If it weren’t for our obsession with looking cool when we exercise, a lot of physical therapists would be out of work. Many athletes consider injuries part and parcel of achieving their potential and unlocking new abilities, and while we would never encourage doing anything that might lead to injury, few movements are absolutely always without any risk of injury. That’s why we sometimes hear people ask: which exercises are worth the injury risk?
When watching Rocky for the millionth time, we started asking this question about the one-armed push-up.
It is a damn cool exercise, you can do it anywhere, and there’s a somewhat common belief out there that bodyweight exercises carry next to no injury risk. If you can’t do them, you just can’t do them. Nobody gets injured, everybody goes home. Right?
The Pros and Cons
“Yes, there is a story here that starts with people wanting to do cool things they see on the internet and in movies,” says Joseph LaVacca, DPT, CFSC, FMT-C, SFMA, an orthopedic physical therapist based in New York City. “Regarding the one-armed push-up, I can definitely see compensations occurring throughout the cervical spine, a little bit of a shear to the lumbar spine for some people.”
He also points out that poor form can affect shoulder stability and may cause wrist problems, but LaVacca is quick to point out that it can be a useful movement if you’re unable to get to the gym and, if done correctly, it can have serious benefits.
“It’s a great test for symmetrical strength,” he says. “When you do a lot of barbell work as a powerlifter or a CrossFit athlete, there are ways your body could compensate (for strength imbalances). Taking out that compensation will make an athlete realize they don’t have as much strength on one side as the other, and that will force them to do more dumbbell work kettlebell work, or to try to learn asymmetrical push motions.”
So, shouldn’t athletes just do more unilateral work? Is there really a benefit to the one-armed push-up alone?
“I think single-arm bench press is good entry level work, but your body is fully supported,” he says. “So you’re isolating the pressing motion but taking out the control of the spinal stability, the hip stability, and the tri-planar demand of the unilateral push-up. Not to mention, you’re also going to be working much more against gravity throughout the entire motion.”
In other words, the one-armed push-up is a much more involved exercise than simply benching with one arm. If you’re without a gym, want to get better at pressing, want to shine a spotlight on possible strength imbalances, and want to employ a lot of muscles at once without resorting to sets of really high reps, the one-armed push-up can be a smart choice.
LaVacca does note that the exercise is perhaps more useful for athletes who want to improve at gymnastics work than for strict powerlifters, but he likes the idea of having the exercise as a tool in your toolkit. “The more you can explore movement with your own body, the better and more challenging things can get,” he says.
Perfect Your Form
The biggest sticking point, as always, is form: most people don’t’ realize that this isn’t strictly a pressing exercise, it’s trilateral; the movement is more like a corkscrew. It’s not a linear shot straight down and up from the floor. LaVacca argues that while the wrist should always be in a straight line from the shoulder, the body is not at a good mechanical advantage for a simple linear push.
“Think of your arm like a helix, where you’re screwing your way into the ground and screwing your way out,” he says. “Your elbow’s rotating, your shoulders and hips are rotating, and there’s kind of an unwinding as you press your way up to a neutral base. If you just go straight down, you wind up slamming into your wrist and that causes the elbow to flare out, and now you’re risking stability aspects of the shoulder. It’s a three-dimensional exercise, rather than a straight sagittal, frontal, or transverse plane of motion.”
Nick Tumminello delivers a smart, no B.S. description of form in the video below.
If you’ve ever tried a one-armed plank, you know that this is an exercise that’s about stability as much as it is about strength. Here are some smart progressions. (Remember to keep the feet in a wide stance – it can make all the difference.)
– Single-arm plank
– Single-arm side plank
– Band-assisted single-arm push-ups
– Archer push-up variations
LaVacca is especially fond of trying archer push-ups, during which one arm slides out to the side or up to an 11 or 1 o’clock position. (Sliding is easier with a Valslide, a ball, or just a paper plate.)
“If you do notice a pretty significant asymmetry on a single armed pushup, where you’re just completely unable to do it on one side, you need to ask what other kinds of compensations you’re putting under your body when you’re under a bar,” he says. “How much power or strength are you leaving on the table without having that symmetrical strength? That’s something you can to identify with a single arm push-up exercise.”
To that end, it’s not a bad idea to develop your skill in this movement, particularly if you’re focusing on improving at gymnastics or hand balancing. There’s no one exercise that’s “bad” for you, it just needs to be done correctly. Even with bodyweight exercises, it pays to be smart. Then you can play.
Featured image via @joseph_fernandes18 on Instagram.