One-Arm Pull Ups: 30 Day Challenge

by Brian on July 22, 2012 in Random Experiments,Strength Training

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

On the first run through I tried Paul Wade’s system verbatim.

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.

In retrospect, the cause of the stalled progress was obvious: I was over-training and it was time to re-cycle.

However, it was also plain to see that even if I re-cycled and continued to follow the same workout plan, it would be a very, very long time before I ever made it to a one-arm pull up.

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 inefficiency 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.

The rules:

  • 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
  • Minimum 5 minutes rest between sets
  • 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

The goal:

  • 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 Results

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.

UPDATE: Read my one year progress report since this post, and my newly revised training program.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Jaime July 24, 2012 at 9:35 pm

It is obvious what your problem was. You where overtraining.
When you backed down with less reps you started to get more strength back.
Don´t blaim the program if you don´t understand your body and didn´t read the recommendations correctly.
I would recommend the book, body by science it should enlighten you a lot.


Brian July 24, 2012 at 10:28 pm

Hi Jaime,

I’ve read Body By Science, but thanks. To be fair I could have re-cycled on the first run. However, I still maintain that if your goal is peak strength, the Convict Conditioning program as laid out in the book is not a good approach, or at least not the most efficient approach. Multiple sets of 20-30 reps as you do for the bulk of CC is an endurance workout and fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but for raw strength sets of under 5 reps are the meat and potatoes. Powerlifters (Purposeful Primitive by Marty Gallagher is a good book) who train specifically for strength rarely ever do sets over 5 reps.


Jaime July 24, 2012 at 9:44 pm

What you are giving is very good advice, but for completely the wrong reasons.
I did find a lot of benefit from your modified workout.



Eric W. March 2, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Well, it’s early 2013. Any word on the progress?


Brian March 2, 2013 at 5:08 pm

I’m still not quite to a full one-arm pull up, but I have made a lot of progress. I’ve had to significantly modify my methods to create intermediate steps. Right now I’m working on a variant I call “towel archer pull ups.” Basically one arm on the bar, other arm holding a towel at arms length at about eye level. I’ve further ramped up the difficulty by only gripping the towel with my thumb and one finger.


Rudi May 4, 2013 at 6:09 pm

did u try to add heavy deadlift, you can benefit of raw strenght that you”ll become in your forearms


Robert May 9, 2013 at 5:13 pm

train one arm pullups by spreading it over the day, do small sets of five, that wont exhaust u. but do as many of them as u can, eventually doing about 50 per day. keep doing this routine daily; add a day off whenever u need one, after one or two weeks u will want to rest an entire week maybe to let the repsonsible muscles rebuild. when u feel comfortable with regular full pullups just slow down, do them very slow with like 5 seconds up/down. try ro really milk this excercise. after some brief weeks with this routine, u can start to do tests, at this stage u should be able to do 15-20 pullups. your finger strenght will be very nice by now, you are able to comfortable hang from a bar or a tree for some time without too much effort. next step…instad of adding reps start to bring your hands closer; still following the sets of 5 all around the day routine. dont abuse it by doing all sets in a row, spread them! do some sets whenever u have a chance, use your imagination 🙂 afer u brought your hands closly togheter, and feeling realy save with this excercise, start to do assistet pullups where u grap the wrist of the holding hand. next step: ???


Steve July 28, 2013 at 9:57 pm

Where you originally working all of the convict condition program? Been doing CC for a while. I have experienced plateau’s sometimes in CC on various exercises. My belief is this is normal, especially when getting into unilateral heavier exercises or any heavier exercise. There are many reasons, like you were more active that day, nutrition, not enough sleep, recovery, weight fluctuations, many other reasons i am sure. My point is, it takes time and you just can’t focus on a dragon your currently not slaying (one arm pullups). You can only focus on your current nemesis (uneven pullups). What helped me with uneven pullups is closed pullups. I just didn’t simply start doing unevens as soon as I hit 2 sets of 10 reps of closed pullups. I asked myself, can I do closed pullups better? Could I have gone lower, higher, are my reps to quick, perhaps I should work for 12 or 14 reps. This kind of honest self evaluation is what in my opinion is missing in many peeps, which cause them to eventually drop the program, or look for answers elsewhere. I worked closed pullups for many months, over eight I am sure.
To me it seems all that extra work your putting in on pullups with your revised method would effect the other exercises you are trying to improve upon also. Anyway, it is a good experiment if you are only looking to be a push up machine. Anyway, do what you think you need to do. Know your recovery time!! Mine is like nine days. Of course I am old. Don’t be in a hurry. This is really the key I think. My goal is the workout done. It will come in its own time. Good luck.


Brian July 30, 2013 at 8:25 pm

I was originally doing the whole CC program, but dropped everything else to focus on pull-ups for a while. For the past 5-6 months or so I’ve been doing a modified workout plan re-incorporating the other exercises–including some exercises from Convict Conditioning 2.


Kshitiz December 31, 2013 at 1:04 am

Your program sounds good but the CC approach of strength pyramid is designed to give your joints time to rest for a week before working them again. If you do 5 reps sets and do them frequently, your strength increases quickly while your joints, ligaments , tendons etc. do not catch up. That is why powerlifters often suffer from joint pains while the poundage rapidly increases.

This is not to say that CC is highly efficient or your program is bad. I have myself found multiple sets of short reps helpful in breaking plateaus. But the CC approach balances strength and joint concerns in its program and that may be a better long term approach.


Brian December 31, 2013 at 12:59 pm

CC doesn’t strictly advocate a week off for joint recovery. Firstly, refer to the Solitary Confinement routine on p.261–all exercises are worked multiple times in a week. Also you are de facto exerting nearly identical forces on the elbows and wrists multiple times a week when you do similar movements like handstand pushups and regular pushups.

You should certainly pay attention to recovery. But frankly, I think concerns about muscle strength blowing up out of control in relation to joint conditioning are wildly exaggerated–we should be so lucky. For most trainees the bigger danger is building volume on top of poor technique.

Also, workout frequency and the strength pyramid are not the same thing. How you structure sets and reps is an independent variable from how often you lift. PW seems to have structured CC with the assumption most people would sail through the early high volume steps in a month or two each, but what really happens is that people often get stuck at an early step and wind up spinning their wheels trying to meet the sets and reps. I’ve read countless stories from guys who’ve been working on Step 2 of the pull up progression for over a year and still haven’t made it. It’s obvious from many parts of the book that PW never actually tested his program on real people (or even completed it himself as to this date there is no one anywhere in the world who can verifiably do even 1 correct prison pushup or handstand pushup).

Paul Wade deserves a lot of credit for popularizing progressive calisthenics, but he is not an exercise physiologist and many parts of his book are misleading, outdated, or simply wrong.


BJ May 6, 2014 at 2:39 pm

It looks like we started working out from CC at around the same time. I bought the Kindle Edition on August 2012.

Just like you, I’m having tough time going through the pullup progression series. I started off with step 5 and was progressing more and less linearly (by adding a rep each week) until I hit step 7. I stayed on step 7 for a couple months until I finally I was able to accomplish 2 sets 9 reps each side (4 sets total) with good form and control. Step 8 is where I veered off (1/2 one arm pullups, seriously?). So instead I worked on “biased pullups” where I pull to one side and the side I wasn’t pulling to had only two fingers holding the bar until I got to 2 sets 7 reps each side. And now, I’m working on one arm negatives and assisted one arm pullups with my offhand gripping the towel.

Did you get to the ultimate one arm pullup?

As far as my progress on the rest of CC workout program, I’m on step 9 for pushups, step 10 for leg raises, step 10 for squats, step 9 for bridges, and step 5 for handstand pushups. My shoulders aren’t too strong, but it’s in a much better physical condition than two years ago. I’m planning to incorporate another day for grip and neck training from CC2.

CC isn’t perfect, but it’s the best strength program I’ve ever been on. I’m made more fitness and health gains on it than I did in my few years in the army. Plus I got rid of almost of my lower back and shoulder problems. Paul Wade might not have a degree in sports medicine or even possess an ACE certification, but his material is legit.

How far along on CC are you?

Good Luck!


LaVoice March 25, 2016 at 10:50 pm

Hi. Would it be possible to get an update? I’m super curious. I want to get into fitness training and love what you’ve done with the measurements and reasonable goals here.


Brian March 25, 2016 at 10:59 pm

Hi LaVoice,

I moved on to other things before I made it to a full one-arm pull up. I would still approach it the same way if I took the goal back up again though.


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