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

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?

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

  1. 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.

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

  3. 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.

Comments are closed.