My Journey Towards the One Arm Pull Up

by David Mace on July 1, 2014

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Al Kavadlo performs a One Arm Pull-Up at the PCC in Sweden

I have a confession to make; I’m obsessed with the one arm pull-up! It wasn’t always this way; three years ago I was a skinny runner, who weighed less than 60kg. In April 2012, I stumbled across a book that would change all this – Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade. After reading it, I decided then and there that in my lifetime I would perform a dead hanging one arm pull-up.

Note that this is simply the progressions I have made. The more you train calisthenics, the more you realize there are many different paths to progression, and what may work for one individual may not work for another.

At the beginning of my training, I could perform a handful of full range pull-ups, so I skipped the first few levels (sorry Coach) and went straight into full pull-ups, followed by close hand and then uneven pull-ups. It took me about 3 months to perform 2 sets of 10 strict full range pull-ups; by full range I mean a straight arm at the bottom and my chin over the bar at the top.

David Mace Perfoming Standard Pull-ups

Your arms should be straight at the bottom, with your chin over the bar at the top.

David Mace Performs Close Pull-ups

This time bring your hands next to each other.

After training uneven pull-ups for a few months I hit my first road block; I could perform 2 sets of 9 uneven each arm, but any attempt at half one arm pull-ups was met with failure. Knowing what I know now I would have built in some extra progressions and gradually moved my non-working hand further down my arm.

David Mace Performs Uneven Pull-ups

The uneven pull-up can be made more difficult by moving the non-working hand further down the arm.

Instead of this I found an alternative progression upon the purchase of a set of rings; whereby one arm is on the top ring, with the other arm on a lower ring. This way you can easily increase the distance between arms over time. As both arms are on the rings, your head can go between them, which makes it slightly easier than with one arm on the bar.

David Mace Uneven Ring Pull-ups

Start with your working arm straight; at the top position your chin should be above the hand of your working arm.

My training for this had gone on for a few months when I read a couple of articles from Coach Wade and Al Kavadlo, here on the PCC blog about training for mass and training for strength. I had been toying around with the idea of moving away from strict Convict Conditioning style progressions for a while and this proved to be the catalyst. I split my main training plan into 2 different groups of sets; the first being the hard set, consisting of 2 sets of up to 5 reps, and being the most difficult exercise you can do in the progression whilst you are fresh. After this I perform my working sets, consisting of 4 sets of 5 reps. This new plan allowed me to switch to 2 separate progressions in the same workout, which I’ve found to be extremely effective towards reaching my goal.

For my hard sets I added one-arm negatives. Simply pull yourself up to the bar with both arms, then gradually take one arm off the bar and lower yourself with as much control as possible. Starting with fewer fingers is a good way to progress to this, otherwise the most likely initial outcome will be you dropping straight down. The working sets were made up of my uneven ring pull-ups.

David Mace Performs One Arm Pull-up Negatives

Start at the top position of a one arm pull-up, then lower yourself with as much control as possible.

With uneven ring pull-ups you eventually reach a point where your lower arm is performing a pushing motion, rather than a pull in the top position. This is where it starts to become easier and means it is time to change to a new progression. In this instance I moved my pulling arm back to the bar, then used just the one ring to assist. It’s really important with this exercise that your head follows the path of your pulling arm; this means that your working arm is taking most of the weight and replicates the path you would take for a one arm pull-up. Note that this exercise could easily be performed with a towel or the post of your pull-up bar, if you do not have access to rings.

David Mace Performs Ring-Assisted One Arm Pull-ups

Your chin follows the path of your working arm; whilst your other arm is just assisting.

By this time I had been teaching calisthenics to some of my work mates for around a year. For those who can’t yet perform a full range pull-up, they start with negatives for their hard sets and band assisted pull-ups for their working sets. Exercise bands have some good advantages in that you don’t need anyone to help you, and you know exactly how much assistance you’re getting. They’re very easy to progress with as they have different levels of assistance. Having said that, they have a major weakness in that they assist you a lot at the bottom but not as much at the top. This has worked for a number of people to get full pull-ups though, so I was keen to see how the band would work for the one arm pull-up.

When attempting this you will find that your body naturally wants to twist. Squeeze your core and obliques tightly to help prevent this, but you may need to reset yourself every few reps. What I particularly like about this exercise is it allows me to use just one arm, with no assistance from the other. I now train this exercise in my hard sets and the assisted one arm pull-ups in the working sets.

David Mace Performs Band-Assisted One-Arm Pull-ups

The bottom position your arm should be straight; you haven’t reached full range until your chin is over the bar.

Finally, below is my latest attempt at a jump assisted one arm pull-up. As you can see my left arm is quite a lot weaker than my right, this I’m trying to resolve by only moving onto the next progression once both arms can do it, but my right arm will always be stronger.

Though I forgot to do it when pulling with my left, you may have noticed that both in my video and the picture above, I squeeze my non-working hand as tightly as possible. This is a technique to create extra tension in the working arm, there is a link between the 2 – the more full body tension you can get, the more power you will have. For this reason you should squeeze your non-working arm, core, glutes, and in fact pretty much every muscle in your body as tightly as you can.

I will achieve a dead-hanging one arm pull-up eventually, look out for a video and an update then.

***

David Mace is a full time programmer and a part time calisthenics enthusiast and loves to teach PCC to friends and co-workers. Success for him is measured in helping others (and himself) to achieve their maximum potential and doing things that you once thought were impossible. He can be contacted through his website at www.mpcalisthenics.com, where you can also read his blog, get advice on nutrition, training and life philosophy.

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  • Vasily

    Very intersting article, David, you’ve almost achieved on of the toughest exercises in the world! But, in my opinion, the idea of skipping first steps was not so good – they may give you only useful things such as tendonjoint strenght and some whole-body strenght. But maybe it’s the most pleasant thing in calisthenics – you are the only man that told you what to do and what not to do.

    Love and peace. Vasily

    • Thanks Vasily, I think I still have a lot of training ahead of me to get a dead-hanging pull-up but it’s getting there. I should point out that I didn’t skip horizontal pull-ups or inverted rows as we call them over here. I used to do them as a warm up and even now I still train them once a week; albeit a more difficult variation as they are an excellent exercise in their own right.

  • jma

    Wow. I’ve only started following the blog today; what an excellent read. I was at the same sticking point as in the article, decided to drop back a couple of progressions to work on form (I was also hit by a car that caused some shoulder issues, so used this to rebuild range of motion too).

    Excellent advice on moving through it, the callisthenics way. Coach would be proud.

    • Thanks jma, glad you enjoyed it and hopefully it will hope you progress. Interesting your mention getting past it the calisthenics way, I did originally include a paragraph on how weighted pull-ups didn’t help at all, in fact they made me go backwards but the post was getting long as it was so I cut it.

      Good luck on your recovery, you should check out a post in the archives from Benji Williford that includes some excellent shoulder mobility stretches

  • Logan Christopher

    Aren’t OAC’s fun? In my own journey I’ve gone through tons of variations too. I’m closing in but still have some distance to go.

    • They’re my favourite exercise by far mate! That’s one thing I love about calisthenics, to reach a goal you don’t just endlessly do the same exercise adding more weight, instead there are so many different progressions to reach the same goal; it never gets boring.

  • A helpful way to progress to a dead hang one arm chin up is to practice doing OAC’s on a bar which is mounted to a wall. The wall prevents you from twisting in the bottom position and helps you develop the stability necessary to perform a dead hang OAC.

    Great article!

    • That’s a great idea mate, since moving to using the bands for OAC’s, I’ve really noticed how hard you have to work to try and stop yourself twisting; will have to give this a go.

  • Just a brilliant, brilliant article by a great calisthenics athlete!

    I know a load of bodyweight men and women are gonna love this one…

    • Rodolfo Oliveira

      You’ve created a cult Coach!

      • It’s funny you should say that, Rudolfo. Talking to all you guys on this blog has made me realize that the bulk of athletes who move over to calisthenics seem to be free thinkers…otherwise they’d be in the gym, bench pressing, right?

        • Rodolfo Oliveira

          You’re absolutely right Coach! I really meant it in the nicest way possible but I think ‘movement’ just like Al and Danny always say rings more truthfully. The best thing about PCC is that everyone who is here genuinely love Calisthenics for one reason or the other.

        • Rodolfo Oliveira

          You’re absolutely right Coach! I really meant it in the nicest way possible but I think ‘movement’ just like Al and Danny always say rings more truthfully. The best thing about PCC is that everyone who is here genuinely love Calisthenics for one reason or the other.

          • And you are definitely one of us, Rudolfo!

        • You’ll have to make sure calisthenics doesn’t get too mainstream otherwise we’ll all be switching to weights to be different coach, but seriously I think you have to be able to go against the grain to be truly passionate about calisthenics. I was laughed at by most when I first told people I was doing strength exercises with my body-weight; most didn’t see it as anything more than cardio exercise or a warm-up.

          • Today’s man is superficial. Calisthenics really isn’t “showy” enough to go truly mainstream. You can be able to do a one-arm pullup, and nobody can “see” that on you when you’re walking around.

            Let’s stick with the true hardcore athletes, eh? The guys who do it to do it!

          • So true, I’ve got a mate who has messed up his shoulders from too much bench pressing. I tried to convince him to take up calisthenics to fix his shoulder but his answer to that was that calisthenics would only give him strength and not size; instead he’s just about to go under the knife!

          • Paul D Paradis

            The funny thing about it is that if more people really saw what this was all about…. All I can say is, discovering by accident you had put down on paper in the form The Convict Conditioning books, and seeing the cover of each volume was like a light going on in my head. And, I haven’t looked back since. Besides, there is nothing “showier” than a perfectly executed press flag.

          • Mohammed

            “You’ll have to make sure calisthenics doesn’t get too mainstream
            otherwise we’ll all be switching to weights to be different…”
            That’s hilarious, hahaha!

          • pixelzombie

            I do calisthenics because it works and I don’t need a gym membership.

    • Thanks mate, very glad you liked it. None of this would have been possible without your books though coach, I’d still be a sub-60kg weak and skinny runner!

  • Rodolfo Oliveira

    Nice post mate! Loved the way you re-invented the exercise so that it would fit your own needs. I also believe that calisthenics make life so much interesting as you can never be bored and you can progress in so many different ways. Congratulations on your awesome achievement, I’m sure we will be seeing a full OAC video soon!

    • Thanks mate. To be honest, this article just touches the surface of the amount of different variations I’ve tried, these are just my core training exercises. Sometimes I have no equipment at all so may use one finger with my non-pulling arm or archer pull-ups, I’ve tried all sorts of different progressions, some of which work better than others.

      A dead-hanging one is still a long way off I think but it will come, just got to keep working at it.

      • Paul D Paradis

        Hi Dave. I was curious to know, what are archer pull-ups? There’s so much I have to learn about progressive calisthenics.

        • Hi mate, with archer pull-ups you position your head close to your pulling arm, whilst the other is further away on the bar, giving you a little assistance. Unfortunately I don’t have a video of this, but I’m sure Adrienne won’t mind me borrowing one of her old videos to demonstrate it

          It’s the second exercise in this video; the further you move your other arm away from your body, the harder it is.

          • Thanks for sharing my video — I need to make an updated version, since I get get up quite a bit higher above the bar (and with a longer bar that works better too

  • Willie

    This is great. I have been reading Convict Conditioning and Al’s books for
    the past year as I was determined to do a pull up that wasn’t on one of
    those machines in a gym. I have found more rewards in this way of
    training over every other strength building method. To be familiar with
    the body and the body is our gym. This is a great example of one-arm
    pull up and I can’t wait to be part of the crew. Thanks for changing my
    way of thinking and a new appreciation for calisthenics.

    • Thanks mate, stick with it the first year or so of CC is all about building your base strength, once you have that you’ll find you can start training some of the really cool advanced moves and you’ll never feel stronger!

  • dhairya

    Hi Paul,
    I want to know that – In the Outside do you still live a straight edge life?
    How do you stay sway from distractions of modern worlds and other addictions?
    thanking you coach,
    Dhairya

    • Family, family, family! Dude, I keep away from the PEOPLE and communities I know would draw me into trouble–I know not everyone is lucky enough to do that. I will be in recovery until the day I die.

      I would advise folks: you only have so much willpower. Don’t test it. Make life easy on yourself. If you make bad decisions, try to steer clear of situations that encourage those decisions.

      Take care my man!

  • Alexander Jhin

    Did you get the one armed chin? In place of exercise bands and jumping, I’d recommend using a counterweight in your off hand (rope over bar tied to weight. Grab non-weight end of the rope with off-hand, lift weight off ground.) Counterweight is great because it offers constant assistance: Bands have variable assistance depending on how they’re stretched and jumping obviously has variable assistance as well. The downside of the counter weight is that the assistance is applied to your off shoulder (unlike jumping or band where the assistance is at your waist.)

    Also, you can use counterweight to assist in negatives if you can find a way to get over the bar without using both hands (standing on a box or raising your legs works).

    • Hey mate, only just seen this reply. My one arm chin is progressing nicely, I can do it underhand with a straight arm as long as my feet are on the floor. Deadhanging is what I’m working on now.

      Yeah I’ve seen Jim of beast skills using the counterbalance system. As I train outdoors I don’t really have access to that kind of equipment, but looks like it’d work well.

      I’ve mainly been progressing with partial movements and negatives, they seem to be working for me very well at the moment. Cheers.

  • RonaldReaganRemix

    Thank you for posting this – I am a big guy (248 Ibs.) whose been working on this for well over two years now. I’m actually able to pull myself up halfway with one arm on my left, but my right is not close. I’ll try these progressions and let you know the results soon enough!

    • Good stuff mate (sorry for the late reply), how are you progressing?

      • RonaldReaganRemix

        Hey! Thanks for asking! I hit several plateaus because of my weight, so I decided to make losing weight my first priority. I’m now down to 206 from 248, and in the process my pull-up strength has skyrocketed. But, I recently had surgery so I’ve been down and out for the last two months, so I’ll have to play catch up. Nonetheless, your article is gold, and I’ll let you know when I hit the fabled one-arm pull up!

  • Marco Mura

    CC step 4 – Half PullUps.
    I literally felt in love with CC philosophy about six months ago.
    Thanks for your sharing! I have a question for Coach Wade or for everyone want to answer me. I’m in half pullup step for about two months and half, I am able to do religiously 11-13 (depends on the day) half pullups with 2-1-2-1 cadence with HIGH tension. But after those my muscle begin to be congested of lactic acid and, you know, they can’t contract as well.
    Do you think it is legit to rest 5-10 secs to crank up other two strict half pullups? Do I follow to try in this manner?
    (I can do 8-10, 2-1-2-1 strict full pullups without fatigue)
    Thanks to all!!

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