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How to Train for a One Arm Pull-up

Training for a One Arm Pull-up

This is a guest post by Al Kavadlo, author of Stretching Your Boundaries, Flexibility Training for Extreme Calisthenic Strength

Since my formative years, I have found the pull-up to be a fun and fascinating phenomenon. It’s one of the best and most basic tests of strength, plus it puts the little guys on a level playing field with the big boys.

The single arm variation takes the pull-up to a whole new stratosphere. Performing a one arm pull-up requires an elite level of strength and control; learning to do one takes patience and humility. If you are going to embark on this journey, be ready to work hard.

You’ve Gotta Believe

Several years ago, a client of mine asked me if I’d ever seen anyone do a pull-up with one arm. I held up my hand, grabbed my opposite wrist and asked him, “ya mean like this?”

“No,” he said, “without the other hand assisting at all.” I told him I hadn’t, then I said something I haven’t said again since, “I don’t think it’s even possible.”

A lot has changed since that conversation, both in my training, and more importantly, in my philosophy. I’m a believer now, having seen many seemingly impossible feats of strength performed right before my eyes. I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone do a one arm pull-up. It was a game-changer.

Getting Started

Before you even think about training to do a one arm pull-up, you should be able to do at least 15-20 standard pull-ups with strict form. Once you’ve got that foundation, there are several effective methods to use to work towards a one arm pull-up.

One Arm Flex Hang

The first step is doing a one arm flex hang. Pull yourself up with both arms, let one go and try to stay up. Start with an underhand grip before you worry about going overhand. Don’t feel bad if you drop right away in the beginning; hardly anyone can do this on their first try.

After you can hold a one arm flex hang for a couple of seconds, the next step is doing a one arm negative by slowly lowering yourself from having your chin over the bar to a dead hang at the bottom. Be prepared to drop quickly the first time you try to do a one arm negative. When starting out, don’t even think of it as a negative, just try to lower yourself an inch or two. Gravity will take care of the rest.

One-Arm Negative

The Self Assist

Archer Pull-up

Once you can do controlled negatives, start practicing self assisted one arm pull-ups. There are a few ways you can do this. My favorite is the archer pull-up, which involves assisting your primary arm by resting your secondary arm on the top of the bar. This will give you added stability but will still place most of the burden on your primary arm.

Gripping Nearby Object to Spot Yourself

You can also give yourself an assist by grabbing the poles (or door frame) that support your pull-up bar. If your setup doesn’t allow for this, you can spot yourself by draping a towel over the bar and holding it tightly while pulling yourself up with your other arm.

Other Considerations

L-Sit on Parallets

While you obviously need your arm to be strong, you also need tremendous core strength to do a one arm pull-up. When you are practicing your one arm flex hangs, negatives, and self-assists, remember to keep your abs engaged. Exercises like planks, side planks and L-sits are great to help build the core stability to perform a one arm pull-up.

Take Note of the Out-Stretched Left Arm

Due to the shape of your body, your legs will naturally sway to one side during a one arm pull-up and you’ll likely wind up rotating a bit on the way up. You might find it helpful to extend your free arm away from your body for balance.

Training Frequency

One great thing about lifting your body weight is that you tend to recover faster than with free weights. I’d heard about “greasing the groove” with bodyweight exercises, and since I worked in a gym, I started training one arm negatives and hangs throughout the day. Unfortunately, just when I started to get close, I began developing pain in my elbows. I took a break from training one arm pull-ups for several weeks – there are always bumps in the road. Finally after almost a year of practice, I got my first one arm pull-up in July of 2008. The one arm pull-up is a fickle mistress, however; It was almost three months before I repeated the feat.

I’ve been training for one arm pull-ups and chin-ups for over three years now and I’m still kept humble by it. On a good day, I can get a couple of reps, but some days I still struggle to even hold a flex hang for more than a few seconds. Thankfully, I haven’t had joint pain lately, due to a consistent stretching routine and knowing when to rest.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t practice one arm pull-ups throughout the day if you have a bar in your doorway (or work at a gym). I still advocate the idea of “greasing the groove” to build the proper neurological patterns, but I advise you to ease in slowly. Rest is also an important part of the process.

No matter where you are now in your fitness journey, if you proceed with diligence and dedication, the one arm pull-up is within your grasp. Stay hungry and focused, you might even exceed your expectations.

Al Kavadlo, CSCS, is a personal trainer, freelance writer and author of the book, We’re Working Out! A Zen Approach to Everyday Fitness. For more information visit

Want more Killer Info on Pull-ups from Al? Check out this post = > All Kinds of Pull-ups.

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14 Responses to “How to Train for a One Arm Pull-up”

  1. Mike Fitch Says:

    No doubt this is one of the most impressive exercises to witness (when properly executed)! I find that when training this exercise as with most feats of this caliber, a linear progression alone just wont cut it. If we using different techniques, the end result may come quicker! A couple I like are:
    Decreased support from the opposing limb
    start using less fingers for the “Pull” phase from the opposite arm. Perform the single arm negative, then reach up with one finger from the other arm to get back to starting position
    Partial ROM
    Seems like a no brainer, but if you start from the top of the chin and work down to 90% at the elbow (sticking point) and then back up, as well as from lower, up to 90% you will get a positive carry over through the mechanical sticking point. It’s like in rehab when you work just before and after painful ranges of motion, you still get a transfer without the load.
    Modified jump chin.
    This is a bit more ballistic, but the higher neural drive helps “amp” up the pattern. Start with your pull up arm on the bar or ring. Place the opposite foot only on the ground with just the toes touching (the other leg should be bent and not touching the ground. As you single leg jump, you’ll reach past the bar with the free hand (towards the sky), attempt to pause at the top and then lower with just the single arm. Use less and less explosion from the single leg, this can also be performed from a dead hang position. The key is to reach past the bar with the no chin arm as far as you can! Good luck

  2. Jeff McDowall Says:

    I guess this goes to Dieselcrew and he original poster:
    Have you guys ever heard that the OAP should be avoided because it puts undue stress on he shoulder? I had heard it was safer to stick with weighted pullups?
    Thanks guys!

  3. Jedd Johnson Says:

    Mike, great points, brother. I am sure some things will work better for others depending on their given abilities. Awesome.


  4. Jedd Johnson Says:

    No doubt if someone has injuries they should leave this one out. For instance, as much as I would love to do this, my sore left pec keeps me from trying it anytime soon.

    I would suggest that people take it very slow at the beginning when trying these as well. Caution should be used for this and many of the elite bodyweight movements.


  5. Al Kavadlo Says:

    @Mike – Good suggestions – there are many way to train for this feat.

    @Jeff – The potential for straining the shoulders and/or elbows is high with this feat, but if one progresses slowly and gradually while staying mindful of joint health, it shouldn’t be an issue. Problems come up when guys try to take a shortcut to the finish line.

  6. Mike Fitch Says:

    So true Al, wasn’t trying to discredit your article, It’s a fantastic post. I was just adding some other suggestions.

  7. Jedd Johnson Says:

    Great point Al. One of the things I am guilty of is obsessing about feats and not giving myself enough time to recover between training sessions. I could see myself going crazy on this as well. But much like the rafter Pinch, I am going to leave this one alone until I am a svelt 240 or less.

    Thanks for the awesome article.


    P.S. I don’t think Mike was cutting you up bro. I put in the email I sent out to feel free to add comments if you had other ideas, and I think this is what mike was doing. All in all, this should be a great post for anyone looking for information on how to train for the one arm pull-up / chin-up.

  8. Adam L Says:

    Thanks man, this is a reminder to not give up on feats you want to achieve! This is one of mine along with a while bicycle deck card tear but I will get there again!

  9. Al Kavadlo Says:

    Jedd – There’s no beef w Mike. In fact, he and I are like BFF’s now – he’s even made one of my pics his photo of the week!

    Adam – Never give up – if you Believe you can Achieve!

  10. David Harms Says:

    When you perform a push up, you have to press approximately 70% of your body weight. With pull ups you have to be able to pull 100% of your weight up to the bar. If you don’t have the strength to do correct push ups or pull ups, for a significant number of repetitions, you can’t get any positive results or you don’t even try. One of the best aspects of the Push Up Bench is that you start off with immediate success. As you move through each level you can achieve your goal many times over-which in turn motivates you to keep exercising. The Push Up Bench is designed to make push ups and pull ups easier. This will allow for a greater number of repetitions. You can start at the highest level, which means you only have to push 28% of your body weight instead of 70%. The Push Up Bench transfers the weight from your upper body to your feet- decreasing the amount of weight you have to press. Now you can do push ups with perfect form- which allows you to get full range of motion and hit all the muscle groups the push up exercise has to offer. As you get stronger, you can increase the weight you have to push by going through each level until your on the ground doing normal push ups. You can also increase the load on your arms by doing decline push ups. The Push Up Bench is adjustable to fit each person’s height from approximately 4’8 to 6’4. You don’t have to stop once you reach a full push up. The Push Up Bench also makes pull ups easier. By sitting inside the Bench you are able to perform seated or assisted pull ups. If your looking to tone your arms, increase your strength, need help passing a physical fitness test or just want to look and feel better, the Push Up Bench can help you achieve your goals. To learn more google “push up bench”

  11. Dave Says:

    Rock climbers got you beat son. I know guys who can do one-arm one-finger pullups. I’ve even heard of a climber in San Diego who can do one-arm thumb pullups.

  12. GTG applied to the OAC Says:

    […] […]

  13. Alex Zinchenko Says:

    Awesome information. One-arm chin-up is one of my favorite personal milestones in strength training. What I found useful is training with singles. It’s in my opinion the fastest legitimate way to the feat. Main advice to all people who want to get this feat is don’t rush things, go slow. This will insure that you won’t develop pain in elbows. Thanks for the post.

  14. Jon Says:

    Hey guys, just a pointer for injury prevention (I don’t think that anyone else has mentioned it). Golfer’s Elbow (possibly that pain to your inner elbow you mention) can be alleviated by ensuring that when you pullup, you concentrate on bringing your elbows closer together. You may not be able to shorten the distance between your elbows very much (or at all) but make the attempt anyway.

    I have found that this has significantly reduced my elbow problems and those of a few other strength trainers I know. If your elbow pain is bad, then obviously lay off the bar but otherwise, if your elbow pain is slight, you might want to consider these.

    On another note, I have found that certain types of pullup cause me more elbow problems than others (eg pullups on ropes, though easy enough, hurt my elbows).

    Hope this helps!

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