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:
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.
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!):
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.