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Band Assisted One Arm Pushups: A Better Alternative

Filed under: Bodyweight Training,Exercise Instruction,Exercise Technique,Strength Training — Shon @ 5:22 pm February 22, 2012

An often heard knock on the push up is that it is hard to load externally, once proper form and performance have been dialed in.  Weighted vests, plates and (always popular) chains are options to add load and muscular challenge to this awesome staple exercise, but at some point most people won't be comfortable with 150 lb or more. of plates piled on their back.  

This guy is obviously not "most people"!

 

While the traditional one arm push up has been expoused as an option to add challenge and resistance, I usually find that the trainees who best tolerate and succeed with this variation have a pretty straightforward mesomorphic somatotype; more of a "wrestler/gymnast" physique versus a taller, leaner individual who has a generally harder time controlling their longer levers. 

 

One arm push ups are probably out for our friend on the right. 

 

I also don't prefer the one arm variation because it really takes a person out of the position that makes a traditional push up such a great exercise.  To clarify further, let's break it down segment to segment:

Feet to Hips

Two arm push up:  Feet hip width or shades of hip width. 

One arm push up:  Feet wide apart, which also abducts the hips and encourages increased lumbar lordosis (sometimes subtly, and sometimes not so subtle)

 

Trunk to Shoulders

Two arm push up:  Trunk moves in a "straight plane" throughout the repetition; concentration is on maintaining a tight core/ abdominal brace and avoiding the lumbar "sag". 

One arm push up:  Trunk rotation occurs naturally, and must be coordinated with shoulder rotation, you must be able to control both throughout the repetition.  If you have a weak link in the chain, technique can quickly disintegrate.  

 

Shoulders to Floor

Two arm push up:  Upper arm 45 degrees or so from the trunk, a balance of triceps, pectoral and anterior deltoid activity,  and ample scapular mobility.

One Arm push up:  Upper arm essentially parallel to the trunk, with the triceps contributing more so, as elbow extension is primarily driving the torso away from the floor and the glenohumeral joint trends toward a rounded shoulder position within the repetition.  As such, scapular mobility is definitely not optimized, and  may actually may be impaired-something we really want to avoid. 

 

Rocky is grimacing because his rotator cuff is fighting him harder than Apollo Creed!

 

A Better Way

Over the past few weeks, I have been looking for a way to safely load a push up for a group of already strong high school football players. As stated above, too many  45 lb. plates stacked on the trunk of a 16 year old is a recipe for disaster, while the "Rocky" style push up would land 75% of the team in the training room.  From this problem, a solution arose:  The Band Assisted One Arm Push Up. 

 

 

 

This variation of  the one arm push up trumps a traditional one arm push ups on many fronts.  First and most important, the overall body position is the same as in a regular two arm push up, meaning the ability to maintain hip width positioning, an efficient abdominal brace/ core, as well as a safe, appropriate scapulohumeral (shoulder blade to upper arm) position.  Your shoulder will behave here as it does in a regular two hand push up, with the only difference being the increased demand using one arm vs. two.  

Second, because trunk position is so stable in this variation, plate loading across the trunk can be done.  However we needing far less load for an appropriate training stimulus because of  the fact that we are using only one arm.  This adds both safety and resistance to an already challenging exercise. The need for multiple plates is minimized, save for the total freaks. 

Third, progression is as simple as changing band tensions and/or the height you hang the band from as your needs dictate. 

 Here is more of a bird's eye angled view to appreciate how similar to a regular push up this actually is:

 

 

 

Technique

First, loop a mini band from a height between 45-85 inches off the ground;   A power rack works great here (and it's a tough enough exercise that no one will complain that you aren't using the rack for squatting); I am using an old fashioned set of parallel bars, which serves the same purpose.  Place your "free" arm through the loop; the closer the distance the band is to your shoulder, the easier the repetition will be, as leverage is decreased. Optimally, the band should meet  at the wrist.  The shoulder should be in neutral rotation ("palm down") or slight external rotation ("thumb up").  The arm is either perpendicular to the trunk or slightly higher  (My choice in general).

Get used to the feel of the band supporting your arm and make sure that the band tension is such that your arm drops with your trunk naturally through the repetition.  This can be figured out quickly.  Set your support hand in a cambered position, then proceed as a normal two hand push up through your selected repetition range.      

Sets, Reps and Program Design

I prefer to stay in the 5 set/ 4-5 repetition per set range myself for this exercise, but higher reps are certainly an option.  This can be used as the main horizontal push option for a given day in a lower rep/ higher set fashion, or in a moderate to higher rep scheme as a supplementary exercise.  Program placement is where ever you are comfortable; I have found that it pairs nicely with RKC planks and other core work.  A frequency of one to two days weekly is a good place to start.

Progression

Experiment with any mini band tension that allows the free arm to travel with the trunk through the repetition.  This is important, as too heavy a band will "drag" your free arm and cause unwanted trunk rotation and a general loss of flow as mentioned above.  You can progress by either adding load through a weighted vest or plates.  The great thing here is that "a little goes a long way" when using plates in a one arm option.  Below I am using a 10 kg. plate for a set.  With a regular push up, I can easily get 30-35 repetitions; here I am good for about 3 reps (and I am trying to move as fast as possible!):

 

   

 

In Summary 

This one arm push up variation makes great sense on multiple levels, plus it achieves the goal of of intense unilateral loading and the strength gains that come with it.  Unless your last name is Balboa, you should infinitely prefer this exercise over the oft butchered "Rocky" push up.

 

 



Exercise of the Week: Advanced Abdominal Brace

A long time favorite in my clinic, this "anti extension" exercise fits the bill for  aggressive abdominal co-contraction, lumbosacral stabilization, and whole body frontal plane stabilization.  It is also a "self limiting exercise", defined by Alwyn Cosgrove and Gray Cook as one that "requires engangement and mindfulness, and provides an automatic yet natural obstacle that prevents you from doing it wrong, or doing an excessive volume".  In this case, the "obstacle" is the neutral spine position itself- you can either sense and hold the correct position or not.  When you lose the position, it becomes very apparent, as it is easy to sense this quickly.  I refer to this feeling as "fatigue extension" and I have never had a patient or trainee not understand how this is sensed.  

Below, I outline two progressions, using an adjustable 45 degree back raise for both.  Equally as useful for the advanced progression is a GHR machine or Roman chair. 

 

PROGRESSION ONE

The first progression here is at 45 degrees.  This allows a shorter lever arm for the trunk musculature to deal with initially, as this exercise is harder than it looks. 

The key to set up is ensuring that appropriate neutral spine is achieved by guiding the trunk position at first using the arms. This is important at first, as a person with weaker abdominals may end up in too much of a lordosis to start.  Once you have the strength and motor control to understand the position, arm guidance isn't as imperative. 

Another important technique note includes appropriate neck positioning.  You can use the "neck pack" position, or just imagine a tennis ball sitting between your sternum and chin (the way I learned it ~20 or so years ago from Beverly Biondi).  This way, you also get great deep neck flexor activity, which in turn helps reflexively reinforce the abdominal activity (which is why you're here in the first place!). 

 

 

 You can also see that the lower quarter is pretty active as well.  This is important, as your shins, and or feet (as we will see below) are the anchor point for the whole technique, and vital if you want the pelvis to stabilize neutrally from "bottom up" (which, obviously, you do). 

When used in a strength and conditioning program, I start with 10 to 15 seconds per set, with 45 seconds to 1 minute of rest between sets.  5 to 10 sets per session are performed.  We progress up to 30 seconds per set before going "arms overhead", and then start back with decreased rep times (10-15 seconds) until 30 seconds can be maintained  for multiple sets.  Dumbells can be added after this, again decreasing time under tension at first, until good lumbopelvic control can be maintained and progressed. You can also choose to perform this activity between sets of your main strength exercises, as it shouldn't interfere with technical performance of your main lifts.

When we use this clinically for our lumbar spine patients, it is always later in their overall program, usually a minimum of 4-6 weeks after treatment has started.  Symptom control, hip and lower quarter mobility, and good understanding of basic abdominal bracing progressions are needed before moving to such an advanced activity.  Sets and reps can be progressed as outlined above.  The lumbar spine patient population is generally good with the first progression, and does not need to move on to the next progression unless their sport or activity level demands it.  

 

PROGRESSION TWO

Here, we are using a "parallel to the ground" position, increasing the lever arm that the abdominals have to deal with in resisting extension.

 

 

 

 Again, I utilize my arms to set up the "neutral spine" position, both entering and exiting the set.  This is even more important in the second progression, as the abdominals have to work ridiculously hard to maintain a neutral position due to the leverage demands.

Other things to consider with this progression:

1)  Set the glutes by squeezing your butt as well as isometrically externally rotating your hips.  Again, this provides a firmer pelvic foundation for the abdominals to work off of.

2)  Notice that my instep is the base of support for my feet vs. the shins.  This is a subtle way to increase the lever arm, making the exercise more challenging.

3)  Arms overhead should be used ONLY after a good, solid repetition can be held for 10-15 seconds over 5-10 sets.  This goes for dumbells in the hands as well.

4)  The set terminates when the lumbar spine falls into fatigue extension.  Trust me when I say this is easy to figure out when this occurs. 

5)  Remember to use your arms to "rescue" yourself from the, as "sitting up" is nasty for lumbar spine shear forces.