The one arm pull up is a rare and awe inspiring feat of strength.
Many people, even professional trainers, might tell you that not only have they never seen someone perform a one-armed pull up, but such a feat is impossible. However, there are more than one YouTube videos showing the maneuver, so the proof it’s possible is out there.
It’s estimated that only 1 in 100,000 men are capable of doing even a single strict rep with full range of motion. Of course we’re not talking about pull-ups where you grab your wrist with your free hand here, we’re talking about the real deal–one arm only pulling you up with no assistance.
After stumbling across a book on bodyweight strength training called Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade, I began to think that maybe I too could train to perform a one arm pullup.
First failed attempt
There was just one problem the first time I tried Paul Wade’s system–it didn’t work.
His method outlines a 10-step progression of different varieties of pull-ups with the master step being a one arm pull up. I began faithfully executing his program following the 6-day “Veterano” training schedule where a different bodyweight exercise was trained each day and each exercise was trained once per week (to clarify, this program also included other exercises in addition to pull ups and pull ups were only trained once per week).
About 2 months into the program I started to plateau on pull-ups. I was doing a variety called “Australian Pull-ups” and I flatlined at 3 sets of 10. According to the program I was supposed to just keep trying to add a rep or few at a time until I had met the standard in order to progress to the next step. However, a month later not only was I not adding reps to my sets I was actually starting to backslide and miss the 10th rep. A month later and still no appreciable progress. (NOTE: Yes, I could have re-cycled and made another run at it and maybe squeezed out a few more reps. But I would still be working on one-arm pull ups for the next millenium if I stuck with this approach.)
Re-mastering the challenge with exercise science
Feeling discouraged, I abandoned training until I received the spark of an idea about 6 months later when I picked up a book by Olympic 200m gold medalist Allyson Felix’s former strength coach Barry Ross called Underground Secrets to Faster Running.
In it he describes the failure of an approach to training called the “strength pyramid.” The idea is that you train to do many reps of a lighter weight, then progressively decrease reps as weight increases. It sounds all fine and dandy, but what actually happens is that you wind up spinning your wheels at high reps and building your endurance without actually adding much strength. Not only that, but the high reps actually burn you out and impede your ability to train.
Based on the latest studies, he advocated a program for his athletes that consisted of no more than 10 total reps of an exercise per workout and a maximum of 5 reps per set. Instead of steadily increasing the poundage or reps on a weekly workout, his athletes trained strength multiple times per week varying the sets, reps, and weight. He used a rest period of 5 minutes between sets, far longer than most articles on strength training advocate.
The reasoning goes like this:
- ATP, which is the “rocket fuel” your muscles use during maximum strength output, only lasts 10-12 seconds.
- 5 reps is about the upper limit of reps you can perform with heavy weights within the 10-12s window.
- It takes about 5 minutes for your ATP pool to fully recharge
- Burning out the ATP pool more than a couple of times unacceptably increases the recovery time needed before the next workout
I realized that the Convict Conditioning program as laid out in the book was essentially following the strength pyramid model, and that maybe it could be made to work better if the 10-step exercise progression was kept but the set and rep targets were revised.
The new 30 Day Challenge
Armed with my new knowledge I set about training one armed pullups and tracked my results for 30 days.
- Maximum of 10 reps per workout (or 5 per arm on one-armed varieties)
- Maximum of 5 reps per set
- Train 5 days per week, M-F
- Vary sets, reps, and pull-up variety for every workout
- 2 sets of 5 reps (or 1×5 for each arm on one-armed varities) is the progression standard for moving to the next step
- Progress as far as possible on the exercises from the one arm pull up 10-step progression in Convict Conditioning.
At the beginning I tested my ability by doing sets of 2 reps of each of the pullup varieties to find my upper limit. It didn’t take long. I could do about 1 and a half uneven pullups before falling off the bar (one hand holding the bar, free hand holding your wrist).
Since I had enough strength and didn’t really have the assistance equipment to do some of the lighter steps, I started my training by doing mostly sets of full pull ups (hands at shoulder width) and close pull ups (hands together). Consequently, these are the steps in the progression I was going to work on:
Step 5. Full pull ups
Step 6. Close pull ups
Step 7. Uneven pull ups
Step 8. Half one-arm pull ups
Step 9. Assisted one-arm pull ups
Step 10. One-arm pull ups
While training I did mostly sets of 2s and 3s. Most of the workouts I did were 2 sets x 2 reps, 2x3s, or 3x3s. Even on my lightest exercise I wouldn’t do a 2×4 or a 2×5 more than once per week. Even though it seems like so few reps, even 10 total reps per workout can be enough to send you over the edge into overtraining when you are lifting near maximum.
I tried to create an overall wavy pattern where I would create several run ups to some kind of new personal best. For example if I did 2×2 one day, on my next run up I’d shoot for 2×3.
I structured individual workouts mostly by feel and only a day or two in advance. If a workout felt easy I’d go for more the next day. If I wasn’t feeling so good, I’d back off for a day or two. I’d push it a little more on Fridays knowing the weekend was coming, and if I felt good on a PR test day I’d go for the extra reps.
The only hard and fast rule was that the day after a PR test day was a mandatory easy day. Preferably trivially easy. On one of these days I did a single pull up for the workout and that was it.
I also discovered that just being able to hold onto the bar, let alone pull, became a problem with the one-handed varieties. So on some workouts I just did 2 sets of 10 second one-arm hangs.
The last week of my 30 days I could see that there was no way that I was going to make full, unassisted one-arm pull ups by the end of the challenge. Frankly, I didn’t expect to, I just wanted to see how far I could go.
Uneven pull ups had been my battleground for most of the month and my best so far was 2×3 (1 set of 3 reps for each arm), a bit shy of the 2×5 progression standard. But with time running out I took a shot at half one-arm pull ups anyway. I failed tragicomically. As soon as I pulled myself into the 90 degree arm bend starting position and let go with my other hand I dropped straight off the bar.
On the very final day of the challenge I put out my last ditch effort at uneven pull ups. My goal was to hit 2×4, but if I was feeling good put in an extra rep. Fortune smiled on me, for I was feeling great that day and managed to squeeze out 2×5 to make my progression standard.
Using my modified training protocol I was able to increase the number of uneven pullups I could do from about 1 and a half reps per arm to 5 full reps per arm in 30 days. Over a 300% increase.
While I wasn’t able or even expecting to do full one arm pull ups within 30 days, I considered my progress a great success.
It’s now been a couple months since my initial 30 day challenge, and I continue to train and tweak my methods. The one arm pull up is a harsh mistress, but given my current pace of progress I hope to report an unassisted one arm pull up in early 2013.