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One-armed Pull-ups: Training Ideas
C. W. Schurman, MS, CSCS August 2005
In my life I have only ever seen two people complete a one-arm pull-up, up close and in person. They both were men, small of stature, and quite lean. While they were obviously fit, they were not carrying a lot of extra muscle mass. What does it take to be able to successfully complete a one-arm pull-up? If you are a climber or gymnast, do you have a better chance at doing one? What exercises can you include in your workout routine to enable you to eventually do such a feat?
Even if you can do dozens of two-armed pull-ups at a time (i.e. you have great strength endurance) you may need to work on building maximal strength before the elusive one-arm pull-up is yours. If you can pull yourself, along with a good fraction of your bodyweight, up over the bar, you may simply need to work on your technique. There are a number of different things you can try.
First and foremost, if you can already do 5 pull-ups (i.e. palms facing forward; chin-ups are done with palms facing your chest and tend to be a little easier) or more, start to build your overall pull-up strength by adding weight to your 2-arm pull-ups (a weight belt, ankle weights, weight vest, or carefully loaded backpack are all options here) until you reach a weight that you can do for several sets of 2-5 repetitions.
Increase your pull-up endurance to the point where you can do 20-25 pull-ups in a row. (Please see http://www.bodyresults.com/E2PullupResources.asp for our top five pull-up resources and numerous ideas to try.)
Foundations: Developing Technique
Mixed Grip Pull-ups
Here you can either use a V-bar (this usually comes standard with any lat pull machine) so that you can use a palms-parallel, close grip; or simply stand under the bar with hands in a reversed grip and touching (thumb of one to pinky of the other) and pull up until your head clears one side of the bar, then alternate with each repetition. This “neutral grip” is actually your strongest grip for pull-ups, and most closely matches how one of your hands will be facing when you get to the point of doing a one-hander.
Loop a towel or narrow rope over the pull-up bar and begin doing pull-ups with one hand holding onto the towel. As you get more comfortable with that, start moving your hand farther and farther down the towel until it approaches your shoulder level at the starting point (you will not have a whole lot of leverage once you pull a few inches above the ground!)
Wrist Pull-ups and Hangs
Grasp the pull-up bar with one hand and your wrist with the other and see how many you can do. The challenge in doing a single arm pull-up comes with the lack of stability that the other arm provides. If you find your hand quickly slips off, you may want to work on increasing grip and core strength by simply hanging straight-armed on the bar and trying not to twist, or even going to a local playground and swinging slowly side-to-side on a jungle-gym ring.
Lower a pull-up bar to nose level, place a barbell across a squat rack at nose level, or stand on a step, bench or stool so that your nose is just above a bar. Grab onto the bar with one hand (your elbow will be bent, this is the weakest position of the pull-up) and contract maximally for a few seconds. Rest a few minutes and try again. DO NOT “hop” off the bench under any circumstances as the shock load on the biceps tendon (especially if you have not built up your strength properly) could be enough to cause a severe strain or even rupture of the tendon.
1-arm Training Equipment
1-arm Lat Pull Downs
Perhaps the easiest way to start to train for 1-arm pull-ups is to use one of the most widely accessible pieces of back training equipment: the lat pull down machine. Change out the bar on the high-attachment and use a single-arm handle (such as you might use on a cable flye machine). Sit or kneel as you would for lat pull downs, but shift your weight off to one side so that your working arm can pull the handle straight down rather than at an awkward angle to the side. Use roughly 50% of the weight that you can use with two hands and be sure to start with whichever arm you feel is the weaker arm. Only do with the strong hand as many as you can successfully complete with the weak hand. With time this exercise will help you even out your strength so that both arms do equal amount of work!
Gravitron (Weight-assisted) Pulls
To work directly on gaining the strength necessary to do a 1-arm pull-up, try using a piece of gym equipment that will allow you to add assistance weight. Nautilus-type equipment or machines referred to as a “Gravitron” are both examples. If you weigh 150 pounds and you can do 5 complete pull-ups, your “assisted” weight on the machine would equate to 0 (i.e. you would do them on a pull-up bar.) If you wanted to do more than 5 repetitions, you would use some assistance on the machine (say, anywhere from 20-50 pounds depending on the number of repetitions you wanted to do) and see how many you could do with help. You can use this same concept for a 1-arm pull, but obviously you will need to use additional assistance. This is one of the only machines where you want to see the number DECREASE as you get stronger! Start with a neutral grip (palms facing each other) and focus on keeping your torso steady and strong beneath the working arm.
Another good technique to try is to use strong resistance bands such as the Jump Stretch bands (http://www.jumpstretch.com/), looped across the safety pins of a squat rack at about waist height. Test the band assistance with both arms before you start doing repetitions with one arm. To get into position, place your hands on the squat rack’s pullup bar and then raise one knee to the band or bands. Hoist yourself up with both arms, then get both knees on the band. Slowly release one hand, to be sure the band resistance is sufficient, and under control, slowly lower down onto the band. The lower you drop, the more assistance you get from the bands. As you progress, you can reduce the size (strength) and number of the bands used, or you can lower the starting point of the bands.
Even if you think doing a one-armed pull-up is beyond your grasp in this lifetime, you can enjoy a) mixing up your grip, b) trying different repetition brackets and weight levels, c) experimenting with different training equipment for varied stimulus, and d) having a new goal to shoot for in your training. To your current workout, try adding one of the “techniques” exercises and one of the “1-arm training” exercises to provide you with a new challenge, and change them out every 3-4 weeks to stay fresh and keep making progress. Listen closely to your body, particularly the fingers, elbow tendons, and shoulders. Ease into this training gradually and be sure you have a solid foundation of at least 3-4 months of full body strength training before implementing some of these techniques and exercises. Remember, you will be far more motivated to train consistently if there is something you really want to do, especially if most people cannot!