The One Arm Press
Even on vacation, I love to get into a gym or two. Certainly, we need to take time off and recover, but I really enjoy learning and seeing new things. On my recent trip to Ireland, I even had the chance to help a Hurling team (Carnmore) with some footwork drills and my four sessions with them, thanks to Adrian Cradock, really opened my eyes about the real joy of amateur sport.
During my time in the Galway City Gym, a perfect combination of every facility I trained in while growing up, I met a 79 year old man who had “taken up” some lifting. He benches 100 kilos, or 220 pounds, so some of you young guys need to step up your game. As I walked around the gym, it reminded me of training in my old high school facility. The best places to workout all seem to have that same aura, certainly the same smells, and I started thinking about a lift I have now been doing almost four decades: the one arm press.
In high school, we had a Universal Gym. I don’t care if you love or hate machines, but, even now when I look back at it, a lot of people trained really hard on it and made pretty fair progress. One thing we did a lot of was one arm presses on the Military Press station.
We did them in a way that honestly stands the test of time: I would stand in front of the machine and my partner would have the “key.” That’s a term I haven’t used in decades either: this was the little bent selector key that allowed you to use more than forty pounds. The coaches kept them in their office, so no one could use them to work out unless they were there. Of course, every kid from Francisco Terrace knew that a bent nail worked just as well, so I had my own personal gym any time I could sneak in.
So, I would do five reps with the right arm. My buddy would move the weight to 50 pounds. Five more reps. We would continue this process all the way down the stack until I couldn’t do five reps. Then, the fun started: we would go back up, ten pounds at a time, to the starting weight of forty pounds. We called these “Burnout Sets” and the pump in the shoulders was unbelievable.
Of course, now you put your left hand on the machine and did the same all the way down and up the stack. It worked well then and I would imagine the human body hasn’t changed that much since then, so it might well be worth a try today. You certainly can go up and down the dumbbell rack at your gym or do like we do at my training group and lay a row of kettlebells on the ground and do the same basic workout.
The Varsity throwers at my school came up with a nice twist to this to help the shot put and they would only do singles, but changed the reps in a wild, chaotic way each and every rep. There was gold in this idea for throwers and I ignored it most of my career, but the variation of speed would an excellent supplement for a thrower or fighter. Alas, I forgot it, but perhaps the next generation of elite throwers will use it.
One of the things we all noticed from doing these one armed workouts is how sore we were around the waist the next day. Growing up, the area between your ribs and hips was called your “waist.” Now, we call it “core” and charge a lot of money to make you train it.
And, this is part of the point of doing single arm overhead work: it challenges you from your toes to the top of your head. Now, I am not calling for us to start dressing like “Ye Olde Tyme Strongman” with leopard prints and a saucy mustache, but there is a great tradition in strength sports to put weights overhead with one hand. Like every great lifting idea, it has ebbed and flowed through its popularity. When I first started squatting seriously, practically no one squatted in gyms. Then, squats became the answer to all questions. I like to think today as I write this that the squat has become a key lift again and its importance to general training is generally seen as crucial, but not “squat or die.”
I have always seen five advantages to one arm pressing. First, the whole body is supporting the work done by one limb. This allows me to use more weight with one hand than I can handle with two. Let’s make this clear:
If I can one hand press 110 pounds, I have two legs and one torso supporting it.
Now, if I put 110 pounds in EACH hand, I still have two legs and one torso supporting it. Now, I KNOW I can press 110 with one hand, but double 110s (220 total) would be a great challenge. So, my deltoids, triceps and the whole gang of muscles supporting this one arm lift are really challenged. Yes, you actually overload the arm, if you go heavy enough, by doing one limb movements. True, the total amount is higher with two arms, but the local load is heavier with one. For hypertrophy, it almost feels like cheating.
Second, and this should be no surprise, one arm lifting is asymmetrical. The bottom line on this is simply “Asymmetry is harder.” I strongly recommend on one arm lifting that you either use a partner or a mirror when lifting. I like the Chin, the Sternum and the Zipper (my “CSZ Line”) to remain basically in a vertical line while pressing. There will be some twisting and turning under great loads, but limit it as best you can. Recently, I was asked:
“What do I do when I start twisting?”
I thought it was brilliant.
Third, equipment needs for one arm lifts are less. At my old gym, I had 113 kettlebells, but a group of them were far too light for pressing practice. To have 40 athletes all pressing double bells, we would have had to share and that, of course, was fine. But, by utilizing singles, the whole group could lift at once. There is something magical about watching that many people intensely focused on pressing weights up and down.
Fourth, with a light load and only one limb, there is a sense of what we call “Active Rest.” My friend, Pavel, has this funny story about the military: a bunch of privates are shoveling dirt. After a few hours, one of them asks “Sir, when do we rest.” The officer answers: “Ah. If you throw the dirt farther, the dirt will be in the air longer. You can then rest when the dirt is in the air.”
My vision of rest during one arm lifts seems about the same as in this joke: you rest while the other limb is working. The funny thing is that the body seems more than able to support rep after rep switching hands. Of course, the reps are challenging as you move along, but that brings us to the next point.
Finally, one arm pressing leads us naturally to “longer” sets. Now, if time under tension/load is the key to bodybuilding or hypertrophy, it would make sense that alternating hands and continuing to move would certainly increase time. Call Einstein for the specifics on increasing time, but those who have ever had a limb in a cast know that working on the healthy arm or leg seems to keep the atrophy of the injured side to a minimum. The body is one magnificent piece with only one blood system, so hypertrophy should come with these longer sets. In my experience, and with those willing to try it, it works.
I believe in doing one arm presses standing. I have done them seated, for example, after a surgery, but I really think there is a value to doing them with the whole body wedged underneath the bell. If you have never done them before, keep the reps low, maybe two to five reps, and get used to the movement. I strongly suggest, like in the Bench Press, to keep the elbow vertical under the wrist. Again, a mirror can help here. There are some variations that I will use in teaching this with interesting names like the “Bottoms Up Press” and the “Waiter Press,” but strive to keep the elbow in line with the wrist.
My favorite workout scheme for one arm presses is also the method I use in my book, “Mass Made Simple.” I strongly believe that one arm presses allow you to handle a lot of volume, so I use two “ladder” schemes for almost any purpose (sports help, hypertrophy, fat loss, this is “one size fits all”):
The 2-3-5(-10) method.
I have discussed this scheme in other articles, but very simply the first variation is to do this:
Two reps left arm
Two reps right arm
Three reps left arm
Three reps right arm
Five reps left arm
Five reps right arm
If light enough, to a set of ten left and right, too. This is not always possible. This workout (with the tens) is forty total reps. It won’t “feel” like forty as you moved back and forth between limbs and the reps changed. If you do this a number of times, well, this will be a lot of time under load. And, that is a good thing!
I suggest for most people to do the entire workout with one weight. Let the volume be the issue and not your technique under heavy loads. If you decide to go up, an interesting way to do this is simply:
2-3-5 (Both Sides)
2-3-5 (Both Sides)
2-3-5 (Both Sides)
I don’t suggest doing this much more than this, but occasionally it would be fun to push up another round. Oh, and skip the tens on this variation as we are trying to get the biggest bells we can in the last round of five.
Any traditional rep and set scheme will work, of course. As I noted from my high school experience, I was able to recover quickly from all those sets of pressing. In hindsight, I can also understand why I had such a remarkable bench press at the light weight of 162 pounds: good pressers press a lot!
For the older trainee, the one arm press works all the muscles that Janda explained weakened with age. In other words, if a 50 plus man asked me “that question,” “If you could only do one lift, what would it be?,” I would answer one arm presses. Yes, it even works the glute as you can’t have a saggy butt when pressing half bodyweight overhead with one arm.
Experiment with increasing the amount to one arm pressing that you do. There is no contest or Gold Medal for one arm pressing, but the rewards are great.