The Never-Fail Path to a Stronger Military Press
“In some parts of Russia, pressing a 32 kg kettlebell is a rite of passage from boyhood to manhood.”
- Pavel Tsatsouline, “Enter The Kettlebell”
There’s no denying it. The one-arm military press is the measure of a man or woman’s upper body pressing prowess. Always has been, always will be. It is equal parts focus, concentration, grit, determination, skill, and defiance (of gravity, in particular). Plus, let’s face it: military presses are just cool. Few things signify your total, unremitting domination of the world around you like taking a heavy weight and separating it from its rightful place on the ground to the greatest distance you possibly can.
If you’ve military pressed long enough, you’ve probably begun to notice a few things – namely that the gains drop off after a while and are summarily replaced with plateaus, frustrations, and maybe even some aches and tweaks in the shoulders. Not awesome.
So what’s the solution? Decide that you’re happy with your current lot and try to enjoy the view of your journey from the plateau? Or do you decide to be bold, be adventurous, be ruthless in your cultivation of strength and seek to find a new, less treacherous path up to the peak of the mountain to allow you to gaze down upon the path of an even greater journey in all its glory?
'You will work hard. But the payoff will be noticeable in weeks – undeniable in months.'
Both paths are perfectly acceptable, and being extraordinary is not for everyone. If you’re in the first camp, you can stop reading here.
If the view from a plateau crowded with the average, the normal, the unambitious masses gives you more anxiety than falling down the mountain, then read on. Because this is your ticket to the top. In the interest of full disclosure, however, it is not an easy path. You will work hard. But the payoff will be noticeable in weeks – undeniable in months. And you’re planning on getting a few months older anyway, right? So what better way to pass the time than to get stronger in your favorite lift?
The path onward and upward will NOT be more of the same – a different “secret” military pressing program or a special variety of military press. While it may be true that “the obstacle is the way”, it is equally true that oftentimes – surprisingly enough – the detour is the way. This is the detour that will keep you climbing ever higher.
In this case, the detour will require you to set down your iron for a while – at least long enough to hit the deck and reclaim some serious dominance over gravity.
The direction is none other than that of calisthenics, and the path is the oft-revered yet little practiced strict one-arm/one-leg push up.
Drop and gimme one. That’ll be more than enough, trust me.If this comes as a shock to you, you’re in good company. Most people will likely (figuratively) jump out of their chairs and shout “But they’re two unrelated movements! If you want to get good at the military press you have to practice the military press!” True, but you don’t have to practice it to the exclusion of all other movements. In fact, I’m convinced that more often than not, there’s where most people’s plateaus lurk and peaks vanish – developing only one skillset while letting others collect dust. At least, that’s been the case for me and a number of others who have worked their one-arm/one-leg pushup hard, including my coach Scott Stevens, SFG II, who ramped his half-bodyweight military press from two or three all the way up to a whopping five solid reps after spending a few months only doing one-armers – no military pressing at all. Likewise with Karen Smith, Master SFG and newly minted Chief SFB who credits them in large part for doubling her Iron Maiden pressing skills from one rep with 24 kgs to two solid reps.
Got your attention yet?
'Because even if you never work up to a full one-arm/one-leg pushup, the strength you’ll gain along the way will propel you light years forward in your pressing prowess'
And the best part?
In all of the above cases, the vast majority of the work done on the one-arm/one-leg pushup was with progressions – NOT the full version. It’s that powerful. And as you might now be noticing, that spells good things for you and your practice. Because even if you never work up to a full one-arm/one-leg pushup, the strength you’ll gain along the way will propel you light years forward in your pressing prowess, turning your long-stalled pet lift into a forward-marching machine once again. And that’s what it’s all about after all, isn’t it? Doing whatever it takes to safely and effectively improve your strength.
Now, a typical approach from the average trainer might be to simply turn the military press on its head and have you do handstand pushups. Not a bad approach, but there is one problem: while it may build more volume in the movement pattern, volume alone is hardly the answer to all of your most pressing questions (see what I did there?). You also need to worry about filling gaps in your strength development – namely strengthening movements that you’ve neglected. The simple act of filling gaps in your training will “magically” push you forward to new heights in all aspects of your training. In this case, that gap is horizontal pressing.
Apart from simply pressing in a different direction, 1A/1L pushups hold a litany of other benefits that make them a powerful tool for crushing weakness and propelling you forward to military pressing domination.
1) Teaches and enforces high tension. Strength = tension and tension = strength. The better your skill of tension, the better you are set up to succeed in any heavy endeavor; because when the going gets tough on a one rep max attempt in anything, any and all tension leakages in the body will torpedo your attempt. While a great many worthy strength exercises require tension, a paltry few really teach it. Due to the unstable nature of this brand of pushup, you learn very quickly that the only way to do it is with head-to-toe high tension – like what we do in a hardstyle plank, only supercharged.
2) Strong ab recruitment. Keeping your midsection tight while pressing is a must – so much so that some of the best pressers ever, including double bodyweight military presser Phil Gripaldi spent a LOT of time working on midsection strength to ensure that they could successfully press preposterous poundages sky high. With the 1A1L pushup, core strength is built right into the movement, and if you lose it while you pressing yourself up, you lose the whole movement. Learning how to maintain ab tension while grinding out a particularly difficult rep is the difference between defying or obeying gravity.
3) Requires very low volume. As little as 10 total reps per day in sets as low as 1-5 with a moderately difficult progression will put strength in the bank AND still allow you to continue any other program you’re currently doing. Moreover, due to the lack of equipment needed to perform them, they can be done throughout the day, allowing you to stay as fresh as possible while simultaneously adding loads of usable strength to propel you closer to your goals.
4) Won’t build a lot of muscle. For some, this sounds like a downside. And if your goal is hypertrophy, the 1A1L pushup is not the way to go. However, if your goal is to nail a heavier press for SFG II without being bumped up into a heavier weight class (like heavy bench pressing is likely to do) the 1A1L pushup is the way to go. Plus, they are more shoulder-friendly and require less equipment to get a good practice session in. And because they require such low volume, they won’t get in the way of any existing SFG II prep program, but rather will complement it.
5) Teaches strong chest recruitment in pressing. This is too often overlooked by the average kettlebell trainee but is crucial in lifting ever-heavier weights overhead. In fact, a cursory glance at ANY of the old school military pressing greats will demonstrate just how much a strong chest comes into play. At some point, a slight backward lean will come into play, and if your chest is weak, that bell ain’t going anywhere. Needless to say, the 1A1L pushup also greatly strengthens the triceps, which will provide another boost to your press as well.
Olympic lifting legend Tommy Kono demonstrates a heavy press. Notice the backward lean allowing for more chest recruitment.
So now the question is: How do I get started?
While the only way to be sure you’re doing it really well is with some one-on-one coaching, there are a few technique prerequisites to make sure you have in place before attempting to bang out your first rep:
- Keep your shoulder pushed down – it’s a one-arm pushup, not a one-arm trap up!
- Keep the crook of your elbow pointed forward (“screw your shoulder into its socket”).
- Get into the hollow position (squeeze your butt, flare your shoulder blades, and brace your abs for a punch).
- Kick your hip over to your working side. Much like a military press, having the hip under the working arm will support you in completing the movement.
- Get tight! Power breathe to get the necessary full-body tension, squeeze your non-working hand into a fist, and practice all reps – even the easier ones – like they’re your “heavy” ones.
Once you’ve got all these in place, it’s time to start utilizing a few simple, but oft-ignored “hacks” to get you stronger faster.
First, is simply holding the position in both the top and bottom of the movement, with a slow negative in between. Doing this not only builds strength and familiarity with the movement while teaching you the most biomechanically correct position for your body, but it also allows you to scan your body for tension leakages and plug them immediately. And as a fun side note, according to some research, you can generate 1.3 times the amount of tension on the negative (lowering) phase of an exercise than on the positive phase. So definitely don’t skip the negative.
You will start out with a hold at the top, and lower yourself under control for no less than 3 seconds:
3 seconds at the top, lower for 3 seconds, and hold for 3 seconds at the bottom. Climb as high as 5 seconds for each if you’re a real masochist.
Next, you’ll want to fill in the gaps with a miniature version of the 1A1L pushup. To do so, you’ll find an appropriate elevation where you can do moderate to hard reps. For moderate I would recommend an elevation that allows you to get 7-8 hard reps while maintaining all of the aforementioned technique requirements (including tension) for your 5-rep sets, and for a harder surface I would recommend one where you can only squeeze out between 4-5, for sets of 2 and 3 reps.
One final question remains: How do I program it?
Preferably as simply as possible. My personal preference for those already on a program would be simply greasing the groove throughout the day. It is simple, effective, and allows for a lot of rest and zero equipment – perfect for building brute strength without taxing your system. Stick to sets of 1-5, and keep your rest periods at no less than 15 minutes between reps. Personally, I prefer an hour or more, but your rate of recovery will vary. Experiment a little.
If you’re really in need of a much more regimented program to keep you focused and powering ever-forward, you can’t do much better than the ever-faithful Easy Strength program as pioneered by Master SFG Dan John and Pavel. I speak from experience when I say it works like a charm and helped me nail my first 1A1L pushup (and for a double on each arm, no less!). It is as follows: Week 1
- Monday - 2×5
- Tuesday - 2×5
- Wednesday - 5, 3, 2 (decrease elevation each set)
- Thursday - 2x5
- Friday - 2×5
- Monday - 2×5
- Tuesday - 6×1 (decrease elevation each single)
- Wednesday - 1×10 (very light)
- Thursday - 2x5
- Friday - 5, 3, 2 (decrease elevation each set)
Personally, I wouldn’t do any other pressing, though feel free to do any pulls you’d like, kettlebell ballistics, loaded carries, squats, etc. On the GTG schedule, you’ll have much more energy for your military presses, but on this above program, I just can’t promise the same. Make your choice, go forth, and rock.
So there you have it! The road less taken to step off the plateau and back on the ever-steeper path to pressing greatness. Have fun, train hard, and let me know how this works for you. I’d love to hear about your journey to the peak!
Aleks Salkin is a level 2 StrongFirst-certified kettlebell instructor (SFG II), StrongFirst-certified bodyweight Instructor (SFB), and an Original Strength Certified Coach. He grew up scrawny, unathletic, weak, and goofy until he was exposed to kettlebells and the teachings and methodology of Pavel in his early 20s. He is currently based out of Jerusalem, Israel and spends his time teaching clients both in person and online as well as spreading the word of StrongFirst and calisthenics. He regularly writes about strength and health both on his website and as a guest author on other websites. Find him online at http://www.alekssalkin.com and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/alekssalkintraining