Comparing a Powerlifting Bench Press and One-Arm Push Up

DisplayFeats of Strength of feats of strength is something that I have come to love. Whether in the gym, dance floor, or anywhere really, an impressive feat of strength is that – impressive.

It’s always interesting to ask almost everyone who benches anything relatively heavy whether or not they can do one-arm pushups.

Nine times out of ten these individuals cannot do a one arm push up, yet they can have some incredible displays of strength with respect to a bench press.

Before dissecting what consists of a good push up technique, I have to first dissect what is involved with an amazing bench press:

  • Arch
  • Tension (whether through air, or total body tension)
  • Technique

Arch in the Bench Press

Whether or not you subscribe to powerlifting guidelines or not, an appropriate arch is important towards achieving bigger numbers for your bench press. Imagine the difference between a large arch, and a small arch.

Bench Press - Arching

If you’re benching with no arch, and a flat back against the bench, your bar path will be [x] amount of inches for the barbell to travel down and up. If you bench with a relatively larger arch, your distance will be reduced.

Total Body Tension

There is nothing that deflates me more than seeing someone get very hype for a bench press, and then they grip the barbell with a lack of tension, or don’t respect tension in their legs or lower body.

For those of us fortunate to have a decent bench press, there is an understanding that there will be a greater ability for tension to be created via breathing coupled with lower body tension.


While this article is not meant to go over the purposes of specific technique (Read: Wrapping the Barbell in the Bench Press) I hope you can respect the fact that there is a specific technique that will allow more of your strength to be exhibited.

Technique should involve the following:

  1. Setup
  2. Intra-abdominal pressure
  3. Leg drive
  4. Bar path
  5. Reversing the bar path

With all of these items in mind, it is easy to see that being “good” at the bench press does not naturally correlate to being good with a one-arm push up, since they are, by it’s very nature, completely different exercises.

Components of a One Arm Push Up

There are a few reasons why this someone can bench a lot of weight, but can’t do a one-arm push-up:

  1. Lack of technique.
  2. They never practiced a one-arm push up before.
  3. Improper positioning.
  4. Inability to recruit total body tension (or irradiation for those of us following the science game at home).
  5. Lack of strength – let’s be real.. it takes a lot of strength to do this!

What to Look For in a One Arm Push Up

The Setup

  • Irradiation in your hands.
  • Spreading of your fingers.
  • Total body tension
    • Tension in your feet
    • Tension in lower body (all the way down to feet)
    • Tension in opposite hand

Something that needs some clarification is what I like to think of as “spreading your fingers” into the floor in order to maximize mechanoreceptor input to the hands, shoulders, and eventually the rest of the body.

Human Hand - Pressure on Distal Aspect of Metacarpals

There needs to be pressure on the inside “knuckle” part of the hand. Displayed here on the palmar view of the bones of the hand (highlighted in red), there needs to be pressure on the distal portion of the metacarpals for pressure to be truly maximized.

This doesn’t mean “cup” the floor with only that portion, but think of placing pressure on that part of your hand (before your fingers elongate outwards).

Actual Movement

  • Spreading of the floor with one hand
  • Pull yourself to the floor with one hand
  • And obviously, pushing yourself away from the floor.

Regressions to Improve Upon a One-Arm Push Up

Band-Assisted One Arm Push Up

To reduce the total loading found in the one-arm push-up, check this version out.

Eccentric One-Arm Push Up

The eccentric or negative variation of this push up works on improving the pattern as a whole, while respecting that pushing away from the ground is equally difficult.

One Arm Front Plank Hold

The one arm front plank hold is a different exercise that combines the rotary demands of a one-arm push up, along with respecting that you will need one upper body limb in contact with the ground.

With these in mind, it is easy to see how different the one arm push up and the bench press are.

Despite being upper body focused exercises, they are vastly different with respect to the demands.

My Observations

How often do you hear of someone injuring themselves doing a one arm push up, versus tweaking something in a rep max or even a 1RM bench press? No agenda in that question; it is merely an observation of mine.

On the other end, do you know of anyone that can do a one-arm push up, but have a bench press that is lacking? Similar arguments can be made for those that have the requisite mobility for a one-arm push up, but have not developed the high level technique for a “respectable” bench press.

As always,

Keep it funky.