Unlocking the One-arm Push-up

One aspect of the greats in our coaching world is their ability to deconstruct a movement and then teach it to anyone who wants to learn, no matter the student’s level of ability.

Many years ago, I had my third opportunity to assist at a Certification, a role I took not only seriously but also as an honor. I remember working with my team and spotting Pavel Tsatsouline as he came through the room. For me, I might as well have seen one of my childhood heroes, like De Niro, right there in the gym. I vividly remember Pavel heading through each group, discussing with the other instructors the cues that would fix the issues he was seeing. Each cue worked. I was in awe. I wanted to be able to do that.

Ten years later, I’m still working on it. Like strength, it’s a lifelong pursuit.

If Strength Is a Skill, Then So Is Coaching

You will notice as you progress as a coach that in reverse engineering a student’s movement, you can often find a kink in the chain. This is the insight that offers you and your student the ability to identify what’s off, meaning what’s keeping the expected progress from happening. Once unraveled, it unlocks the movement. When this new information quickly redirects your student into feeling the right pattern, allowing him or her to accomplish the movement, it feels like magic. This was the magic I saw Pavel accomplish in that Cert many years ago.

The magic is not a trick. It, too, is a skill. It’s the eye, it’s practice, and it’s intuition based on what you as a coach have learned prior. The magic is the ability to cue from what the eye has seen. This takes practice. Sometimes, we’ve learned these cues from our mentors and predecessors. Other times, we find them in the moment. These aha moments are the gems in what we do as instructors. Each is a benchmark in our coaching path, each strengthens our practice.

Unlocking the One-arm Push-up
The one-arm push-up presented a puzzle for my student, and an opportunity for me to quickly determine a drill unorthodox to the OAP progression, as a coach.

My Aha Moment Coaching the One-arm Push-up

About a year ago, a student come to me for help accomplishing the one-arm push-up (OAP). She was strong enough to do the movement, but she was not able to make the necessary connections from her brain to her muscles to improve the movement pattern.

One thing I see frequently during the OAP is the student putting most of their focus and energy on the working arm—the arm that is on the ground. This makes the movement harder by shifting the student’s weight to that arm, essentially making them feel heavier. When performing the OAP or the one-arm one-leg push-up, we tend to forget about the legs and the feet. But in the SFG Level I manual, Pavel talks about the professional application of tension, where we learn to proportionately spread our tension throughout our body. This is a must-do to execute a solid OAP.

So while working with this student, I started to think about the contralateral movement pattern that automatically happens during the OAP, the point at which the body wants to dig the left leg into the ground while your right arm is planted. First, spreading your strength equally throughout your body will make accomplishing the movement easier. I needed a drill that would make my student not only understand that, but feel it and then apply it. I needed my student to feel what it was like to root the left foot into the ground while also asking the opposite arm to work as well—and then it hit me.

The single leg deadlift.

This was my aha moment. The single leg deadlift (SLD) would teach my student to root her left foot, while at the same time demanding a solid grip and a packed shoulder from the right hand and arm—this looks like an OAP. It came to me while we were still in her first session, so I had her do an SLD ladder from 1–5 on the left leg very slowly, shake it out, and then retest her OAP. She was immediately able to feel the connection, and it was clear her progression toward the OAP had immediately and dramatically changed. Magic, but not magic.

She was no stronger. She was just more capable of what was already in there. She was better tuned in to her own ability.

I sent her home with a positive attitude and something she could actually feel work after all of her frustration in going for the OAP. I asked her to perform the same ladder of 1–5, focusing on technique and rooting, three times per week, with the goal of testing her OAP when she felt she was ready. Not more than a couple of weeks later, she sent me a video of herself nailing her OAP. I was proud of this student for committing to finding a better way and not quitting her struggle. Plus, my aha moment of “will this work” actually had an answer.

Single Leg Deadlift
The single leg deadlift teaches you to root the right foot, while at the same time demanding a solid grip and a packed shoulder from the left hand and arm.

The Solution Is in the Basics

I have since used this approach with many students trying to accomplish their OAP or OAOLP. The main feedback I receive from students after performing this drill is an immediate and powerful connection from hand to feet, which in turn has created more stability throughout the body. Not only is the connection strong, but they are also able to understand spreading their strength throughout the body instead of focusing on only one aspect of the movement.

I have introduced this in large group instruction as well, including Certifications as appropriate. While we in the StrongFirst community have already been using this drill for things like rooting, some of my private as well as Cert students have recently used it with their students, specifically for the OAP, with great success. In each case, the practice of this SLD drill made the OAP feel easier, and it gave the students the confidence they needed to eventually execute it. It’s a new tool for the OAP, but it’s not a new tool in and of itself—it’s basic. I find truth in always going back to the basics for insight on how to accomplish the sexier movements. I hope that you do as well.

Mastering the fundamentals and looking back to them for guidance is something I learned from Pavel. I follow and pass on his example of this path to strength knowledge with a great amount of respect. To this day, Pavel still beats De Niro for me, something a ten-year-old Phil Scarito would never understand. It will always be an honor to have learned in this lineage and from the other mentors I have gained in association.

One-Arm One-Leg Push-Up
Once you’ve mastered the one-arm push-up, you can move on to the one-arm one-leg push-up.

If you try this SLD drill to work on your OAP or OAOLP, send me some feedback regarding if and how it worked for you. I hope more can experience the benefit, and we as a community can add some traction to making skills in bodyweight training more accessible to everyone. To learn more about bodyweight training, consider the SFB Course or SFB Certification.

As always, make it a strong day.

Phil Scarito
Master SFG, SFL, SFB

Phil Scarito, Master SFG, FMS, CICS, coaches one-to-one at his facility outside of Philadelphia.


He travels weekly to teach and is one of the most prolific event organizers and hosts in the industry, bringing the mentors and modalities in which he believes most to those looking to learn. He has a particular gift for coaching students through goals they’ve been unable to achieve, holding special regard for those who have found him in their drive to never give up.


You can reach Phil for coaching, programming, or event information at phil@dv8fitness.com or follow him on Facebook at Phil Scarito — DV8Fitness, Inc.


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15 thoughts on “Unlocking the One-arm Push-up

  • Just catching up on my reading and found this – what a great blog post, Phil – thank you. I’m going to start doing more of these one-leg, one-arm deadlifts in my own training after reading this.

    -S-

  • Thank you for this timely piece Phil. I’ve been working on my one arm gtg for a few weeks now. Can almost, almost, manage a single on my stronger side. What weight would you recommend for grooving the sld? Something not too taxing presumably, but not too light either…….a 20 kg is my cert bell for age and weight……is that about right? Once again, great write up and I’ll let you know how it goes. Thank you

    • Alistair,

      I would try the 20k and see how that translates to your push-up. You want it heavy enough to turn on the right stuff.
      Try the 20, then test it. Then go to the 24k and attempt another. Let me know how it goes?

      Thank you

      Phil

        • Hi Phil, quick update. Success! A good stronger arm and a very nearly there strong arm. Thank You. Noticeable improvements.
          I would like to consolidate and progress further but switching programmes for a 6 week block to tie in with holiday arrangements. Going back to one arms again then to consolidate. Again, thanks a lot.

  • Terrific article by a skilled coach! Had the good fortune of having Phil as my group leader and recert leader.
    Have been strength training for 40 years and am always blown away at the gems I receive.

  • I was able to get some clean single OAPUs by shifting the weight more to the contralateral leg and less off the working arm. This was a great article–concise and extremely helpful–thanks for sharing.

  • Great example. I tried this last night and really enjoyed how one movement taught me about the other.
    Also, I wanted to thank y’all, (not just Pavel and Eric) (If anyone even reads this). This is a great resource along with y’alls videos and other articles. As a police officer, I have just begun to understand the correlations between kettlebells, firearms, and overall strength. KBs have been a huge part of getting over a hand injury to apply for SWAT. I love the analogy of practicing vs working out. Thanks again guys and keep it coming.

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