The One Arm Military Press – “Old School” but Effective

October 21, 2010

So I have recently been toying around with the one arm military press. I train shoulders twice per week and I now include heavy one arm military presses every other shoulder workout. This started by accident a little over a month ago. I was planning to do some seated dumbbell military presses, but all the benches were taken. I grabbed a set of dumbbells and decided to do just one arm at a time standing (an exercise I’ve never included as part of my routine). It felt pretty awkward the first set, but really engaged my triceps. By the 3rd set I was hooked! This creates a much different feel in the shoulders than doing seated dumbbell presses. After just 4-5 weeks of using this lift all of my weights in my pressing movements have shot up. No wonder this was such a popular exercise back in the early 1900’s.


one arm military press


[Yeah…I am nowhere near this strong. I’m only using dumbbells in the 60 pound range. I have no idea how much weight this guy is hoisting. With Olympic plates it is easy to tell what is happening, but with these old fashion barbells who knows what is going on!]

You Will Be Able to Use Heavy Weights in This Lift

The seated dumbbell press has been a long time favorite lift of mine for the shoulders. There is a challenge with this lift however and it is getting the dumbbells into place. I can comfortably get 50-60 pounds up to the starting position, but much past that is a decent effort. Because of this I haven’t progressed much past 60 pounds for reps. The one arm military press is a different deal. It is really easy to get the weight in place. I have no problem cleaning a single 90+ pound dumbbell to shoulder height (not that I will be pressing this any time soon). I have a feeling I will be well into the 70’s and 80’s within a month or two.

This Works Extremely Well for Low Reps

Last week I was doing multiple sets of triples with heavier weights than normal. It was really fun. I would perform 3 reps with one arm, put the weight on the floor…then do 3 reps with the other arm. I started with 50 pounds and worked my way down the rack. Each time I grabbed a heavier weight, I would put the weight on the ground and psych myself up before each set. This lift is an interesting one, because the right mindset makes all the difference in the world.

There Are a Lot of Muscles Involved to Make This Lift Happen

I found an excellent article reprint by Sig Klein from 1937. It is appropriately titled The One Arm Military Press. Sig makes a great point in this article about how to “make the body rigid” before pressing the weight overhead.

“Here is where a little so-called ‘science’ can be used. The elbow is carried back a bit, the handle of the weight must be in line with the chin, and now the athlete can get his back rigid. He contracts his thighs, and at the same time his buttocks. This gives him stability and a firmness which the beginner does not realize is important in all overhead pressing. Here is where the lifter can use discretion as to how he wants to hold his free arm. If he holds it at the side he can, by pressing against his thigh and tensing his arm, give himself rigidness. He can also get almost the same effect by keeping his arm at right angles to the shoulder, and tense his upper back, by pressing it in a downward motion. All this is done by the experienced One Arm Military presser, but it is not apparent. It is just about all the ‘science’ there is to the lift.”

“Making the Body Rigid” AKA Irradiation

So irradiation is basically the ability to improve the strength of a muscle by tensing the surrounding muscles around that muscle. Soviet Special forces trainer Pavel Tsatsouline talked about this in great detail in Power to the People. I always like to use Pavel’s exact example, because he explains it brilliantly.

  1. Try flexing your bicep as hard as possible without making a fist.
  2. Now try and flex your bicep as hard as possible while making as tight as fist as possible and squeezing.
  3. You should be able to contract your bicep much harder when making a tight fist.
  4. This is called “irradiation”…what is happening is that the nerve impulses of surrounding muscles can amplify the effect of that muscle.

Mastering the One Arm Press Requires Mastering Irradiation

The second workout I did with one arm military presses, I was struggling a bit to get 60 pounds moving. Then I decided to use irradiation in my favor. I first make a fist with the arm I wasn’t using, let that tension increase across my body and when it hit the side I was lifting with…I tightened my grip on the dumbbell and easily lifted it overhead. Now I simultaneously do this while also tightening my abs. I haven’t tried flexing the legs yet, but I am guessing that will help me reach the next level.

This Lift Used to Be the Main Test of One’s Strength

Sig Klein claims that this was the main lift people would use to measure overall body strength…

“Before the Olympic lifts became the standard of amateur weight lifters, as far as champion caliber is concerned, the One Arm Military Press was one of the main tests of one’s strength.”

If an athlete could properly perform a one arm military with 90 lbs. he was considered strong regardless of what he could do on other lifts. All athletes of strength would try their ability at this almost forgotten lift, for it was a lift that could be practiced by all.”

Who Is Going to Work Up to 90 Pounds In This Lift?

There are probably a few here that are close. I am much better at pulling movements, but would love to work up to 90 pounds in this lift. If you can close in on lifting half of your body weight in this lift, while at a low body fat percentage…I pretty much guarantee that you will have amazing definition in your shoulders and triceps. Anyone close to this level yet?

profileNote:I blog less these days & save my most up-to-date info for my free exclusive newsletter.

Click Here to Subscribe.

Rusty Moore

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

{ 63 comments… read them below or add one }

Ash October 28, 2010 at 9:18 pm

I love your blog and I second the request for articles for women.

Here’s my question, and I think this might be one a lot of people would have. I’m about 15lb overweight, incredibly unfit. So I’ve gone down to a 800-1000calorie diet focusing on paleo-style foods and a protein shake for lunch. I’m starting upper body weight training and trying that crazy8-circuit (though I can only do one rep, modified!) followed by some steady state cardio (zumba). I plan on increasing my reps and cardio time as I get fitter. Am I on the right track or should I do anything else?

Jay October 30, 2010 at 10:13 am

Hi Rusty,

Have been reading up on other comments and your responses and you seem to say that by strength training your weight will naturally increase a bit? I’ve tried the strength training + calorie deficit routine and it worked pretty well in leaning me out but, even though i know that bulking up hasnt really worked for me in the past, it seems that strength training alone wont help me see an increase in weight unless i’m in a calorie surplus?

my stats: 6ft2 and around 170lbs (though weighing myself seems to do me more harm than good because it makes me think i’m still too thin even though i look better know than when i was puffy and ‘bulking up’) – trying to get that extra bit of vascularity so easing off the cals once again whilst keeping up the weight training and have started interval running again. I’m hoping your shrink wrap technique is really going to work!

Fitness Coach David November 1, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I love this workout. It’s so simple yet so effective.

-David

Ricardo November 1, 2010 at 7:03 pm

Rusty,

I had to post my question here since nor I can find an email to send you my question, nor a forum to do so…so here it is:

I have a question. I have been using Rusty’s excercise program and Eat Stop Eat for about 2 weeks. This is what I have been eating everyday for the past 2 months:

Breakfast: Fruit
Snack: Lean Yougurt
Lunch: 2 tosted all wheat bred with tomatoes and bruschetta
Dinner: Steam veggies, brocolli and beef, string bean chicken and chow main (all at Panda Express and cooked with no sauces, so there is no sodium at all)

10 glasses of water and a no-calorie energy drink a day

All totals about 1500 calories

Now, I eat this everyday since I have no sense of taste nor smell, so food is not important.

On my fasting days I just eat the dinner which is about 800 calories.

For working out (6 days a week) I do daily: the Crazy 8, a work out with ISO 7X (which is awesome btw), the Tabitha Protocol (for cardio…just google it, and yest it is awesome)and for weights I am on Phase II of Rusty’s program.

SO HERE IS MY QUESTION:

I have not lost any weight, none. Prior to doing the fasting I was working out (w/o the Crazy 8s and Rusty’s program)and still eating the same and I can not drop from 190!!! (I am at 193 right now) and i don’t even have a 4 pack! I am doing the excercises right, I am eating right, I am fasting right…so something is not working out here, which must be the amount of calories that I am taking. How many calories should a person eat per day?

My goal is to be at 170 or 180 at the max (I am 5′11)and I want to be shredded…yet I have not seen much progress

I hope you guys can shed some light into my dilema.

P.S. I do have a social life, so I do drink occasionaly BUT…if I drink I max it out at 4 drinks and it can not take me over my 1500 calories daily. So if I drink I drink Corzo Tequila on the rocks (which is awesome)or some Michelob Ultra

Demond Thompson November 2, 2010 at 5:02 pm

Not yet, but I’m on my way! I’m around your strength level. I’ve been pulling alot lately to even out my muscularure.

Jesus Sanchez November 4, 2010 at 11:37 pm

Hey Demond! I too had elbow (lateral epicondil) surgery. One year later, I’m up to 75lbs for one rep, and ice after the workout. On training days, I avoid the ibuprofen because it interferes with GH levels, but if needed, I take it on non training days. I also keep my blood ph high to avoid acidic levels – it interferes with healing. I do this by eating a lot of raw spinach and broccoli.

Good luck!

Glenn Faltenhine November 5, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Great article. We forget about the old school stuff, yet it is all tried and true! I also like going one arm press with incline. Use your empty hand to steady your body. Start with the weight supinated beside your chest and then alternate on the way up!!

Great site!

Ian - HomeWorkoutBlog November 6, 2010 at 11:03 pm

Rusty-

Great post on this simple exercise.

I mean, what is a better test of strength than being able to lift and then press a heavy weight over your head?

Along these same lines, I really enjoy doing sandbag clean and presses. The weight is unstable and hard to lift, and requires all sorts of core stabilization in addition to being extremely taxing on the shoulders and triceps.

Paul November 7, 2010 at 3:25 pm

That’s a cool photo! I should imagine this would build some decent core stability in addition to the obvious muscles.

Seth November 11, 2010 at 1:45 pm

I am still trying to figure out how to perform these properly. I looked on youtube and the web and can’t find much. I would rather see someone doing them instead of words telling you how to do it. does anyone know where i could go to see how to perform them.
my guess is that its part power lift and strength lift. kinda like a clean and press, but i am not sure, i’ll have to try to understand what they mean through the explanation of the movement

Seth November 11, 2010 at 2:30 pm

to Ricardo,
I would say that your maintenance level for you would be about 10kcal per lbs of body weight so at 190 your maintenance is about 1900kcal a day or so depending on your activity levels and leanness, not much more than 2200kcal a day. which lets say 2 weeks, 400 under kcal would be 5600kcal, fat = 3500kcal which for you would be less than 2lbs of fat burned in that 2 week period. water weight and strength gains are factors as well. so is your strength going up? weight can go up as well, or is strength going down? if its going down then your cutting too hard and should eat to maintenance or over kcal every once in awhile. for 2 months at that level, your body, i think is adjusting its metabolism for lower amount of kcal, your energy levels may be very low and thats a sign of to hard. for the food, its alright, you should buy and make your own steamed veggies and and lean meats. i don’t trust fast food they put stuff in it and aggravate your hormones and inflammation may occur. I stay away from the scale because it could pschologically damage you, look at yourself in the mirror and see if you look better than 2 weeks ago. take pictures and compare. I wouldn’t do enriched pasta(chow mien) try whole wheat pastas and the bread (ezikiel bread is great) most breads are full of crap like sugar & high fructose corn syrup. try whole real organic foods you make yourself and switch up your sprints to minute sprints and minute rests and diff body weight exercises, things to get your heart rate pegged at high levels.(for me its over 200beats per minute or more during high intensity stuff) i been through this stuff and lost over 50lbs, and made the mistake of cutting to hard and losing so much strength that i still haven’t gotten back, so i would just give it time and it takes a long time to get and stay lean, for me it took 6mo to take off 30lbs and another year to drop another 20lbs. the less you weigh, the less kcal you need as well, about 100kcal less for every 10lbs lost so adjust accordingly

AshDash November 25, 2010 at 4:16 am

I totally agree! If you need more articles for women check out my page: http://allofashleysanswers.blogspot.com/ I really like this one too. This image is just astounding though!

Cai - Quakefitness.com November 26, 2010 at 5:40 am

Hi!
Ive added a link back to this page with a short description to my fitness website http://www.quakefitness.com/blog
Scroll down the page and you will find it and a lot of other fitness and health articles.

Quake Fitness – Connecting Fitness and Health articles and blogs

J.B F. November 28, 2010 at 10:44 am

Rusty, this is right on.

I’ve tried to go for volume with these, multiple sets of 4. Unfortunately I noticed my shoulders start to suffer slight injuries, that I only afterwards when moving them at specific angles or along specific planes.

I can testify to the strength building power of these one arm standing presses, but for the life of me I’ve not been able to figure out which movement, exactly, is causing me injuries.

Basically I clean the dumbells to my shoulder, then press with a contraction of my back obliques and abs. I might lower the weight and go for 3 rep sets for a while.

Maybe there are weaker support muscles involved with certain stages of the movement that I need to build up.

But yeah, these presses do build strength nicely.

Eric Moss December 3, 2010 at 4:13 am

I’ve pressed an 88lb kettlebell with one hand at a bodyweight around 152lbs. My goal is to press 106lbs with one hand while staying under 160lbs.

It’s just a matter of time :)

IntensePhysique December 8, 2010 at 1:11 am

Awesome exercise, will really help building those delts!

Jason - Muscle Building and Fitness Workouts December 11, 2010 at 2:36 am

Hey Rusty, I am 205lbs and can get a few reps at 90. Have gone as high as 100lbs. Doing a strict military press is much easier as i can do well over double the weight as I can with one arm. Great exercise.

Dennis Blair Fort Collins Personal Trainer December 28, 2010 at 7:05 pm

I got rid of seated DB presses a long time ago. I found out that standing up and using one arm at a time develops a lot more muscles than just the shoulders. I think that any move you can do standing up is much more preferential than the seated variety.

Jeremy - Self Health Atlas January 14, 2011 at 3:30 am

hey Rusty, I was getting frustrated with my progress in shoulder press so I started adding the one arm military press to my workouts. You weren’t kidding! After about 3 weeks my shoulder presses really started to improve and I haven’t stopped making gains since…of course, I have a long way to go before I use 90lb dumbbells.

Thanks for the great tip.

Maddog Workouts April 26, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I really need to start building in some one arm military presses to improve my overhead press strength.

Dave May 15, 2011 at 12:24 am

Do you shrug or raise your shoulders at the top like Rippetoe suggests, or ‘pack’ them as Pavel advises?

Andreas Schumacher June 6, 2011 at 5:36 am

It helped my bench tremendously, I really enjoy doing them. Not often but at least 3-4 times a year for about 3 weeks.

Apartamente de inchiriat July 4, 2011 at 4:12 am

This is really interesting. I’m not advanced enough to do the one-handed press yet but in the future I hope I will be :)

Bob September 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm

Never tried the one armed press. Will have to look into it. Currently I can press both 70lbs DBs 6 times.
Great post Rusty!

bodypuncher September 19, 2011 at 10:54 am

Thanks for this great article. It helped me find a solution to my problem: I decided to give up handstand pushups after 2+ yrs of them because I fear that straining while upside down is not so good for the blood vessels in the brain and eyeballs of a 46 yr old. But, the HSPs made me so much stronger doing only 5 per day. So I needed a good substitute in my routine and the 1 arm press is it, thanks to your article. I do 90 lb on side press and will progress to 100 lb soon. I do C&P too (“Sig Klein Challenge”), but the 1-arm side press is just so cool and seems to work not only delts but also lat, pec, trap and- of course-tricep. Thanks.

Ios On Android Phone January 18, 2012 at 9:17 pm

I think that any move you can do standing up is much more preferential than the seated variety.

TK March 26, 2012 at 1:04 am

Hi

What is the correct way to press one armed ? I read this article and the one that is linked in the article and neither explains that. So should i use neutral grip and keep the elbow in front of my body, or should the palm face away from me, to my front, and should the elbow be on the side of my body (90 degree angle).

If you could reply to this it would be great :). Thank you.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: