing the word around and am an avid reader of your articles. I am in Afghanistan supporting a remote base with poor gym equipment (NATO base, not US) and your articles have been great for me. Been using bodyweight exercises for about three months now and getting ready for my leave in a month using your workout suggestions and diet. I am 5’10” and was 175- don’t know what it is now because we have no scale but I went down two notches in my belt which I now need to keep my pants up. The eating right part is tough because there isn’t a big selection, but at 47 I look better than half of the soldiers on this base that are half my age. Keep up the great work!

Ron July 14, 2011 at 1:19 am

A month ago I found out I couldn’t do a clap push-up. Now I’m up to three sets of ten. I think the one arm push-up is the next challenge! Btw, those Barbarian guys are crazy!

sean July 19, 2012 at 1:13 pm

i can do over 60 to 70 push ups on one arm per set i usually do 25 per but sometimes i do 50 per arm until i reach my set number which may vary from 400 to 600 . Right now i do one arm variations as well as a constant single form one arm push ups.

David T. August 13, 2012 at 4:08 pm

Yes i love to do pushups in various of ways and i just am in love with the one armed pushup. The only suggestion is that can anyone tell me any tip on how to keep your back/torso straight during the exercise. It is kind of straight, but as we all know almost doesn’t count. If anyone has any input, all suggestions are accepted.
Thank you.

David October 6, 2012 at 8:42 pm

I can do 31 on my left and 21 on my right ive been doing them for about 6 months and i love them great workout for the body its easier if your lightweight to be honest im only 140 lbs tring to gain weight at the moment but this workout is pretty nice.

Brad July 12, 2013 at 11:09 am

Hey Rusty! Big fan of your fitness blog, and also of Paul Wade. I love the whole idea of gaining strength without size. I’ve started following yours and Paul’s training philosophies religiously, it really works! My problem is my leg strength. I’m like you and I gain a lot of mass quickly, so I avoid lower body lifts, my problem is that I’m working towards becoming a firefighter, most of which is leg strength and lung strength. I’ve considered doing Convict Conditioning all the way to the full one legged squat, or plyometrics, or anything to increase leg strength without size. Maybe I should just lift really light weights and have hard muscle contractions in my legs to strengthen my nervous system? I’m at a loss and could really use some help!

Thanks,

Brad

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