A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about a 30 day experiment in training for one-arm pull ups. I’m often asked what happened after that and if I ever achieved the coveted one arm pull-up, so I thought it was high time for an update.
After 15 months of training, I’m still going strong. I haven’t quite got there yet–the one-arm pullup is a harsh mistress–but I’ve made a ton of progress and learned a lot.
In this post I’ll share:
- How I’ve modified the one-arm pull up progression
- Changes to my original program design rules
- My new training plan–including new exercises from Convict Conditioning 2
- Other tips and tricks I’ve picked up along the way
Modifying the progression
This is the original progression I was following and the problem I encountered.
Step 5. Full pull ups
Step 6. Close pull ups
Step 7. Uneven pull ups
==> The increase in difficulty between these two steps is ludicrously hard.
Step 8. Half one-arm pull ups
Step 9. Assisted one-arm pull ups
Step 10. One-arm pull ups
I still can’t even come close to a half one-arm pull up. I suspect if I could, it would just be a baby step from there to a full one-arm pull up.
Rather than increase the reps past 2 sets of 5 reps for uneven pull ups or even just add a few intermediate steps, it quickly became apparent that the best solution was to completely re-write the rest of the progression.
The trick is to find incremental ways to de-leverage the non-working arm. And with that in mind I’ve created these new steps:
Step 8. Archer pull ups:
See video of Al Kavadlo demonstrating these starting at 0:47.
Step 9. Towel archer pull ups:
Similar to regular archers, except you hang a towel from the bar and the “non-working” hand grabs the towel at about eye-level. Fold the towel in half length-wise before draping over the bar.
Step 10. Resistance band archer pull ups:
Same as step 9, but using a resistance band instead of a towel. Grab the band itself and not the handles.
Step 11. ?
Even just working on my 3 new steps can take you quite a while. The jumps in strength required to achieve them are not insignificant. I’m only just now getting the hang of resistance band archer pull ups and have yet to figure out what’s next. However, there are straightforward ways to bridge the gaps.
- Take a narrower grip initially and progressively widen to a full archer pull up
- Grab the towel right below the bar and progressively lower it to eye level (not recommended with the resistance band)
- Double the resistance band over itself if the exercise is too hard at first
What not to do:
I lost a lot of time trying to do a progression where I modified uneven pull ups by progressively grabbing lower on my arm with my non-working hand. This creates lots of awkward angles, especially when you get past the elbow. After pulling my back a couple times it was clear that this was not the way to go–especially if you have anything less than spectacular shoulder flexibility.
Changing the rules
The only rule I’ve changed is the one regarding progression standards for moving to the next step.
My original rule:
- 2 sets of 5 reps (or 1×5 for each arm on one-armed varieties) is the progression standard for moving to the next step
I quickly discovered that as you near your peak strength, building up to sets of 5 before moving on simply becomes unfeasible and you stagnate. And indeed, this rule is out of line with the science and methodology that caused me to rewrite the rules in the first place.
The new rules:
- Progressively increase your 1-rep max through mini-steps, but challenge it no more than once per week
- Maximum 6 reps per workout when working singles (3 per arm on one-armed varieties)
The rationale behind these rules is that increasing your 1 RM will not only improve your peak strength faster, but enable you to add reps to previous steps quicker than if you had stayed at those steps until you achieved 5 reps.
My new training plan
Originally I had envisioned the pull up program as a short term endeavor, but I kept doing it and inevitably started running into odd torque on my shoulders and muscle imbalance problems. I added handstand push ups, bridges, and hanging leg raises to the program (following the progressions described in Convict Conditioning).
Increased one handed training coupled with switching to a thicker, slicker bar also started to severely challenge my grip. So I borrowed a few grip exercises from Paul Wade’s excellent Convict Conditioning 2 book to round out the program.
Monday: Pull ups, handstand pushups
Tuesday: Bridges, hanging leg raises, fingertip pushups, towel hangs
Wednesday: Pull ups, handstand pushups
Thursday: Bridges, hanging leg raises, fingertip pushups, towel hangs
Friday: Pull ups, handstand pushups
You may have noticed a conspicuous absence of leg training in this program. Make no mistake, this is still an upper body program that is primarily focused on maximizing pull up strength.
I’ll often include a maintenance dose of one-leg squats one day a week depending on when I feel most energetic. Sometimes I do it as a separate session later in the day.
Though currently I live part way up a mountain and have some rather severe hiking to do every time I leave the house, so I often call that good enough (it’s still cheating, but shhh…).
Gear and other considerations
Depending on what bar you use, you may need some chalk to help your grip.
When I first started training I used a bar at a park that had a gloriously sticky paint job and provided excellent grip. Then I moved and installed a Stud Bar pull up bar in my basement. It’s convenient to have a bar at home, but it is slicker than snot and provides almost no grip. Eco Ball by Metolius provides great grip and creates a lot less mess than other types of chalk.
These are for sissies, don’t use them.
The “five fingers on top” grip provides a stronger, more stable grip than the typical thumb wrapped around the bottom grip.
If you find calluses a problem, try using the “finger grip” where you place the bar in the first joint of your fingers above the base knuckle. This reduces wear and tear on your hands and helps strengthen your fingers. Only do this on days when you are working easier two-handed pull up variations.