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How to Train for a One Arm Pull-up

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

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.