8 Unilateral Pressing Variations

Posted on by Ben Bruno

Today I’ve got a great guest blog post for you from Conor Nordengren about unilateral pressing variations. Conor approached my recently about writing a guest post, which I was really happy to have him do because I think he’s a super nice and smart dude. He really knows his stuff and I knew he would deliver so I left the topic up to him entirely.

Well, he totally delivered in a big way and I think/hope you’ll enjoy his post as much as I did.

8 Unilateral Pressing Variations

Sometimes the hardest part about writing an article is actually coming up with something to write about. Often it’s not due to a lack of ideas, but the fact that there are so many possible topics to cover; you become a victim of “decision paralysis.” As ideas for this guest blog waded their way through my head, I knew there were a couple areas that I didn’t want to touch, namely single-leg training and glute training. If you’ve perused this site or T-Nation lately, you know that Ben is a master of those domains, so I felt I should leave those topics to him.

Which got me to thinking, “What if I stayed with the single-limb theme, but focused on the upper body?” And the idea for this article was born.

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog about proper rowing technique, so I figured I’d switch it up this time around and give some pressing variations a bit of love. With the following variations, you’ll be dealing with asymmetrical loads; more specifically, the center of gravity has changed relative to the axis of rotation. As a result, you will be more unstable and forced to demonstrate excellent core control, among other things, to perform these exercises successfully. Additionally, unilateral exercises are effective at evening out any imbalances that may exist between your right and left sides.

With the New Year in full swing, the following exercises are ones you can use to spice up your training and keep things fun, while challenging yourself at the same time. They’re not revolutionary by any means, but can provide you with a new stimulus to keep you progressing, motivated, and on track in 2013.

#1: One-arm Pushup off pins

This is a great closed-chain exercise that I first learned during my internship at Cressey Performance. Not only is it a suitable variation for the healthy trainee, but also an excellent choice for the injured athlete looking to maintain a training effect. Recently, I’ve programmed the one-arm pushup off pins for two athletes who suffered injuries to their elbow and wrist, respectively. Don’t be discouraged if you find yourself beginning more vertical with this exercise; prioritize proper body control and technique. I like to utilize a 2-1-2 tempo when programming this exercise (2 second eccentric, 1 second pause, 2 second concentric).

#2: One-arm TRX Pushup

To take things up a notch, perform the one-arm pushup on an unstable surface, such as a TRX, Jungle Gym XT, or Blast Straps. EMG activity still remains high in this variation and it also takes some stress off the shoulder joint. This can equate to a good deloading strategy, but be sure not to rely on unstable surface training for your upper body, and use it sparingly.

(Ben’s note: These look sweet and I’m going to try them today myself)

#3: One-arm DB Bench Press

I really love this exercise, as I feel it’s awesome for overall upper body strength and for adding muscle to the chest and triceps. In addition, you must activate your core in order to remain steady on the bench and prevent yourself from falling off.

#4: One-arm DB “McGill” Bench Press

I picked up this exercise from Dr. Stuart McGill at a seminar he put on last fall. Instead of setting up like a regular bench press, with your body centered on the bench, move to one side so half of your body is off the bench. In other words, have one cheek on the bench and one cheek off. You will feel the glute on the side that is off the bench fire like crazy, and you must keep it “on” so your hips stay extended (by the way, you didn’t think I’d fail to at least mention the glutes while writing an article for Ben’s site, right?). This is a more “functional” pressing variation, but make sure you’ve mastered the standard one-arm dumbbell bench press before you include this one in your routine.

#5: Half-kneeling Landmine Press


The half-kneeling landmine press is a superb way to begin progressing from horizontal pressing to vertical pressing. While I’m a big fan of this exercise for that reason, I also like its proximity to the ground, the more points of stability (when compared to standing), how it protects the lower back, and the glute and core activation it provides.

#6: Split-stance Landmine Press

This exercise variation was inspired by Dean Somerset and serves as a logical progression from the half-kneeling landmine press. The standing, split-stance version adds a stability challenge while still protecting the lower back. I think this is a great exercise choice for athletes, given they have been properly progressed to this point.

#7: Tall-kneeling One-arm KB Overhead Press

I like this exercise for many of the same reasons I like the half-kneeling landmine press, and I feel it’s a great way to begin integrating some overhead pressing. If you are one such trainee who has just begun to overhead press, I prefer to stick with only one kettlebell at first, as it allows the trainee to fully concentrate on correct mechanics one arm at a time. Furthermore, while dumbbells are a perfectly okay option here, too, I like using kettlebells because I think they allow for better scapulohumeral rhythm, and personally, my press feels more “locked-in” when I use them.

#8: Standing One-arm KB Overhead Press with foot on bench

I stole this exercise from my good friend and Boston University graduate assistant strength and conditioning coach, Dave Rak. I can’t remember exactly what he called it, but I’m sure it was something much sexier than what I decided upon. This variation is almost like a standing version of a half-kneeling kettlebell overhead press; the glutes and the core are activated and the lower back is protected. Use this exercise before allowing your athlete or client to overhead press with both feet on the ground.

I hope some of these exercises have piqued your interest and that you will try some of them out in your training. They will help to keep things interesting in the gym while simultaneously adding strength and muscle. Happy New Year and happy (unilateral) pressing!

Author Bio: Conor Nordengren is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) accredited by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). He is a graduate of Stonehill College, where he majored in Health Sciences with a minor in Business Administration. At Stonehill, Conor was a two-year member of the men’s basketball team. He completed internships in physical therapy and also worked as a physical therapist aide. Upon graduation, Conor interned at Cressey Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts, under widely recognized strength coaches Eric Cressey and Tony Gentilcore. During his time at Cressey Performance, he had the opportunity to work with a variety of clients including athletes at the professional, college, high school, and junior high school levels. Conor is now a strength and conditioning coach at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning in Nashua, New Hampshire where he is dedicated to helping people of all ages and ability levels achieve their fitness goals. You can read his blog at http://conornordengren.com/, contact him at [email protected], and find him on Facebook and Twitter at @ConorNordengren.