The one-arm push-up (OAPU) is the mother of calisthenics pushing exercises. It’s one of my favorite exercises, because it’s so simple. You can do it anywhere, all you need is a floor. It primarily works triceps, shoulders and chest, but you need some serious core strength and the ability to generate tension throughout your whole body.
Besides, it’s an exercise that is pretty straight forward to progress to.
This is your foundation for everything else in this progression. The classic push-up has to be mastered perfectly before moving on to harder variations. See the push-up tutorial for details on how to correctly perform a classic push-up. I also included suggestions on how to progress to a classic push-up in case you cannot yet perform one.
Practice the classic push-up until you feel really comfortable doing them.
When should you move on? I don’t like to give exact numbers of reps, because this is not the best way to determine absolute strength, the kind of strength you’ll finally need to perform a OAPU. A good range can be 20 to 30 clean push-ups.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s better to stick to one level of the progression longer than you feel is necessary.
The problem is that joints and tendons develop slower than muscles, so this gives your connective tissue time to catch up to your muscles. If you feel ready to move on, try to stay at your current level for at least one or two more workouts.
When you nailed the regular push-up, start bringing your hands closer together. Diamond push-ups are push-ups performed with your hands completely together, with your index fingers and thumbs forming a diamond shape.
Diamond push-ups resemble the kind of muscle emphasis of OAPUs closer than regular push-ups, which is why they are the next step of the progression. They put more stress on the triceps and shoulders.
If you cannot perform a diamond push-up, progress slowly from regular push-ups by bringing your hands just a little closer to each other each training session.
If diamond push-ups get too easy for you (say you can perform around 15 to 20 reps with good form), try them with your feet elevated.
This will be harder because it puts more emphasis on your shoulders, which are usually weaker than triceps and chest. When you get to 10-15 reps with good form with your feet elevated (elevation being about two feet), you should be ready to move on.
Side note: No matter what your hand or feet position looks like, always use good form. This means straight body and elbows are not flaring out to the sides.
Incline One-arm Push-up
Find a surface that is about the height of your hips or slightly higher. Get into diamond push-up position with your hands on the elevated surface. Body is kept in a straight line, as always. Spread your feet wider than shoulder width. Now lift one hand off the surface and hold it behind your back. Try an incline OAPU.
If you’ve never done this before, this will be a completely new sensation.
This is because taking off one arm makes the exercise harder in two ways. First, one hand needs to handle more weight, obviously, because the other one is not used at all. But the part that actually makes it hard is the torque in your torso that you’ll have to overcome with some serious core strength.
That’s the reason why you should spread your feet when you work on this at first. Spreading your feet gives you more stability and makes the move easier, but you’re still applying an asymmetrical force to your body, so there is still some rotational tension that your core has to work against.
If you cannot perform the incline OAPU right away, try it with your feet spread even wider and/or with a higher surface. Instead of a flat surface, you can also grip a bar with one hand that has the right height for your level of progression.
Progressing is done by lowering the hand elevation, until you are finally on the ground performing standard OAPUs.
Try to nail 5-10 clean reps before you move on to lower surfaces.
Assisted One-arm Push-up
This progression starts on the ground. Get into the OAPU position, one hand on the ground, feet are more than shoulder width apart.
Put your non-working hand as far away from you as possible (non-working arm is as straight as possible).
The “non-working” hand will do a little work by assisting the other when you perform this OAPU variation.
Progressively decrease the assisting force by putting the assisting hand on higher surfaces. You will progress to higher surfaces until you no longer need the second hand.
Surfaces can be a bench, a table, a box, a brick or a stair. No special equipment needed, just creativity.
You can use this progression as an alternative to incline OAPUs. I suggest supplementing both progressions with each other. That way, you’ll tackle the OAPU from different angles, thus eliminating weaknesses you might not discover by using just one progression.
Get Your Feet Together
This is the master step to perfecting your OAPU. An OAPU with the feet touching each other is often referred to as the perfect OAPU. A perfect OAPU is performed with a straight body, meaning no bending of your torso (snaking) in any direction.
The perfect OAPU is therefore just an ideal that can never be fully achieved. You have to understand that working towards the perfect OAPU is like reaching for the stars. You might come close, but you’ll never gonna get there fully. And that’s fine.
I am still working on this and can only perform straddle OAPUs, with my feet about shoulder width apart.
There is no strict rule on when to start with bringing your feet together. I started the progression when I was able to do a couple of reps of OAPUs on the ground. But you could start earlier.
Important: Work both hands/arms equally during these progressions. If you are right-handed, your right side will naturally be stronger. But only move on to harder variations when your non-dominant side is ready, too.
Combining the Progressions
A good way to progress is to start this with incline OAPUs. When you can perform incline OAPUs with your feet touching, move to a lower surface and again try to bring your feet together.
Also combining this progression with assisted OAPUs might be worth a try. This is the point where the last three progressions melt together, where the fun begins. You can go back and forth between those progressions to tweak your OAPUs, combine them or just do one progression you like the most.
Have fun with the OAPU. It will give you a powerful addition to your strength training arsenal. Now you can work on developing incredible pushing power, anywhere in the world!
Photos: Sabine Adler